Eight Lessons I Learned from World Changers at #PlaceOKC

by Siphelele Zungu

In September, I got an incredible opportunity to travel to Oklahoma in the United States to attend a conference called PLACE hosted by The Mentoring Project. The three-day conference focused on mentoring, relationships, and reconcillation.

The Ubuntu Youth team with Bob Goff, author of

The Ubuntu Youth team with Bob Goff, author of “Love Does” and founder of Restore International, and our Pros for Africa partner, Sister Rosemary.

Thanks to TMP for letting us come! Oklahomans are such loving, caring people with amazing hospitality. I had a great time and made some great memories that will forever stay in my mind and heart. I also have learned so many great lessons during my stay, and I don’t think I’m the same person I was before. I’ve made a list of some of the important lessons I learned throughout my visit.

1. The world won’t change if you don’t change.
I have learned that world changers are those who are willing to change. I met great people who do stuff, who care about changing people’s lives. Their character tells you how much they dream for a better world, and they do not speak about something they do not act on. They practice what they preach.

2. Changing the world doesn’t literally mean changing the WHOLE world alone. You can’t.
I’ve learned that impacting the world doesn’t literally mean changing the whole world. You cannot. But changing the world means touching those around you. Your community is your own world. If one cares enough for their community in each and every corner of the world, that is how we can change the world. It doesn’t mean one person impacting billions of people – you cannot. But if every single person takes responsibility upon themselves to impact the lives of those around them, the world would be changed for the better.

3. Mentoring matters more than you could think.
Take someone with you – in your street, in your neighbourhood, there is one kid that needs you. Drugs, teenage pregnancy, crime, etcetera, are world-wide issues and we could do something about it instead of turning a blind eye. Let’s show up for these kids and help them save themselves, and make them realise that they can overcome these challenges. They are the solution. Let’s believe in them so that they CAN become a success story, because they’re unchained. They have all the potential within them, all they need is someone to believe in them. You’d be amazed by the results.

4. Life is not about us, but about those around us.
Pretty much everyone I met in Oklahoma cared so much about people. They don’t have to talk about it, because what they do tells you how much they care about making positive impacts. These people are living to positively impact people’s lives – they’re not selfish, but selfless. They do not put themselves first. Life is not about them, but about those around them.

5. Everyone has something to offer.
You’re good enough. Anyone can do something for somebody; we have something we can offer. You have all it takes to impact the world. Most people think they need money to do so, but you don’t. You don’t need money to get into that kid’s life and tell him he’s capable of becoming successful, and possesses every weapon to fight for their future.

6. Investing in bonds or buildings is wise, but investing in people is wiser.
Almost everyone likes the idea of investing, including myself. But investing in people seems to be the wisest thing one can do. God never created buildings. He created people. While investing with money is a good idea, I’ve learned that investing in people is more important and has a long lasting effect. People matter.

7. The world can be what you want it be, if you care enough to act.
I’ve learned that world changers are actually the ones that care enough to act. We might think we do not have the power to change the world, but those leaders out there are changing it because they care enough and they act.

8. Your presence should be someone’s blessing and joy.
A challenge upon all of us is to be a blessing, and bring joy to people. I had to question if my existence in the world was either of those, and made a decision to put more effort in becoming a blessing in someone else’s life. I was inspired by these amazing people who are all this and more.

With Dr. John Perkins, civil rights activist and #PlaceOKC Conference keynote speaker.

With Dr. John Perkins, civil rights activist and #PlaceOKC Conference keynote speaker.

People, Not Projects

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When we moved into our new facility last December, there was a lot to be done. There was a lot that needed to be fixed and a lot that needed to be cleaned. We tackled it slowly, and we tackled it together. We did everything together – directors, staff, students. We scrubbed floors together. We scraped and bleached mold off walls together. We picked out colors and painted walls together. We weeded and hoed and raked and moved dirt and bricks and sheets of tin. Together. Students gave up their school holiday to work in the hot sun to make the youth center their home for the next school year. Staff worked double and triple time. Nearly a year later, we’re seeing what happens when you do things…together.

During a school holiday a few weeks ago, Ubuntu Youth staff attended a conference together, making it impossible for a staff member to tend to the growing Ubuntu Youth garden. The class president, Dube, agreed to take on the responsibility of watering the garden while staff was gone. Little did we know the plan he had in mind.

