How a South African Superwoman Changed My Life

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a little town just outside of East London, South Africa called Chintsa Village. It sits at the mouth of a river by the same name and caters to tourists who enjoy a little sea fishing.

In addition to being a laid back and cost efficient way to kick back for a few days, it’s also the home of the remarkable Xhosa people.

My time in this community offered lessons I still reflect on today, as well as plenty of moments of levity.

For instance, I quickly learned the consequences of not taking a Dramamine before a caged swim with some great white sharks.

I confess to falling victim to a scam during a brief layover in the Johannesburg Airport.

And I all but destroyed the clutch of a rental car because of my inability to drive stick-shift with my left-hand.

Strangely, these experiences would prove important.

In the span of just 5 weeks, I had emergency surgery in an East London hospital.

I had a profoundly moving experience visiting the prison cell of Nelson Mandela at Robben Island.

And most notably, I felt a sense of hope during my time teaching the children of Chintsa Village. Each child exuded an impervious optimism that radiated, despite obstacles of almost biblical proportions.

From virtually the first moment I touched down in South Africa, I kept hearing the name of a woman named Phumla.

“You have to meet her! People declared. “If not for Phumla there would be no Chintsa Village.”

It seemed with every passing day her myth grew larger. After several days my interest had been piqued.

I needed to meet this woman.

Then one afternoon as classes came to a close, I saw a woman in the distance surrounded by an army of school children. She was heading towards the garden where several other volunteers were waiting for her.

She couldn’t have stood more than five feet tall and was accompanied by a subtle hitch in her step. But what she lacked in height she made up for in a towering presence.

“Hello, she beamed. I’m Phumla.”

“I know,” I said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

But what I didn’t know was Phumla wasn’t only the hardest working teacher at Chintsa, but she’d opened her home to children who’d lost their parents, including her own sister’s.

She was also the first teacher to arrive in the morning and always the last to leave.

In a school where teacher apathy was rampant and resources low, she was a light. Every day, I saw children of all grades approach her for help.

Photo by Doug Linstedt

It was Phumla’s efforts that also brought practical and eco-friendly solutions to a community desperately in need.

Her collaboration with the district municipality provided ways to use compost consisting of vegetable, pig, and human waste to provide heat for the school’s stoves.

Drinking water was reclaimed and used to properly flush toilets that were at one time a sanitation headache.

Rainwater was collected in two man-made basins and used to water the school’s prized garden; a makeshift windmill made of divided aluminum barrels was also used to power a medal strainer that would remove algae before replenishing the vegetables.

Phumla beamed as she told me about these life-changing measures. Her enthusiasm was infectious and one the reasons I decided to apply to grad school for a Masters in Public Policy later that fall.

This tiny woman, had played a heroic role in ensuring the children of Chintsa East could now eradicate problems rather than just sustain them.

What I learned from Phumla was the importance of looking at people as possibilities rather than problems. She made everyone, regardless of their background, feel invested in their community.

In a world increasingly chafed with pessimism, Phumla’s example proved to me that meaningful change doesn’t have to dent the universe. You can galvanize a revolution of compassion in your own backyard.

This Superwoman’s gift was recognizing fundamental change begins by first lifting the spirits of a single group, however small.

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