I recently had an online interview with Theresa Wigley, one of the founders of Amava Oluntu. To say I was mindblown is an understatement. Her story which is interwoven with the beginning of the organisation is awe inspiring. At the end of our call I was feeling super inspired and not to sound cliched, but my hope in humanity was strengthened from my conversation with Theresa.
Here’s some of what was shared in our interview:
Theresa was raised in a family of eight children, her parents had a unique approach where they lived a life that they felt would be accessible to all if resources were distributed evenly. This instilled in her a strong sense of equality which has guided her journey in founding Amava Oluntu. A question that has stayed with her from her childhood is what if the world was truly equal, how would that influence the quality and depth of our relation to each other.
Growing up on a farm she had a connection to the land. Her parents dedicated themselves to what they thought was just. They interacted with people who were different from them at a time when that was not so common. As a result of that, connecting with others has always been natural to her. Forming rich interpersonal communication is what she identified as the basis of being human.
Upon leaving school after completing matric she observed how the lives of her childhood friends took such different trajectories from the point where they started school. This experience opened her eyes to the deficiencies in the education system. Prior to this she’d questioned the education system’s ability to educate beyond just reading and writing but to educate the soul, for the enrichment of society. She often got into trouble for thinking for herself. What a paradox that it seems we are taught to think for ourselves.
Theresa with Bonekile (left) and Yoliswa (right) during the Participatory Video training in the Amadiba Community.
Even at that time she noticed that they were taught things in textbooks that have long been disproved. Education did little to prepare for any meaningful contribution to the world and for fulfilling personal progression. She questioned if there was any way she could work with others to change this.
Her early realisation was that the education system was broken at the core. She looked for alternative solutions to help young people who leave school without the skills or knowledge required to succeed. Amava was born out of the desire to bring together people with diverse skills to learn from each other.
She has always been creative and fascinated by communication; how we listen to each other. She has a ten year plus background working in design and communication. Amava focuses on connecting people to each other and to the world. Communication is at the core of their work. They strive to ensure that everyone feels able to express themselves, and that everyone’s voice is heard.
When I asked if she has any particular moment that stands out for her at Amava, her response is “finding oneself can take a while. It takes about 3 years for humans to change their patterns, way of viewing the world, to feel connected and safe enough to be honest with each other. When that happens it’s a phenomenal feeling of family.”
Navigating difficulties that exist in the world in the different ways we communicate, this can affect even communicating small things. Our lived realities are so unequal and this can affect how we interact with each other. Amava fosters reconnection to self, each other, and the natural world. This is where the vision and mission of the organisation comes alive. On their nature excursions Theresa says the experience of connecting with nature is as if “people drop into themselves and feel at home”. “We are all made from the same stuff. Only once you have connected with yourself can you connect with others”, she says.
Amava, like other organisations was not exempt from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. When looking back at the time of lockdown, Theresa says that “Covid forced everyone to stop pretending that everything was okay. Everyone was really kind and committed to making change”. Amava quickly adapted and they offered their programs as hybrid (virtual and in-person) or online, such as the Vukuzenzele project and all activities of their Covid-19 response.
The biggest challenge Amava has faced has been fundraising resources. Theresa is optimistic, she says “money should be shifted around”. Fundraising has been a growth point to the work of the organisation as a not-for-profit entity. Amava strives to keep the essence of their work authentic to their organic beginning of healing, unlearning negative patterns and relearning connectivity to each other.
In relation to the future of Amava, Theresa says “It is very important that it is not critical for me to be there. The dream is that we are always passing on everything we know and that new leaders rise out of the system equipped with the skills to run an organisation, able to respond to the current needs of the surrounding youth”. In a country faced with harsh realities of unemployment and inequality, transition is a collaborative approach. Amava focuses on the basics of building communities and using our collective wisdom to make progress.
Reconnecting with nature is an important part of Theresa’s work. Here, she is immersing in nature with the young ecopreneurs of Pollinating Pride in People.
What people should know about Amava is that it is a place to connect and restore ourselves to our whole selves. My interview with Theresa was refreshing. I walked away with my soul reawakened. What Amava does is more than connect young people to opportunity, it rehabilitates the soul.