In September 2007 I travelled to Africa, having never been outside of North America before, eager to discover a new part of the world that already fascinated me from the books I had read. I spent four months in Durban, South Africa, with side trips to Zambia and Mozambique, partly working as a missionary and partly just being a tourist. I got to know WKU CEO Marcus McGilvray because he and I were volunteering time at the same 'Bible Education Centre.' Along with my friend Jesse who was visiting me from Canada, I had the opportunity to help out with WKU's World AIDS Day Tournament in December 2007; This gave me a first glimpse of what great work this organisation was doing. By the time I went home in January 2008, something was tugging at me to go back to Africa.
I enrolled in a Ph.D program in Canada but I just couldn't get into my studies, always thinking about all the exciting and interesting things happening back in Africa. Besides this, I had felt a calling to do humanitarian work but didn't know how to get involved. Now, with Marcus having already invited me to come and work for him, all I had to do was pick up the phone. This is exactly what I did, to tell Marcus that I'd booked a flight and was coming back.
I joined WKU on a full-time basis in June 2008. At that time the organisation's work force consisted of Marcus, three or four international volunteers, and two local field staff working with schools. The organisation's office was the kitchen of Marcus' house. I initially took on the responsibility of Program Manager, but with no previous training or experience in project management, I was clueless. Fortunately, after a couple months, local professional soccer player Paul Kelly came on board as Program Manager, and I moved to Monitoring and Evaluation; This was also new to me, but much more in line with my background in mathematics and statistics.
With the help of researchers, volunteers and partners from around the world, we built up an M&E system over the past four years that I believe is very advanced for an organisation of our size. We have presented our results at over a dozen conferences around Africa and should shortly have our first paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. From May 2011 I also added Finance to my responsibilities; the reality in the NGO world is that you'll rarely be doing only one thing.
When I joined WKU I told Marcus I would probably stay for two years. At that point I intended to go back to Canada afterward and continue with an academic career, but love intervened! My love for a beautiful young lady named Ayanda, as well as my love for the work at WKU, kept me in this post for 2 1/2 years longer than I had originally planned. Even then it was a very difficult decision to leave, but being newly married and with two children in our care, I felt I needed to put family first and move on to a job that could offer more long term security.
Working with WKU has been a thoroughly unforgettable experience. I will remember the faces of the many kids we have helped over the years; their passion for life and their hopefulness that we sought to encourage. I will remember the literally dozens of international volunteers and local staff members that I was privileged to work (and in my cases, live) alongside. I will remember the skills and experience I gained from this challenging work - working for a small NGO involves a lot of self-teaching and trailblazing! And I will remember the rewarding feeling that comes with working, not for a promotion or a raise, not for a higher profit margin or successful new product line, but simply to help those in need.
My favourite moments with WKU come from the World Cup tournaments I attended over the years, where I was able to see first hand the joie de vivre and friendliness of the kids, and see in a very tangible way how much WKU meant to them.
I feel very blessed to have spent this time with WKU, and I want to especially thank WKU's illustrious CEO, Marcus, for always being there for me as both a boss and a great friend. I congratulate Marcus and his fiancée Andrea on their engagement. I congratulate WKU on their many accomplishments to date and wish them God speed on all future endeavours. Viva WhizzKids United, Viva! Halala WhizzKids United, Halala!
When I first came to work with WhizzKids United in 2008 I had certain expectations but I never would have guessed that I would meet my wife through the job. But life is full of interesting twists and turns like that!
Back in July 2009, we were cooperating with partner organisation MCDI to run a small life skills project in the rural town of Maphumulo, KwaZulu-Natal. It was decided that a representative from each organisation should go to Maphumulo to do an assessment of the project site. It would normally have been the responsibility of my colleague Paul, but as he was unavailable that day I went instead. The representative from MCDI was a beautiful young lady named Ayanda. Maphumulo is a one-and-a-half hour drive from Durban so we had a lot of time to chat in the car. Turns out we got along pretty well, and a little over three years later we were married!
Most of us who work in the non-profit sector do so because of we want to give, not because of what we want to get. Yet as a result of working with WhizzKids United I have gotten a wife and soulmate - one of the greatest blessings that life has to offer. Somehow when you sacrifice your own ambitions and live for other people, things have a way of working out in your own life. God is good!
Last week I had the privilege of traveling to Entebbe, Uganda for a meeting of the Canada-Africa Prevention Trials Network (CAPTN), which works to capacitate African organisations and individuals to carry out HIV prevention research. The CAPTN motto is, "African led, Canadian enabled."
