Chance Encounters

Class of ’99 | The white American teenager sized up the old African woman, and allowed his curiosity to get the best of him.

“I don’t understand,” said the teenager, who was visiting South Africa in 1994 during the country’s first free elections following the end of apartheid. “You’ve been waiting five days to vote. How can you do this?” The woman, who looked like she could barely stand, responded with seven words that would shape the teenager’s future. “No, boy, I’ve been waiting 85 years.”

“Right then and there, I looked around the area and said to myself, ‘I want to become part of the new South Africa,’” says Jacob Lief C’99, who has recounted that story often over the past 16 years. “I just didn’t know what that meant at the time.”

Lief has made good on that promise, in ways even he could never have imagined. From inquisitive teenager to ambitious entrepreneur, the Penn graduate has created a blueprint for social reform with the Ubuntu Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that strives to give quality education to children in Port Elizabeth, South Africa [“Alumni Profiles,” Sept|Oct 2000]. By focusing on a child’s needs from birth through schooling, Ubuntu has made a serious dent in a region that has been overwhelmed by poverty and disease. And Lief has been heralded for his work, most recently being recognized by the World Economic Forum as a 2010 Young Global Leader. Ubuntu has also been part of the Clinton Global Initiative for the past few years.

What sets Ubuntu apart from its peers, Lief says, is its commitment to changing a relatively small number of lives—the organization helps about 40,000 kids in a seven-kilometer radius—rather than blanketing an entire country with quick-fix so-called solutions.

“The mentality of all these organizations operating in Africa is, ‘Let’s distribute one million cups of soup,’” Lief says. “The problem is if you have soup for lunch, you’re hungry two hours later. Imagine if you’ve been raped, you’re six years old and you’re living in a shack—a cup of soup isn’t going to change your life. There were billions of dollars being invested in Africa and very little was actually changing. There was still extreme poverty.”

Since its creation in 1999, meanwhile, Ubuntu has poured tons of resources into a specific program that emphasizes strategic long-term planning, one guided by the simple philosophy that education and health shouldn’t be a child’s privilege but a right. This past September they opened the Ubuntu Centre, a $6 million facility that features an HIV clinic, a community theater, and an education wing. And now, the first group of kids they began schooling more than a decade ago are preparing to graduate from university.

“The point is,” Lief says, “it can be done. It’s just a huge investment and people don’t always want to hear how much it takes to change a child’s life.”

While Lief’s life mission was first shaped by his trip to South Africa in 1994, it was cultivated and honed during his time at Penn. Uninspired by the standard coursework, Lief sought out the guidance of Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, a civil-rights leader and the co-founder of the Free South Africa Movement, which was dedicated to the abolition of apartheid. Lief remembers coming to Berry’s office one day to ask her about a photo he had seen of her posing with Nelson Mandela and Jesse Jackson, and the two hit it off right away. Berry remembers the encounter a little bit differently.

“He was a pale fellow, congenial, witty,” she says. “He didn’t seem overly serious. He was a typical Penn guy. I wasn’t sure how much he’d actually do.”

But with Berry’s assistance, Lief found a study-abroad program/internship in South Africa. “I trust you, Jake,” Lief remembers her saying. “Just don’t go down there and screw me.”

When he arrived, he discovered he had been screwed instead: the program was a “complete scam”—it didn’t even exist. But undaunted by that roadblock—and unwilling to return to Penn with his tail between his legs—Lief hopped on a train on a quest to find something “meaningful” to work on. At no point during the 18-hour train ride through South Africa was he even concerned that he was in a foreign country and didn’t know a soul.

“We tried to teach our kids to look at the world as a place that wasn’t threatening and wasn’t scary—but as a place that you just wanted to get to know,” says Jacob’s mother, Cynthia Lief CW’69. “Jake has always had great curiosity in the world and he cared about things outside of our own lives.”

Lief’s train ride ended when a man invited him for a drink in a Port Elizabeth tavern. When Lief entered the tavern, which was essentially a shack, he felt like it was one of these movie scenes when the music stops and everyone stops and stares. But while he was there, another man invited him to work at his school and live with his family. Lief accepted the offer and that man, Banks Gwaxula, ended up being the future co-founder of Ubuntu. “Kinda nuts, right?” Lief says.

As it turned out, Lief’s experience volunteering at that school was more eye-opening than any study-abroad program could have been.

“What I saw—besides overwhelming poverty on a level I had never seen before—was a real belief in the power of education,” he says. “That was going to be a ticket out of poverty.”

Upon returning to the United States, Lief spent his entire senior year doing nothing but trying to help the cause—thanks, in large part, to the continued belief of Berry, who set up an independent study on her pupil’s behalf.

“I’ve got students that have done things I’m proud of,” says Berry. “Jacob is in a category all by himself. He’s got courage; he’s got imagination. He’s undaunted by circumstances.”

What started as a bare-bones senior project—funded by a Locust Walk raffle and run out of Lief’s Chancellor Street apartment and a South African broom closet—soon took on a life of its own. It took hard work, a firm belief in the model of training people on the ground and more than $20,000 in credit card debt, but today Ubuntu has become a thriving organization, putting about $7 million per year into its programs while boasting a staff of 81 people in offices in London, New York, and Port Elizabeth. Recently, Lief organized a fundraising gala featuring Dave Matthews.

“In the beginning, it was like, ‘Oh that’s just Jake’s Africa project. What’s he really going to do with his life?’” Lief says. “I remember people saying, ‘I never thought you’d really do it.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I never thought we wouldn’t do it.’”

But as much as his own life has changed with the growth of Ubuntu, Lief is most pleased that he’s able to change other people’s lives.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “it’s all about the children. I’m sitting here now looking at a poster of a child and thinking that’s what it’s all about. It’s about giving them a chance when they normally wouldn’t have had a chance.”

—Dave Zeitlin C’03 

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