Zulu Mamas Work Hard—Durban Volunteers

South African Zulu mothers and grandmothers cross national borders to spread and carry out Tzu Chi ideals. They have traveled a hundred thousand kilometers in the last four years. Despite never-ending challenges, they set out on each trip without hesitation—all in the hope of delivering care to more needy people.


Driving down endless dirt roads, Tzu Chi volunteers from Durban, South Africa, visit Swaziland to spread love and care.


Durban volunteers have a tight schedule during every out-of-town or out-of-country mission. After listening to the Master’s sermon early every morning, they get to work. They visit the needy, offer guidance to local volunteers, and tend to other tasks. After a day’s work, they return to their quarters for the night. Each of them gets busy with their respective tasks, preparing dinner, washing clothes, getting sleeping quarters ready, or discussing the itinerary for the next day.


A Durban volunteer shows a Swazi volunteer how to properly care for a bedridden care recipient.

I journeyed from Taiwan to southern Africa in mid-October 2015 to observe Tzu Chi volunteers and the work they do in that area. Almost every day, I rode with South African Zulu volunteers in a 14-seat van with a license plate that read “Tzuchi 3.” My purpose was to record their international or interprovincial missions of visiting and providing hot food for the infirm, the sick, and the poor.

These volunteers live in Durban, South Africa. In just four years, since 2012, they have logged more than 100,000 kilometers (62,500 miles) on 78 trips in four countries. No matter where they go, they all set out from the same place: the CHU wood processing plant in Durban. It is a family business run by Chu Heng-min (朱恆民) and his wife, Yuan Ya-qi (袁亞琪). Not only are they in business together, they are also Tzu Chi volunteers. With the consent of Chu’s father, the family patriarch, the couple offered office space at their plant for volunteers to work and meet, and parking space for the Tzu Chi vehicles.

“It’s amazing that such a small factory has been able to support Tzu Chi missions in such a vast expanse as southern Africa,” Yuan marveled.

The Tzu Chi van is often packed. Volunteers sing and twist their bodies in high spirits whenever they hear music.

Off they go

Their 42nd international mission to Swaziland started on the morning of October 13, 2015. Yuan handed some documents, photographic equipment, and petty cash for gas to Thabani Sibisi, our van driver, and gave him some instructions. After that, she saw us off as we pulled away from the factory.

Yuan cannot join the volunteers on these trips because she has to take care of her family and business. Though she cannot physically be with the volunteers, her thoughts are with them, and she remains in contact by cell phone to offer help or support.

We stopped about 30 minutes later at a gas station in Isipingo, an important bus hub just south of Durban. Most South African volunteers come here by bus to assemble when there is a trip. Soon Gladys Ngema, Tholokele Mkhize, Abegail Cetyiwe, Dudu Ngcobo, and Confidence Shange arrived one after another. They each gave me a tight, warm hug even though it was the first time we met.

With the exception of Confidence, all of the native volunteers are more than 60 years old, enough to be eligible for government pensions. Tholokele, 79, is the oldest of all, but she loves to say that she is only 18 because she can still run around doing Tzu Chi work.

One time Tholokele was under the weather right before an international mission was to take place, so Yuan advised her to skip that trip. But Tholokele said to her, “Sister Ya-qi, I’m fine. Don’t you worry about me. I’m old and running out of time, so I must work harder for Tzu Chi. Please let me go.”

Age has left indelible marks on the faces of these South African volunteers, but it is not the only issue they have to contend with when they volunteer. Most of them are quite chubby, and they huff and puff after walking for only a short while. Despite that, their determination to serve is firm and strong. If they cannot heft a bag of rice, they use a cloth to slowly drag it. If they do not have the stamina to make home visits, they stay in one location to talk about Tzu Chi ideals and recruit new volunteers. Every bit of effort helps.

Since Tzu Chi set up an office in Durban in 1994, the number of volunteers there has grown to 5,000, spread across 200 communities. Among those volunteers, only about 20 are on the international team, each of them experienced, capable, diligent, and eager to work. Each month, Yuan sets their volunteering schedules. Given the needs of planned activities, she reviews the circumstances of each volunteer, consults with them, and makes the schedules. These 20 volunteers consider it an honor to be scheduled for an international mission. Senior volunteer Maria Mboyiya said, “I love doing Tzu Chi work, and I dread being left behind.”

