Global Service Scholar: Hy Duong
Country: South Africa

To be honest, I couldn’t really put into words what I’ve learned in the past month working and volunteering here in South Africa, specifically, Sakhulwazi. It’s nothing big or divine, or those fantastic shorts of lessons from movies. But, words just couldn’t really do justice. So, I’ll take a few steps back and tell you the context. And, hopefully, you will see for yourself what I’ve learned.

Majoring in neuroscience and as a premed student, I hoped the upcoming internship would help me in my future medical and researching career. The first few days in the new country were both spectacular and truly unexpected in both natural beauty and warm hospitality culture. Nonetheless, the first day of my internship didn’t turn out to be precisely what I was expecting, not even close. It took about an hour with traffic to get there on a rainy day. The place was a greenhouse/women hub called Sakhulwazi. I got introduced to my director, Khaya, who looked like he hadn’t received much luck in life. After a brief introduction and my certain claim, “I would do anything,” I was assigned to my first and main job for the rest of the month, picking weeds. 

After a couple of days, I was confused. You would have been, too. Imagine grinding through the soreness on your back and the cold at the tip of your nails while the winter winds mercilessly blow and your feet are deep in the mud. All while thinking  the same question over and over again: “Why am I here?”

Frustrated but still patient, I keep my work ethic as professional as always and finish the assigned job better than expected. It wasn’t until the fifth day that I had a chance to have a nice chat with the director during regular tea time. And no, I didn’t complain at all because that’d be quite childish and unprofessional. In fact, I actually got to learn about the history of Sakhulwazi since 2006. 

Everyone working there hasn’t been paid since 2010! 

With regular financial struggles, and despite their own insufficient income status, they transformed a junkyard into a complex of fully-functional greenhouses, an impressive self-circulating composted, fertilized system with two offices for women in the surrounding slum area to come for help and mental support. They also developed a sewing business along with selling veggies from the greenhouse. Sakhulwazi is always willing to teach anyone for free if they’re willing to put in the voluntary learning effort. And, it all started by two people and a junkyard. They still have no income, but their sustainability awareness is beyond excellent.

For the sake of community development and women empowerment in the Philippi slum area, their sacrifice, resolute commitment, and dedication to their profound purpose are just truly mind-blowing. But above anything else, their humility, selflessness, and compassion. 

Before I know it, I started looking up to them. Not as any famous scientists, mentors, or icons in history but no less mighty, inspiring and wondrous. Just like many, I love this world, and I want to contribute. Khaya and the founder of Sakhulwazi, Mama Rose, have something that I want to achieve, the wholehearted pledge to their dream. 

With a whole month doing backbreaking work, I learned that the commitment to your words on compassion doesn’t exactly feel great most of the time. You would disagree if you genuinely enjoy constant back pain, nasty hygiene, hairy spiders, ego frustration, and compassion burnout. Sometimes, it is easier for me to swallow my own ego and let my heart do the thinking. Sometimes, it’s enough to just be where I am needed. 

The last day at Sakhulwazi, I took the liberty and the excuse of being half sick to ditch work for almost an hour because Mama Rose was taking a break and I’ve always loved chatting with her. We talked about how I’d miss her, and this place, and how a few major generals arrived in two helicopters while I was digging some earthworms the day before. Now, I don’t want any trouble, so please forget what I just mentioned. Fascinating enough, according to Mama Rose and Khaya, Sakhulwazi was recognized as a model for military agriculture due to its sustainability creativity. Thus, the Defense Force of South Africa decided to fund and help to upgrade the place with both financial means and soldiers. And, did I mention that the minister of the country will visit the site?

I was honestly quite shocked and happy at the same time. 

At the end of this trip, I’m a bit closer to who I want to be in the future, a good man.