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Partner Q & A: South Africa – Siphelele Chirwa of Educo Africa

Describe your work in your own words.

My work is about taking youth from disadvantage communities in South Africa into wilderness to go find healing , hope and most of all to go back Home.

How do you define rites of passage or talk about it in relationship to your work?

I think for us in South Africa and Africa as a whole the Rights of Passage plays a part In our traditional and our past. as an African child I was taught about the four shield of human nature in an African way. My grandfather in his story telling moments taught me about ceremonies that was practiced in his time. When I started working at Educo Africa and I knew that part of the work is taking youth into the mountains, I knew that part of the stories my grandfather used to tell me could be leaved in the help of the mountains.

What brought you to this work?

When I was in my late teens I lost my mother. She became ill in front of me. So with that came lot of life questions, feeling and most of grieving took the best me. I needed to became head of my family as I was the eldest child and take care of my 3 siblings. With that came fear. So I got introduced to Educo Africa on a youth at Risk programme. this programme involved going out into the mountains. The guides took as through similar teachings that my grandfather used to tell me. This included time in solitude on my own in the wilderness. After a while of not crying or showing emotions, I found myself crying and a huge sense of relieve. The mountains that we are doing the process just went through a big fire , after a long night of crying, laughter, reflection. I woke up to really look at nature differently. I started looking at each plant and I was amazed by the new shoot of green and beautiful in the middle of a fire ridden field. That symbolized hope in my life and after fire nature finds way to heal. Nature has to go through fire to restart and go on.

Are there specific mentors, teachers, or lineages it has grown out of?

Judy Bakker Coleridge Daniels Lorindra, Kent Peace. This is just naming a few. My biggest teacher would be the young people that I take into the mountains.

What have been your greatest lessons and in turn joys in getting to where you are?

The joy has been seeing youth stand in their truth and achieving who they are who they are meant to be.

Are there any tools or resources that have been especially useful to you?

The four shield of human nature and the cycle of courage.

What are some of the biggest challenges and advantages to working in South Africa?

The biggest challenge has to be  around funding for the programmes. in the last few years we have not been receiving funding from the international funding. We mostly relay on government and local donations to be able to run this process.

How do the local and global points of view interact in your work/experience?

I think the local view is that the Right of Passage work that we do is need work globally and international. Most of facilitators are train by the school of lost boarders. This really highlights the universal humanity need for this work.

What is your hope or vision for the work/field as a whole, what do you see that we need as a community?

My vision is to see most youth at risk go through the process, we need more training as we are growing as an organization and we have new guides coming that also need the international aspect of the work.

What interests you about being part of the Youth Passageways community-network?

The community makes me feel like am not alone as guide. We are a community and we hold each other as that a community.    

About the Author: Siphelele Chirwa

I was born in Soweto in place called Chiawelo. I grew up in a typical township house, raised by my grandparents, with lots of cousins, uncles and aunts living with us. The whole household relied on the small salary of my granddad who was working as a driver at that time. So with the little that we had to live on I was taught the beauty of poverty. Some people view poverty as all bad but in poverty I learned about being a social activist without knowing it. I learned to share; with a small pot of maize porridge feeding so many yet shared with love we didn’t feel hungry at all. In my teenage years I was taught to read the newspaper every day by my grandpa and we would discuss the different issues that came up in the news. I started learning about the government, the constitution, democracy, my rights, women’s rights, and that word poverty again. My granddad would ask me for my opinion and if there was a challenge or problem issue he would ask me how I would solve it. Without my knowing, he was grooming me for who I am today - a social activist.

I started the first Eco Club in my High School teaching about recycling, saving water, and became a student representative. After a big family loss, I moved to the Western Cape with a dream to further my education but nothing was able to come to fruit. So I joined that big population of young people full of dreams with nowhere to go and no employment. I had so much energy to give to my country so I decided to put this to good cause, joined an environmental youth club and became part of an Environmental Justice Forum where I served as an advocate and facilitator for change. I worked with different community-based and other organizations. I even attended Parliament from time to time, and worked on Children’s Summit for Sustainable Development. Today I work for an NGO called Educo Africa where I run wilderness-based and other programmes for young people and adults. I love what I do as it allows me to live my passion to serve the processes of transformation, especially in the natural environment. Nature has much to teach us. In the 6 months I was promoted into being an executive leader of the Educo Africa. were I came in as youth at risk participates 11 years ago and today am the part of the shared CEO role in the organization.

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