The Meaning of a Dress

At Ubuntu Education Fund, our work is rooted in the idea that all people, no matter where they come from, deserve the same opportunities in life. A child growing up in a South African township is no less deserving of world-class healthcare and educational resources than the daughter of a Fortune 500 CEO living in New York City or London. When Ubuntu outgrew our first small, brick building, we decided to build a 25,000 square foot, state-of-the-art centre in the middle of our community. Everyone told us that we couldn’t do it – or worse – that we shouldn’t do it. The odds were stacked against us and, at first, no one would give us a penny. I remember once, while at one of our many fundraisers, a woman approached me and said she didn’t understand how we could justify spending so much money on one building when we could feed the whole city with that money. It turned out her children attended a high-end private school which had just completed a $50 million capital campaign. How can you justify providing your own children with the best resources, but deny those resources to someone else’s child?

When I think about the meaning of ubuntu, I think about the story of Zethu Ngceza, a graduate of our program at Ubuntu. It is a reminder to us all that it is our humanity that connects us to one another. The piece below is adapted from my book, I am Because You Are, co-written by Andrea Thompson.

THE MEANING OF A DRESS

In many ways, Zethu Ngceza was like any other kid in the townships of Port Elizabeth. Her family struggled to make ends meet — her father was a municipal worker, and her mother was unemployed. They lived together in what was once a men’s hostel for migrant workers, sharing the small space with other families. Still, they were a happy family, and laughter filled their home. Then, in 2004, her father died three months after coming down with an HIV-related illness. The following year, her mother fell sick, also with an HIV-related illness, and died after only two months. Zethu’s life turned upside-down.

At fourteen, Zethu became the head of her household, taking care of her younger brother, Star, and sister, Lungi. For a few years, Zethu had been participating in programs that Ubuntu Education Fund ran in her school. Fezeka, an Ubuntu household stability counselor, visited Zethu’s home and figured out what the three children needed immediately — burglar bars on the windows, a better door, and a sturdy lock went on the checklist. She also assured Zethu that her school fees would be paid.

With their extreme poverty and organized chaos, the townships, it seems, shouldn’t function. But they do. I was drawn to the people’s absolute determination to make good on all of the promises of the anti-apartheid movement. My co-founder, Banks, and I decided — with the best intentions but remarkable naiveté — that we wanted to help children achieve their dreams. We didn’t know the rules of development; we didn’t care about the external measures of success. And we didn’t see ourselves as saving anyone. We simply wanted to help create a level playing field for the children we knew in the townships, and we believed that if we could do that, there was nothing they couldn’t achieve.

As our organization grew, we realized that what so many of these children really needed was a parent. Whether their own parents were gone or unable to take care of them — because of poverty, HIV, or mental illness — having someone to provide the basics of life was the missing piece. They needed someone to give them anything and everything they needed, like any parents would if they could. After all, hours of tutoring or a health education class meant little when rain leaked through the roof and there was nothing to eat for dinner. For me, Zethu embodied this truth.

We all celebrated with Zethu when she started her studies in managed accounting at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. And as she approached her final exams, we held our breath: She was so close to a diploma, one tangible marker of success.

Finally, the moment arrived. Zethu checked her scores with a knot in her stomach. One after another, she read the results: Passed. The relief swept over her. She was going to graduate.

In the back of her mind, underneath the relief and excitement, there was a small kernel of sadness. With graduation came the graduation ceremony. To participate, you had to buy a gown, and most students’ parents treated it like a special occasion, with a new dress, a trip to the hair salon, nice shoes. But Zethu didn’t have a mother or father to take her shopping, and she knew she didn’t have the money. She resigned herself to reality: She would be content with knowing all she had achieved, and leave the celebratory trappings to others.

Her first call was to Fezeka. “I’ve passed!” Zethu told her. “I’m going to graduate, can you believe it?” Over the years, Fezeka had watched Zethu struggle, fail, pick herself back up, and go back to work. Over all these years, Zethu never acted entitled or grasping; she accepted help with grace, but she often held back from asking for more.

Fezeka asked, “Zethu, don’t you need new clothes?”

“Oh, I don’t have money,” Zethu answered.

“Did you ever have money before?” asked Fezeka.

“No.”

“So when you need something, what do you usually do?”

Zethu laughed a little and said, “I ask you. But this isn’t a priority. When you don’t have money, you don’t do these things.”

“No, ma’am,” responded Fezeka. “That’s nonsense. You only graduate once, and you have to look like a graduate — any parent is going to make sure their child looks right.”

Early one afternoon, I was in my office in the Ubuntu Centre, where I was entertaining a donor. He’d come down to visit — basically, to kick the tires of our operation and see where his money was going. Lots of donors have this impulse: They want to feel and see and hear what exactly their thousands of dollars have built.

The donor’s generosity didn’t blind him to weaknesses in any organization, and he asked lots of probing, perceptive questions, gauging the return on his investment. Were we cost-effective? What impact did one of his dollars actually have? How were we reducing unnecessary costs? We’d been reviewing the details of Ubuntu’s financial health for nearly an hour when a conversation outside my open door caught our attention.

“Zethu is graduating in a few days, and we want to buy her a new dress along with the graduation gown, and to take her to get her hair done,” Fezeka was saying. “This is a big milestone. I think we should make her feel special.”

“I don’t know,” we heard Jana, our program director, reply. “I’d love to do it for her, but does it make sense to spend the money there?”

“It’s such a huge day for her, we have to celebrate,” Fezeka responded.

“You’re right, of course,” Jana said. “Let’s look into it.”

As they walked away, the donor looked at me with his eyebrows raised. “You can’t possibly be considering buying one child new clothes for graduation, can you?” he said. “With all the strains on your budget, how could you possibly justify something so frivolous for a single girl?”

It was a fair question. What Ubuntu does — intensive, cradle-to-career services — costs a lot. In Zethu’s case, her decade in our programs cost close to $65,000.* In the world of development funding, where today’s buzzwords are “scale,” “sustainability,” and “cost-effectiveness,” this is a shocking number. Adding to that number by buying a special dress for a single occasion? Unthinkable.

But clearly, Ubuntu doesn’t follow the well-trod path. Later that afternoon, I talked to Fezeka, Jana, and other team members about giving Zethu a new dress. The unconditional feeling was “Of course we should do it! This is exactly what we do.”

I thought again about Ubuntu’s mission. It’s more than metrics of cost and benefit, of return on investment — that’s only one part of it. What we do, pure and simple, is help raise children. And part of raising children involves fielding those unexpected requests for things that may not be necessary, but make a child feel special.


*Ubuntu provides a high return on investment: Every dollar that Ubuntu Education Fund invests in a child results in real lifetime earnings of $8.70 and a $2.20 net gain to society.

This article originally appeared in The Herald, South Africa, 7/23/2015 .