Earlier this year, Albert Tang (唐樺岳), a 17-year-old student at National Changhua Senior High School (國立彰化高級中學), traveled to Swaziland as a volunteer for 10 days to teach children computer skills. What he saw on that trip changed him profoundly.
“I had worked with poor people in Taiwan,” he said in a phone interview on Sunday, “but what I saw in Swaziland was a totally different type of poverty.”
He said he now finds racial prejudice totally unacceptable. “I try to explain what I experienced, and they [his contemporaries] have stopped making jokes [about black people],” he said.
Tang was part of a group of Taiwanese students from Changhua Senior High School who visited the kingdom with Lewis Lu (呂興忠), the school’s library director and the chief organizer of the Change the World: International High School Youth Volunteers Conference (青年志工的夢想與實踐), which is being held at the school this week as the main event of the International Globalization Conference for High School Students on Intercultural Understanding (2008國際高中青年文化會議).
The event was organized to coincide with International Volunteer Day, which falls on Friday, and aims to encourage young people from prosperous nations to step out of their comfort zones. Janine Maxwell, the founder of Heart for Africa, an organization that works extensively with orphans in Africa, met Lu while in Swaziland this year and has been invited as a keynote speaker for the conference.
Maxwell, whose own commitment to aid work in Africa came relatively late, runs a program in which American high school kids interested in volunteer work are given a chance to experience hands-on aid work in Africa. Before launching Heart for Africa, Maxwell led the Onyx Marketing Group, a major PR company in Canada. A meeting with a street kid in Lusaka during a trip to Zambia changed all that. She wanted to help: “I felt that this was my mission in life. I am here to rescue this child and being a businessperson and having influence and wealth I can fix this, because I was arrogant and didn’t know any better. ... I will fix this, then I can go back home, to my business, my life, my family and the world will be good. But [the situation] is not fixable.”
As she learned more about the vicious cycle of poverty and disease that leaves millions of kids fending for themselves on the streets of cities such as Lusaka and Nairobi, Maxwell’s Christian faith prompted her to dedicate her time, energy and business acumen to helping those less fortunate than herself. A major part of this process is bringing people to Africa to see the reality on the ground, giving them a transformative experience that motivates them to do something about the situation, in the way that her own meeting with one child on the streets of Lusaka changed her life.
Maxwell estimates that Heart for Africa has brought over 4,000 people to Swaziland and Kenya over the past four years, mostly on short stays of around 10 days, but some for as long as a month. Volunteers are given simple tasks such as planting vegetable gardens, setting up fences and building shelters.
“The kids are real work horses,” Maxwell said. “That’s the beauty about having a bunch of young, strong backs out there ... They are working side-by-side [with the local people], Africans and North Americans. It was really good for the Africans to see the Americans get dirty, because historically we white folk have gone in and said ‘that’s how you do it.’