A new life for AIDS orphans

Pakamisa Kolisi was just 13 years old when his mother died. At the time, he lived in a cardboard shack in the sprawling township of Zwide, just outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province. His father had abandoned him long before, so the mother’s death meant Pakamisa was an orphan. His seven-year-old brother Mandilakhe now looked to Pakamisa for food and clothes, and to get him ready for school. For a while, Pakamisa was helped by his grandmother, but she too became frail and died. His future looked bleak, particularly as he lived in a township where most of the 35,000-plus inhabitants lived below the poverty line, were unemployed and lacked proper housing.

Pakamisa’s story, sadly, is not an unusual one. South Africa has an estimated 88,000 child-headed households. As the nation continues to suffer the devastation of an Aids pandemic – South Africa has the biggest number of HIV/Aids infections of any country in the world, with 5.5 million people believed to be infected – the number of children with no parents is expected to increase significantly over the next decade. The death of a parent by HIV/Aids accounts for about half the country’s estimated 2.2 million orphans. Traditional family structures are becoming overstretched, unable to cope with the overwhelming number of children with no adults to care for them.

In most developing countries, orphaned children are highly vulnerable. Not only have they lost the security and moral guidance that parents provide, they are also at risk, in poorer countries, of being denied shelter, food, clothing and health care. Many are unable to attend school as they have to look after younger siblings or contribute financially to the household. Understandably, such children often lapse into depression, develop a dependence on alcohol or drugs, or turn to crime or prostitution to survive. To escape such a cycle of poverty is virtually impossible.

What is remarkable about Pakamisa’s story is that, today, at the age of 25, he is content. Thanks to the Umzi Wethu Training Academy for Displaced Youth, he has embarked on a career in the hospitality industry and is well on his way to becoming independent.

The brainchild of South African conservationist Andrew Muir, Umzi Wethu is a multifaceted intervention programme that targets orphans. Aged 42, Muir vividly recalls the day the seed was planted for Umzi Wethu: “I read a UN report back in 2004 that 80 per cent of the world’s orphans live in sub-Saharan Africa. I was shocked. This is a massive issue, not only from a social perspective, but also from an environmental perspective. I understand the pressure this can have on the environment, particularly in very poor regions. Orphans are vulnerable, and generally have no other option than to use the resources readily available to them. This can lead to poaching, chopping down of trees for firewood and shelter, and the like.

“I also realised that conservationists as a collective have not come up with a solution, one that could make this crisis take a positive turn. Conservationists today need to be aware of the broader social context within which they operate. Gone are the days when we could simply put a fence around a protected area and ignore what was happening outside.”

As executive director of the Wilderness Foundation South Africa (WFSA), a non-profit conservation organization that uses nature as a tool for social change, Muir is aware of the healing capacity of nature and the significant employment opportunities offered by ecotourism. Over the course of his career, he has created dozens of initiatives and events linking conservation causes with social development, and has raised over US$26 million for conservation and social development programmes. Umzi Wethu, which means “our home” in Xhosa, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, is Muir’s latest project, a holistic programme that aims to fulfil the potential of resilient, motivated youths like Pakamisa who have been displaced by HIV/Aids and poverty.

Muir primarily targets orphans from the most impoverished communities, providing a secure, nurturing place for day and residential students to develop. About 60 per cent of the youths attending Umzi Wethu are “Aids orphans” – individuals impacted by Aids but who are not necessarily infected by the virus – while the remaining intake comprises individuals living in child-headed households. Muir stresses that Umzi Wethu is neither an orphanage nor a state institution, but a training facility that teaches teenage orphans to be cooks or rangers, the two sectors in the ecotourism industry with the highest potential for income and management opportunities.

“We don’t choose individuals directly, but work with institutions who identify potential candidates and who can provide us with a case history. Over and above vocational tuition, Umzi Wethu also provides life skills training, wellness counselling, one-to-one mentoring and wilderness experience. I knew that the only way we could make Umzi Wethu work was by creating a comprehensive and long-lasting programme. After all, the vulnerability of these orphans has generally been 18 years in the making and will need something pretty intense and all-embracing to turn it around!”

