/ 1 November 2013

Inspiring rural youth

Inspiring Rural Youth

Sustainable investment in young people from rural areas is a great way to solve the dire shortage of medical skills in South Africa’s community hospitals, the Umthombo Youth Development Foundation in KwaZulu-Natal has illustrated.

Established in 1999 to help relieve the health care crisis in rural communities, the Umthombo foundation is a non-profit organisation that identifies, trains and supports rural youth in a scholarship scheme to become qualified health care professionals.

Students are given bursaries and mentoring support to pursue an approved health science degree at university, and on graduating they are employed at one of the 12 hospitals in the Umkhanyakude, Zululand or Uthungulu districts of the province.

Umthombo began as the hopeful dream of a desperately overstretched doctor working in the impoverished rural backwaters of KwaZulu-Natal, and has now seen 135 health science graduates providing much-needed medical skills at hospitals in the region.

This year 192 rural youth have scholarships to study one of 13 different health science degrees.

Umthombo director Dr Gavin MacGregor says the foundation offers a long-term solution to the challenge of recruiting quality health care professionals in the country’s rural areas.

“Umthombo is a proactive way of finding solutions to significant problems. Research has shown that health professionals are more likely to choose to work in a rural hospital if that is where they come from, or if they are exposed to the realities of rural health care delivery during their university training,” says MacGregor.

Appropriately, the name Umthombo means fountain or spring.

“We felt that as a spring provides life-giving water, so our programme offers these young people a way out of poverty for themselves and their families while serving their communities,” says MacGregor.

He says the positive outcomes from Umthombo are multifaceted. The project is a long-term investment in rural youth who would otherwise not have the chance to kick off the shackles of poverty.

It benefits not only the individuals themselves but the community too because the graduates are required to work at a local hospital for the same duration of the period they were supported.

“Umthombo breaks the cycle of rural poverty, as graduates are employed in disadvantaged areas, they become taxpayers and spend their money in their communities, directly benefiting local small businesses.

“They assist their siblings to access better education and, perhaps most importantly, serve as role models to inspire youngsters in the communities to strive for better things. Umthombo shows rural youth that there are opportunities, and that through hard work and education, they can achieve,” says MacGregor.

Another enormous advantage, he adds, is that by working in the areas in which they have grown up, the graduates are treating people from their communities in their own language, thereby encouraging greater patient-doctor trust and enabling more accurate diagnoses.

With a pass rate of 92%, compared with the national university average of between 35% and 50%, the Umthombo students are more than proving their potential — they are also showing that with the appropriate critical support, educational success and a promising future is within reach for everyone.

Working on a budget of R13-million, the foundation is financed by two international donors (45%), a variety of South African corporates (15%), the government (25%) and local private trusts (15%).

MacGregor says the Umthombo model can easily be replicated in other rural areas, and could be used for the training of maths, science and English teachers for rural schools across South Africa.

Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team. It forms part of a larger supplement.