Bella of the Ball

On any given Tuesday morning, seemingly random people breeze into the Resource Centre at YMCA Cape Town. But there’s nothing arbitrary about them or their trips to the Y. They hail from drug rehabs or shelters and sometimes struggle to get there by 10:30. They do it themselves, but they also do it for Bella.

Crystabella Odonkor (Bella to everyone, really) runs the basic computer literacy course at YMCA CT, where folks who’ve often never touched computers before go to her for direction.

“Sometimes people will walk in and they can be quite nervous and anxious,” she says. “But they are relaxed when they walk out of the class and I find that very rewarding.”

She makes it look simple now – instructing groups or guiding individuals. In fact, her student, Sadiq van Schwalk wyk – a recovering heroin addict who could tell some chilling stories of sleeping on the street and withdrawal pain – praises Bella’s abilities in the class room.

According to Sadiq:
“Bella’s style makes it easy to ask questions and feel comfortable in the learning environment. (She) is very warm and approachable.”

But that ease is a far cry from the early jitters she experienced as the mother of three feisty boys who first came to the Y in 2017.

Bella was born in a diamond mining town in the eastern region of Ghana called Akwatia, and she speaks of it with the easy familiarity reserved for one’s home town.

“It’s not so developed like a modern town or city,” she muses, knowing full well that someone from back home will likely call to query her description. “But the people have money and the town is rich.”

As the eldest of three, perhaps it stands to reason that the concern of a natural teacher comes naturally to her. She’s also no stranger to home sickness – so she relates to people who need extra help settling in.

“Actually, I stayed with my father’s parents for a while as a child. I’d stay with them in the week so I could go to the international school and then I’d go back to my parents on weekends.”

She also went to boarding school later on.

After a “smooth high school experience”, university and marriage, she followed her husband, Michael, to Cape Town, where he practises as a doctor specializing in radiation oncology at Groote Schuur. She had a rough start:

“We moved here with two small children from Accra so (Michael) could pursue further training. Cape Town was a beautiful place, but the people were not as hospitable as in Ghana. In Ghana, people who don’t know each other on the taxi will talk until they get to their destination. But in Cape Town, you’re on your own.”

The new surroundings took a bit of getting used to – Cape Town was hardly the African city she had in mind. So, she stayed home, alone, with her third son on the way, making sense of a seriously new normal – all of which prompted her to apply to the Y.

One of the great things about Bella is her near-inexhaustible ability to value little things. Perhaps one learns that through taking a baby to work (as Bella did for around six months) and training folks who’ve been roughed up by life. Not to mention that one’s horizons broaden as well.

“Bella has become more understanding of the social and economic challenges facing many people in Cape Town,” says her husband, Michael.

Her boys are still very young – the eldest is only five – so Bella’s got her mind on the family right now. But she’s thought about the future and her love of spices and cooking could certainly play a role in it. In the meantime, she’s found a second home at the Y.

“I appreciate every person here. I’ve learned a lot from them and I still learn a lot.”

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