Eugene Cho

reflections on south africa

Couple weeks have passed since my return from South Africa and I’m still processing the gift of the vision and research trip.  While our plans on starting our Poverty Organization has hit snags and increasingly difficult in light of the financial recession, I’ve returned with an increasing commitment to the vision.  Before things get even busier, I wanted to share some reflections and pictures with you.

Let me begin by thanking Peter A. who hosted myself and several others from around the country on this trip. He also connected me to the anonymous benefactor that allowed me to travel to South Africa for the purposes of learning, connecting, and researching.  I also want to thank the staff of Zimele – the non-profit organization we spent most of our time with. Zimele in Zulu means, “to stand on one’s own two feet.”

I spend most of my time in an area called Kwazulu Natal.  Here’s some info about the area:

According to the Wikipedia, Kwazulu Natal “has the largest population (about 8.6 million) of any state in South Africa, with resources, such as water, coal, minerals and agriculture, along with timber, beef, dairy products, maize, poultry and fruit. Durban is the largest port in Africa. The province also has the most comprehensive tourist infrastructure in the country.

However, despite the presence of these resources, Kwazulu Natal like much of South Africa faces the growing problem of HIV/AIDS and poverty which disproportionally impacts the blacks in the rural communities due to the lingering effects of the now former Apartheid system.

Poverty | KwaZulu-Natal has the biggest collective poverty gap of all the South African states.
According to joint studies done by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Mr Andrew Whiteford, a South African economist, households have sunk even deeper into poverty with a widening income discrepancy between rich and poor. With its large, poor population KwaZulu-Natal has the biggest collective poverty gap of all the South African states. A recent report states that “Approximately 57% of individuals in South Africa were living below the poverty income line in 2001, unchanged from 1996.”
Kwazulu Natal has the highest poverty and unemployment rate of all the provinces in South Africa.

HIV & AIDS | HIV & AIDS continues to plague South Africa. Today, more than 5.5 million South Africans are infected with HIV with 1000 people dying each day from AIDS related causes. 71% of the deaths of those aged 15 – 49 years old are attributed to AIDS. There are more than 1.2 million orphans due to AIDS.

Once again Kwazulu Natal has the highest prevalence rate (39%) of all the provinces in South Africa. Sadly, the South African women are most impacted, as they are 4 times more likely than men to have the disease and over 30% of all pregnant women are infected.

Now to reflections.

[1]  God is already at work in South Africa.  God is at work around the world.  Despite our pessimism and cynicism, it’s refreshing to be reminded of this.

[2]  South Africa is truly beautiful.  The cities are beautiful but even the rural lands are beautiful.  It surprised me to be honest.  I was prepared to see the extreme poverty but I couldn’t picture the beauty.  And the safari was pretty dang amazing as well.

[3] It was great to meet local South Africans who care about their people and their poverty.  Surprisingly, I returned examining my commitment to the local poverty in Seattle.  But that makes sense: we have to care about our local neighborhood.  #2 and #3 is what I struggle with: such disparity between the have’s and have nots.

[4] Great to see some of my convictions be confirmed.  They don’t need “us’ [per se].  South Africans understand their context and culture like no one else and so our org wants to invest in these NGOs and CBOs that are already doing some amazing work.  Our vision is to raise awareness and actions and partner with local NGOs that are kicking ass to build capacity, strive towards sustainability, create opportunities, and empower their people out of poverty.

[5]  Compassion is critical but there needs to be more.  Because of the proliferation of NGOs at work, I also saw a culture of ‘hand outs’ and the paralysis it can cause.  We need people and NGOs to have compassion but also challenge people to help themselves.  What we all need are opportunities:  Education, Community, Jobs, a Better Infrastructure, Tools to help ourselves, etc.