A long way

In addition to photographer Hsiao Yiu-hwa 
(蕭耀華) and me, there were 11 native and Chinese volunteers on the trip. It was uncomfortably crowded aboard the van. Almost all available space was packed with something or other. The space near the door was taken up by a projector, a computer, and other equipment that would be needed during the trip. There was food and water Yuan had prepared for the team the day before. A few bags of rice lay in the aisle. In the back of the van was our luggage. Needless to say, the vehicle was loaded.

Tzuchi 3 is one of the two vans—the other one is Tzuchi 6—that take the volunteers on their trips. The vehicles are full and heavy with goods and passengers on almost every trip, which increases wear and tear. Despite careful, regular maintenance, it is not uncommon for the vans to experience flat tires on gravel roads, where pointed pebbles or sharp objects can easily puncture the fully loaded and heavily compressed tires.

Heavy loads are not the only thing that tax the vans—there are also the long distances they have to travel. The destinations for the international missions include Botswana (1,000 kilometers away), Swaziland (600 kilometers), and Mozambique (an additional 250 kilometers beyond Swaziland). Domestically, the cars have been to East London, Port Elizabeth, and other places in the province of Eastern Cape (1,000 kilometers), as well as in Durban proper and 150 communities scattered around a 60,000 square kilometer area in their own province of KwaZulu-Natal. One can only imagine how hard the Tzu Chi vehicles must have “toiled.” Volunteers have also flown to Namibia and are exploring the possibility of expanding Tzu Chi work there.

Such long distances are a physical and mental challenge to the volunteers as well.

Michael Pan (潘明水) was in the van with us on our trip to Swaziland. He established the international volunteer team when he was the CEO of Tzu Chi South Africa. Born in 1952, he is about the age of the other volunteers. He is often on the go with them, although his health has declined in recent years. He often needs to wear a back brace, and his eyesight is weak. He is not the only one with health problems: Stomachache, hypertension, diabetes, and osteoarthritis are common among the international team. They have to carry their medications when they go out on their trips. One time, Maria Mboyiya even became ill during a mission and had to travel for 15 hours back to Durban in great discomfort to be treated.

Looking at these dedicated volunteers, I asked Pan what had prompted him to establish the team. He smiled and said that he was simply carrying out what Master Cheng Yen had asked him to do.

To his response, Tholokele added, “The Master is concerned that many people in Africa are suffering from material deprivation and mental afflictions. She wants us to cross national borders to spread love and goodness and to improve the lives of more people.”

With convictions like this, volunteers have delivered aid to the needy again and again, and they have willingly endured all the discomforts on the long rides without ever uttering a word of complaint.

 Mini Ngcobo and her son in their room, in a house that they co-rent with others. Though her private space is small, her love and courage are vast when it comes to helping others.
Gladys Ngema, an important member of the international team, at home with her children and grandchildren. They take good care of themselves, so she can devote herself to Tzu Chi work without worries.

Speak up

When we reached the border with Swaziland, we all got out to handle immigration paperwork. Volunteers have passed through this border crossing almost every month since 2012. Their uniforms often arouse curiosity among bystanders.

It’s not easy to get into Swaziland. Volunteers often have to spend two to three hours at the border just to get through all the red tape for the work permits and an exit permit for the automobile.

“We’ve been in and out of Swaziland so often that once they got suspicious and confiscated our passports,” said Gladys. She explained that what got them out of the bind that time, as with other times, was the goodwill of local people, who were like so many other people they had met and shared Tzu Chi ideals with over the years.

Pan added, “Each and every one of the international volunteers must be willing and able to talk to people about our foundation’s ideals. If they are not ready, they stay in their communities to gain more experience and hone that ability.”

At first, only Gladys was able to speak to the crowd during a Tzu Chi information session. All the other volunteers, though just as devoted to Tzu Chi, were not able to muster enough courage to speak up in public.

To get more volunteers to take to the stage, Pan said, “I half encouraged and half coerced them. After repeated on-stage drills, they gradually came around and began to feel that it was all in a day’s work to talk in public.” Pan often reminds volunteers that the only way they can spread love and goodwill is by talking to others.

