Uber Drivers are Life Gurus — And Other Lessons From South Africa

By: Sophie Wang, Princeton Global Impact Fellow ‘15

Last year, I spent an incredibly fulfilling summer in South Africa with Emzingo. In eight weeks I met some wonderful people and shared different perspectives, engaged with community members, had dinner with friends, travelled on road trips all around the country, and —most importantly— learned about development in direct partnership with local community members. These are the seven greatest things I learned from my experience in South Africa.


1) The Importance of Stories and Visions of the Future

What fascinated me were the stories behind different people, objects, and society—from the powerful advertisement on a highway billboard “I have HIV; my child doesn’t have to”, to Johannesburg itself, a city sprouted from a gold rush. In particular, I developed a deep admiration of Nelson Mandela for his capacity to forgive, to reconcile, and to envision the future he wanted to build for his country alongside many different groups in society.


2) We are All Architects Who Need to Design Consciously

This summer, I became even more conscious that design matters and changes the way that we interact with an object or program. The health NGO that I worked with, Lambano Sanctuary, sought to create a health skills development program for the caretakers at their pediatric hospice / step-down facility. As architects, my team and I learned to design consciously in a way that would push against authority-based power dynamics and instead create a more equitable program, that includes many voices. Engaging in Emzingo’s human-centered design is an important step in moving towards this goal. For our program, we interviewed different administrators of Lambano Sanctuary (the hospice manager, social worker) not only to hear from them as our key stakeholders, but also to listen to their advice, create trust, and engage them long-term as partners with ownership over the project we were starting. We also actively reached out to other people we were interested in speaking to: HIV/AIDs experts, psychologists, Sangomas in order to learn about the health issues from their perspective. Designing basic logistics of the program was a key challenge. Everything from transportation to funding to our location to the session facilitator were aspects we had to think deeply while placing caretakers at our core.


3) Life is a Web of Complications

Our project was a health-based project but we quickly found ourselves entangled in a complicated, messy web of social and environmental determinants. We saw how an overwhelming number of caretakers of children admitted to the pediatric hospice were unemployed single mothers and grandmothers living in the community. We knew before that there was stigma against HIV, but we didn’t understand the ways in which denial of one’s own HIV status and social pressures to hide this HIV status, could impact children and caretakers alike. We learned of the different expressions of compassion and nurturing, and even the role that the hospice takes as a double edged sword that can provide critical care for the children, yet disempower the parents in the process. We found ourselves re-negotiating our understanding of the program as an initiative to provide a “complete” solution to a problem, while navigating and acknowledging the existence of this unravelable web.


4) Organizations Greatly Impact Individuals

I felt incredibly lucky to be working with health NGO, Lambano Sanctuary. The staff members approach their work with deep empathy and awareness of the kind of impact that they want to have. All their actions contain an intentionality that places children at the heart of everything they do. For example, in an attempt to create a stable environment for the kids in their care, they adopted all of the children together at birth. All of the children living in the same house are “brothers and sisters” while those from other houses are “cousins.” Each house has a house mother who often work with the same group of kids for over 10 years. Lambano also devotes significant funds to help caregivers of children in the pediatric hospice/step-down facility. They cover transportation costs for hospital visits. Recently, they bought a place to live in for a young mother and her child who otherwise wouldn’t have had one.


5) Idealistic Realism

I went to South Africa with a very idealistic viewpoint of what I hoped to accomplish. Through my time, I learned much more about the NGO and Social Entrepreneurship space. Addressing any social issue is incredibly complicated and embedded in a series of social, environmental, biological etc. factors. Organizations themselves face various challenges envisioning their mission statements and following through to execute their goals. Is it even possible to provide an all-encompassing solution? The philosophy that I established during my time is one that I seek to develop further as I continue community-based work. I strive to find a balance between the idealistic and realistic, to acknowledge gaps in what we can achieve but also the immense value of what we can accomplish for individuals, families, and communities.

© Emzingo

© Emzingo


6) Elephants are Our Spirit Animals

One of my favorite moments during one of our road-trips in South Africa was meeting elephants up close in Pilanesberg. Two elephants came to a watering hole right next to the lodge we was staying at, and for a blissful hour, I was able to sit close and hang out with them. Elephants are incredibly fascinating. They are matriarchal. They travel in groups and they care for their young. They also have a complex communication system, are deeply emotional, and show grief. They demonstrate a wisdom, peace, and intelligence that I think we all can learn from.


7) Uber Drivers are Life Gurus

Uber drivers —and, of course, any other residents that I met— were so generous in sharing their wisdom, knowledge, and perspectives, it was as if every ride carried a life lesson in itself. One shared the story of his family’s move from Zimbabwe to South Africa. Another spoke in detail about the direction he saw South Africa heading in the next couple years. I found so much joy and learned so much from chatting with them.

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