Snap Diary: Discover the true meaning of “Ubuntu”

Through a poignant account, James Purdy shares his experience with South African school kids, his love of photography and life in general. Be moved and discover the true meaning of “Ubuntu”.

Giving disadvantaged children a voice through photography

My purpose for doing this is to further understand and expose myself to parts of the world that I have not had the opportunity to visit, as well as put myself into new cultures in which I can affect change.

And here I am! I have finally arrived in Port Elizabeth, South Africa! I am preparing to meet the volunteer group I will be working with, as well as a professional photographer who is the program director at Snap Foundation. His name is Remy Whiting, a professional photographer who has partnered with United Through Sport and Changing Worlds in order to create the photography program that I will be volunteering with!

The goal of this program is to teach young South African children how to use film and digital cameras. By using photography as a forum, our hopes are to mentor these children in their lives, while also giving them the skills to photograph and document their life.

As I am set to begin this incredible project, I can only hope that my work will affect someone in a positive way. I would hope to leave a lasting impact on at least one person’s life, yet any change that I can make is what I have come here to do. Here’s new opportunities and to a new world!

Today we taught at two different schools in the townships surrounding Port Elizabeth and the experience so far has simply been eye opening. It’s incredible to give a child something that we take for granted, a camera, and see the joy in their eyes when they get an opportunity to take a picture for the first time.

From what I have witnessed thus far, these are the happiest children I have had the opportunity to meet. I just cannot express how amazing of an opportunity this has been and I have only been here less than one week!

Happiness as a choice

We have finally completed our 1st week of volunteering and what an incredible experience it has been so far. I really just cannot express how unique some of these children are. After working with them for almost two weeks, I think it is becoming more and more obvious just how special this is to the 20 children we see at each school.

While the photography skills we are teaching could help lead to a possible career for these children, the reality is that many of them will not become photographers which leaves me questioning the true meaning of this project. What I have come to understand is that the simple joy that these children get from this project is what matters. For many of the students, this is the most enjoyable part of their morning, day, or even week.

For a lot of us, this can be hard to comprehend. The idea that an hour and half with a camera could be the highlight of our week. However, after seeing the living conditions, the schools, and the people that many of these children interact with on a day-to-day basis, it becomes easier to understand how something so simple, can create such happiness.

If I have learned anything from the young children I have been working with for the past three weeks, it is that happiness is a not a feeling or a random emotion, but instead a choice. The reason that I say this, is based on the children’s reactions to their own lives. As I have expressed before, I have not met a group of children that are so happy and upbeat, despite the conditions in which they are living.

Some may argue that this is because they “don’t know what they are missing”, however I find this difficult to believe when many of them still see other cultures through television, magazines, and pictures. For many of these children, they have most likely seen wealthier homes, people, and lifestyles on say, a television, and it must make them question why it is that their lives are so vastly different than other humans.

This is yet another reason why I believe that happiness is a simple choice, a state of mind if you will. These students could look at their life in the most negative way possible. That’s the easy way out. Complain about the living conditions. Whine about the poor healthcare. Cry about not having shoes to wear to school. No, this is not what they will do.

Instead they will laugh, they will sing, dance, scream, run, jump, smile. They will be happy. And I can promise you that this happiness is not a result of their new bedroom, or their shiny new pair of shoes. No, this happiness is organic. It is these children’s way of making a statement. Telling the rest of their friends, families, neighbors, and peers that they cannot be brought down by materialistic possessions. They are alive, with the ones they love, and this is all that matters to them. I have said it before and I will say if again.

It is amazing what someone less than half your age can teach you.

Cow “on steroids”

This weekend was safari weekend in South Africa! What an incredible experience to see these amazing animals in their natural habitat. This animal was also a sight to be seen. The African buffalo is a cow on steroids.