It has now become second nature for the volunteers to talk and share. When they meet strangers—be it at a gas station, under a tree, or on the side of a street—they split up, and each talks to some of the passersby. When they make home visits to the needy, they also visit other residents in that neighborhood and invite them to join in their work of caring for the underserved.

The volunteers’ sincere sharing has won many people over. Once they stayed at a bed and breakfast during a mission and made the acquaintance of Gloria Zawula, an employee there. They listened to her thoughts and reciprocated with their own life stories and how they had been transformed by their volunteer work. Gloria was so moved that she told the volunteers that they could stay at her home during their future trips. She later became the first Tzu Chi volunteer in her community, and she even got some of her relatives and friends to join her in serving the needy.

Pan’s training of the volunteers has truly worked. I once saw Confidence talk to a crowd in a church about what Durban volunteers had done for the needy. Abegail Cetyiwe worked a computer at the same time to project slides to accompany her talk. Confidence spoke for more than an hour without missing a beat. Their teammates joined in as needed to help answer questions from the audience. In the end, they recruited quite a few new volunteers.

“We didn’t even know how to turn on a computer or operate a projector when we first started, but we’ve learned to do these things so we can volunteer for Tzu Chi,” Abegail Cetyiwe said, shy and proud at the same time.

They have also learned to take pictures and use a video camera, and they capture their activities in words—they keep a record of volunteers’ thoughts and each day’s events.

Before they became proficient with the photographic equipment, they used to make mistakes. “Their fingers would inadvertently become part of the images they were trying to capture,” Yuan fondly recalled. “Or their cameras shook and went out of focus. Or the recording stopped at crucial moments.” Yuan knows these things because she helps make the volunteers’ raw materials into slide shows or video clips. “They’ve really come a long way.”

Tholokele Mkhize suffers from high blood pressure. She often says that if she were not involved with Tzu Chi work, she would not have been able to live this long, this joyfully.
Despite the pain of having lost a daughter, Adelaide Njapha serves diligently on the international team.


After more than eight hours in the van, we finally reached the Tzu Chi gathering place in Mhlane. It was evening by the time we arrived. Local Swazi volunteers lined up at the door and sang to welcome us. That very night, the volunteers from Durban had a meeting with local volunteers to discuss their itineraries for the next few days.

The volunteers from these two countries can generally communicate in English and Zulu, but to ensure better mutual understanding, Dudu Ngcobo, fluent in both languages and quick on her feet, interpreted for the meeting.

Swazi volunteer Mumsy Simelane moderated the meeting. She is always humble and is never without a warm smile. She joined Tzu Chi about three years ago, and she was one of only three Swazis to go to Taiwan in 2015 to be certified as Tzu Chi volunteers.

Mumsy is a single mother raising two sons alone. She pointed out that most Tzu Chi volunteers in Swaziland are poor. Before meeting the volunteers from Durban, they were not very concerned with helping others because putting food on the table for their own families had kept them occupied. “We once thought that the Durban visitors could volunteer in international aid missions every month because they were rich,” Mumsy said. She only learned otherwise when the Durban volunteers shared their own tough life stories with her and other people in Swaziland. That instilled confidence in them to take up charity work in their own country.

Some Durban volunteers had horrific tales to tell from their pasts.

Gladys’s husband had a mistress, who once threw a Molotov cocktail on Gladys’s house. Luckily Gladys and her children survived, but they lost all their belongings in the fire.

“When I first met Tzu Chi, I was filled with hate and I wanted revenge,” she said. “But volunteers taught me to let go of my painful past.” After she had received aid supplies from Taiwan, she began interpreting for Tzu Chi volunteers and her own people.

Her fellow volunteer Adelaide Njapha had a tough life too. One night her home was plundered by several robbers. They killed two of her nieces and shot her eight times, nearly killing her too. She lived in hatred for many years until she met Tzu Chi volunteers. Afterwards, she began visiting homes to help wash people who were too ill to care for themselves, and she cooked for orphans. “I used the Great Love taught by Master Cheng Yen to love my own community. The hatred gradually dissipated from my heart.”

