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Change agents for community empowerment


Written by Caitlin Graaf, Manager of Marketing & Communications at Imagine Scholar

The SiSwati saying, “indela ubutwa baphambile” translates in English to “the person who has been through it is most wise”. NGOs that grapple with issues of empowerment face a paradoxical problem. Often operating in post-colonial landscapes, the act of helping communities can build dependence on foreign support, undermining the very act of empowerment in the first place. The work of NGOs is often criticized for being neo-colonial in nature, attempting to solve local problems through a westernized lens and transplanting ideas of what “development” may be.

This presents a conundrum for impact-driven organizations on where and how to invest donor money in empowerment programs. Should it be education or capacity building, health, women’s empowerment, climate change adaptation, or another slice of an increasingly complex swath of development issues?

HALI Access Network member, Imagine Scholar moves forth with the belief that community members should be in charge of the destinies and development. Invested primarily in the education of secondary school students, Imagine Scholar changes the education narrative by teaching students how to learn, not what to learn, subsequently equipping them with the tools they need to access a plethora of multi-media educational platforms and creative outlets to hone a unique suite of skills individualized to each unique learner.

In 2020, the organization reaches a critical milestone. Alumna, Thenjiwe Ndimande will return to the program as the first full time alumni staff member, kicking off a long-planned staff transition within the organization. Having recently completed her degree in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg, she will return equipped to bring both an academic and first person understanding of issues facing many South Africans living in the region. In reference to returning to her community as an Imagine Scholar staff member, Thenjiwe remarks:

“For many years, young leaders all over Africa and the world have been having conversations about changing the world and dreaming of making the world a better place, but we never really get down to how we are going to achieve such a big task. When the opportunity came for me to play a role in creating a sustainable future for the people of Nkomazi, I could not pass. I am playing my part in making the world a better place by making sure that the program never stops to see potential in the youth of Nkomazi. I believe it is important for alumni to establish a directive of how we will ensure that the knowledge we acquired spreads through our entire region, and eventually through our continent.”

Imagine Scholar sees the integration of lived experience into program design as critical to both the longevity of the program and its quality, allowing those with the deepest sense of empathy and the most nuanced understanding of local issues to be at the forefront of shaping change in the region.

Thenjiwe will return to support operations, co-manage new programming to reach more students and increase the organization’s footprint, and to act as a representative of the organization at events and fundraising activities around the world. To learn more about Thenjiwe’s story, view her official video on YouTube.  Readers can stay up to date on Thenjiwe’s transition into her new staff position by following Imagine Scholar on Facebook and signing up for the newsletter.

Imagine Scholar is an incubator for what education could be in sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of being hemmed in by a material lack of resources and stigmas surrounding the capacity of rural South African students, the program acts as an oasis for progressive curricular advancement and personal achievement. A highly student-centric model equips young learners with a deep penchant for curiosity and the tools they need to be highly effective investigators of issues that matter.


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