The Face of Impact
By Felicia Okoye – NexGen Fellow (South Africa, 2016).
“I don’t care about social impact”, said no Emzingo NexGen Fellow ever. For those, like me, who decided to take on the challenge of working for a social enterprise or NGO as part of their MBA or management Masters, doing meaningful work is often at the forefront of intentions. Despite the numerous countries, my summer of 2016 cohort come from (our group of 22 people comprises 18 nationalities), diverse backgrounds, experiences, and tastes, what unifies us is a desire to do and be better.
During this seven-week immersion and leadership programme, we have learnt best practices in consulting, had first-hand accounts of the racial tensions entrenched in even this post-apartheid era of South Africa and have come to unearth the hidden treasures Johannesburg has to offer (amaaaazing people, food, landscapes and wine: in that order). But amidst all we have seen and experienced, for many, the primary aim was to make a difference and do so while leveraging our knowledge, unlearning some pre-conceived notions and deep diving into new terrains.
One of the most poignant learning curves of the Emzingo experience for me came when I and three other Emzingo fellows participated in a soup kitchen for the homeless. I sought out the organization and signed up because I wanted to do a bit of community work. My day-to-day fellowship had no direct contact with its social beneficiaries and so, while I talked, lived and breathed impact (social impact measurement was my specific focus at the enterprise I consulted for), what impact actually looked like ‘on the ground’ was unclear. So this was the channel for a true taste of the community.
The weekly soup kitchen, which relies on volunteer support, is actively run by MES, Johannesburg, whose tagline ‘Changing the heart of the city’, couldn’t be more apt.
What I assumed with be a small community centre, where we would mechanically serve soup to a orderly line of homeless people, turned out to be so much more than we bargained for.
On arrival at the MES base in Hillbrow (An area notorious for its poverty and crime rate and in the heart of the city), we met with Tebogo, an intern at MES, who explained that we would be going out to the people, in areas with a high density of homeless men, women, and children. We boarded an open back van and tasted the vegetable soup we’d be serving, donated by a 5-star hotel in Sandton, South Africa’s most affluent neighbourhood. As we drove through the deserted streets, Tebogo instructed us on how to serve the food: A full loaf for women and children. And half loaf for men. He showed us how we could tear through the thinly packaged bread. We would visit two locations, he said.
We pulled into the first location in Doornfontein, and were immediately met by drug users injecting themselves with heroin by the roadside. A far cry from Kansas Sandton. The homeless community there is largely made up of substance abusers and Tebo informed us that the majority had moved from rural areas the Johannesburg (Dubbed the city of Gold, no less) for want of opportunities, only to find themselves without a job and soon on the streets. For many, using became both escapism and the catalyst toward a downward spiral. It’s a story, Tebo said, that’s too often told here. To say that the soup and bread was in high demand would be an understatement; and it was apparent that for some, this meal of a half loaf of bread and vegetable soup would be the first they’d had in days, possibly the only proper meal until the soup kitchen came again next week.
For a nation with such open and friendly people (Literally, barely encountered a South Africa being unpleasant in the seven weeks I’ve spent here) it was uncharacteristic to see such despondency.
Our second and last location was also in the heart of the city and yet a pocket so easily by-passed. It was a chilly evening and people huddled around a dustbin containing an open fire or simply shut the world out underneath their sleeping bags (most of which donated by MES). This setting was even more sombre, with more women and children here, than the last, making it all the more heart breaking.
As we left, bread completely finished and soup almost done, we had fed approximately 100 people that night. It was apparent that MES are embraced by the communities it served and irrespective of the desolate environments we worked in, there was never a threat of danger.
We dropped Tebogo off at his place; a home owned by MES, shared by other volunteers and interns, many of whom rehabilitated. He shared his personal story of once being a street kid and through programmes with the organizations as a teen, he was able to find hope, and then purpose.
As well as interning, Tebo works as a photographer and model and enjoys keeping fit alongside the community work he pursues on a daily basis. Many of the people we saw throughout the food outreach that night, he went to school with, or came to know over the years.
It struck a chord then, that by virtue of having young men like Tebogo working for the organization and running these soup kitchens, he is part of the light and hope many of the people living in some desperate conditions need to see. I thought of the kids I saw earlier that night; some just 4 years old or so. And I hoped that Tebogo being a child of this soil and having gone through their exact circumstance and come out on the other side, would present to them a glimmer of possibility.
Through the soup kitchen, I was able to finally understand that there is a place for so-called aid, and direct community interventions alongside social entrepreneurship, development organisations and the entire social ecosystem. We need them all, not just one type of impact, but all forces pulling together for collective good. It was an important lesson and one that I’ll truly never forget as I conclude this thoroughly eye-opening Emzingo experience.