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Spreading the Message of Ubuntu


Jacob Lief and Malgas, a student at Ndzondelelo Secondary School.

In the Xhosa language of South Africa, the word ubuntu refers to the belief in a universal bond of brotherhood and sharing. Jacob Lief C’99 first experienced this concept during a visit to the Zwide township in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the summer before his senior year at Penn. So it is fitting that when he created a non-profit organization to improve education conditions in the black townships of that country, he named it the Ubuntu Education Fund.
    Lief first went to South Africa as a high school student in 1994 to observe the country’s transition to democracy. His interest piqued, he came to Penn eager to pursue African studies and soon came under the tutelage of Dr. Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of History, who had been a leader of the Free South Africa movement. Lief began doing independent studies with Berry, and had the opportunity to return to South Africa in the summer of 1998. However, things did not run smoothly at first.
    “The organization I went down there with was a complete scam,” he recalls. Facing the next four months without a job, Lief got on a train and went to Port Elizabeth. He soon fell in with a family in the Zwide township and lived with them, learning firsthand the concept of ubuntu. “These people who had absolutely nothing invited me in to sleep on their mattress and eat from their bowl.”
    Lief observed the high unemployment and economic problems that are rampant throughout the country. Children in the schools where he worked would sit five to a desk in classrooms without chalk. Although apartheid had been officially dismantled, wide discrepancies persisted in the education system, with most benefits going to predominantly white schools, where students could afford higher tuitions. Lief returned to Penn determined to help out the impoverished schools.
    With the help of some friends and Dr. Berry, who acted as head advisor, Lief raised $10,000 to buy educational resources for the Emfundweni Primary and Ndzondelelo Secondary schools. “We took this money down to South Africa and put it back into the economy. And we got the textbook ratio down from 10 students to 1 old textbook to 5 students to 1 new textbook.” Once every student had notebooks, pencils and pens, and every classroom had a desk and chair for every student, exam scores shot up.
    Encouraged by its initial success, the fund has decided to move from strictly supplying resources to tackling issues of sustainable development. The organization has enlisted support from 35 businesses and put together a board of directors and a board of advisors. One new goal is to increase student proficiency in computers and information technology. Another is to improve health and AIDS-awareness education.
    Zwide township has been a constant partner. According to Lief, “They invite us with open arms. In fact, when I was down there the first time, my grandfather passed away, and I couldn’t get back in time for the funeral, and people down there asked if they could name their first library after my grandfather. I was very honored.”
    Ubuntu is a concept that I would like to raise my family by,” Lief says. “They really live and die by this idea that it’s humanity that connects us, and everyone’s given a second chance.”
    These children “are so hungry for knowledge. We want to feed the fire while it’s still burning. It’s almost cruel not to.”

For more information on the Ubuntu Education Fund, write to: 3721 Midvale Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19129-1758; or call (215) 951-0330 ext. 162.

    —Kevin Lee

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