Works and Days

Summer Internship Award: Community Work in Cape Town

Where is Nomuhle?

I was stressed. I was in the middle of organizing meal logistics for a weekend camp, and it was Thursday with roughly 24 hours to go. My head was swimming with “4 kilos of chicken,” and “Who will really show up for a breakfast shift at 7:30.” But for one hour I was supposed to go and meet Nomuhle in the township (she’s a community coordinator). Ten minutes late already, I fast-walked from our office: out past the tall barbed wire fence that runs around it, over the piles of stray litter that mark the edge of the township, and through the township streets to the Ubuntu4All container.

Ubuntu4All is a community NGO that works on breaking the poverty cycle for people in the Black township of Imizamo Yethu near Cape Town, South Africa. They focus on education and social work. I joined several of their projects: remedial literacy lessons at the high school, an after-school program for younger kids, and group work with a gang program for young people who dropped out of school. Nomuhle is one of the staff members who runs the gang program from our brightly painted green container in the middle of Imizamo Yethu.

It was at this container that I barked my question at Lloyd. He’s an out-of-schooler, meaning he spends every day out on the streets of the township with the large group of other young people who don’t attend school or work. Drugs and crime are huge distractions for this group, and not many other organizations will work with them. When I arrived, Lloyd was standing at the door of the container looking out, and he met my eyes.

In this culture we say hello and ask how are you first.

Let me back up a minute and explain why this was a pivotal moment for me. I spent my first two years in Portland studying economics and politics of social change, and outside the classroom I’ve done campus and community organizing, my passion being environmental justice. After Reed I plan to move fully into nonprofit work and environmental activism. But for me, organizing has always meant setting a goal and then moving towards it. Eight weeks into my summer with Ubuntu, my director started calling me “Mrs. Structure” and gave me a leadership role for the upcoming camp. I was excited to take more responsibility at the camp. But it also rubbed. I felt pigeon-holed: “Mrs. Structure” represents a strength, yes, but not a growing opportunity. It’s not what I came to South Africa to learn.

In my grant application, I wrote: I would like to leave Ubuntu4Africa with experience in successfully engaging a community at levels ranging from individual support to large-scale change. And that boils down to relationships.

At the container Lloyd gave me a lesson in working with people—it starts with a relationship. In a summer full of learning moments, that’s been my biggest one. It’s simple, and it’s worked with everyone from baristas to security guards to Uber drivers and out-of-schoolers. Taking time to greet people and connect with them always puts me in a good mood, and the magical source of “change” I was looking for is so ordinary I almost couldn’t recognize it.  Ubuntu: I am because we are. Change comes from the inside.

Tags: summer internship award