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Three weeks later when we returned to the Ubuntu Youth Center, we returned to a flourishing garden. We thanked Dube for his hard work, and he refused to take all of the credit. We found out he had personally gone to every student’s house and explained the importance of taking care of the youth center during the school holiday. All of the students created a rotational schedule among themselves to spend time in groups at the center each day watering the vegetables and plants, picking up trash, checking the fence lines, and making sure all doors and windows were secure. Teenagers did this. Kids. And they did it without prodding from an adult or staff member. Many walked multiple kilometers for their visit.

When we found out what happened while we were gone, we were humbled and elated. There’s a difference in building something for a community or building something with a community. Ubuntu Youth was built with a community that is now protective of the project. Our community takes ownership in our project and as a nonprofit, that is one of the hardest things to achieve.

When you build something FOR someone, you are investing in a project. When you build something WITH someone, you are investing in people. People trump projects every time.

The Situation According To “Dr. P”

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My name is Nomfundo Precious, and I am a grade 12 learner attending Ubuntu Youth. This is my third year with Ubuntu – I was one of the first students. My aspirations to be a doctor have earned me the nickname “Dr. P.”

Over the past three years, Ubuntu has done more than just helped me with my homework and tutor me in my studies. While I have had the opportunity to expand my knowledge, I have also grown personally. I wish more young people could get involved with organizations like Ubuntu Youth. These organizations are needed in underprivileged communities for students to have a community to get help on homework and maintain motivation to achieve goals. Ubuntu Youth has encouraged me to achieve mine.

The mentors at the Ubuntu Youth Project have gone through the same situations we students are going through right now. Sometimes we find it difficult to talk to those we live with, so having understanding mentors to seek advice from is reassuring. With Ubuntu, I know I am not alone.

Education is the first step in changing a difficult situation you are in. I am using my education to change my situation into exactly what I want it to be. I plan on becoming a doctor to address health issues in my country, specifically psychiatric and mental health. One day, “Dr. P” will be more than just a nickname.

Through a New Lens

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The flat that several of our directors and volunteers stay at was robbed – there’s really no other way to say it. The thief (or perhaps thieves) took three computers, the company’s camera, camera equipment, and a volunteer’s brand new pair of tennis shoes still in the box.

There is something very intimate about being robbed – about someone going through your possessions in pursuit of gaining from your vulnerability, someone searching to profit from your hard work. They weren’t just robbing us personally, they were robbing the students Ubuntu Youth serves, the Ubuntu Youth staff, and the hundreds of donors that contributed to those purchases. If they turn on the computers, they’ll see the Ubuntu Youth logo in the background. If they flip through the photos on the camera, they’ll realize they stole from an organization working to better the lives of children that will stop at nothing for a better future.

Our silver lining lies in the fact that nothing that was taken was irreplaceable. There were no heirlooms, photos, or prized possessions missing. But most importantly – no one was hurt. No one was home at the time. But, unfortunately, we’ve suffered a big loss. Both the computers and camera equipment were large investments for the organization and ones we did not anticipate having to make again. Our emergency budget can only absorb so much of the loss. We have set up a giving campaign on www.purecharity.com with a goal of $1000 to replace our camera equipment and computers. If you’ve ever been on the “other” side of a business or organization, you know how essential computers and a camera are to running logistics, and communicating to your customers and supporters. And if you’ve ever had something taken from you, you know how we feel.

Will you help us?

Giving What I Didn’t Get

by Lusanda Gwayi

School is school whether you love it or hate it. In school, we’ve all gone through the stage where we didn’t know if we could push to the end, or if we were going to drown in the ocean of bullies. School gives you the opportunity to learn to have a brighter future, but sometimes – if not all the time – there are still challenges. Every student faces those challenges. Those challenges can lead to frustration and confusion, and sometimes can push students to the point of taking the wrong path.

Let me tell you about my story:

Growing up, I was laughed at in school because of the poor financial status of my family. I didn’t have a proper school uniform or expensive clothes or shoes. But, I knew we shouldn’t make our lives dependent on material things – expensive clothes in particular. In school, I tried my hardest to fit in with the crowd. I supressed my inner-being, which almost lead me to forget who I was and my own reasoning. I lost my self-esteem, and questioned if I was even capable of doing anything at all. I’ve had the privelege of discussing issues just like this with my mentees at Ubuntu Youth.

