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Saving Individuals, Not the World: 900 Children of Hangberg

In the community of Hangberg, a part of the greater Cape Town area, the population struggles with drug addiction, mental health problems, crowded living conditions, the influence of gangs, and a lack of job opportunities. Children are raised in a toxic environment where many parents and other adult role models illegally poach abalone and shopkeepers freely sell alcohol and drugs to anyone who will buy (young children included). In a community like this, how does one seek to fix any one public health issue?

In our public health visit to Hangberg, I struggled to grasp the complexity of the community’s situation. On one hand, it seemed impossible to address any of the community’s problems without causing a new one – there were just too many intertwined factors negatively impacting the health of the population. On the other hand, we visited Hout Bay CARES – a drug rehabilitation center  – and the local elementary school, both of which actually seemed to be making an impact.

I was inspired by the school principal and the representatives we spoke to at CARES, but I didn’t understand the true miracle of their success until we took a brief walking tour of Hangberg. Most people appeared to live in tin shacks, put up mere inches from the shack next door. Two homes had recently burned down completely, killing a family of four (, yet locals were already building new shacks on the property, eager to take advantage of the new empty space. It’s hard to put into words the full complexity of the health situation in this community, but it was clearly a poor environment in which to live and attempt to raise children. Even then, families refused to leave.

Hangberg -- the plots of land in the foreground were affected by the fire. News story:

Hangberg — the plots of land in the foreground were affected by the fire.

Though I’m still grappling with what I learned during our visit to Hangberg, it was my favorite excursion for our public health class this quarter. I’ve always wanted to be someone who makes a difference in the world, and I think I’ve gained some degree of clarity about how one can successfully pursue this dream. If Hout Bay CARES and the Hangberg elementary school are the models of success, the key is to work with individuals on a community level. Saving the world in one fell swoop is unfortunately not possible when each community and each individual in the world faces a completely different situation influenced by a complicated assortment of factors. Even the elementary school principal in Hout Bay recognized her limitations: of her 1000 students, she estimated that 100 would likely not escape their circumstances, with or without her help. But because the principal was committed to working within the community and acknowledging the unique situation of Hangberg residents, the other 900 could be saved. So although I don’t yet know how I will accomplish this, I now dream not to change the world but to instead help as many individuals as I can. Thanks to our visit to Hangberg, I have a much better idea of how to pursue this goal.

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