Friday, April 23, 2010


After being back in Morgantown for about three weeks, I have been able to process (somewhat) what I saw in South Africa. It’s funny how things picked up right where I left off upon arrival: classes, work, homework, etc. It might have seemed as if I returned the same person, but I know that I am not. Everyday I think about what I experienced and everyday I think about the wonderful, amazing people that I met. As I sit here and write this, the children’s faces are running through my mind; how they were so excited to see us, how funny they were, and how they acted like every other child I have encountered. I know this sounds cliché, but this trip has changed the way I view every day of life.

While in South Africa, I found myself feeling guilty. We would visit clinics and orphanages and townships and then return to the hotel, with electricity and running water, and go eat at nice restaurants and fill ourselves to our heart’s content. However, after talking to Dr. N, I realized that I should not be guilty. I need to let what I experienced resonate within me and do what I can to help, in whatever way I can. I knew when we boarded the plane in Jo’Burg that I could not come back to the U.S. and pretend that the trip did not affect me.

South Africa, especially Cape Town, is the most beautiful place I have seen (and I have been to Hawaii). One of the things I just can’t grasp is how somewhere so beautiful can be in such constant hardship. Also, how there are the wealthy and the poor—no in between. As an American, we hear all about “poverty.” Since my return to the United States, my view on poverty has changed. Someone in poverty in the US could easily be middle or upper-middle class in South Africa. When I read my journal, I was reminded of the day we drove to Mamelodi and there were 2-story homes (who knows how many rooms and baths) for around $50,000. Most of the people there will never see that kind of money or homes that extravagant, while most of us consider that “decent” for a starting salary.

I’m still not sure how I am going to give back to Africa, but I am determined to do so (and start soon). I know I will never be able to work for an organization that does not give back to their community (and I’m talking more than sitting aside one day a year for picking up trash). I will have to work for a company that is socially responsible and very aware of the world we live in. You often hear that to really make a difference, you have to give up your life in the U.S. and move. However, I know that the best thing I could do is to offer the very best of my skills in assisting organizations. I do not know when I will get a chance to travel to Africa again, but I am looking forward to it. Everyday I am thankful for the life I have and I have smiled more upon returning. I know this sounds as if I am going against everything I have said, but it doesn’t. I want to help our generation’s pandemic. It is our issue. We can’t sit around and ignore it. It is getting worse and it will spread. More attention needs to be given to the issue—and more education needs to be given to dispel myths about HIV and AIDS. Money is a great help, but until the world understands the culture, most of the money is not beneficial.

My senior year at WVU ends in two weeks. I will take my last undergraduate final and a week later I will walk at commencement. I start graduate school two (yes, just two) days after graduation. I do not know what I will do once I receive my Master’s degree, but I do know I am going to stay in close contact with Dr. N and every other person I met on this trip. I have to stay involved. I don’t have to, but I want to. I want to make a difference. I want to know that I have touched someone’s life and made it better.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Final Days

South Africa has been an amazing experience. The past two days we spent in the bush in Kruger. Yes, the bush. Kruger is the largest wildlife preserve in South Africa. It is roughly 7,500 square miles; equivalent to the size of Israel. Surprising to us, we did not have internet or even working phones. (This explains three days of backlogged emails from family and friends and no posts). We did take a safari and see 4 of the Big 5 animals: Elephant, Leopard, Buffalo, and rhino. The only creature to elude us was the lion. Normally the leopard presents the most trouble. In our case, we not only got to see one leopard, but track another while it was stalking impala.
Once out of the bush, we traveled to White River to visit Hands at Work, Two Sister’s Orphanage and a volunteer home based care clinic. These places were all amazing. Hands at Work is a group that has a presence in several countries in Africa. They provide too many services to list here. We talked with a woman named Sandy. She is from upstate New York and spends 10 months of the year in White River, just outside of the Masoyi township. She has walked in the townships teaching, caring and helping others in need. Two Sister’s Orphanage was founded by Patrick Thibedi. He is a former political prisoner from Robben Island. Once released 10 years into his 24 year sentence, he and his wife started the orphanage. The name “Two Sisters” came about from two orphans that died of HIV/AIDS under Patrick’s care. Patrick cares for 230 children. Most of these children remain in the homes where they lived when their parents were live. Patrick trains and places foster parents in the home with the children. Through his efforts, Patrick now has 2 orphans that have become lawyers and 1 who is a doctor. This number may seem small but, considering the short time the program has been around and other factors, it is the start of what could be an amazing turnaround in South Africa. Finally, the volunteer home based care clinic is run by Momma Florence. She and her volunteers travel on foot to comfort those afflicted with HIV and AIDS. They also run a preschool for 39 children. Right now their biggest issue is a lack of accounting help. They are becoming large enough to need an accountant to help. They also only have one computer that is capable of having the internet. That means five people in the office need to share one computer.
Tomorrow is our final day a South Africa. We will meet with the director of Hands at Work in the morning over breakfast. After, we fly back into Joburg and await our 5:30 flight back to the states.
The experience is something I will never forget. The people listed on these posts are all making a difference in a country that has seen its fair share of down swings. Over dinner tonight we began discussing the biggest question we will face as we return to our “normal” lives on Monday, “How has this experience affected you?” The answer is too big to write here. I could go on at length about how my life will be different. It would take no effort at all to write an 80 page paper on the experience. The only thing I can say is the following: Words, pictures and interviews will never display the experience South Africa has given to me. To understand what this country is truly like you must see it for yourself.
So, as we all pack for the return trip home, I cannot help but think when I will have the opportunity to come back. Right now, we are working on completing a paper on micro-lending. It has been accepted for presentation at a conference in Ireland in June. If everything goes according to plan, we will be able to take the model presented in the paper and apply in August in Malawi.

