Now that I'm back in Toronto, I have had a plane ride and a day at home to (start to) process the experience I have had over the last two weeks. I warn you that there are no photos in this blog.
Having experienced so much in a short time, it is difficult to summarize all of the things which have left an impression on me. For my last blog entry though, I thought to try and share some of those indelible items.
1. Role Models
There are so many reasons for me to feel lucky, blessed even, that I was granted the opportunity to have this experience. But the single most thing for which I am thankful was the opportunity to meet Ahmed Smiley Ismael. It is rare in the world we live in to meet individuals who truly stand out as role models. Given his modesty, he is not likely to welcome this blog entry. But I feel compelled to share with everyone that this particular individual is the epitome of a role model, both professionally and on a human level. The generosity, compassion and empathy displayed by Smiley is truly something to take note. Most of all, it is impossible not to be moved on the deepest level by the way Smiley carries himself in the world. He respects all people and with no airs treats everyone the same regardless of whether they are a government official, a senior corporate executive or an unemployed person. By way of anecdote, Smiley took me to see the Union Buildings and the very prominent statue of Nelson Mandela. At the statue, at least ten men were carrying cameras asking tourists for money to snap a photo and print it. Most people either dismissed those men or acted as if they were irritants trying to make a buck. Smiley paid them to take a photo of us and of me. Why? Because in his words, they are entrepreneurs trying to make an honest wage with what they have and not taking drugs or stealing. Few people have that reaction. But that's the person he is. His respect for all people and his ability to empathize with their particular circumstances is not something I have the opportunity to observe a lot of the time. To me, he is a giant and I feel blessed for having him as a role model. And I would feel remiss if I didn't point out that his wife Karumissha is equally amazing.
2. Sphere of Influence vs. Sphere of Concern
I look back on the my journey and even reading my own blog, I can clearly see that I was overwhelmed at the beginning of my trip by the disadvantage and suffering that I observed. As the days went on, I felt even more overwhelmed at the magnitude of the issues facing the "previously" disadvantaged individuals in South Africa who are still trying to overcome decades of denial of basic human rights and respect. But as Mark Lamberti said to me in MBA speak, you have to focus on the sphere of influence and not the sphere of concern. This is obvious but I know that I forget it all of the time, at work and personally. Maybe it's a result of being brought up as a child of war survivors who have been traumatized by their history or maybe it's the result of being a lawyer. In any case, Smiley and the CKC team are so successful because they have focused on the sphere of influence. I hope to always remember this in my life because it is the only way to move forward.
3. Creativity and Innovation
Smiley, Themba, Babalwa, Moses, Tumelo and all of the other CKC managers and staff have succeeded in reaching the audience they have by creativity and innovation. They don't operate from a box of providing IT skills. They are constantly listening to their communities and coming up with new ideas, whether it's providing driving lessons, sewing lessons, or cashier lessons. They don't seem to believe that anything is outside of the box and this allows them to literally change the world. It is another powerful lesson to learn - to not be constrained by the preconceptions or the mission but rather to listen and observe in order to find the path to the most impact.
4. Listening (or Customer Centricity)
On a related note, the key to Siyafunda's success has been listening to the stakeholders but particularly the community members. It is easy to determine what you do based on your pre-conceived notions of what needs to be done. But Siyafunda has been nimble and has adapted to provide what their customers need because they ask the questions and understand the particular challenges of that specific community.
For many years now, I have spent most of my time working and prioritizing my professional duties. I have not had much time to contribute to my community beyond writing cheques of donation to the causes I deem important. There is no shortage in Canada of communities which need assistance just as much as the disadvantaged communities in South Africa. And yet I don't make the space to actually engage in helping beyond financial contribution. Financial contribution doesn't seem enough to me and I hope to find the space to do more. I hope to start with Siyafunda.
I will always remember the generosity and care displayed by people to others which I observed in South Africa, whether it's the people at Siyafunda or the people who worked at the cerebral palsy center. The passion and drive to help their fellow beings improve their lives and for very little personal benefit is not something we get to see everyday.
7. Victimhood vs. Strength
No one has a better excuse to justify their situation than the people of South African communities from whom dignity, respect and self worth was stolen. They were treated like fourth class persons (not even citizens is the right word, given that was taken too), denied education, forced to re-settle from their homes and move to segregated neighborhoods and the list goes on. But one doesn't see victims. One sees endurance and strength. As someone pointed out to me, you don't see many starving people in South Africa notwithstanding that a significant portion of the population is unemployed. That is because of people's strength and the fact that they find a way even in the face of obstacles. I met many people with more self-respect than people I meet in North America. The hope for the future and perseverance is notable.
I realize how much my own perceptions changed over my two weeks. In the beginning, I saw momentous problems and felt sad and overwhelmed. As time progressed, I saw how beautiful the country was and how incredible many of the people. It was a reminder that every moment depends on your perspective that day and sometimes we need to open our eyes a bit more and take in the entire picture.
On one last note, I want to sincerely thank Smiley, Karummisha, Siyafunda, Themba, Bestos, Babalwa, Moses, Machalette and all of the others who made my time in South Africa so special and rewarding. I also want to thank those at Western Union and the Western Union Foundation who supported my participation in the program and the Ashoka Foundation who made this possible.
Thanks for reading.