The natural beauty and solitude he experienced when trekking along South Africa’s coastline in 1985 awakened the then 20-year-old Andrew Muir to the importance of nature, which he now believes can heal the human psyche.
Muir, born in 1965, became a conservationist who uses nature for humanitarian goals. With 80 per cent of the world’s orphans living in sub-Saharan Africa, he is determined to use nature to solve the region’s biggest challenge.
Today, Muir is executive director of the Wilderness Foundation Africa and founder and driving force behind the Umzi Wethu Training Academy, a programme that provides vocational training – and eventual jobs in South Africa’s growing ecotourism – for AIDS orphans and other vulnerable youths.
Funds from Muir’s 2008 Rolex Award are helping him to achieve his goal of rolling out the programme and extending the Umzi Wethu concept throughout his country and beyond.
Published in 2009
Umzi not only trains and places vulnerable orphans into sustainable employment, but also places a lot of emphasis on wellness and HIV education and prevention. But for the programme to be truly successful, it needs to be duplicated in a wide range of organizations. If there were, for example, 100 Umzi Wethu academies in the areas worst hit by HIV/AIDS graduating 50 students annually into jobs, these 5,000 previously vulnerable youths would have a positive socio-economic impact on approximately 50,000 individuals. This will begin to stem the tide!
The simple answer is yes. The challenge faced by many of our youths is that parents do not disclose their HIV-positive status, and seldom are people declared to have died of HIV/AIDS. Even at our interview or screening stage, it is very difficult to determine who is an AIDS orphan and who is not, as applicants do not willingly disclose that HIV/AIDS was the cause of death of their parents. Programmes like Umzi will help lose the stigma and labels attached to HIV/AIDS, and also help to sensitize would-be employers. About 60 per cent of all our learners are “Aids orphans” and 40 per cent are in child-headed households. All are highly vulnerable. It is also important to note that 70 per cent of all “AIDS orphans” are not infected by the virus.
We are only on track if we achieve roll-out, in other words if we get other organizations to embrace this programme. For this to happen, people need to know what Umzi Wethu is all about – the coverage and attention Umzi Wethu will receive through the Rolex Award is a fantastic opportunity for this! The wonderful aspect of Umzi Wethu is that the model can be duplicated in other industries such as manufacturing, provided the core components remain the same – i.e. only the skills training component would change.
To date, we have an 85 per cent success rate of training and job placement. What we cannot predict nor necessarily prevent is when a student might make a bad decision, succumb to family pressure or otherwise default on the responsibilities that become obligations upon entering the Umzi Wethu programme. Our best way of dealing with this risk is to encourage students to develop close relationships, particularly with their Wellness Coordinator. Knowing the personal circumstances of each youth and his or her family helps Umzi management anticipate and mitigate potential risks.
Establishing private and public protected areas supports rural economic development as reserves hosting tourists need clean water, sanitation and electricity, as well as access by decent roads. The public provision of these services inevitably spills over to local communities. This new infrastructure creates many and varied employment opportunities.
We are in the process of refining the model and pilot Umzi Wethu academies. Starting from the first quarter of 2009, we will begin a series of roll-out workshops. Several organizations have already expressed interest in establishing Umzi Wethu academies associated to ecotourism developments in other game reserve areas of South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia. We will also take advantage of large-scale networking opportunities offered by conservation and social development, particularly HIV/AIDS related conferences and meetings.