Changing the world requires people who are willing to change themselves…this is as true for people working in nature and wilderness conservation as it is for anyone else.  The students and potential young  leaders in the year-long training program of  Umzi Wethu (South Africa) know this more than most of us can even imagine.  They have all come from very disadvantaged, often  AIDS-affected, poverty-level families—many of them teenaged heads of their own households of younger siblings, having lost both parents.   When Umzi gives them a chance to change, they seize it with both hands, and amazing things happen.

Umzi’s remarkable success continues. On Friday July 27, 2012 the Umzi Wethu training academy for vulnerable youth in Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape, South Africa) celebrated the graduation of its 10th and 11th intake of students. The ceremony marked the graduation of a total of 177 students since the project’s inception seven years ago in 2005. This is more than a “step-up”…it is a huge leap for these children and aspiring leaders, from poverty to being job-trained, mentally strong,  and emotionally confident. Most of the graduates are the first members of their families to achieve post-matric education (skills training after high-school).

Inspirational trainer and  executive, Nomkhita Mona (CEO of The Uitenhage Despatch Development Initiative (UDDI) in the Eastern Cape) was the keynote speaker at the event,  and delivered the REAL message when she said encouraged the graduates to pursue excellence in all areas. “Life depends on how you wish to shape it from now on. Are you going to be excellent? Remember, education and training means nothing until it is used for the betterment of others. Be excellent now, help someone else now, enjoy your life now and be grateful now!”

Conservation graduate, Jonathan Bebe applied for the Umzi Wethu programme in 2010 after being inspired by his friend, (current programme manager of the Somerset East Conservation academy) Lincoln Meyer. “Umzi changed me. I didn’t know how to manage my life before. Now I’ve learned that I need to plan before I do something and that I am responsible for what I do. I have been selected as one of five Conservation graduates to continue with Field Guide training, and in the future I definitely want to stay in the conservation field. I am the first person in my whole family to graduate and the second one to get my matric. I am grateful to my family who supported me the whole way through.”

Umzi Wethu Conservation graduate, Jonathan Bebe, director of Social Programmes for the Wilderness Foundation, Pinky Kondlo and Hospitality graduate, Desire Seister

Jonathan’s brother, Sidney Bebe, says that Umzi Wethu has definitely changed Jonathan. “He has grown up. He is more mature and very confident. He was always outside enjoying nature and he enjoyed school trips out camping, so this is the perfect career for him.”

Asanda Tamba is one of three women who graduated from the Conservation academy. “It was a challenge being a woman in conservation training. At first, the guys were saying that this is not a job for women, but on the trails we showed them that we were able to carry our own backpacks, and we were even stronger than the guys on some of the trails.”

According to director of Social Programmes for the Wilderness Foundation, Pinky Kondlo, “the goal of Umzi Wethu is to fulfill the employ-ability potential of resilient, motivated youth who have been displaced by poverty.” Her advice to graduates on the day was to never stop learning. “Make every personal encounter a learning experience.”

Umzi Wethu Conservation graduate, Jonathan Bebe, CEO of The Uitenhage Despatch Development Initiative (UDDI), Nomkhita Mona and Hospitality graduate, Desire Seister

The Umzi Wethu graduates are all placed in jobs once they graduate. According to the programme’s statistics, job retention rate is between 80 and 85%. The jobs help graduates support themselves as well as their extended families. Further research into the success of the project over the last six years has revealed that 7-10% of graduates have either advanced to junior and middle management positions in eco-tourism industries, or have been enabled to pursue tertiary education.

2005 Hospitality academy graduate, Danny Sauls is currently working full time for No5 Boutique Art Hotel (formerly Shamwari Guesthouse) in Port Elizabeth. He is coordinating the events department as well as studying towards a National Diploma in Management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. He was also one of the guest speakers at the graduation ceremony. “The bad things that happen in life are not the end of the world. They are there for a greater purpose. What happened to us in the past, we cannot control. What happens in our future is up to us. The choices we make today will determine our tomorrows. If you make the most of what you’ve been given, you will become a better person. And remember, always do more than you’re getting paid for!”

The graduation of this year’s 19 game ranging students includes five individuals selected for additional field guide training. “This additional training includes FGASA level 1 and a driver’s license to equip them to work as field guides in private game reserves,” says Umzi Wethu academy manager, Paul Longe. “The field guide training is still underway, and will be completed later this year.” Nine of the conservation students have already been placed in jobs or internships at various game parks in the Eastern Cape.

The graduation includes another 15 hospitality students who began their training as chefs and waitrons in July 2011. The placement for these students begins in August 2012 as they are currently assisting in the training of the latest hospitality academy intake.

We at The WILD Foundation & the Wilderness Foundation believe this is how nature conservation will succeed…new committed leaders, ready to go with a vision to change the world!

>Read the full press release

Asanda Tamba (one of three women who graduated from the Conservation academy) and Jonathan Bebe celebrate their graduation

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