School should be a place that has all the resources learners need to succeed, but unfortunately, that’s not the case in this part of the world. School should be fun and inviting, and students should be excited to go everyday. Although that may not be what school is like here, that is what the Ubuntu Youth Project is like. Our students come everyday; even during heavy rainstorms you find them trekking in, dripping wet, because they know the Ubuntu Youth Project environment is welcoming, productive, and the resources are there for them to succeed. Although this is something I never had while I was in school, I am very glad to be part of it as a mentor.

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Lusanda Gwayi, Ubuntu Youth Mentor


Guest Blog: Eight Reasons to Intern with Us

My name is Kelsey, and I interned with Ubuntu Youth in summer 2014. I could give you a lot of really great reasons detailing why you should intern with Ubuntu Youth, but then you could probably google the phrase and it’d show up in a dozen other blogs about interning with a handful of other organizations. “It’s a great opportunity!” “You can put it on your resume!” “I learned so much!”  Blah, blah, blah. These are all true about my internship with Ubuntu Youth, but I don’t think they do it justice. Before I lay out my case, here’s a little backstory…

During spring 2014, I had applied for an internship with a large, international nonprofit and made it to the third round of interviews in a pool of 10,000 applicants. After the final interview, I told my dad something didn’t feel quite right – I didn’t think I was supposed to intern with them, and I had a peace about it. Soon after, a college class guest speaker on international development piqued my interest, and I ended up meeting with her several more times throughout the semester. She worked with Ubuntu Youth, and she invited me to apply for the internship. Acting on a lot of faith and more whim than most around me were comfortable with, I applied for the internship with Ubuntu Youth, accepted the internship, and hopped on a flight to South Africa headed for the Ubuntu Youth Project.

My next few weeks were spent tutoring at the Ubuntu Youth Project, and when my time was supposed to come to a close, I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave so badly that I staged a literal coup. I called home. I pled my case. And somehow, my gracious parents allowed me to stay for three more weeks. God bless them.

All that to say…

Here’s what I learned, what I experienced, and what I want you to know about interning with Ubuntu Youth.

  1. This internship isn’t a resume booster. I mean, yes, you can put it on your resume, but that’s not why you’re there. You’re there to serve, and you get real opportunities to do so. You’re doing real things, making real decisions, working with real people on real projects. I promise you won’t be an “office runner” – there’s no making coffee and no filing paperwork. This stuff is the real deal.
  2. When you leave at the end of your internship, you’ll leave with a new perspective on yourself that you probably didn’t want, but that’s a good thing. This internship forces you to evaluate your thoughts and opinions on development. It’s challenging, and I promise you’ll grow personally and professionally.
  3. You get to experience life with Ubuntu Youth’s community beyond the typical 9 to 5. Sometimes this “life” includes launching marshmallows at monkeys, other times it includes shooting each other with water guns that shoot little pieces of potato instead of water, other times it includes accidentally dropping the company phone in the ocean (I will not confirm nor deny this actually happened and I may or may not have been the culprit), but all the time it includes not taking life too seriously and seizing every moment to live a meaningful life.
  4. Two of the biggest key points I took away from my internship were “empowerment, not pity” and “people, not projects.” These phrases are used daily at Ubuntu Youth. Ubuntu Youth’s approach to what they do preserves dignity and promotes self-sufficiency. Working with an organization with these philosophies was incredibly refreshing when there are so many handout-based nonprofits out there.
  5. My eyes were opened to the dangers of good intentions and how good intentions are not enough to make substantial change. I obviously learned a great deal about Ubuntu Youth and South Africa, but through conversations with staff, I also learned about the nonprofit and international development sectors in general. I left with a  better understanding of what real change looks like, and what I can do to be part of it.
  6. Unexpected situations make the best stories, and they are abundant in rural South Africa. We could start with the time I fell down a hill and I went the rest of the day with dirt on my shorts, looking like I pooped my pants. Or the time I tried to speak the local language, and instead of saying “please” I accidentally said “breastfeed.” Or the time I had a dance-off with an eight year-old boy, and saw the same boy a few weeks later using my dance moves. Do you see what I mean? The memories you’ll go home with will be countless.
  7. The staff will inspire you. Siyanda and Siphelele are two mentors that work for the program; they were my bosses during my internship.  They are two of the most joyful workers I’ve ever met, and are exceptional at what they do. Their servant leadership within the students’ lives makes their relationship with each student personal and has enabled them to become role models for, not just the students, but also for myself. The US-based directors overflow with passion for their students and have dedicated an abundant amount of time and resources to serving them. They give all credit to the students and are overjoyed when their efforts are shadowed by the enormous successes of each kid in the program. They are humble, servant leaders, truly impacting the world.   Each staff member is amazingly inspirational, and will leave you motivated to makes a change.
  8. This internship is worth more than any paycheck I could have received. What I learned, how I grew, who I met and what I did cannot be labeled by any dollar amount.

