Abandoned at birth, Lwazi Xinwa (24) spent his first five years growing up in a children’s home in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape. Adopted by loving parents, Lwazi spent the next eight years thriving in a stable household.
However, at age 13 his life turned upside down once again. His father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and Xinwa’s parents revealed to him that he had been adopted. “I was so angry, so many mixed feelings,” says Xinwa. “I was so upset that my father was sick but I felt angry at the same time.”
Following the death of his father and mentor, Xinwa became a rebellious teenager, but his mother continued to encourage him and guide him through life. At age 18, Xinwa’s mother became very ill and couldn’t work anymore. “I graduated matric and had to find a job immediately so that I could support my family,” says Xinwa who ended up doing packaging for R20 a day. “I just kept praying that there was something else out there for me. I needed to find some hope,” he says. “My life was really a mess after school. I even thought about joining a gang and robbing people. I got mixed up in the wrong crowd and I am just grateful that the opportunity for Umzi came along when it did, because all of my former friends joined a gang and most of them are now dead.”
Xinwa attended a social workers presentation about Umzi Wethu in Uitenhage hoping that the presentation would lead to a job opportunity. He told his mother about the programme and she encouraged him to pursue it further.
“Two weeks after the presentation I went for an interview for Umzi. I was shaking and so nervous. They asked very personal questions, but I felt very comfortable in the interview. I liked how they were smiling at me, and I decided that this was something I really wanted. I was very honest, and it was one of the first times that I had ever disclosed my past to anyone,” says Xinwa.
One week later he was called back to attend a Wilderness Trail conducted by the Wilderness Foundation.
“One of the most scary things was the ‘solitaire’ where each of us was sent out to spend time completely alone in the wilderness,” says Xinwa. “But when I realised that the reason for solitaire is to connect with yourself, nature, God and ask yourself some very personal questions, I felt very peaceful. I remember enjoying spending time alone in my room when I was younger, and this was similar. It was an extremely peaceful time.”
Following the trail, Xinwa waited anxiously for a call back, but after three days he had started losing hope. “I heard that two other people had been called to go to the Umzi academy in PE [Port Elizabeth], but I hadn’t received the call.”
On the first official day of classes, Xinwa received a call from Umzi management who had been struggling to get hold of him for three days due to telecommunication issues. “They said I had to get to PE immediately! I was so nervous and so full of excitement at the same time. I had to borrow money to travel to PE from Uitenhage, but I made it!” he recalls.
According to Xinwa, the first few weeks at Umzi were some of the most difficult times of his life. “I really didn’t know what Umzi Wethu was all about, and I thought that it was a job opportunity. When I arrived and found out that it was like school, I wanted to leave. My mother begged me to stay and I must say that it is only because of her that I continued at Umzi. I had never lived with so many other people my own age with so many personalities, and I had never left my family behind before. It was a real adjustment.”
Xinwa was also completely unfamiliar with conservation and hospitality. He had joined Umzi Wethu hoping for a job, but didn’t know that it would involve him becoming fully immersed in the Wilderness Foundation’s conservation and social intervention ethos. “For the first six months at Umzi, I was there only for my mother. For the last few months, the ‘bug bit’ and my passion grew. I began to understand food and cooking and I also began to understand how we are all so connected with nature.”
Unfortunately, Xinwa’s mother passed away before she could see her son graduate, but he knows that she is always there, and is very proud of his achievements.
Following graduation, Xinwa worked in the Umzi Wethu catering unit where he showed many great management skills. He is now the catering team leader, and is also heavily involved in the running of the new Donkin Coffee Shop in PE.
“I am so grateful for my experience at Umzi Wethu. My son, sister and nephew all stay with me and I am the sole breadwinner for them all at home. I am proud that I can be an example to my nephew and my son and that I can help them live a better life,” says Xinwa.
He is also passionate about giving back to his community. As a youngster he dreamed of becoming a social worker, and together with his catering commitments, he is involved in a peer education and counselling programme.
In the future, he plans to run his own catering business, but wants to ensure that he stays involved in the community. “Whatever I do in the future, I want to make sure that I continue to be a mentor and help give other kids an opportunity to thrive.”