Three Thousand Ears in Cape Town


You’re probably thinking there is a typo in that headline. Nope. It’s correct. Not years. Ears.

This is a story about service. This is a story about choices and not enough choices. This is a story about experiential learning and tangible human impact, one small moment at a time.

Three thousand is an estimate of how many children’s ears were recently screened in Philippi Township, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa. At best count and two ears per young child, a volunteer team screened about 1500 children for otherwise undetected ear infections. If left untreated, this preventable and correctable condition could easily have left many of these children permanently deaf. About ten required immediate surgery. Six had cysts that could have resulted in meningitis or death.

A project of this scope had never been attempted. The average number of children screened by public health services in the township for ear care is 150-200 per year, largely based on referrals. The team we assembled, working hand in hand with local clinicians familiar with medical infrastructure in the township, took on more than that each day. Once this model partnership committed to the challenge, there was nothing stopping them from achieving a new record they can’t wait to break or see broken.

The ear clinic was only one of many innovative projects our group of volunteers tackled earlier this month near the far-away Cape of Good Hope. One team worked on AIDS prevention and education in a place where HIV remains epidemic, potentially impacting the vitality of an entire emerging generation. A construction team built bookshelves for public schools across the township. Another team focused on robotics learning, with young children lighting up as their minds opened to the basics of computer programming.

We also ran a dance program led by a former champion from television’s Dance Fever. We engaged a team of professional journalists to start a school newspaper. We organized a series of open discussions on women’s health and personal well-being. We developed a peer-to-peer math mentoring program for high school students.

My own team focused on business consulting with micro-entrepreneurs, working with an NGO called Business Activator to help bolster start-up companies. We were based in a unique business park created from the remnants of an old cement factory, with stacked shipping containers creating storefronts along a makeshift plaza.

So what’s the buzz? Why were we in Cape Town? Why take this on in lieu of a leisurely vacation?

It was all about service—an alumni project organized by my college. This time a hundred volunteers descended on Cape Town, a highly unusual metropolis of contrasts and contradictions. You may remember that I wrote about a similar project a year ago at the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation. Indeed, this is the tenth anniversary of the Yale Alumni Service Corps, harnessing the passion of individuals from all walks of life to immerse themselves in unfamiliar cultures and spend a week helping to ignite a spark in the lives of others that will be embraced, measurable, and lasting.

If you’ve ever dedicated any amount of time to volunteer service, you know the cliché is apt that you take away much more in your heart than you can ever give of your time. A visit to a place as complicated and torn as Cape Town can change your life if you let it. At the very least it can change your perspective on what you thought you knew about a subject as harrowing and sadly unresolved as apartheid.

I thought I understood the plague of apartheid from reading about it in newspapers and history books. I thought I understood the plight of institutionalized racial oppression from seeing the struggles on television and internet video. I thought I understood the meaning of healing through Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

The little I understood was academic. I didn’t know it until I was in Cape Town, but I needed to be in the townships to even start to internalize what apartheid was and what of it remains. Apartheid may officially be dead, but its pervasive toxins leave long, lingering trenches of decay.

Now I have seen this. I also see the corollaries to many of the deepest problems in our own backyards. A simple service project made this possible.

Service isn’t just about doing good deeds. Service is about cultural immersion. Service is about lifelong learning. Service is about coming to terms with empathy for distant problems that on closer examination are wildly close to home.

On the second day of our trip, my direct observations on an extended bus ride through the townships almost stopped my breathing. I had never before seen systemic, uncontrolled poverty on that scale. As much as I thought I knew what economic inequality meant, nothing prepared me for seeing the ruins brought on by apartheid sprawling without containment almost a quarter-century after the election of Nelson Mandela.

Service let me see this. Service opened my eyes to the impact of history and the seemingly immovable obstacles of current events.

There is no way words can adequately describe the inequality in Cape Town. The city center is picturesque and opulent, with cascading views of the gorgeous waterfront. Quaint streets reflecting British influence and signage wind past towering universities, luxury-car dealerships, and New World wine-tasting rooms.

Fifteen minutes down the road are the townships originally created by apartheid, still standing—expanding actually—with millions living in abject poverty. Many live ten or more in tiny corrugated metal shacks, if they have an overhead shelter at all. There is minimal plumbing, shared toilet structures, electricity pirated from public lines tempting common incidents of fire. School dropout rates approach 80%. Unemployment stands near 25% with utter confusion among the suffering how America is not stuck in the same recession.