Here are some pics and some brief explanations:

This was probably one of the more darker memories. The man on the right has the HIV and near death.  Over 40% of the population in this one area of Kwazulu Natal is infected with the HIV/AIDS virus.  During my stay in this area, I was shocked at the few number of men I saw.  Many have left to the cities [not to return] and others have died because of violence and war.  It was painful to see.  NGOs are investing in women and children which is good but it looks incomplete without the investment, challenge, and support of men as well.


We visited many women in their homes and huts.  These women are part of a new business project to help uplift themselves out of poverty.  They meet to create and sell crafts. What they haven’t learned before is learning how to save and invest.


They were working on these beautiful pens.


One of the homes we visited of two orphaned girls. I don’t want to share their picture here but they were simply two young teenagers.  Too young to be living alone.


I will remember this young baby boy.  I asked the mother, “What is your dream for your son?” and she replied, “That he would be a doctor.”  It wasn’t the answer but the hope behind the answer that gave me joy.  Hope is a beautiful thing.


HIV/AIDS is a deep cultural stigma here as it is in many places around the world.  And so, much effort is being invested in educating people.  Education is so CRITICAL.


We visited several homes and specifically, visited “Savings Group” which is a community of women that are working together in community, accountability, and micro finance ventures.    They are given tools and education and they invest, make decisions, give and receive loans, start their private businesses, and re-invest in the group.  The week after I returned, this group was to be visited by a local banker who would teach them [for the first time] how the banking systems work.


They were of course very gracious and prepared a great lunch.  It was better then the bad sushi I had at Capetown.  Here’s a few of these women.  Among them are mothers and grandmothers that are caring for many children.


Opportunities.  People need opportunities.  And it was encouraging to visit couple NGOs that aren’t just distribution compassion but creating opportunities and subsequently, challenging people towards sustainability.


Filed under: travel, , ,

9 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing more details about your time in South Africa. It brings hope to my heart to know that God is at work in places like this around the world. Thanks for what you are doing.

  2. DH says:

    i would never have guessed where your life would take you when we used to hang out and talk, when we were so young.

    i am proud to know you. i love your ideas of helping people help themselves. the ground is not level, there is no way to make it fair for some. we need to help them from where they are at, get them to a better place, but not by pitying them and throwing bones with a little meat on them.

  3. elderj says:

    I appreciate your comments about the lack of support for men in NGO operations. This is something I discussed with the head of such an operation in Mexico. He agrees that it is a problem. Long term failure to deal with this issue will only end up exacerbating the problems, fostering female dependency upon the state, and encouraging through disincentivization, the very things NGO activities are designed to counteract.

  4. Tom says:

    Wonderful you got to do this, Eugene.

    But I’d encourage you to get more experience overseas before you try to launch your organization. The economic slowdown could be a blessing in disguise. I know you must feel discouraged, but God will guide you. Your heart is obviously in the right place.

    @ elderj. It would be ideal to support men right away in many development approaches. It’s been tried but found wanting by a lot of current best practice.

    Men tend to take the biggest hits emotionally and psychologically in oppressed communities, so I’m with you in the heart of your comments.

    Women take big hits too, but have the advantage–from the point of view of many social investors–of a basic and unique biological and sociological drive to support their children ‘come what may.’

    Most social investors want to see their dollars go a long way. And since most of the poorest of the poor are women and children around the world, some people think that putting money in the hands of the poorest and most highly motivated people might bring the best returns on investment.

    The Grameen Bank, which has revolutionized micro credit and changed the lives of millions of poor people around the world, is based on that thinking.

    It’s Investment 101. Invest your money where it makes the biggest impact long term. Conservatives and Republicans should feel comfortable with that approach.

    Not claiming that I’m all in with that kind of thinking.

    But that’s the reality of it. Lots of us think that greater investments in people and groups with longer term upsides are critical, but that’s not the way American investors do their business these days.

  5. eugenecho says:

    @tom: for sure. can never learn and experience enough.

    south africa was a good experience. visiting central asia 10 years ago was eye opening. spending some time in thailand and burma birthed this vision. and looking forward to returning to central america next month. will be in guatemala for some stuff.