In 1994, the African National Congress won the first election under universal suffrage in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was elected president, taking the reigns from F. W. de Klerk, whose National Party had been in power since 1948. In the wake of the power transition, violence erupted in Durban. Villages went up in flames overnight. Tholokele’s community was beset with violence. It was divided into two parts by a small forest, and the two sides carried on a bloody feud. People from one side stayed clear of the other side, and violence would erupt if there was any trespassing. Tholokele lost a grandson as a result of the bloody discord.

Tholokele was already a Tzu Chi volunteer at the time, and she was disturbed by the hatred and violence. She wanted to bring change to her community. She teamed up with another volunteer in her village, Mini Ngcobo, the wife of a tribal chief, to mediate between the two sides. With the help of Mini’s special social standing, the two women were eventually able to lower the tension in their village and bridge the gulf separating the two sides.

Gladys, Adelaide, and Tholokele have indeed been through a lot in life, but they are not alone in their affliction and suffering. In fact, many of the 5,000 Durban volunteers are similarly victims of fear, social caste discrimination, or life-wasting poverty. In spite of their own hardships, they took up philanthropic work to help the needy. Even though outwardly their circumstances appear as challenging as before, how they deal with things inwardly has profoundly changed. They have learned to tackle their challenges with more equanimity, and their hatred and helplessness have gradually given way to peace of mind.

“Tzu Chi has helped me realize that hatred is not my only choice, and that I can take other paths to make life easier for myself and others,” Adelaide observed. “Against all odds, I’ve survived all these challenges. That means that I’m meant to do more Tzu Chi work.”

Durban international volunteers are now well trained to talk in public and operate a computer or other equipment during an information session.

Hard work

The Durban volunteers have done impressive work in Swaziland over the last four years. They visit the needy and hold information sessions. They help their Swazi counterparts conduct aid distributions, share with them how to hold volunteer training courses, and pass on to them the meaning and spirit of the Buddha Day ceremony and year-end blessing ceremony. They fend off the doubts of people who do not practice Buddhism. Nine times, after their visits to Swaziland, they even traveled further northward to Mozambique to train volunteers there.

They have spent their nights in all sorts of places over the years: under trees, in their van, in the employee dormitory or conference room of a company owned by Taiwanese people, in the dormitory of a Taiwanese technical aid team, or at the homes of local volunteers. At times, their sleeping quarters also double as the kitchen, dining room, and conference room. Sometimes they have gone without water and electricity and slept in the company of aggressive mosquitoes.

They make do with what is available all because they want to spread love and goodness and help make a difference in the lives of the underprivileged. Their efforts have reaped noticeable rewards: So far they have recruited 1,500 volunteers from 50 communities in Swaziland. They are planning to build a Tzu Chi community center on a tract of land beside their gathering place in Mhlane. This piece of land is shaping up to be more and more like home to the volunteers.

Almost invariably, Tzu Chi volunteers of Chinese descent have helped in the expansion of Tzu Chi missions to countries like Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana, and Namibia. Through information sessions or meals, they have become acquainted with the local people and gradually extended their goodwill. To save costs, they have mindfully sought out locations that might serve as free lodging for the international volunteers on their out-of-town or out-of-country missions.

Volunteers Jennifer Chen 
(陳美娟) of Lesotho and Zheng Ai-bao (鄭愛堡) of Johannesburg have been helping the Durban international team spread Tzu Chi missions to Botswana and Namibia. “My role in these international missions has always been one of support,” said Chen modestly. “Local volunteers do all the heavy lifting, and they’re quite good at their tasks.” While Chen is being humble about her efforts in missions, she is also accurately describing the approach that the Chinese volunteers have been taking: They want to help local people do most of the work so that they can stand on their own feet one day.

Pan, who set up the international team, often reminds the team members that the support from the Chinese volunteers is temporary. “We’ll leave one day. You must learn to be independent and self-supporting.”

The team has heeded Pan’s words. Once on a mission in Swaziland, they found that they could not spend the night at a planned location, and there would be no water at the alternate accommodations for the next few days. This last-minute surprise almost tempted them to call Chinese volunteers in Durban for assistance, but then they thought better of it and decided to take care of the matter themselves. They contacted Swazi volunteers to borrow a few water containers, which they filled at the home of a local volunteer. The water served them throughout their stay, and they accomplished what they set out to do in Swaziland.

They wrote in their team journal about that experience: “We must not fail others’ expectations of us when we’re out on a mission. We have to learn to solve our own problems. Only then can we really help others solve their problems.”

