Embodying the human approach: Umzi Wethu (Part 1) 

Guest Post by Paul Longe of Umzi Wethu


In “Ideas we’re not ready for are the ones we need most,” posted here last December, Barbara Geary Truan highlighted the work of the South African Wilderness Foundation’s Umzi Wethu programme as “embodying the human approach” to development. As a core member of the Project Management Team at Umzi, I was struck by these words as they so aptly describe the heart of our approach. We’re often at a loss to describe ourselves as we find our focus locked on the daily realities of the “who” rather than the “what” and “how”.

Umzi Wethu fulfils the employability potential of resilient, motivated youth displaced by HIV/AIDS and poverty by using the power of the wilderness, promoting personal wellness in a nurturing home context, providing credible training, and securing sustainable job placements in hospitality and eco-tourism establishments while extending the program's social outreach to others.

I’m often asked how we go about ensuring the ongoing success of the programme. At the time of writing, Umzi Wethu continues to boast an 85% job placement rate for over 200 graduates and is currently on its 17th intakes of students. There is no short answer about how we do this, but in subsequent posts I will reflect on some key aspects of the work which go into the long term sustainability of what we do.


When Umzi Wethu began in 2007, it was ground-breaking for a number of reasons, not least of all in its intention to produce seriously life changing outcomes with a fairly small number of specially selected youth in a relatively short space of time. This highly concentrated approach is in contrast to what is usually expected in development work, where reaching as many people as possible through service delivery is often where the work is focused. If we think of this in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the classic development approach seeks to ensure the basic physiological and survival needs of food, water, shelter and primary health care which is much needed but often leaves individuals dependent on others to provide for themselves.

Umzi Wethu began as a bold leap to leverage opportunities for employment in the high status world of luxury game reserves and hotels for the benefit of disenfranchised young people who would not ordinarily be encouraged to aspire to these heights. Perhaps there is something unique in the organisation’s belief in young people’s ability to reach beyond their wildest dreams after only one year. We’ve subsequently heard stories from our students who shared how the experience of training and working in prestigious establishments provided a huge boost to their own personal sense of self-esteem and achievement which had previously been eroded by a perceived lack of access to even the most basic opportunities. One thing that we hold to is an unashamed belief in just how amazingly far young people can go in 12 months when given a caring, supportive home environment and opportunities to get hands on experience in the workplace.

With Umzi, the Wilderness Foundation creatively designed a fully holistic model – residential, vocational, emotional, environmental, etc. – which aimed to tackle almost every aspect of each individual student’s life over the course of one year. In doing so, the Foundation took on the challenge of touching on all levels of Maslow’s model in order to provide the foundation for a level of self-actualisation not usually associated with young people from such vulnerable backgrounds. You see what I just did there: they are not “vulnerable youth”. They are incredibly motivated and resilient youth who have been stuck in stories of vulnerability and despair – a conversation we have with our students from day one.

Such a perceptual turnaround is no mean feat, and while a well conceptualised project model together with carefully constructed monitoring, evaluation and learning processes was key, there is definitely something more to the Foundation’s approach than meets the eye. How we view the “who” aspect of our work has been a key factor in this success from the outset. It touches on the very intentional way in which we come together as partners to create stories of belonging and self-esteem that lead our students to a future of success and achievement which they’d not previously believed possible.

In the next piece I will unpack the “who” in more detail by focusing on a few key observations which have been made about the personal aspects of the work we do.


Paul Longe is a qualified Counselling Psychologist working in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He has been working with the Wilderness Foundation, a global conservation organisation, on the development and implementation of innovative and holistic socio-economic development projects for vulnerable youth in South Africa since 2008. 

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