My time with Ubuntu Youth wasn’t just an experience. I continued volunteering for the organization once I was back in the US, and I plan to return to volunteer with the organization later this year. If you apply for any internship for the upcoming summer, let it be with Ubuntu Youth. You won’t regret it.

If you’re interested in interning with Ubuntu Youth,  information is available here

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A Rotten Return on Investment

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Across South Africa this week, students are beginning a new school year. Here at the Ubuntu Youth Project, we’re often asked why we work in South Africa, and specifically, why our focus is education in South Africa. Their relatively developed economy and infrastructure is often incorrectly translated to other parts of society, including the education system. This is why education in South Africa matters – but first, a little history lesson on our first day of school…

Most don’t realize the effects that remain from the oppressive government that reigned in South Africa for decades. Until 1948, segregation in the country was mostly informal, with a few laws enacted to control land ownership and settlement rights. In 1948, South African society was formally segregated by law, further ingraining oppression of the black, Indian, and coloured (mixed race) majority by the white minority. The first step toward equality was taken in 1990, when opposition political groups were legally allowed to organize. One organization, the African National Congress, first a liberation organization and now the political party that has governed South Africa since the fall of apartheid, spearheaded the dismantling of the oppressive regime. Nelson Mandela, the leader of the ANC, negotiated a transition into equality with then President F.W. de Klerk. Apartheid legislation was repealed. Non-whites were free at last, but twenty years later, the country is still struggling to attain the level of equality Mandela envisioned.

South Africa’s infrastructure is relatively well developed. In large cities, you can find malls that rival those in the United States. Inter-province highways can take you from one side of the country to the other. But, there’s a common misconception that South Africa’s developed physical infrastructure also means its human infrastructure is equally advanced. Although South Africa has the most complex economy on the continent, it is soon expected to be superseded by growing Nigeria. The rest of the continent continues to grow rapidly, but South Africa’s economic growth has slowed to 1/3 of other African nations. The unemployment rate is above 25%. Youth unemployment is double that, and young people that don’t have a job by age 24 are likely to never have a full-time job. South Africa has the world’s greatest inequality of wealth between the rich and poor.

Now, why should education in South Africa matter? An education is the first step to being competitive in a corrupt country’s job market. But South Africa continues to underserve its young people, particularly those in rural areas. Apartheid may be over, but the educational system reflects a very real inequality.

Only 20% of schools have libraries.
7.5% of classrooms have textbooks.
Half of campuses still have pit latrines instead of toilets.
Only 18% of teachers are qualified to teach.
Only half of teachers spend the required 6 1/2 hours at school daily.  
80% of schools are considered “dysfunctional.”
Only 15% of students get good enough grades to get into university; barely half actually get a degree. 

The facts are simple: black schools have bigger class sizes, fewer facilities, and less qualified teachers. And it shows. Of those grade 12 students that took the final exam in mathematics in 2008, only 39% of blacks received a passing grade of 30%, compared to 98% of whites. Half of whites qualify for university compared to only one in 10 blacks. Whites, as only 9% of the population, received 42% of the degrees awarded in 2007.

As the Economist puts it, South Africa is getting a rotten return on investment. They spend more of their GDP on education than any other African country, yet the statistics remain dismal and the horizon doesn’t look much better. But not all hope is lost. It is our primary objective at the Ubuntu Youth Project to provide a holistic approach to education when working with our students, and our approach works. Over the past few years, we have seen an incredible increase not only in student’s grades, but also in morale and outlook on the future. Turning the gloomy tides of South Africa’s education performance has to start somewhere, and we want to be part of it.

Inspired for action? If you’re asking the question, “Where do I go from here?” check out our website, www.ubuntuyouth.org, to learn more about our programs and consider investing in the future of Ubuntu Youth.

If you would like the full articles from which the statistics were taken, they are…

No one gets prizes http://www.economist.com/node/15270976
Over the Rainbow http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21564829-it-has-made-progress-becoming-full-democracy-1994-failure-leadership-means
Cry, the Beloved Country http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21564846-south-africa-sliding-downhill-while-much-rest-continent-clawing-its-way-up
E is for Education http://www.economist.com/node/17913496