1 November 2007Thabo Jekwa’s* future was bleak.Orphaned when young and living with a pensioner aunt in an impoverished household of 12, his school years were characterised by alcohol abuse in the home, food shortages, and zero opportunity for furthering his studies or securing employment.Often working by candlelight until late at night, he achieved his grade 12 level of education in a determined effort to make something of his life and move beyond the obstacles of his past. Thabo’s prospects changed dramatically after a community organisation referred him to the Wilderness Foundation’s Umzi Wethu Project. Based in Port Elizabeth, Umzi Wethu – under the slogan “Nature, Nuture, Future” – provides certified training in eco-tourism for Aids orphans and vulnerable youngsters.“He showed unwavering committment to completing his professional cookery training at Umzi Wethu, and missed only one day of training when his household was flooded during heavy rains,” says Umzi Wethu counselling psychologist Debbie Gothan.Thabo moved into an associated residence a few months into the programme to escape a difficult home situation, graduated from the course and proved to be “a leader, an excellent team worker and a good communicator”, Gothan adds. “He is also a very humble person.”Thabo is currently employed as a Junior Chef at Shamwari Game Reserve – one of 12 graduates from the Wilderness Foundation training academy who have secured employment in the eco-tourism sector in the Eastern Cape and at the foundation itself.Top Eastern Cape game reserves Kariega, Kuzuko and Shamwari have bought in to the Umzi Wethu programme, finding placements for these graduates in their hospitality sectors.With the first intake of youngster from the northern townships of Nelson Mandela Bay now placed, the training of the second intake – drawn from rural areas including Steynsburg, Kirkwood, Addo, Pearston, Cookhouse and Paterson – is nearing completion.The third intake commenced training in June this year, while the fourth and fifth intakes have already been selected.“Our pilot group was a huge success,” says Gothan. “All graduated, underwent practical training at Conynghams Coffee Shop in Port Elizabeth, and put their skills to the test at the 2007 Society for Conservation Biology meeting at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.”The biodiversity conference, held in July, attracted 2 000 international delegates to the city. It was the first time this biggest annual gathering of conservation scientists was held in Africa, and it was an ideal platform for the Umzi Wethu pilot project launch.Employment is not the only need addressed by the initiative, says Gothan. Umzi Wethu’s holistic approach promotes wellness, learning life skills and using nature as therapy to support long-term employability.While the first intake was trained as junior chefs and in the food and beverages sector, “one member absolutely thrived in the wilderness environment and has been given the opportunity to train as a game ranger.”The Wilderness Foundation aims eventually to roll the programme out across South Africa.* Not his real name.This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action. Republished here with kind permission.