My experience at Usiko Stellenbosch

Mutizwa Mukute (right) and his son Kudzai, Harare, Zimbabwe.

I heard Ubuntu defined, I saw Ubuntu taught, and I felt Ubuntu lived at Usiko Stellenbosch during my four-day learning-oriented evaluation visit commissioned by the African Biodiversity Network (ABN). I felt it in the warmth of relationships between and among staff, management, board members and elders. I also felt it in the way Usiko related with its community, especially with the youth whom it exists to serve. I experienced it as a guest.

Ubuntu is an African concept of what it means to be human, “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” The entry point of Ubuntu is ethical-political knowledge[1] to make morally good choice and living the good life. The long practice of unjust and separate development (apartheid), and the subsequent rise and normalization of alcoholism, drug abuse, gangsterism, early pregnancy and other ills is what inspires Usiko to base its work on love, care and a good sense of place. This is what creates the atmosphere that I experienced during my brief encounter with Usiko. It was present in the greetings, in the spoken and written language and in the way that Usiko human resources carried themselves. I saw it in the way youth in the Green Club were taught to weed the garden, and in the content of the games they played in the wilderness to help each other negotiate through the tough terrain with landmines.

I saw Usiko’s holistic approach to youth development in the way it combines ethical-moral knowledge with theoretical[2] knowledge. I liked the non-predatory, symbiotic relationship between community knowledge and the knowledge from universities that runs through the veins of Usiko programmes. This combination is also manifested in the composition of its staff, Board members and elders. Siddeega, one of the Usiko programme officers had this to say, “Christina [a fellow programme officer] brings the maternal aspect to the programme, the love. She is a motherly figure, who does not judge and creates space for girls to express their pain. I bring the facilitation and I specialised in play therapy, which makes it easy to get through to children.” Teaching youth how to look after the environment in the wilderness through clearing invasive alien species; how to produce vegetables, use computers and drive provides youth with opportunities to gain practical-productive knowledge and skills that are needed in life[3]. Usiko’s combination ethical-moral, theoretical and practical knowledge suggested to me that making morally good choice and living the good life – Ubuntu – demands thinking and innovating, and doing and producing responsibly.

It was Usiko Stellenbosch’s courage, wisdom and tenacity – tempered with gentleness, humility and hope – that touched me most: its sense of place, connectedness and care. Talking to young men and women whose lives had been transformed from bad habits and practices that have been accumulated from centuries of injustice, ill-treatment and blame illustrated how bad norms can be disrupted. It was not these virtues that I took away with me, although I would have liked to. Instead, I took away three of the four questions that youth were asked during their first day of the wilderness visit that I experienced: Who am I? Where am I heading? What do I have to offer [to society]?

[1]Aristotle called this kind of knowledge phronesis
[2]Aristotle called this kind of knowledge episteme
[3]Aristotle called this kind of knowledge techne

– Mutizwa Mukute
Harare, Zimbabwe

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