The success of Umzi Wethu, which creates career paths in conservation and tourism for students from deprived backgrounds in South Africa, has led to the creation of a sister programme.
Lincoln Meyer’s prospects looked bleak a decade ago. No father, living in poverty in rural South Africa with his mother and grandparents, there seemed little hope for a better life.
Then along came Umzi Wethu, an intervention programme that offers vulnerable young people, many orphaned by AIDS, skills training and guaranteed job placements in the conservation and tourism sectors. The year-long diploma course incorporates health and wellness training, counselling and wilderness excursions within a nurturing residential setting.
Meyer was among the first intake of students in 2007 and is one of its shining lights. He now helps other young people from similarly deprived backgrounds fulfil their potential.
Umzi Wethu, which means “our home” in Xhosa (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages), was conceived by conservationist and 2008 Rolex Award winner Andrew Muir to give young people in his country a “hand up rather than a handout”.
“The vulnerability of these young people like Lincoln has generally been 18 years or more in the making,” Muir says. “Some have seen their parents die of AIDS, some have been abandoned by their fathers, caught up in alcoholism. I realized it would need something pretty intense and all-embracing to turn it around.
“By providing a holistic intervention, Umzi Wethu is able to transform vulnerable youth into confident, self-assured individuals working within the formal eco-tourism and hospitality sector.”
Muir takes particular pride in Meyer’s development, having been his mentor since he left the township of Pearson in the arid inland region of Karoo where there is massive unemployment and more than 80 per cent of the population relies on social welfare grants.
“In Lincoln’s case he really took the opportunities we offered him,” Muir says. On graduating, Meyer volunteered at the Wilderness Leadership School run by Muir’s Wilderness Foundation and later became a student trainer for the second Umzi Wethu intake.
He has risen through the ranks and now works in a junior management role in the foundation’s youth programme, which impacts on 4,000 young people a year. At the World Wilderness Congress in Salamanca, Spain, in 2013, Meyer represented the foundation in an address to more than 1,500 delegates from 50 countries. He has continued his studies part-time and is about to complete a degree in conservation at the University of South Africa.
Meyer says he wanted to “give back to Umzi Wethu” because of the opportunities the programme has given him. “The team at Umzi Wethu recognized my potential leadership qualities and nurtured them through the teaching and mentorship that I received at the conservation academy. I have a deep respect for the Umzi Wethu model, and I want to sow this into the lives of others, plant the same seed that was planted in me and help to nurture it.”
Meyer was the first graduate to be employed by the Wilderness Foundation but there have been many other success stories. Umzi Wethu has helped turn around the lives of 300 young graduates since its inception. Of these, 92 per cent have been placed in jobs and 85 per cent still hold those or higher-ranking jobs a year after being employed.
The students are not the only ones to reap the benefits. Studies carried out with the international charity Oxfam over the past two years have found graduates are transforming their own lives and making a significant social and economic contribution to the places they live, mainly in townships. Some support up to seven family members, and many have increased their earnings by 50 per cent within two years of graduating. Ten per cent reach junior management positions within the same time frame and about five per cent have enrolled in tertiary education; their diploma is a recognized entry qualification for university study.
Places in the programme are highly sought but only a small percentage of applicants are accepted; there are just two intakes of 18 students each year. To cater for the demand, the Wilderness Foundation has created an additional programme, Siyazenzela (“to grow” in Xhosa). Siyazenzela reaches out to a much larger group of young people, offering job readiness and life skills in a 16-week non-residential programme. About 300 students are accepted into Siyazenzela each year. All students wishing to apply for the main Umzi Wethu programme must first complete the Siyazenzela course.
Umzi training focuses on preparing students to work as chefs or field rangers, the two streams in South Africa’s burgeoning ecotourism industry that offer the best employment opportunities.
Ranger training is popular with students from rural areas. About a quarter of Umzi graduates find work as field guides, mainly in South Africa’s wildlife parks. “They get paid well as they also get tips from tourists,” Muir says. The bulk of the ranger graduates work in nature parks, to prevent poaching and to care for animals. Two parks employ about 40 Umzi graduates as rangers, while two women graduates work in marine conservation along part of South Africa’s vast coastline.
To be able to take in more students, the programme will soon have a new base, the landmark Tramways Building in Port Elizabeth. It is being renovated to house the consolidated study streams; previously the hospitality academy was housed in Port Elizabeth and the conservation academy in Somerset East in the Eastern Cape region. A third academy in Stellenbosch, under the leadership of the Sustainability Institute at the Lynedoch Eco Village, continues to offer access to the thriving wine industry in South Africa’s Western Cape. “We have tested the model and proven we can roll it out,” Muir says. “Now we are going to move into one big academy and run the two vocational streams alongside one another.”
A crucial element of the Umzi Wethu ethos is to provide job and life skills to those who cannot afford expensive courses. Muir has raised more than US$3 million in private and corporate donations, including his Rolex Award, to cover students’ course expenses. He says these funds – they have raised more than US$40 million under his leadership for the wider operations of the Wilderness Foundation – have enabled young people to transform their lives free of financial burden. “Most students get themselves into massive debts for their studies,” Muir says. “Not with Umzi.”
Learn more about Andrew Muir