Featured Blogger: Virgenya Zhu

Programs for this blog post

Leadership & Service Through Mandela's Example

Authored By:

Julianne O'Connell

I am happy to share a blog post with you from Virgenya Zhu, a Mandela Leadership Student from Session II. Virgenya is originally from New York City and she shares her thoughts about the nature of service. Thank you for your contribution, Virgenya!


A large part of our program focuses on service towards the community and interactions with the people of South Africa. We started our service at Bongo primary school where we met Vuyani and other members of a local food security and farming NGO. The first day of work consisted of surveying the land we were going to work with and manually pulling up all the grasses and roots that had collected as a result of the unused ground.  As we worked, I thought about our place in the community as students from America performing service, especially since it happened to be Nelson Mandela Day. We were performing a task that local students and workers could have accomplished, and have been doing for decades, but we had the privileges of time, energy, physical health and transportation. We kept our particular circumstances in mind as we worked.

As we encountered various children at the primary school, we tried our best to earnestly reach out with the fragments of isiXhosa we had learned, and though we were met with politeness, there seemed to be a wall that prevented genuine connection. Which was understandable; this was their first day of school after winter break, we were outsiders, there was a language and cultural barrier. There was no reason for us to come in with expectations: these kids were people in their own right and not objects for us to use to satisfy an idea of virtuosity. 

In the days before, we had attended workshops regarding the state of food security in South Africa and the wealth disparity that came with the economic reconstruction of the country post-apartheid and post-Covid. Knowing the legacy we were leaving and the bigger picture that we were participating in pushed us to work ourselves harder. The word of the day was definitely “gratitude.” We worked for four hours, with water and food and stretch breaks here and there. The weather was capricious, constantly teetering between drizzling rain and sun beating down on us. We were determined to get through with weeding the ground before our time was done because of our limited service hours. We were all bent down in the grasses, straining to pull handfuls of stubborn greenery out of the field and throwing it into wheelbarrows, which in turn were wheeled out to the front and dumped in an ever-growing pile. It was grueling work, but everybody kept to it. When we loaded back into the van back to African Soul we were tired, sore, hungry, and satisfied. 

Looking forward to seeing what’s in store.


Thank you, Virgenya for sharing your thoughts on our service in the township of Gugulethu! 

Stay tuned for more updates on our school garden!