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 Courtney Brozyno 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?”

Courtney takes some time to take a photo at the CTC10 field in Khayelitsha

““South Africa is a microcosm of the world”. These were the words that my professor left our class with as we prepared for our trip to a country that is a conundrum of contrasts. And at the end of six weeks here, it is a statement that has definitely held true. From our first sights of the country in the beautiful city of Cape Town, to our second homestays in Ka Nyamazane Township outside of Nelspruit, it is with certainty that I say I feel as if I have traveled to a vast number of countries, if not to various regions of the world, in the past six weeks. This feeling is one that I have struggled with throughout our whole time here. It is with contemplation that I have been able to mediate, but certainly not come to terms with, the profound affect with which these experiences have branded my memory.

Never will I forget the lavish beaches in the city of Cape Town, the extravagant V&A Waterfront, or the quiet suburbia life in well-to-do Melville outside of Johannesburg. No, I will not forget these scenes, or my experiences there. But what will forever burn in my mind and guide my actions quite possibly for the rest of my life are the rows of communal toilets in front of the slum houses of Khayelitsha or having to will myself to suppress the stinging tears that arose when we visited the humble home of the Mgwenya family who so selflessly took in children of poor circumstances when they clearly had so little themselves. This second set of images is one that to many is deplorable. And quite frankly, it is. But after countless hours of thought and self-debate, I have realized that it is simultaneously one of hope, and even happiness. Because it is within the confines of the largest township in South Africa, and the walls of the Mgwenya family home that I experienced the most love, happiness, and optimism that I have found anywhere in the world, with the exception of my childhood home.

And having arrived at this realization, I came to ponder along the way what it truly means to be poor. Certainly, the people I encountered in the scenes described were of little circumstance and material wealth. They did not even possess running water in their homes and were lucky to have access to electricity in a country where well over half of the population is not able to enjoy this seemingly basic amenity. To many these are factors by which poverty can be measured. But you can also measure poverty through many other factors as well. The time spent in these “poor” areas in which unemployment and lack of goods are the norm were a reality check. As many around me complained about money problems, the experiences we shared truly grounded me, and caused a renewed personal awareness that these “problems” simply did not compare to the ones of the people we met here. Even I, myself, can recall countless times when I felt “broke” or that I did not have much, especially in comparison to my fellow school mates in college. I confess that I have never encountered poverty of the sort I was faced with here before. Surely I have driven through less affluent areas at home in the United States and watched as my parents helped others of lesser means throughout the years, but I never really realized that poverty of such a great level can exist. I did always know it to exist but not in any tangible way. I had never been face to face with it before. And so, over the last six weeks, I have come to form a new sort of understanding, or empathy, for what it means to be “poor”.

Poverty is not to have a glitch in the flow of financial support from your parents from time to time. It is not not being able to afford the newest technologies or fashions or material goods. For many, this may be “poverty”, but at the end of the day the depths of poverty are much further reaching. For some, poverty may be not having health insurance, or having to wait a month to see a doctor at a clinic. But for many, poverty is not being able to see a doctor at all, ever, and as a result not being able to have your illness treated before it kills you. For others, poverty may be having access to water in their homes that is not “clean”. But for many, poverty is not having any water in your home, and the water that you do travel hours a week for causing stomach illnesses that can kill. It seems that it is infinitely easier to form ideas of what poverty is not, rather than to define what it is.

Though this task is difficult, it seems that poverty may be defined by lack of access to basic amenities that should be afforded to all simply because they are human. Among these amenities would be shelter, clothing, food, clean water within one’s home, and electricity. Access to these things would eliminate the basest form of poverty. While I cannot provide a perfect, textbook definition of poverty, I can say that my understanding of what poverty is now goes beyond what any textbook could inform me of. The past six weeks have realized the very different levels of poverty. They have also dispelled the images in my mind that went hand in hand with poverty: its effects. I no longer expect children to be crying heart-wrenching tears of misery in any poor area I travel. I do not expect everyone to hate me for simply appearing to be of greater circumstance. I do not expect poverty to take the form of a “sea of misery” in massive slum areas and I do not expect it to take the form of angered, burdened people everywhere I turn. I no longer expect these things because I have been so lucky to spend time with people who may have the fewest possessions but simultaneously have the most spirit and life out of any I have ever encountered.

I now have a deeper understanding of what poverty is after spending six weeks in South Africa. I have experienced first hand third world poverty less than an hour from mansions that bask in the afternoon sun’s glowing rays and are kissed by the sprays of ocean mist. This, out of everything, is what I do not understand the most. At first I was deeply perplexed when my expectations of those shackled by poverty did not hold true. But I am still, and perhaps even more greatly, perplexed by the microcosm that is South Africa. That this third world poverty can, and does, coexist with a first world standard of living. It is confusing, and frustrating, and simply inexplicable. While great strides have been made towards eradicating poverty in South Africa over the past twenty-something years, the country still has a long way to go. Perhaps because a first world standard does exist in some areas of the country there is more hope for the severely impoverished here than there would be in other nations where little or no class stratification exists.”




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