On February 24th l landed in Johannesburg and was brought to Munsieville. The trip to where I was staying in Krugersdorp was about an hour, and I spoke at length with my driver Simon about the political and socioeconomic climate in South Africa. Jacob Zuma, the previous president of the country, had just stepped down amongst longstanding frustrations with his abuse of power, and there is a aire of cautious optimism about the future of the government and their incoming president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who has promised to make a stand against the widespread government corruption which has been plaguing the country.
I arrived at night to the guesthouse where I was staying, and after an exhausting 18 hours of traveling, I was very grateful to have finally arrived. The next morning, I was picked up from the guesthouse by the Betty Nkoana, Operations Director of The Thoughtful Path, where I would be volunteering for the coming weeks. After just a few minutes drive, we arrived in the Munsieville township. First, we toured the township itself. There were many government-funded homes, churches, and small shops and taverns owned by community members. We passed by the only medical clinic in Munsieville, as well as a police station which had been burned down during rioting only a month before.
Although the official population at Munsieville is noted as only 20,000, there are many people who live there unaccounted-for, often after immigrating from other countries such as Zimbabwe and Mocambique. I was told that the actual number living there may be as many as 60,000. Most of these people live in the informal settlement which surrounds the township. Hope Park is strategically located within the informal settlement, in order to be as accessible as possible to the underserved members of the community, and this is one of the major features which makes Hope Park unique. As we approached the center, we passed by countless shacks made of aluminum, wooden panels, cloth, and any other materials available. Indeed, it was immediately clear to me how poverty-stricken and resource poor these people are. I was shown around the center, and given an overall idea of the basic programs offered and currently being worked on for Hope Park. The campus itself is beautiful with well kept grass, and filled with community gardens, as well as containing a number of buildings, each of which is specialized to facilitate The Thoughtful Path’s objectives at Hope Park.
Hope Park, and the informal settlement just beyond
Over the following days days, I became better acquainted with the staff & volunteer members of The Thoughtful Path, and began to learn more about each of the programs they were heading. Some of these programs included No Child Left Behind, a structured education system for children who are unable to attend normal school (typically due to a lack of proper paperwork), after-school care which provides a safe environment for school-aged children (with child abuse and neglect so common in this community, such a service is essential), and various community outreach workshops and education opportunities. Additionally, there are community involvement programs such as You Grow They Grow, which educates those living in the informal settlement about the importance of a plant based diet and how to successfully grow a vegetable garden. Garden space is provided at Hope Park for those who do not have space at home for gardening, in order to better fight the rampant malnutrition seen throughout the settlement.
As I met with the heads of each of these programs, I discussed their needs, and how I could be most helpful to them. I also began to analyze data from children who had been enrolled in the No Child Left Behind program, as I felt like this would be a good initial way to understand the makeup of the community, and how their needs were being addressed. As I went through this data, is was clear that organization and thorough collection of data were weaknesses the they struggled with at Hope Park, and was something that I found would be a good way for me to get involved throughout my stay. For example, as I analyzed their data, documents on each child were haphazardly organized, and oftentimes many pieces of data were missing. After I had recorded all the available information and performed basic analysis, it revealed that about 50% of students enrolled in NCLB were originally from South Africa. However, in speaking to Betty and Osara (who was the staff member in charge of NCLB), they both agreed that most of their NCLB students in the past year had been from Zimbabwe. What’s more, they had data on only 63 total children, but I was told that there had in fact been many more than that who were actually enrolled. Clearly, there were many students for whom data was not collected adequately, or whos data had been lost over time. As data collection is the first step to data analysis, and is essential in order to monitor how things in the community are changing, I began to work on ways to better keep track of what was done with students in NCLB, as well as help to unify the way data was collected for all parts of The Thoughtful Path.
Educating the community about proper nutrition
I also got directly involved in the day-to-day activities of the center during my initial weeks there. As stated, there are numerous community workshops which take place at Hope Park, and I found myself participating in one degree or another in almost all of them. For example, I attended a support group aimed at new mother’s in the community, and was able to apply my medical and public health training in order to teach some important concepts in early child care, such as the importance of adequate breastfeeding and sleep safety protocols for infants. Similarly, there was a nutrition seminar, which focused on the benefits of leafy vegetables such as spinach, where I provided some medical insight as well as helped to pass out a vegetable soup which had been prepared for those in attendance. I also got involved with the after school care program, and helped the kids to make a “family tree” using paint, and played with them out in the yard, promoting teamwork and healthy exercise.
Overall, my first two weeks here in Munsieville have been very productive, and I feel incredibly blessed that the Frist Global Health Leaders Program has helped make this trip possible. I am filled with empathy for people who are so unfortunate as to live in the conditions seen here, but I am also in awe at their conviction, and their willingness to make the best of a bad situation. I’ve been working very hard to help The Thoughtful Path improve its efforts in community outreach, education, and the promotion of the health and welfare of the people of Munsieville, and I feel deeply fortunate to be able to serve a community which is so incredibly in need. I am very excited by what I’ve seen so far, and I’m absolutely looking forward to getting even more accomplished in the coming weeks.
Having fun with the kids in Munsieville