Creating memories

In just the past couple days, I have been asking myself this question. “What is the purpose of my volunteer work, and does it really matter?” The reason that I bring this up is because of what I perceive as purpose. Everyone in this world has a purpose; a reason for being, a task they must solve, a problem they must fix. I was at one of our schools last Monday and I met these three boys.

Now let me first say that this honestly had nothing to do with the photography project I was teaching at the time. As I was working with two of my students, these three boys came over and asked for a photo (a quite common occurrence when your camera is out), yet something struck me about the three boys you see in the picture below.

Instead of attempting to do something funny or strike a pose, the three of them posed as you see. A perfect position for a photo, but also a perfect position to capture a memory. As soon as the shutter clicked they ran over to see the photo and seemed jubilant at the sight of their own faces on the camera screen.

It was then that I realized what my purpose is in South Africa. I am here to teach, to coach, to mentor, but more importantly I am here to help create memories, just like the one in this photo.

It is rather amazing when you walk into a school, sit down waiting for the students to arrive, and upon their arrival they immediately come to you and say “Hi James!”. When an eleven year old child remembers the name of a volunteer they have only known for two or three weeks one cannot help but smile and feel that you are making some sort of impact on their lives.

It is their way of making memories about their experience, just as I use photos to create my own memories about my experience.

Thoughts on life

It’s surprising how much impact you can make on a group of children in such a short time. And I do not mean that as a testament to myself or other volunteers, but instead a testament to the children and their willingness to learn, to meet someone new, and to achieve something.

For many of these children, they have never been rewarded for completing a task before. Not to say that all children need rewards for everything, but I believe that children do need positive reinforcement as well as negative.

From the start it was easy to see that negative reinforcement was used. In one of the very first schools we walked into, we saw children being hit with sticks, harassed by teachers, and punished for not paying attention, or following (sometimes strict) directions.

When I saw this occurring, I remember telling myself that these children deserved far better than this. I kept thinking of that moment, even now as I am putting these thoughts into words, I cannot help but recall that moment. How no child should be punished for being a “kid”, and how no student should go their entire childhood without positive reinforcement.

I came to South Africa to teach photography. The reality of this program is that a good portion of the children may not have cared about photography when coming into the program, or even known what it was. And to be honest, my goal was never to come to South Africa to JUST teach photography. My goal was to come here to be a mentor, a friend, and a teacher. Not just a photography teacher, a math teacher, or a coach, but a life teacher.

Smiles and gratitude

Just a few days ago when we had to say bye to the children we had taught, they put on a show for us. They spent time with their teachers to organize different acts and had us all come to their school on the last Friday to watch them perform. There was singing, dancing, speeches, thank you’s, hugs, laughs, all of it. But what I remember most fondly about this whole process was the smile on the children’s faces after they had finished and we clapped and clapped for them.

At this point they knew that they had not just performed for their teachers, no, their teachers appreciated what they had done, and we knew they had appreciated what we had done. It was simply a special, special moment for everyone. And more than just appreciation, these kids knew that they had completed something for possibly the first, second, or third time in their young lives, and were being applauded for it. I mean what a simple yet amazing thing to give a child.

You can take away their food, their homes, their money, but what you cannot take away is their passion to live, which is stronger than anyone I have ever met in my entire life. I have never been religious, nor have I ever felt a belief in something greater than what we are. However in their own words, in honor of these children, “God Bless” them and let us hope that the work that we as humans can do for each other, will help children like them achieve something greater than what they are enduring right now.


The native language of many black people in South Africa is “Xhosa”, one of Africa’s native click languages. Most of the children in the townships we were working with spoke Xhosa, and I remember learning this word from one of the country coordinators we worked with.

This word summarizes what I believe to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. “Ubuntu”. I could just tell you the meaning of Ubuntu, but like myself I had to understand Ubuntu, before defining Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is to forget your differences, Ubuntu is to explore, Ubuntu is to try despite your circumstances, Ubuntu is to play, Ubuntu is “I am because we are” and no power on earth is stronger than this mentality.

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