Facing the Challenges
Challenges and struggles are part and parcel of growing up in a township. And Songo Fipaza faced his fair share of challenges; financially, emotionally and physically. “My mother was a domestic worker who tried her best, but we didn’t have a lot of money and living in a township automatically exposes you to all sorts of temptations and bad influences. Many young people get up to mischief because they are bored and don’t have any wholesome distractions, hobbies or sport. There aren’t any training or recreational facilities and hardly any coaching available. I was lucky to be training at Coetzenberg after school every day. This kept me out of trouble.”
He was always a keen sportsman but soon realised that playing soccer was not going to get him anywhere. “You have to rely on the other ten members of the team to show up and not get drunk the night before. You could play as well as you want, but your team may never win if the rest of the team didn’t take the sport seriously.”
We Shall Overcome
Songo recalls how he watched the 1992 Olympic Games held in Barcelona. “It was the first time that South Africa could compete again after sanctions and Elana Meyer won silver in the 10 000m. That inspired me, and I thought, if another South African, also from Stellenbosch, can do that, then I can.” So, he started focussing on athletics instead and joined the Stellenbosch athletics club after many letters of motivation. “You couldn’t just walk in there as a young boy from Kayamandi.”
That’s where Songo met Michael Meyer (Elana’s then husband) who became his coach as well. “He gave me fancy running shoes that I wore with pride even though they were a size 9 and I was a size 4!” he laughs. “I also got running gear and clothing so that I could blend in better and look like a runner.”
“It was one of the fellow club members who invited me to church one weekend. A whole world opened up to me. I believe that sport prepared me to meet the Lord. It taught me self-discipline, how to manage my time and how to set goals and strive towards them until I obtain them.”
These are skills that he wishes other youngsters in Kayamandi could incorporate in their lives. Songo has a heart for his place of birth and still lives there today with his American wife and two young daughters.
In 2004 Songo took part in the very first Cape Epic. “I was strong because of all the running, but technically, I battled. I just got off my bike and ran with it through sections that I couldn’t navigate on the bike!” he laughs. “After that, I did some more Epics, and together with the late Burry Stander and champion mountain biker Christoph Sauser, we established Songo.info to help develop young riders in the Kayamandi area.” This is a very successful ongoing program, but Songo’s focus has shifted and he now has his sights on the next big goal – an Olympic size swimming pool for Kayamandi!
“In 2014, I learnt to swim for the very first time. I was extremely fearful of water because when I was a young boy, one of my friends nearly drowned when we went swimming in the dam above Coetzenberg. Luckily, a student walked past and dived in to save him,” Songo recalls.
“I was hopeless when I started out, and I nearly gave up, but I was determined to do an Ironman, and for that, I needed to be able to swim!” And not just a few laps. The distance for the full Ironman swim, in open water like the ocean, is a whopping 3.8km! “I trained at Virgin Active and focussed solely on learning how to swim properly. You get 2hours 20minutes to complete the swim, but luckily, by God’s grace, I managed to finish my swim in under 2 hours. I then still had the 180km cycle and 42km run ahead of me, but it was the swim that was my biggest hurdle and once I overcame that, nothing could stop me.”
At the End of the Day
Songo’s done a total of 3 Ironman competitions and two half Ironmans. This is in part to raise awareness about the importance of water safety, especially in communities where access to pools is limited. It is also to raise funds for the pool he plans to build in Kayamandi. “The pool will be in a prime location with an amazing view over the Coetzenberg mountains. It will be right next to our Songo.info mountain bike academy for those athletes who want to cross train for something like triathlons. We will get students from the Sports Institute to come and help with training and also teach little ones how to swim. That’s the second motivation for the pool. So many children drown each year in swimming pools, dams and lakes across the country. Many of these incidents could have been prevented if they had some basic water safety training.”
Although the pool is currently his main focus, Songo is very involved in his community and often asked to speak at churches in Kayamandi. He also helped set up an HIV & Aids program in the township. He was part of the initial team who helped raise funds to establish Vision K (now Vision Africa) – offering guidance to Grade 10’s.
Songo believes that sport brings cultures together and that it creates a sense of identity, especially for children with absent fathers who are desperate to belong somewhere. “That’s why I feel strongly that there should always be a club house element to any sports facility. The kids should be able to do their homework there and just spend time with one another and get to socialise and form meaningful bonds. Maybe some of the instructors can even become mentors.”
His love for sport has opened up the world for him and taken him from Stockholm to Eindhoven to New York and even as far as Toronto and Portugal for a variety of races. “Thanks to my extended circle of international friends, I always have a place to stay when I’m abroad.” Songo may be quiet and soft-spoken, but don’t be fooled, he is tenacious, and if he believes in something and wants to make it happen, you can bet your bottom dollar he will find a way!
Visit http://kayamandipool.wixsite.com/swim4kayamandi and https://www.crowdrise.com/a-pool-for-kayamandi/fundraiser/songofipaza for more about this wonderful project.