The Perfect Storm

Traveling in a foreign country can be interesting at times. It was one of the first observations I made upon landing in Johannesburg four days ago. Outside of the airport there were dozens of cars, vans and trucks lined up for 200 yards. But wait a minute; we are in a foreign country. So, they were actually lined up for about 191 meters. Who is keeping track though? Meter and yards aside, driving on the opposite side of the road is astonishing at first. I still catch myself getting into our van and wondering what in the world our driver is doing on the left side of the road.
Tuesday we traveled to another township. As we drove into the township, to again meet with Dave Toms, we discussed our three hour brainstorming session from the night before. Some of our ideas upon second thought do not seem as viable. Two ideas carried through for further discussion. A community bank type model and continuing adult education program. The former struck a chord with me because my schooling and internship has been in banking; a community bank.
One issue presented to the people of these townships is a lack of storage for their earnings. Most people store their money in coffee jars in their houses. Well, as soon as one family member notices another has more money, they will ask that person for a loan; knowing full well the loan will not be repaid. The people in these townships do not say no. They were raised on the belief that your money is our money and your food is our food. To combat this, establishing a low scale model of a community bank may be possible. It will alleviate the pressure of one person working for all. Savings will then occur and allow for an aspiring entrepreneur to build of the capital necessary to start a small business. As long as the bank maintains a high capital requirement, say 60 or 70 percent, the remaining could be put towards a micro-lending program on the backend. The problem with the micro-lending would be the default rate on the loans. Hence, there would be a high capital requirement. The bank model has been successfully employed by Mohamed Yunus in Bangladesh.
Another useful idea that came from our discussion was the need for continuing education for adults. Most children after attending school return to a broken home. They are left to make their own decisions at an age where they need an adult presence to reinforce the lessons they are taught in school. This dilemma is where continuing adult education comes into play. With the adult education, parents would hopefully take some of the lessons learned and apply them to everyday situations in the home. Unfortunately, calculating a return on investment would be troublesome because you would have to look at how successful the lessons were in being passed from adult to child. This would limit any major funding from a program of this structure.In closing, the brainstorm was exactly what we all needed. Our ideas came together like a perfect storm. It was emotional at times. Yet, the session was very productive in the sense that we all had ideas that complimented one another. It is something we will try and grow on in the future.

Robben Island and Table Mountain

On Sunday we ventured to Robben Island and Table Mountain. I know, it is Friday and now we are catching up on our blog. Robben Island was home to Nelson Mandela during apartheid. He was a political prisoner for a number of years. Robben Island is four miles off of the coast in Cape Town and housed a prison until the end of apartheid, roughly 1994. The tour of the prison was very in depth. Our guide was even a former prison with Mandela. After our journey off the mainland, we went to Table Mountain. There is no other sight in the world as beautiful as this. The pictures will not show 1 tenth of the true beauty that is Table Mountain. It rises nearly a mile into the South African sky and is a finalist to become one of the 7 New Natural Wonders of the World. Sometime you cannot help but ask, “How is a country this beautiful so unfortunate at times?”

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Photos at Won Life.

That's Mac Festa, finance senior from Ohiopyle, Pa., and Tristan Gartin, accounting senior from Chapmanville, W.Va., with the Won Life children. Both are students at the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics, Morgantown, W.Va.

Here's another with Elizabeth Slack, an accounting graduate student from Charleston, W.Va., and one of the children at Won Life.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Won Life

Here is a picture from today at Won Life. This is an organization that started as a small school and has been certified in what we call Kindergarten, is looking to expand to 1st and 2nd after the World Cup (through donations of semipermanaent buildings) and have a clinic in a township...

Monday, March 29, 2010

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Here in Capetown, South Africa, we met with Mike Talley from Living Hope. Also tagging along was Dave Toms a truly remarkable man who is working on several projects throughout Africa. We went into two townships to tour Living Hope's facilities: Masiphumelele and Ocean View. Living Hope is working on several fronts to combat the poverty in these townships. Throughout our meeting, Mike discussed several things that were stunning to me.

What do you want to be when you grow up? It is a simple question to answer. Think about it. You can look in my baby book that my mom has stored on a shelf somewhere and it would say, "Toll Booth Man." Looking back on that I am glad my career aspirations evolved. South African's in these townships do not have an understanding of options. It is remarkable as a Westerner. We were always told we can do whatever you want in life. Here though, poverty is the only way of life. There are 15 year old girls who think that because their parents have AIDS, they have to contract it. That because their relatives are having children at 16, they must have children at 16. This is the true thinking. The mindset is not there. Life skills such as, going to work, staying at work, showing up sober, working for the future do not process. This is why giving money and medicine is not making a substantial impact in the area. It does not go unnoticed. Bill Gates and President Bush (believe it or not), through the United States, have given untold amounts of money and medicine to Africans. The ROI (Return on Investment) is not there. (I say that as unbiased as possible). It goes back to the old saying, "Feed a man a fish, feed him for the day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for life." The giving is great. But the ability to help Africans stand on their own feet is not there. The new model being implemented by Dave and Mike, through different organizations, is, "Teach a man to build a fish farm." The mindset must be changed first before this can take affect.

I feel like we could write a book on everything we have taken in so far. The four of us (Rayanne, Lisa, Tristan, and I) spent three hours brainstorming of ways to help tonight and what we can be doing. The amazing thing is we will visit another township tomorrow and two more after that before we go back. So the ideas will be endless, I am sure.

It is almost discouraging to sit here and write because there are so many areas to go into and in such detail. Hopefully, after the trip, we will be able to put down all of our ideas and experiences into a concise articulate format that will do this all justice.