As well as a year of training, Umzi Wethu provides guaranteed job placement with transitional support. As the costs of any programme like Umzi Wethu are substantial, Muir believes it is essential to select young people who have the aptitude and potential to see the programme through. “We need to be confident that our Umzi Wethu students will be able to stay in the jobs we secure for them – only then will the programme be successful from a socio-economic perspective. Essentially we are creating ambassadors for other vulnerable youths and orphans to look up to, and see a brighter outlook. Graduates from Umzi Wethu will serve as examples of opportunity and hope to both their own families and to the communities from which they come.”

South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, where Muir piloted the Umzi Wethu programme, boasts remarkable natural diversity. Ironically, far more Western tourists have had more access to these wilderness areas than the people who live nearby. Muir believes that “the wilderness can heal and sustain the human psyche”. All Umzi Wethu students spend approximately one week every two months off-site at bush camp to experience, often for the first time, South Africa’s great wildlife and plant biodiversity. For a young orphan, used only to the muddy, littered streets of a shanty town to walk through the bush or next to a running river in a forest can be life-changing. And for this same young person to be surrounded by peers from a similar background, in a setting that is secure, with boundaries of discipline set by a caring House Mother, will bring major psychological benefits. Add credible vocational training and you have the ingredients that make up Umzi Wethu, transforming such young people into effective, independent citizens. This pioneering method of using conservation to rescue orphans and vulnerable youths from poverty and despair has won Andrew Muir a Rolex Award.

Initial studies and assessments by the Wilderness Foundation indicate that in South Africa alone more than 50,000 new jobs are being created every year in the conservation and tourism industries leading up to a major football event – the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which South Africa will host. The Eastern Cape is poised to reap the benefits of this upsurge in ecotourism, and two Umzi Wethu academies have been established there. The first, in Port Elizabeth, focuses on hospitality, while the second, located in Somerset East, close to three national parks, caters exclusively to the conservation and ranger trainees. Funds from Muir’s Rolex Award will help cover the costs associated with one intake of 20 students at the Somerset East academy. The success of the pilot programme at the two academies has been outstanding, as Muir proudly explains: “Eighty-five per cent of the 40 graduates have made the successful transition into employment, with some already having been promoted to junior managers.”

Umzi Wethu is, for Muir, also a means by which he can help heal the wounds left by apartheid. It was his exposure to the atrocities committed by the military in suppressing the anti-apartheid movement that flamed his desire to redress the long-standing racial injustices in South Africa. Conscripted into the South African Defence Force (SADF) in 1985, he was deployed into the townships to help quell the uprisings. “This marked a turning point in my life,” recalls Muir. “I witnessed some horrific things, and saw absolute anger and hatred in the eyes of the majority of our country’s citizens. I knew then that I had to try, in some way, to heal those wounds.”

In fact Muir’s experience in the army showed him not only the worst side of the country, but also its best. Having conscientiously objected to his duties, he was, after a period of incarceration, assigned a desk job. It was here that he conceived the idea of a 780-kilometre walk along the beach from Nature’s Valley, near Plettenberg Bay, to Cape Town to raise awareness about tuberculosis. Under the auspices of the SADF, Muir was joined by 13 of the country’s premier athletes on a walk that took 28 days. He says the experience transformed him, inspiring him to develop his philosophy of using nature for both social and environmental reform.

His deep commitment has won wide respect, as Dr Mamphela Ramphele, a leading intellectual and political figure, acknowledges: “Andrew is a man fired by the passion to be the best he can be in order to make the world he lives in a better place. He is a leader, teacher, mentor and bridge between young people and the world of adults; between black and white South Africans; and between urban development and the relatively unspoiled wilderness areas. He is able to move people beyond the limits they set themselves.”

Muir wants to create 10,000 jobs over the next 10 years. To achieve this, the Umzi Wethu model needs to be embraced throughout the Southern African region. “Umzi Wethu was never created as a one-off programme, but rather as a model that can be duplicated in other provinces and countries, and in other industries. My hope is that the Rolex Award will be the catalyst for rolling out this programme more widely, to benefit the millions of orphans living in Southern Africa.”

Pakamisa says Umzi Wethu has changed his life. With a job as a junior chef, he is better placed to look after his brother Mandilakhe. “I now know where I am going,” he says. “My future is bright and secure, and I really believe that I can fulfil my dream to be a manager in a hotel. What I pray for is that my friends living in the township will also be able to share the Umzi experience, and be given the chance to live their dream.”

Alexa Schoof Marketos
Return To Theme