It is a great pleasure for me to be able to contribute to this network, because I myself have a strong personal investment in both Canada (where I spent the first 25 years of my life) and Africa (where I have made my home for the past four years).
This was my first trip to Uganda and only my second to East Africa. I didn't get to see much of the country - it was all business and we were basically confined to our hotel for the whole three days. Fortunately the hotel overlooked the shore of the famous Lake Victoria, which is the source of the Nile River. The lake reminded me of North America's Great Lakes, but although some of the locals were swimming, I didn't venture in for fear of crocs, bilharzia, and whatever other unknown hazards could be lurking. We had plenty of entertainment on dry land though, including traditional Ugandan dancing.
At the meeting we had the opportunity to hear from researchers from Uganda, Kenya, South Africa as they explained exciting collaborative HIV research projects that have been or are being carried out in these African countries with support from CAPTN and the collaboration and mentoring of Canadian researchers. We were able to strengthen existing research partnerships and build new ones.
I presented to the attendees about the WhizzKids United Health Academy, which was very well received. I also gave an overview of the research projects we have undertaken since 2008, which made it obvious that our research capacity has been growing rapidly since joining CAPTN one year ago. I was also able to contribute to the capacitation of fellow researchers by running a brief workshop on Probability and Statistics - my particular area of specialization. Stats skills are in short supply in Africa, as everywhere else in the world, and it sounded like there could be a need for a more comprehensive statistics workshop at a future network meeting.
All in all it was a very positive experience, both professionally and personally. It is very encouraging to see the excellent HIV prevention research being conducted in Africa by Africans, and I look forward to continue contributing to and learning from the CAPT Network.
At the end of November and early December I had the privilege to travel to two great HIV & AIDS conferences. The first was the Social Aspects of HIV & AIDS Research Alliance (SAHARA) Conference in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. There, I presented the results of an evaluation of our On the Ball programme in Northern eThekwini, which generated a lot of interest. The highlight of this conference, for me, was viewing a pre-screening of a new film called Inside Story which follows the life of a young soccer player as he tries to cope with the pressures of his career and life, including HIV.
After returning from Port Elizabeth, I headed straight off to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the International Conference on AIDS and STI's in Africa (ICASA). This was a much larger conference with nearly 10,000 delegates from over 100 countries attending. I presented a 90 minute skills building workshop entitled, Quantitative Methods for Evaluating Behavioural HIV Prevention Interventions, which was attended by about 100 people and was very well received. I have identified that there is a skills gap in statistics within the field of HIV & AIDS research in Africa, and I hope that this workshop contributed to diminishing this gap. The notes from this presentation can be downloaded from our Downloads page.
I benefited greatly from attending this conference, partly because some of the leaders in the struggle against HIV & AIDS were present and I was able to hear a 'big picture' perspective on the epidemic. These leaders included former US President George W. Bush, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and numerous other dignitaries. Another reason I benefited from this conference was the chance to meet and network with people from many African countries about their projects and programmes. I made friends from many countries including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Côte D'voire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. I was also able to get to know Dr. Bob O'Neill better. Bob is the Chairman of the Canada Africa Prevention Trials Network (CAPTN) of which we are a member.
It was also my first time to visit East Africa so it was great to experience another African culture. The conference was very busy from dawn to dusk so I didn't have much chance for tourism, but was able to visit a local restaurant, a traditional market, as well as an Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
I want to extend my thanks to CAPTN as well as the sponsors of both conferences for covering my expenses and thus allowing me to attend these two enriching events. I have come back to Durban with a lot of new ideas, energy and contacts to follow up with, and am confident that these will ultimately translate into better programmes for the beneficiaries of WhizzKids United!
On October 13, I was accompanied by Ayanda, Beki, and Thuli from our partner organisation MCDI, and WKU Life Skills Trainers Phumlani and Sli, to two schools in Osindisweni, a picturesque rural area north of Durban, to run our outcome evaluation post-questionnaires. We drove through a very hilly area on dirt roads and I was thankful to have the bakkie (pickup truck for those unfamiliar with South African dialect).
We arrived at Ogunjini Primary School, where Phumlani and Sli had recently finished running the 'On the Ball' programme, and ran our post-questionnaire with one class in Grade 5, 6 and 7 - the same class sections that had completed the pre-questionnaire. There was a complication because both Grade 5 classes shared a single, crowded classroom, but only one class had been sampled to do the questionnaires. So we had to ask half the kids to either do homework quietly while we ran the questionnaire with the others!
