PHOTOGRAPH BY TOMAS BERTELSEN, ROLEX AWARDS
The following article was published by National Geographic on 4 November 2016.
Andrew Muir is a conservationist. By providing vocational and life skills to scores of at-risk young South Africans, he's become a family preservationist, too.
Through the Umzi Wethu Training Academy for Vulnerable Youth, the extraordinary school he established in Port Elizabeth in 2006, Muir has extended a lifeline to scores of 18- to 25-year-olds and their siblings, many orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
Muir, 51, created Umzi Wethu as an intervention program upon learning that 80 percent of the world’s orphans live in sub-Saharan Africa. He realized he could help young people reach their potential through education while also guiding some toward conservation careers in ecotourism and wildlife protection.
Thrust into unfamiliar roles as family caretakers and providers, many Umzi Wethu students were forced to drop out of school at an early age, scraping by on low-wage, low-skill jobs and facing a lifetime of uncertainty and limited prospects.
“To see your parents die, and at a young age, to be responsible for your household, you can’t see a future for yourself or your brothers and sisters,’’ says Muir, a Rolex Laureate and executive director of Wilderness Foundation Africa. "Without some kind of intervention, these young people are lost to society unless there’s some way to turn them around. Umzi Wethu is really about providing opportunity—giving a hand up rather than a handout, and helping people develop their inherent potential.”
With many participants responsible for raising and providing for younger siblings, Umzi Wethu (which means “our home” in Xhosa) takes a holistic approach beyond jobs training, providing psychological counseling, health care, and life skills ranging from driver education to first aid.
“We’re trying to develop the whole individual—that’s the most sustainable way of ensuring vocational training,’’ says Muir. “If you’ve lost your parents, or some of your brothers or sisters, there are tremendous psychological scars. Some of our students haven’t been to a dentist for 10 years. Some are undernourished. If you don’t intervene at all levels, it’s very hard for an individual to go into a career in any meaningful way.”
While job training at Umzi Wethu is tailored to hospitality service in South Africa’s burgeoning ecotourism industry, the school also helps to develop naturalists and conservationists in one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. Moreover, all Umzi Wethu students spend several weeks camping to gain an appreciation of nature. “For someone used to only a muddy shantytown, this can be life changing,’’ Muir says.
Umzi Wethu admits about 40 students a year. More than 325 have gone through the 55-week program, with 90 percent finding work in ecotourism, wildlife protection, and related hospitality jobs. (A 16-week sister program started in 2011 offers condensed job and life-skills training to about 300 students a year).
Muir would like to ramp up training efforts to place 10,000 young people in jobs over the next decade. But he acknowledges that it won’t happen unless other organizations embrace and fund similar programs.
“It’s all about scale, about other NGOs creating similar programs with similar impact,'' Muir says.