It all seems apocalyptic. We aren’t talking a few blocks or a few streets of urban decay. We’re talking mile after mile of human beings on top of each other trying to survive, source decent food, tote clean water, find a way out.

Remember, this is more than 25 years after the end of apartheid, which astonishingly lasted as law into the early 1990s! I was shocked to hear several young people actually speak ill of Mandela. To some he has become more myth than legend, and they question why his promises haven’t panned out for their prosperity. Many have become cynical, wondering why his vision was never realized, whether he compromised too easily and sold out their future. It is common to hear the electorate speak openly of parliament as corrupt and self-serving. They ask if the ANC can once again become their champions.

In service we seek to offer hope, and while there were glimmers of resilience in each of our day’s work, the scale of oppression remains impossible to talk past. All of this is the long tail of apartheid, a system so vicious and deeply embedded in societal ills it is difficult to decipher how many generations it will take to overcome. I was left thinking of the United States after our Civil War, how long it took for any kind of normalcy to prevail, where even today we can’t seem to get past racial hatred. I wondered how in the embers of Nazi defeat at the end of World War II, with the Nuremberg Trials in the headlines, it was possible for apartheid come to power with the National Party in 1948. The irony of 1948 is impossible to escape. That was the founding of Israel.

Our work in Cape Town was facilitated by a dynamic NGO known as Amandla Development, whose mission is to “empower children to succeed from cradle to career.” One of the sheer joys of being in Cape Town was getting to know the local staff of Amandla, to spend time with people who grew up in the townships and are now determined to reverse the course of history by touching the lives of children one at a time. This is how hope becomes action—not with epic commitments of resources in attempts to shatter daunting obstructions, but in finding one or two individuals open to the idea of collaboration and helping them improve their lives.

Our volunteers in journalism reported that many of the students in their program seldom interact at all with white people. They simply don’t have the occasion or opportunity, another awful remnant of apartheid. One student wrote that she never thought she would develop a friendship with a white person. That friend became the person who encouraged her to publish her first story.

All that brings me back to the 3000 ears in Cape Town. Perhaps on equal footing with ensuring quality hearing for these 1500 children was the opportunity to let each one of them know that we care about them. Our volunteers didn’t just process them through a waiting line. These were very young children, most of whom don’t begin learning English until the third grade. Of course they wondered why we were there. Our loving colleagues went to their classrooms and explained through a translator what we were doing, that they would be in no discomfort, and that we truly were friends from abroad.

Raising awareness of the scourge of hearing related diseases was as important a part of the mission as the specific medical attention offered. Adroitly changing the perception of these maladies from endemic to treatable afforded our educators an enormous creative window. While the children were waiting to see the doctors, our volunteers played games, sang songs, and worked on art projects with them to reinforce this learning. I can’t help hoping that some of these children will remember these joyful moments of sharing as they become adults. I know our volunteers will never forget them.

Perhaps the Cape of Good Hope is well named. I won’t forget any of it. Not apartheid, not the townships, not the children, not the entrepreneurs in their offices anticipating a brighter future.

That is the nature of service. I’m pretty sure we can’t fix this rotten, broken, unjust world. I’m completely certain we can always help one or two strangers if we care to make that choice.

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Photo: Copyright Melanie Belman-Gross (shared with permission)

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Tribal Ways and Open Doors

 

Few of us will ever have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time on an Indian reservation. If you don’t live or work there, it’s just not something you’re likely to do. You might drive onto native lands for a festival or to buy some crafts, or you might enjoy some vacation time at an Indian casino. If you ever do have the invitation to fully immerse yourself in the culture of tribal ways, I recommend you walk through the open door.

If you embrace the opening of that door, you will be changed.

My wife and I recently spent a week volunteering at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, a federally recognized sovereign nation that sits at the three-way intersection of California, Arizona, and Nevada. We were there for a week as part of an alumni service project from my college with a group of about 50 like-minded souls. We were divided into three groups focused on construction, education, and business projects. Our construction group built an outdoor shelter where children from the school could study outside in the shade. My wife helped teach music and art in the preschool. I helped teach basic business and entrepreneurial skills to adults.

It is difficult to bridge the gap between what one might expect signing up for a week on Native American lands and what one would actually experience. The key learning for me was getting past what I thought I might accomplish in advance of our arrival and giving myself over to the experience itself — of bonding with people who otherwise would have remained strangers in my life. What struck me as particularly resonant was how building a bridge of trust to a few people one person at a time could open all of our eyes to the language of possibility.