I was impressed that the kids still remembered my name and what country I'm from, even though I had only met them once before, back in July when we did the pre-questionnaires. We were also impressed with the professional attitude and dedication of the staff at this school.
From there, we moved on to Mjoji Primary School, which was about to start the 'On the Ball' programme, to do pre-questionnaires. I felt that this school desperately needed a programme like ours because the school is very underresourced. The classrooms are so empty - basically just desks and a blackboard. In one class we found the teacher asleep. When I recall my primary school classrooms growing up in Canada, which were always well decorated and full of books, stationery, art supplies, etc., with a highly motivated, well-paid teacher, I realize how fortunate I was.
I think that the 'On the Ball' programme is bringing a taste of a better kind of education to these kids, and opening their eyes to the fact that learning is more than sitting in a desk staring at a blackboard. I hope we are opening kids' eyes to the fact that learning can be fun and can open the door to all kinds of opportunities in life.
From Monday to Wednesday last week, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Canada Africa Prevention Trials Network in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. This network, which goes by the motto "African Led, Canadian Enabled," is designed to build a large capacity of African organisations to conduct research with a focus on HIV & AIDS prevention. WhizzKids United has been a member of the network since March 2011 and receives funding to grow the health care services at our Health Academy to the point where it can become a centre of research.
In attendance at this meeting were both social scientists and medical research scientists from Canada and South Africa, as well as health professionals from the WKU Health Academy. It was great to be part of the exchange of ideas and a number of exciting potential research projects were discussed.
As a Canadian who has been living and working in Africa for the past three years, I had insight into both the Canadian and African perspectives on the discussion which made it especially useful. It was also nice just to be around so many Canadians and be reminded of my roots!
We are very pleased to be part of the CAPTN Network and are looking forward to exciting research being carried out at the WKU Health Academy in the coming years which could lead to a breakthrough in HIV & AIDS prevention.
I moved from Canada to South Africa in June 2008 as a fairly naive 24 year old to work for a small charity called WhizzKids United. Of my parents and four siblings, only one had ever been outside of Canada and the USA, so it was rather unprecedented to pick up and move to Africa of all places. However, I felt the need to branch out and do something different with my life. I had also fallen in love with Africa from reading books about it and a four-month trip there the year before.
When I arrived in South Africa I was fresh out of graduate school with little work experience and even less life experience. I would like to say that the past three years have made a man of me. I feel blessed and thankful for all the experiences I've had in Africa: the warm and fascinating people I've gotten to know, the beautiful places I've seen, and the fulfilment that comes with working in the non-profit sector trying to build a better future for youth whose lives are at risk from an epidemic that has already ravaged their parents' generation.
The past three years have also been a period of growth and achievement for WhizzKids United: joining the streetfootballworld network, reaching 20,000 kids with our life skills programme, opening the WhizzKids United Health Academy, winning the Global Sports Forum award as 'Best Sport for Health' project, being endorsed by the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace, being awarded a Football for Hope Centre by FIFA. I've been privileged to see all of this achieved by a small and ever-changing but ever-dedicated team of staff and volunteers both local and international.
Whenever I have the chance to visit Canada, family and friends ask when I'm coming home. I usually give an evasive answer because the truth is I have no idea. "Home" is where God needs me to be at any given time, and right now I believe he still needs me to be here in South Africa.
Last week was an exciting week for the WhizzKids United staff in both Durban and Edendale. The week was spent preparing for the Mixed Gender League Finals to be held at the pitch in front of the WhizzKids United Health Academy. I had a chance to prepare some of the materials given out to the participants of the Mixed Gender League such as framed pictures for each team and trophies for the winners!
Thursday was a ridiculously hot day out in Edendale, but the Durban office staff stuck it out and managed to take some awesome photos and videos of the teams playing in the two final games: Muzi Thusi v. Henryville and Esigodini v. Mthethomusha. There was singing, dancing, laughing and, of course, football playing to be had by all. The league also dedicated a moment of silence for our fallen Mixed Gender League player, Nkosinathi Hlela. Even though there were moments of mourning, there were many moments of joy. Supporters cheered on their favourite teams during each and every minute of the game. After a hard fought battle, Esigodini secured a win and have been named the League Champions – congratulations to Esigodini and each of the teams who showed up to play and show their support!
When the games ended and the cheers had settled, everyone sat down for a lovely lunch prepared by the Health Academy staff. The day concluded with a very impressive performance by the WhizzKids United Health Academy Drum Majorettes followed by an impromptu dance party and the awards ceremony, with a passionate and enthusiastic key note speech from our very own Life Skills Trainer, Neli. All in all, a perfect end to a beautiful day!