People have always talked to Jacob Lief. An affable 35-year-old, Lief is as good at making conversation as he is at listening. There was one day, though, that his appearance was met with silence. That was the day that changed everything.
In 1997, Lief was a 20-year-old University of Pennsylvania student who’d traveled to South Africa to work a five-month stint with an anti-apartheid organization he’d discovered online. To his dismay, he arrived only to learn that the organization was a scam. Dejected, Lief took a train ride, disembarking in Port Elizabeth for a drink in a shantytown bar. Upon Lief’s entrance, conversations came to a halt. Not only was he the sole Caucasian in the bar, but several decades younger than every other customer. Finally, a patron waved him over. Lief joined the man, Banks Gwaxula, for a beer. Learning of Lief’s predicament, Gwaxula suggested the young American work at the school where he was a teacher. Lief agreed and moved in with Gwaxula’s family that night.
For the next five months, Lief lived and worked in Port Elizabeth, a community, he says, that captures all of Africa’s poverty from its 90 percent unemployment to 40 percent HIV rates as well as massive abuse and alcoholism. What struck him most, though, was the hope he discovered there.
“One of anti-apartheid’s great legacies was mobilized equal education. And though, on paper, they had the opportunity for a free education, because of the economics of it, no one could deliver at the moment,” he remembers. “I was shocked to see 80 children in a classroom without any chalk, yet all the kids were sitting quietly, sharing seats so they could learn.”
Another thing Lief noticed? International nonprofits coming to the region for several days, delivering supplies such as soup and computers, then moving on. Lief’s time in Port Elizabeth had given him a different perspective.
“There’s a fundamental difference between how many children’s lives you touch and how many children’s lives you change.” It was this idea that spawned the Ubuntu Education Fund. The organization’s mission: raising children versus money.
Founded by Lief and Gwaxula, Ubuntu’s origins began, and remain, on a small scale. Rather than spread out geographically, the organization drew a line around a seven-kilometer zone encompassing a community of 300,000 residents, where they solely focus their efforts.
The translation of the word Ubuntu is also the organization’s motto: I am, because you are. The award-winning building housing the organization brings this motto to life. “In a region where feelings of superiority and inferiority have reigned, there’s the knowledge that this building belongs to the people,” says Lief. “It’s a statement to the world that you don’t have to be born in London or Manhattan to have access to a great education and healthcare. It shouldn’t be a privilege, but a child’s right.”
Ubuntu’s primary objective is getting children who’ve been orphaned, abused or who are HIV positive to a point of stable health and income. The organization’s cradle to career approach begins with assisting pregnant women in order to give Port Elizabeth’s children a leg up as early as possible.
During its first 14 years, Ubuntu has made great strides, establishing a pediatric clinic with full medical services and a pharmacy. Mental health is also addressed, with every child being assigned a counselor and support groups for those who are ready. In order to stabilize homes, Ubuntu also extends their services to families. Says Lief, “We can’t just bring a child to the center, then send them back to an environment where they’re abused or away to no home at all.”
Ubuntu’s education curriculum is key, starting early and culminating with students entering training programs or universities. Currently, there are 2,000 children in the program. Fourteen have already gone straight through, graduated from university and are employed. Lief doesn’t shy away from pointing out, though, “For every success story, there are 10 children who didn’t make it.”
Over the years, Ubuntu has encountered both obstacles and criticism. Lief says it’s not uncommon at fundraisers for someone to denounce him for raising $6 million to help children in Africa instead of the United States. His comeback? Why is it okay for you to send your children to private schools, but I can’t do so for a poor, black child in Africa?
“We all know what it takes to raise our own children, but when it comes to someone else’s, the prevailing assumption is what’s the cheapest way to do it to reach the most kids,” Lief says. “The truth is, it takes a huge amount of money to stabilize a child who’s been through trauma and then get them out of poverty; a lot more than it takes to raise a child in first world luxury.”
As for the future, Ubuntu plans to expand by sharing the knowledge they’ve gained, serving as a model to other organizations seeking to tackle similar problems. “What we’ve learned is applicable either in South Africa or the South Bronx—it’s how you intervene in a community, that’s the very core of community development.”
Just as Lief has affected a community, Port Elizabeth and Ubuntu has had a profound impact on Lief’s personal journey.
“I don’t think a morning goes by where I don’t wake up wanting to quit, while at the same time being so excited to get to work,” he says honestly. “I’m addicted to it – not just the challenges, but knowing we can really impact lives.”
To keep up with Ubuntu's development, attend an event or to make a donation, visit Ubuntu's website or Facebook page.
Image via Ubuntu Education Fund.