Final Reflections

12 07 2011

The following blog entries are Social Entrepreneur Corps interns’ reflections on their experiences after six weeks working with Social Entrepreneur Corps in South Africa. Interns began their time in South Africa with two weeks of foundation building, which included discussions, readings, and reflections about poverty, development work, relief work, and social entrepreneurship among other topics. Interns then spent four weeks working in the field in three different environments of urban, semi-urban, and rural.  During their field work interns:

  • Performed grassroots consulting with 7 different local organizations
  • Conducted the first two MicroConsignment Campaigns in South Africa (with over 100 eye exams and 72 glasses sold)
  • Completed 77 needs analysis and product feasibility surveys for the expansion of the MicroConsignment Model in South Africa
  • Developed funding proposals to support three local nonprofit organizations

SEC intern Hang Pham reflects on all of her experiences working in the field and in the classroom to respond to the question, “How has your experience working with SEC in South Africa impacted your understanding of either poverty, development vs relief work, or social entrepreneurship?”

“Having grown up in a third world country and pursued higher education the US, one of the so-called first world countries, I saw both the very rich and the very poor. However, I never really pondered the concept of poverty, not before I did an internship in social entrepreneurship in South Africa, a third world country that has a first-world population living in it.

In Cape Town, our first stop, it took us an hour to drive from Camps Bay where multi-million-dollar mansions stood along one of the most beautiful beaches in the world to Khayelitsha, the biggest township in South Africa where 1.5 million people live in crowded shacks made out of carton boxes and tin roofs. It took us 45 minutes to drive from Melville, Johannesburg, where our beautiful hostel located, to Itsoseng, a township where half of the people were unemployed and there was no electricity or in-house water system. My initial perception of poverty was anything in contrast to the well off. Along the 6 weeks moving from townships to townships, I went down the different levels of poverty. I was prepared for a swim in a shallow lake and got tossed into a dive in the deep ocean. At Balfour, a township in Zone 7, we surveyed a household with three people: a middle age woman, her son, and her sister who was HIV positive, to see what their needs are in terms of energy. It was a matchbox cabin made out of tin roof lying on top of a windy hill looking down to a vast shacks area. There was no electricity in the house; the woman cooked with paraffin and lighted the house with candles. They lived off the monthly R260, or $40, child grant provided by the government. When we did the survey, the HIV positive woman kept asking for “sweets and meat.” I wanted to give her the sandwich I packed for lunch, but I felt wrong to treat her as a beggar. The house was also very cold and there was no heating device. Compared to people like them, those who I considered poor before suddenly became the fortunate, the richer, the less poor, and the rich and poor contrast became tangibly bitter and disturbing. Four years ago when I worked at a French restaurant, I met a great old man manned Peter, who worked in development in rural areas in Vietnam. He told me “if you have clothes to wear, a house to live in, and a school to go to, you are rich.” His words, which I never seconded, suddenly sunk in.

Poverty is not only the absence of basic-needs satisfaction but also the lack of resources to get out of it. One of the main reasons for the 50% unemployment rate at townships and rural areas is that people don’t have the skills required for and information about the job market. However, as much as I was sadden by the pervasiveness of poverty in South Africa, the remarkable development in education among the younger generations, especially those living in townships and rural areas, sparked my hope in a fundamental change. The workshop on college and career application we conducted with CTC10, a youth leadership program for adolescences in Khayelitsha, is the most inspiring project I worked on. In our first meeting with the youth leaders, they impressed me with their dream careers and determination to proceed to higher education in order to pursue their dreams. Most kids I talked to wanted to be doctors, “to help other people” they said, some girls wanted to go to culinary school and be a dessert chef because “love baking,” a very shy boy shared that he wanted to go to law school. They told me that children in townships now understood the importance of education and took it seriously, a fact that brightened up my entire trip. We ran an info section with workshops on Resume and cover letter writing tips, interview skills, scholarships and financial aid application, and study abroad opportunities. I still remember the feeling of enthusiastically sharing all the knowledge I had about South African education as well as my own experience as college student with financial aid, and of the youth leaders’ enlivened faces when devouring every piece of information. I lost my voice after an hour of continuous talking to a big group, but the triumphant feeling transcended all physical exhaustion. When I was at this age, there was a group of college student came to my school and talked about studying abroad. Thanks to their very brief introduction, which reminded me that there were opportunities out there if I kept my eyes open, the thought of studying abroad flourished in me and changed the course of my life for the better. I hope that this little workshop will do the same thing to the CTC10 leaders. I also believe that the key to solving the poverty issue does not lie in a social intern like me, in an organization like Social Entrepreneur Corps, or in a government like South African government, but in a younger generation that’s born into the poor but has a will to get out of it.”

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