New Hampshire couple appraises philanthropy in S. Africa
By John Donnelly, Globe Staff | April 30, 2005
MASIPHUMELELE, South Africa --It was just noon on a recent day, and already Carol and John Thompson had held more than half a dozen meetings in this poor cramped community of 30,000, and much more work lay ahead.
The couple, who spend most of the year in Center Harbor, N.H., came here five years ago with a simple objective: ''We wanted to focus on one township and see what one couple from America, with limited resources, could do," John Thompson said.
Now, they are seeing tangible results -- houses built, children on scholarships, a new library. Yet they often feel unfulfilled, worried, and exhausted, they say, by the strains that come with doing good.
''A lot of what we do is very discouraging," Carol Thompson said as she stood outside a two-story day-care center built by their small nonprofit foundation. ''It's a huge roller-coaster ride. There are days when you wonder what you are doing here, and there are days when you are at the absolute top."
Across Africa, such topsy-turvy experiences of giving are common among the thousands of American volunteers like the Thompsons. They are motivated by the desire to help, but often wonder whether their deeds are having the desired effects.
Unlike the response to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean basin in December, where people from around the world came together to help at the epicenters of fresh disaster, those who come to Africa are often working on their own, dealing with disasters that have unfolded slowly over many years such as the AIDS pandemic, periodic famines, and poverty passed through generations. Influence can be hard to measure --except, perhaps, in the small communities or neighborhoods where they work.
In Masiphumelele, called Masi for short, the Thompsons' projects have brought several concrete improvements in the community about 20 miles south of Cape Town, near the coastal town of Fish Hoek.
Over five years, their nonprofit group, called Masiphumelele Corporation, (now known as Masicorp) has built 21 houses, the day-care center, a youth center, library, and classrooms. It has provided 17 students with scholarships to attend middle school, high school, and college; set up an after-school sports program for 270 students; and signed up 26 mostly white volunteers from surrounding communities to help Masi's children in a variety of programs. Now, it is building Masi's first park and playground -- a small green oasis surrounded by shacks.
Last year's budget of about $140,000 came from 72 donors. Most of the donors are individuals or small foundations. The Thompsons provide nearly one-third of the donations each year, according to the organization's website, with some from the Thompsons' neighbors in New Hampshire.
''I am so grateful to the Thompsons," said Spokazi Jini, 18, who is receiving a scholarship to attend the Muizenberg campus of False Bay College. She receives free tuition, books, and supplies and is studying business management. ''I'm so excited to finish this semester, so I can show them my grades, and show them how serious I am."
Down the street, Doreen Zanyiwe, 51, walked up the steps of her new two-story day-care center funded by the Thompsons. Zanyiwe stood in front of a roomful of about 50 preschoolers who quietly stood in line, ready to receive their lunch.
''They brought a lot of change in town," Zanyiwe said of the Thompsons. ''We never had a library. We never even dreamed of having a library before. And now we have several" day-care centers.
Yet, for all of these successes, the Thompsons also see failures and unintended negative consequences of their work. Some residents have turned against recipients out of envy, the Thompsons say. More worrying, they say, is whether community members will keep their programs running when they are no longer there.
Carol Thompson, 64, grew up in South Africa. Her father managed the beautifully manicured wine estate at Vergelegen, north of Cape Town; she went to college in England, where she met her future husband, who is British. In the early 1960s, the two moved to Boston, and John Thompson, now 66, embarked on a successful career in management consulting, computers, and teaching. She worked as a realtor for many years.
In 1998, they bought a house south of Cape Town as a retreat from New England winters. ''We also decided to look around and find where we could be useful," Carol Thompson said. ''That's when we found Masi."
Masi began as a squatter camp more than a decade ago as black South Africans, mostly from the rural eastern Cape, migrated here seeking work. Most residents are members of the Xhosa tribe, and most have found the transition here difficult. Unemployment is estimated at 90 percent, and domestic abuse and alcohol-related troubles are common.
In Masi, the Thompsons started with a $40,000 annual budget in 1999, funding the day-care center and a food program at the school, among other projects. Almost immediately, they ran into problems.
''There was a lot of jealousy" toward Zanyiwe, the owner of the day-care center, John Thompson said. In addition to building the center, the foundation also built Zanyiwe's house, for which she is paying a no-interest loan.
''She lost her friends," Carol Thompson said.
Because nearly everyone in Masi had so little, those who began to succeed with the Thompsons' help were eyed with envy. ''It was like, 'Who do you think you are? You've got a whitey to build your house,' " John Thompson said.
Complicating the decisions on how to spend money, the foundation struggled to identify elected officials or even civic groups that represent much of the settlement, and had to make its own judgments on how to spend. The government requires nonprofit groups in South Africa to follow basic regulations, but gives them wide autonomy on how to implement their programs.
Zanyiwe said Masi residents closely scrutinized each selection, gossiping about perceived biases.
Other issues arose, including complaints about which students received scholarships.
''It seemed to many people that the teachers arranged to have their friends' children receive the award," Zanyiwe said. ''And sometimes a child who was new to the school" received a scholarship, angering residents who had lived there longer.
The Thompsons say they selected the candidates based on merit, and they are proud of them.
''The fact that one boy goes from sleeping on cardboard in a shack to winning prizes in the ninth grade of his new school is extraordinary," John Thompson said. The boy, Lungile Magubudela, was named as the student ''who shows the greatest leadership potential" at neighboring Fish Hoek Middle School last year.
The creation of Masi's library could be called extraordinary as well. First, the Thompsons managed to get a donation of 5,500 books from Buffalo (N.Y.) State College. Then, the Fish Hoek head librarian, Sue Alexander, made the Masi library a satellite of her own library, and trained Masi residents to run the operation. Finally, neighbors of the Thompsons in Holderness, N.H., Bob and Sara Rothschild, donated money for a library extension; Bob Rothschild later got more involved, becoming foreman of the construction project.
Despite that, John Thompson worries about the library's future. His nonprofit
pays $12,000 annually for the
collective salaries of the workers, and he does not know who will eventually take over responsibility for the
Yet, watching an elderly white woman read to a small group of black 4-year-olds
at the library nudged aside
such long-term worries for the Thompsons. Megan Faraday, 84, a retired teacher, said afterward that she
treasures her weekly visit.
''This is a very deprived community," she said. ''You get such satisfaction coming here, especially when a child says, 'Are you going to come tomorrow?'
''I tell them, 'You bet.' "
John Donnelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.