With the help of Durban volunteers, Swazi volunteers have set up 50 soup kitchens that provide regular meals to orphans.

Spiritual guidance

Our rides in the Tzu Chi van were often boisterous. The Durban volunteers, talking loudly in Zulu, often sounded like they were having heated arguments.

“Sometimes they really are arguing,” Pan said. Having worked with the native volunteers for 20 years, he claims that he understands about 50 percent of their conversations. Even so, most of the time he pretends that he does not understand. He listens in on them and quietly observes them. When the time is right, he gives them advice.

Pan said that the Zulu people are generally aggressive, jealous, and conceited. But those are not necessarily bad traits. “They also have a strong sense of honor, they are eager to demonstrate their worth, and they are energetic,” Pan remarked. “So they just need to be guided to do right things. When they do them, they are sure to do a good job.”

Besides going to other countries further north to care for the needy, Durban volunteers have also been to communities in South Africa outside of their own Kwazulu-Natal Province. They have visited places south of the province over ten times since 2014.

On their first trip, they got utterly lost. They didn’t know the roads, and they failed to use the GPS correctly; as a result they didn’t arrive at their destination until late at night.

Gladys recalled  that trip: “When we got lost, every one of us had a strong opinion about which way to go, and we argued vigorously. Then we wouldn’t talk to each other because we were mad.” However, neither hot arguments nor cold shoulders got them closer to their destination. “We were still lost when it got dark. Only then did we feel scared and regret our behavior.”

During that trip, Yuan kept in touch with them by cell phone. To cheer them on, she told them the story of Master Jian Zhen (鑑真大師 , 688-763) and his mission to bring the Buddhist monastic precepts from China to Japan. Due to human interference, harsh weather, and treacherous sea conditions, the Venerable failed in his first five attempts to reach Japan, but he was undaunted and eventually he made it. Yuan reminded the African volunteers to take good care of their hearts and minds while they work hard to promote the Tzu Chi missions.

“Master Cheng Yen asked me to help look after the volunteers’ minds,” Yuan explained. To that end, she requires them to watch the Master’s talks on video during their trips. She picks out parts that she feels are most suitable for them.

The volunteers translate the video clips sentence by sentence and then discuss their meanings. It takes a lot of work, and so it usually takes them close to two hours to finish a 15-minute segment. They don’t mind the effort or time because they are eager to learn as much as they can and apply it in their daily lives, or use the wisdom they have gleaned to tackle the problems they encounter.

One day they visited a community without bringing any aid supplies. “Why didn’t you bring any goods to give out?” volunteers in that community asked pointedly. “People will kill us for that! And why didn’t the Chinese volunteers come with you? What should we do if we run into problems?”

Gladys calmly replied, “We give out goods when it’s appropriate, but we value our sincere care, words, and gestures of comfort even more. Furthermore, this is our land. We must learn to be independent and put down Tzu Chi roots in our communities.”

Once a mentally ill person, knife in hand, chased Mini Ngcobo when she visited a community in Durban. Mini patiently and gently talked to that person and defused the situation.

Another time, they had planned to stay at a bed and breakfast during an international mission, but the owner abruptly and unreasonably raised the charge to a level that they could not accept. They decided to go somewhere else, though they did not know where. Still, they did not raise their voices or become hostile to the proprietor. They even thanked him for accommodating them in the past.

The Master’s teachings have helped them see things in perspective. They have become more mellow and learned how to ward off conflict or violence with gentle words or actions.

Abegail Cetyiwe cares for a sick needy person. The volunteers’ priority is offering spiritual support. It is a touching experience to witness how they interact with care recipients.

There are usually three days to a month of free time between missions for the Durban volunteers, and they like to take a breather during these breaks. They see their doctors, get medications, or spend time with family. But they do not stop their regular work in local communities, and they still talk about Tzu Chi when they get a chance.

Yuan says that these volunteers have become better at managing time. “They used to be able to finish only one thing in a whole morning, and now they can get two or three things done.”

Their improved efficiency may have to do with Master Cheng Yen’s reminder: “Time is running out.” That gives them a sense of urgency and pushes them to make the best use of their limited life spans to sow seeds of goodness and help weave a web of love across the African continent.

Summer 2016