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 Argemira Florez 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?”

Argemira discusses water needs in the Balfour township

“Albeit my two weeks of preparation, and the general knowledge fed to me by professors, friends and family, I arrived to Cape Town, South Africa six weeks ago, still drowning in my stereotypes; expecting an immediate language barrier, people walking around barefoot, and cars driving on the right side of the road. And while most of these expectations were immediately challenged hours into my arrival, I am beyond pleased to admit that this left me filled with unknowns. Yet, the greatest thing about unknowns is that they force themselves into you, like a bee into a flower, tasting opportunity and sucking its fill out of it. These unknowns create potential for new questions to be asked, knowledge to be acquired and understanding to take place, and in my time here that is exactly what took place.

My group and I have had the privilege of meeting several social entrepreneurs, business managers and overall inspirational people. It is through these people, their initiatives, projects and the causes they have dedicated their time to, that I have been able to see South Africa, see the things that my untrained eyes would miss. JJ and Mama Mgwenya, for example, two exemplary human beings who saw the need orphans in the community had and took it upon themselves to be their care-takers. Then, there are those such as Nitto and Thulani who have helped me to understand the need within their communities. They served as the eyes and ears of those in need, having seen what needs to be done around their homes and other neighboring cities, listening to those whose voice is silenced by the burden of poverty and socioeconomic status. Nitto, with his many connections, working as the mediator, discerning where our donated clothes and sneakers would be most effective; what language would be most effective for our food and health posters; and what cause needed the most funding. Thulani, with the boldness of his bilingual lexicon, uplifting to those in Baphumelele while still dropping knowledge on youths, South Africa’s future.

While memories of these individuals, their smiles, their words, and their example have been the ones warming my heart on these cold, winter nights here in South Africa, the country itself has branded me with its beauty. The raw, first-hand experiences I have had with its breathtaking landscapes, culture social structure and politics have really impacted my understanding on poverty and the need for development vs. relief. South Africa is one of the most incredibly unique places I have ever known, specifically because of its blatant disparity. A consequence of ruling under Apartheid, a system that ended so recently, no more than 17 years ago. It still blows my mind how the people who lived through Apartheid have been capable of transitioning into an ostensibly new South Africa, under new leadership, with new goals and methods. After experiences such as visiting District 6 and reading Mother to Mother, I see how significant the ideologies promoted by Apartheid influenced and contributed to the poverty people in townships are subject to. It astounds me how people were kicked out of their homes, after watching them be crushed and trampled by monstrous machines, could find a way to still live in high spirits. Still go about their daily lives? And today, still talk about those times as a minor detail in their history, to be forgiven but not forgotten, and to learn from. How do people who were forced to move then find it in themselves to trust the government that so many years ago betrayed them so brutally? Seeing the townships themselves, surveying people within them, making a home within them with our home-stays, have all been part of a life changing, watershed experience for me.

 Doing research and engaging with South Africa’s people and the Social Entrepreneurial field are two completely different things, and being able to do both, within these 6 weeks has left me forever grateful. I must admit, however, that there are many times where presenting our products in these townships, to people who are living in shacks, with unstable water supply, all while suffering from unemployment, was difficult. We had to make sure families understood we were not selling the Q Drum, and/or any of our other products, but were simply asking questions to see if in the future they would want to use such a product, or even sell it to others in their community. We asked questions such as, “Do you think this would be useful in your community? And “How do you get your water? How do you clean it?” Such questions really gave me an inside perspective to the rural areas of South Africa. It’s one thing to see pictures, read newspapers and see statistics, but to really see water shortages, and its effects in communities is astounding. At the end of one of our surveys a woman asked, “Are you here to just ask questions or are you going to give us/do something?” That was a tough note to end on, especially because right after that we were off to lunch. It is impossible to run away from or deny my more privileged lifestyle, even in situations such as these. I responded to her, “Know that we want to help you. It’s just if we give you, we would feel bad not giving to everyone else.” It’s always hard to walk away from that, especially when all I wanted to do was give to everyone in her community. But, that is where I remind myself, “we are an organization that focuses on development, not relief.” This is a harder reality than I expected. Sometimes it is easy to think that relief is what the people need. I am comforted by the idea that we have helped Social Entrepreneur Corps collect sufficient information so that one day these people will be able to have all of these products and become entrepreneurs in their communities as well”

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