By Jacob Lief
When I was 14 years old, I traveled to South Africa to observe the country’s transition to democracy. This formative experience shattered my reality of what freedom, equality, and democracy really means to people. It had such a profound impact on me that when I was 19 years old, I returned to the country that I would one day call home.
I found myself in Port Elizabeth, an industrial city in the Eastern Cape. I met a black South African schoolteacher, Banks Gwaxula, who invited me to stay with him. A chance encounter quickly turned into six months of living with Banks in the townships and working alongside him at his school. The effects of apartheid were still pervasive—my skin color symbolized everything that was wrong with South Africa. Despite this, Banks and his community welcomed me like their own.
A few days before I planned to return to the states, Banks woke me up at 4:00am and took me to a section of the townships called White Location, where dilapidated shacks lined the streets. Fires blazed next to homes with young children hunched over them. As we neared, I saw that these children were holding rocks above the fires, then using them to iron their school uniforms. I was deeply moved. These children valued their education above anything else, and walked proudly through their school gates each morning. Even if they did not realize it at the time, education would be one of the most powerful tools in their lives.
It was on this morning that Banks and I decided to start Ubuntu Education Fund. We made a commitment to transform the lives of the children of Port Elizabeth.
Over the past 18 years, Ubuntu has grown from two men distributing supplies to township schools out of a broom closet to a state-of-the-art, solar-powered Centre that serves as a bastion of hope and safety for our community. We take orphaned and vulnerable children from cradle to career by providing them with individualized interventions to address issues of household stability, health, and education. Our services are on par with those accessible in major cities like New York and London.
Our name comes from the South African philosophy of ubuntu, or “I am because you are.” It embodies the idea that we are all connected to each other and that our interactions define us. It is the spirit of ubuntu that our drives our work forward each day. We believe that all children, no matter their circumstances, deserve the highest quality education and healthcare. A child’s trajectory shouldn’t be defined by their zip code or socioeconomic status— it should be defined by their character and their work ethic. Those children ironing their school uniforms with rocks at 4:00 am deserve the same opportunities as children whose uniforms are laid out for them.
At Ubuntu, we stand for equal access; equal access to the best schools, the best clinics, the best social workers, the best after-school programs. At Ubuntu, we are committed to the belief that a child’s birthplace should never determine their future. -Jacob Lief, Founder and CEO, Ubuntu Education Fund