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The Necessity of Human Connection: How the Umoya Project Supports Vulnerable Individuals

The abandonment of elderly, disabled and vulnerable individuals in South Africa is tragically all-too common of a problem and in Khayelitsha, a community known for being impoverished and under-resourced, the few care facilities in place are under relentless pressure to keep up with the demand. It is for this reason that the Umoya Project, a community-based initiative motivated by the belief that we should never leave any elderly or disabled person behind, is so vital. The name ‘Umoya’ epitomises the heart of the initiative; translating loosely to ‘new wind’ in Xhosa, it represents the goal of providing comfort and positivity to the lives of individuals who have been underserved by society. The project was created by Justice Desk Africa nearly a decade ago and supports abandoned, abused and otherwise vulnerable people at the Missionaries of Charity home in Khayelitsha. Monthly sessions focus on building relationships with residents, who often have no contact with family, through activities like crafts and movie days.

I was lucky enough to attend the Umoya Clay Café, a session aimed at supporting residents' mobility by working with the clay, whilst providing them with company and joy. Despite the challenging circumstances surrounding many in the home, from the moment I arrived I could feel the enthusiasm about the session. Greetings shared between residents and volunteers demonstrated the strength, and the value, of the connections made at Umoya. From the outset it was obvious that the project had established genuine friendships that surpassed age, ability and background. Whilst the home caters to a wide range of vulnerable individuals, including those with intellectual disabilities who often cannot communicate through words, both volunteers and residents used methods like sign language, dancing or simply smiling to interact and communicate. The excitement was palpable, and following a snack break where homemade cookies were distributed amongst the residents, we got down to crafting.

The session was designed to be both physically beneficial for those who are lacking motor skills, and a creative outlet for residents to express themselves. The range of clay models that were made was truly impressive: I saw animals, crosses, spirals and letters to list a few. I was even proposed to by a gentleman called Jan who had spent a considerable amount of time moulding a clay ring, much to the amusement of those around us! The inclusive atmosphere meant that even if residents didn’t have much ability to model the clay, they were happy just interacting with the volunteers. After all, the project was really aiming to simply create a positive, warm environment for everyone involved. It was a great opportunity for volunteers to forge and nurture the friendships that they had already established, and I noticed the more reserved members of the group became more interactive as the session progressed. It goes to show the power that kindness and human connection has to bring comfort to those who most need it.

I had an incredibly fulfilling morning with the residents, and I left with the sense not only that I had provided some comfort to more vulnerable individuals in our society, but that I myself had benefited greatly from the session. It was virtually impossible not to have a smile on my face by the end of the day, and it seemed a fitting conclusion to end with some dancing to Michael Jackson, much to the approval of the residents (many of whom were singing and dancing along). The session reinforced the value of personal relationships in nurturing vulnerable individuals, and it was a pleasure to be a part of an initiative as important as this.

The Umoya Project doesn’t claim to provide miracles for the residents - to truly better the systems that harm and marginalised vulnerable citizens of South Africa requires severe economic, cultural and societal change - however the genuine human interaction and friendships facilitated by the project can make a massive difference to the residents who often have no other real contact with people outside of the home. If you can spare a few hours of your day each month giving back to your community, I couldn’t recommend the Umoya Project enough. After all, what may be a few hours to you could be transformative to the lives of some of the more vulnerable members of our society

Written by Caroline Hibbert

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