Let’s start with some basics. Even though few people will have the opportunity to spend a week in a place they might not have known was there, a week is a fragment of time too brief to overestimate in scope. That means that every moment shared was a moment that mattered, with an intense focus on listening and learning rather than articulating strategies and solutions. Time may be limited, even precious, but if you try to rush things in cultural immersion, the mistakes of the past can swiftly swell to unintended repetition. There is no doubt that there is a prolonged history of inexcusable abuses perpetrated against the indigenous residents of our nation, but that can’t be repaired in a lifetime of cooperation, let alone a week’s visit. We were not there for any more reason than to be good listeners, good citizens, and hopefully ongoing good friends.

We learned immediately that in the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, each individual is a part of his or her past. We introduce ourselves to each other by talking about our families, initially to see if there are points of intersection in our histories, but more to establish a common ground of respect for the elders who have taught us and the esteemed leaders who will guide us.

As we listen to each other’s lineage, the table is set for sharing what matters in our lives. We all have dreams and aspirations. We all have experienced pain. When we look into each other’s eyes with focus and listen to the authenticity in the words a new acquaintance chooses to share, human connection begins. It doesn’t fix what has come before, but it does gracefully establish a framework for what could happen next.

This is what I mean when I talk about possibility. What might be possible will only be possible if trust replaces suspicion, if curiosity replaces fear, and if hope is elevated from slogan to shared ideal.

I spent the majority of my week working with one entrepreneur. He was slightly older than me. We connected early in the week by chance almost serendipitously around a shared love of music. We both play guitar and are avid classic rock enthusiasts, but he still plays in a party band and I haven’t done that in decades. Beyond teaching himself musicianship in his high school days, he was trained long ago in a skilled trade and made his living at it, but it wasn’t taking him to the economic freedom he desired.

We wrote a brief business plan together, one bullet at a time, from creating a statement of purpose to stepping through the mechanics of daily tasks and completion milestones. We talked about always present competition, nagging administrative needs, and one-to-one marketing opportunities. He didn’t have a website, but with a bit of nagging from me he realized he had a younger relative who had learned some internet basics in school and could help him launch a single online page with his contact information that would cost him nothing. The more we brainstormed the web page, the more ideas he had for posting customer endorsements and project photos that might attract local attention. We documented everything we discussed, and as the pages began to take shape, the candor in our dialogue took on that feeling of lift you experience when the wheels leave the runway below you.

Let me return to the notion of expectation and result. As I suggested, prior to arriving at the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, I had developed a tailored curriculum of lessons I would lead on defining mission, vision, strategy, tactics, finance, and sustainable growth. It was a solid teaching plan, and I was only hopeful I could get through all of it in the short week allowed. By noon on the first day, I had abandoned it. It did not apply to the situation at hand. Had I attacked it with the same pragmatism and vigor I normally tackle goals, my week on tribal lands might have been finished by lunch.

No, there was no way I was going to get through that lesson plan, no way I was going to cover all the things that would surely make businesses better for all in attendance. Something else happened, something much better, something that mattered. On the final day of working with my partner, he offered to share the financials of his business. He trusted me enough to show me the material trends in his business — the actual numbers with dollar signs — and we incorporated a sliding scale forecast into our business plan. Together we found the leverage in his operating plan that actually could take him to economic independence in the years ahead.

He didn’t have to change what he was doing. He knew what he was doing. He had to make a few changes in how he was doing it. He saw that tangible possibility for the first time in the words and numbers we wrote together.

It was a true aha moment. It was a breakthrough. It was everything I could have hoped for as a result of a week’s dedication, and not a moment of it was anything I had planned. The only thing that could have been harder for me than jettisoning my syllabus and going with the flow was my partner’s unhindered willingness to improvise with a stranger.

We pulled it off together. There was no other way it was going to happen. First the bridge, then the embrace, then the hard work, then the roadmap. We had to do it in that order, and we had to do it together.

The Fort Mojave Indian Tribe lives on the banks of the Colorado River. They live by the words of their ancestors: “Water is life.” They teach that core principle of sustenance to their children and they taught that to us. The water flows with divine intention and with it comes possibility. The water sustains our bodies. The water lets crops grow from the desert floor. The water is a transit mechanism that carries the adventurous from their river home to faraway places of promise. The water is shared with strangers who can become friends if the possibility is identified. That possibility has everything to do with mutual empathy and only becomes activated when a door is opened. Doors open when listening is pure.

If a tribal door is opened to you, walk through it. Leave your plans on the other side of the door. Open your heart to tribal ways, and in a single week you might change a single life. It likely will be yours.

______________________

Photo: Yale Alumni Service Corps