  6. […] TRIP TO SOUTH AFRICA.  I had a chance to visit South Africa recently.  Through the generosity of an anonymous benefactor from New York, I went to visit the […]

  7. […] trip to south africa March 23, 2009 at 11:34 pm | In Uncategorized | I recently traveled to South Africa to do some research and relationship building for our poverty organization.  You can read about the trip here. […]

  8. […] this and watch the video below.  It’s about 7 minutes long but this excellent video [from my recent trip to South Africa] will give you a glimpse of what I’m talking about when I’m speaking of Privilege and […]

  9. This is very greatful and informatic helpful Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you? i want to book mark it !
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One Day’s Wages

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One of my goals in life (aka bucket list). Visit 100 global cities, soak in some of their museums, learn their stories, meet local folks, visit local churches, and hear stories of how God is at work there. Let's fully welcome refugees. Remember, refugees aren't terrorists...they're the ones fleeing away from violence, war, and terrorism. 
Afraid? Me too. It's ok to acknowledge we're afraid since it confirms we're all...just...human. We're all afraid on some level especially when our culture seems to run on the currency of fear but as we live out our faith in Christ and more deeply embody compassion and love, fear begins to dissipate. It's also incredibly critical to know that agencies are implementing some of the most rigorous and thorough vetting ever. 
My family hosted a Somalian Muslim family from a refugee camp years ago through @WorldRelief. It was eye opening, challenging (especially with language realities), and yet, encouraging...and we hope to host families again in the future as they resettle in a completely new and foreign city and country. It's a terrifying experience. And while not a refugee, I remember the first few months as an immigrant when I was six years old. To this day, I remember the kindness of folks that helped us through that transition. Lift a prayer for me as I'm privileged to collaborate in ministry here in Melbourne, Australia. Meeting with local pastors, teaching at the Justice Conference (10/21-22). Then, preaching at the Bridge Church on Sunday  Pray that in preaching the whole Gospel from the Scriptures, I may honor God, point people to Jesus, and be sensitive to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Interesting. The holy bench. Wow. And in a blink of an eye, this happened. The nights might be long but the years go by fast. #ParentProverbs #WhatHappenedToMy13YearOldSon This past week, @seattlequest celebrated its 15th Anniversary. In many ways, it feels like forever and in other ways, it just seemed like we just started yesterday.

Around May 2000, Minhee and I found out we were expecting a 2nd child. Then, we got another surprise. We felt a calling and stirring to plant a church. We told God, "This is horrible timing!" We left a thriving ministry that we started in the Seattle surburbs and felt compelled to move into the city to plant a new multiethnic church called Quest. To be honest, we were so scared. Minhee was pregnant. Our insurance was about to run out. But we ventured forth. Once I resigned from this church, I had plans, goals, strategies...and none of them materialized. Only bills and payments. I quickly found out that a Masters of Divinity degree - as cool as it may sound - is actually useless in society. No one wanted to hire me. I was unemployed for months. We were eventually on food stamps and DSHS insurance.

In December 2000, we welcomed our 2nd child to the world. When "T" was born, we cried more than the baby. Couple days later, I finally landed a job as the janitor at a Barnes & Noble store. It wasn't quite what I was envisioning but God really worked through this "valley season." And we finally felt peace about starting Quest. Seven people gathered in our living room and several months later on October 2001, Quest Church was officially launched. 
It has not been easy. We've been hurt and worse, we learned we hurt people. More accurately, I hurt people. We've heard our share of criticisms and sometimes, even worse. I've been called my share of names. Too many to list. I've been too liberal, too conservative, too edgy, too rigid, too blunt, too passive. We spent many nights crying out to the Lord...for direction, for peace, for answers. We usually never got the answers we were wanting...but we always felt His presence - even during our valleys. To be honest, we still have many restless nights. In fact, I think we have had more restless nights these past two years than we did in the first two years. 
But through it all. God has been so faithful and gracious. Thank you, Lord.

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