This one is a tad long and a bit ranty…. Apologies in advance.
Last week I met a man, Ziwe, who will stick in my mind forever as a true activist of change and of hope. I had seen him around the office a few times; he had always been friendly and would ask us how our days were though I did not know him well. The other day Ziwe noticed that we had finished our tasks and decided to show us around Khayelitsha. He knew that no matter how long we worked at TAC, we needed to meet the people in order to understand our work, and with that he took our hands and led us out of the office and into the community.
Though I had desperately wanted, until last week, we had not been able to explore much of Khayelitsha because of the safety factor and our co-workers were too busy to take us around. We were able to get an in-depth tour of one of the Police Stations in Khayelitsha. Even though I was able to see how the system works and understand some of their laws, there are still huge disconnects between the people of Khayelitsha and its police. Understanding the separation between the police and other figures of authority and security yield many insights into the history of South Africa.
After visiting the Station, we were led into the community and walked around the neighborhoods. Khayelitsha is the largest township in Cape Town and thus has many sub-districts. Being able to walk through these neighborhoods to see how people live and what their life looks like was a very important experience to me. All through this community tour, Ziwe greeted everyone like brother and sister. While this is a very African custom, Ziwe was more so doing it because of his nature. He knows everyone in this area, and everyone seems to have a smile on their face when they see him.
Ziwe has been part of the Intercultural Youth Exchange for a few years and has made it his mission to provide activities for youth in communities. These activities include education, sports, poetry, and other events that help to get kids off the streets and engaged in the community. He began this work after realizing that so many youth were naïve and ignorant as to what was happening around them and he wanted to create more opportunities and a better life for youth across southern Africa. He has traveled to different countries enacting these projects, and through his work has seen communities become safer due to the decrease of youth crime.
While NGO’s may be all well and good, individuals like Ziwe who make it their life to improve their community is what really drives progress. What I have found through my work in a Cape Town township is that work from within creates the most change. It is critical for an individual to understand the community and know the people, before solutions are made. You cannot better a community without thinking about whether or not they have food, shelter, transportation to a job, equal opportunity, and if they live in a safe environment. These factors are often over looked in terms of progressing infrastructure, creating jobs or changing the healthcare system, but are crucial to people’s livelihoods.
This past weekend, one of TAC’s community coordinators invited me to attend a “Head. Heart. Hands. Leadership Training” that was being put on my Sanlam Investments. TAC had been attending these trainings for a few months and thought it would be a good opportunity for me to be involved in. This training lasted from 8:30am to 4pm with about sixty members in attendance. The majority was from TAC with other organizations and community members fulfilling the remaining seats.
This was a very powerful meeting to be invited to attend. All day I was able to talk with people of the community and see what their views on leadership and social progress as well as hear their stories. The meeting was separated into two parts, being aware of your own leadership stereotypes and validating the leader inside you. One of the activities involved identifying leaders, out of the group a majority of male leaders where chosen despite the equal ratio between women and men. While looking at our own personal leaders, a group of about ten females, including myself, came up with two males and only one female leader. It took me a while to understand why we had not chosen three female leaders.
Most perspectives of leadership come from an American model: loud, opinionated, creating calls to action, and usually has a large following. To give an example, think of three of the top American leaders and how they represent themselves, and then think of the top three Eastern leaders and how they represent themselves. They represent themselves in near opposite ways; yet have accomplished their goals much in the same way.
In most senses, and particularly when you are in a country in which women struggle to express themselves and gain their own rights, women to not fit this model. And while it is true that leadership comes in many forms, women are not generally recognized as leaders because they do not fit into the American model. In fact, when they do fit into this model, they are considered bossy and even looked down upon. Instead they express their leadership through other means and accomplish their goals not by being loud perhaps, but by gathering the people. Being able to recognize our own leadership model made me aware of how I portray myself as a leader and I also became more appreciative of the non-American model of leadership.
Another big point that I came away with was the idea of limiting beliefs. I have always considered limiting beliefs to be one of the primary barriers to change, though was never quite able to explain it eloquently (and I doubt that I will here either).
When you think of a little boy who grows up in a community filled with gangs and poverty it is hard imagine a different life for him. When this boy is growing up, he sees crime and stealing, and the men he looks up to often have a life of violence so it is hard to see a path any different for himself. And just the same, when you think of a little girl who grows up in a community filled with gender discrimination and violence it is hard to imagine a different life for her. When this girl is in her childhood, she sees the inequality between men and women and sees the way of life other girls are taking, paths of drugs, crime, and sex, there is little to think that her life could be anything other.
These children face challenges and barriers few can relate to: rape, violence, poverty, and gangs, and thus the opinions of what they can achieve is limited. They do not see stable families and jobs that create opportunity and success, but instead they are forced down a path that has already been chosen for them. This is the concept of limiting beliefs; to be surrounded by paths in which few lead to success and it becomes hard to imagine any different of a life for youths.
This of course is not true of every individual, if it were what would you say about all of the progress and activity going on in these communities today. This weekend I heard many stories about people facing adversities and overcoming them. Stories about being a single mother, or an ex-gang member, or fighting against the AIDS stereotype, but the most compelling was of a fifteen year old girl who is already imagining a different life for herself.
At fifteen she had already gone through some of life’s biggest challenges. Drugs, abandonment, and crime surrounded her life; she was on a path that was not leading her in a direction of success. However, she decided that it was only up to her to make a change; that no one could do it for her and so she was going to change herself and choose her own path. She is now two months sober and was capable of bringing a room full of sixty adults to tears.
Even now, writing this, days later, I still feel the goose bumps from her story. These youths, and communities, may be facing adversities few can imagine, but they are not bowing down to the challenges they face. They are standing up, choosing a better life for themselves and the people around them and actively making a difference.
Throughout my experiences in Khayelitsha one thought has resonated with me: the global view of Africa, particularly with regards to South African crime and poverty. While there may be more crime here than in other countries, and its poverty may be so engrained it is hard to think of South Africa without any other connotations, this view is of huge detriment to the people and the progress of South Africa. One of the detectives at the police station made a comment as we were walking through her office, “Do not believe anything you read in the papers. I have been here twenty-seven years, and I am still here.”
There may be challenges to overcome in this community, as there are in every community, but there is also huge changes being made. So much energy is focused on youths here, with the thought that if we can only make the lives of youth safer, increase their education, and aid in their health, than perhaps the community will see those benefits as well. Organizations like TAC, and numerous others, work to create better communities through fighting the status quo of violence and inequality; instead they raise awareness, increase the capability of the people, and stand against their challenges.
I overheard this quote in the office the other day between two coworkers in a simple conversation, “If simply your dreams inspire others to do work, then you are already a leader” and I realized how inspired I had become by just working along side these individuals.