Amandla Awethu: A Summer In South Africa

Through the generosity of the Eve Carson Scholarship, I was given the incredible opportunity to put my finger on a map and travel to wherever it pointed. I chose to venture to Johannesburg, South Africa, and work with a company that uses private equity to incubate and fund entrepreneurs, particularly at the micro-level. The following is my first attempt to encapsulate my experience so far into so many words.

It took me 48 hours to get to my summer home in Johannesburg. Not because I decided to chance my sanity on the cheapest airline out there, but because I took an unexpected overnight pit stop in Atlanta after missing my flight to South Africa in the most dramatic fashion. This included my connecting flight arriving an hour-and-a-half late and sprinting through the airport, dodging the army of roller suitcases and (unsuccessfully) running up escalators only to get to the gate, see my plane sitting there and be told I was not able to board at this time.

I did, however, make it to Johannesburg the next day and my flight fiasco was not in fact, a dark foreshadowing of struggle to come.

Instead, I cruised through my new neighborhood, lined with beautiful evergreens dangling over the pavement and made my way to my house, just streets down from where Nelson Mandela had once resided. The houses are beautiful and the gardens are immaculate but you can only catch glimpses of them, obstructed by gates and fences around each and every house, with their foliage spilling over the tops.

This landscape of walls and gates, seen across South Africa in almost every neighborhood, alludes to a closed-off people. South Africans contradict this illusion in every way. They comprise the warmest and most welcoming group of people I have encountered. There is a sense of community that finds its strongest hold in townships, but extends out to the entire country and radiates through any wall that might separate them. And as soon as you come through South Africa’s doors, its community embraces you.

I experienced this the first day I spent in my new home, a cottage next to my ‘host’ family’s house. I was immediately welcomed to dinner, with Snuk, a fish native to South Africa prepared especially for my arrival. I quickly learned these dinners were not exceptions to newness. Over the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed dinners with guests from across the world, passing through for the night, friends of the family, or staying for spells of time in Johannesburg.  My worldview is continuously colored and expanded by this band of travelers; offering experiences and perspectives from many different corners but all finding solace in company and conversation.

Again, I felt an immediate community on my first day of work at The Awethu Project. Awethu works to fund and incubate entrepreneurs in South Africa, especially in the micro-economy. Their work is best described in two-folds; one focusing on capital raising and private equity and the other on incubation for entrepreneurs. I am working mainly on the strategic marketing team along with supporting incubation.

My description of the company may seem a bit mundane to some people, but this is certain—this group is special. They are tackling arguably the most pertinent issue in South Africa; economic liberation for millions of primarily black South Africans— still feeling the oppressive impacts of Apartheid. (For context, the system of apartheid and new democratic governance was really only instituted in 1994 and hasn’t made incredible strides in that short time). They have also built an incredible team and culture. It is certainly a young company, both in age and composition. While you might expect high energy in a young office; you cannot imagine the livelihood that colors this one.  The morning is started with greeting everyone in the office with a good-morning and a fist-bump, and at the end of the day repeated with the quick substitute of “cheers” or whatever charming phrase they have chosen to leave you with.

I don’t need to personally attest to their hard work ethic; it’s apparent in their success and accolades. I truly believe this work ethic is fueled by the good nature and relationships built in the office. The soundtrack to my day is often bursts of laughter accompanied by a mezcla of languages—dominated by English but splashed with bits of South Africa’s 12 other national tongues. On Wednesdays, we have team building that can consist of anything from speakers to charades but will never end in anything but choruses of laughter. (And the good kind of laughter that comes from the gut, not the nervous kind far too common in workplaces that hangs seconds too long in the air). The week is ended with Friday drinks, a time to share news and bask in some good ‘ol comradery.

Being the people they are, they have not only accepted me, but trusted me immediately with real responsibility and even leadership, which has been incredibly exciting. I’m of the belief that nothing will make you grow faster than having people believe in your ability to do so.

Luckily, I am being kept quite busy between the task of helping launch of our new (and first ever) app and exploring Johannesburg and all that the rest of South Africa has to offer.

Jess, who lives in the big house next to my cottage, is on her month break from design school and has been the most gracious of tour guides. A Joburg native, she has guided me through the in’s and out’s of Jozi from art gallery hoping to food festivals to markets to jazz clubs to good wine.

I’m very appreciative of Jess and the quick community I’ve started developing here. I’ve found traveling solo allows you to discover different networks of people more readily—and admittedly, more eagerly. Many people I consider as friends here are, as it goes, pretty different than myself. I find them all incredibly interesting and notice myself talking less than normal and listening more. Which, some might argue, is not the worst thing for me…

Speaking of which—thanks to anyone who was interested enough to read all the way to here! This marks my first ever blog post….I’m looking forward to trying again soon.