Unfolding new hope — the story of Origami For Africa


A once-forgotten childhood hobby of a Japanese expatriate has started to change the lives of children in South African townships through confidence-building, lessons of patience and acts of creativity. By teaching origami, the Japanese art of folding paper, Kyoko Morgan, the founding director of Origami For Africa, has given children the ability to fight off hopelessness and has shown some a creative way to contribute to a better South Africa.

“Do for me” demanded a 10-year-old boy with a gloomy face and urine-stained clothing. He kept pushing his paper towards me; it had already been smudged by his dirty hands. Our immediate reaction is usually to help – in any way possible, but instead, I tell him to try and fold it himself.

I respond to him each time while showing the next step of the origami boat to other 20 children. It might seem like he’s getting left behind, but when he learns, he will gain a great gift. Little did I know at the time, the great gift I too would receive.

This was in 2008 shortly after the xenophobia attacks that blighted that year. I went to teach origami regularly to a group of children who were sheltered on a windy Soetwater beach during that winter.

The boy, I later learned, had travelled with his younger brother all the way from the Congo, on their own, to be with their father. But, as the violence swept the city they ended up in the camp on their own. The boy looked traumatised.

One day when I arrived, all the boys were playing soccer and he was sitting alone. So I took the chance and taught him to fold the boat step by step – just the two of us.

As the paper turned into a boat in his own hands he gave me a beaming smile. It was the first smile I saw on his face after a few weeks. It was that smile that brought back memories of all other smiles that I had seen on the children’s faces after they folded something for the first time by themselves.

In the evening, I was still on a high and decided I was going to spread origami, not only in Cape Town but beyond. Origami For Africa (OFA) was born from these smiles.

Kyoko, founder of OFA, with children from the township.

I grew up in Japan with three brothers. I loved climbing trees and playing baseball rather than doing origami quietly. As a result, I was sun-tanned and felt a certain level of affinity to Africa.

My parents who grew up during the Second World War were very aware of the importance of having a sound philosophy and being active citizens to ensure that we would not experience another war.

My parents joined the lay-Buddhist group called Soka Gakkai International and we were encouraged to work for world peace and the happiness of all people. I was particularly inspired by my mentor’s conviction that “the 21st century is the century of Africa”.

My father sponsored me to go and study in the UK and there I met a Japanese woman who was on her way to South Africa to be the Shiatsu therapist to Nelson Mandela.

I also decided to immigrate to South Africa in 1992 as a UNISA student. Soon after that, I was employed as a coordinator for a small Japanese NGO called People’s Education Support Fund.

After nearly 20 years of my work with the NGO, my heart started to feel drained as we continued to give mostly material support to educational institutions or students. It was a case of what should we give or get next, and it felt that there was no end to the cycle of poverty.

Like most Japanese people, I did origami as a child. Origami (ori –to fold, gami – paper) is the ancient art of paper-folding and it is one of the pastime activities for children.

After learning to fold a crane, most of us stop until we become parents or grandparents to teach the next generation. Likewise, I only started doing origami again in Cape Town when my children were around 6-years-old. I still did not think much of origami as I thought anyone could do it.

Surprisingly, many people were enchanted by the magical aspect of origami and soon I was invited to teach others. It was against this background, that I finally decided to form OFA.

A year after I founded OFA, I bumped into the principal whom I had met through the NGO when he was at St James Primary School in Kalk Bay. He had moved to Wesbank primary school, which had seen 12 principals in 12 years.

Seeing that the school was in a challenging environment, I told him that the only thing I could offer now was to teach origami to the children, once-a-week for a year. Without hesitation, he asked me to begin.

This is the eighth year of OFA's activities at the school. The first group of children are now in Grade 11 and five of them continue to come to our sessions. OFA has also expanded to having public events. A crowning achievement of OFA is that these youngsters are the ones to teach origami to the public.

Every year I teach between 20 and 35 children at the school.  Teaching others in a public space, outside of the township, is an important aspect of OFA because as soon as they have acquired this new skill, we encourage them to share it and thereby they contribute in their own way to society.

Through the humble act of origami, these children are invited to places like the Company’s Gardens, Iziko Museum, and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens as active participants. It is equally wonderful for the public to have an opportunity to learn a new skill from the children of the township.

In a small way, OFA plays the role of game-changer that enables us to see and to bring about vital changes in South Africa.

These children are resilient, willing, and warm-hearted. Through OFA, I have realised that origami can be used as a tool to help them to have beautiful memories of their childhood and develop them into young leaders.

Through a group of facilitators, today we have OFA activities in Gauteng, Kleinmond and Tulbagh and we have been able to work with other organisations hoping to build a better South Africa.

I believe that by coming together from different corners of the world with the same vision we can create another dimension in society, just as origami is able to do.

As we continue to do this and learn to continue without allowing hopelessness to defeat us, we can realise the vision of the African century where the lives of children keep transforming into infinitely unique shapes, one by one.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Unfolding new hope — the story of Origami For Africa