We often talk about what IMPACT our programs have on people. What impact do these trips have on the students and faculty? What impact do the company visits and business interactions have on the speakers and company representatives? What impact do our groups have on the various service providers like hotel workers, bus drivers, restaurant servers, etc.?

The below story was sent to us by an MBA candidate from Michigan State University who recently participated in an ISP program to South Africa, and the impact of the trip and this specific interaction with a bartender at a Cape Town hotel speak wonderfully for themselves…

Related by Brett Robertson

Sometimes, there are people you meet and conversations you have that change your whole perspective and, potentially, your life. These moments rarely announce themselves, and often will appear suddenly like jewels flashing on a muddy riverbank. So it is I found a jewel mixed into the typical banality of barroom chatter one night in Cape Town.

“Frank!” We hollered at the swinging doors that led back to the kitchen, knowing Frank had stepped back there a few minutes prior. After a moment, Frank stuck his head out, large grin plastered on his face.

“We need another round, Frank!” Jim tapped his glass. We started ribbing the smiling bartender.

“Stop talking to your girlfriend, Frank.”

“We know you’re back there slackin’ off!”

“Or talking to some woman…was it your mom, Frank?  It was, wasn’t it?! You were back there talking to your mom, I bet.” We all shared the self-indulgent laugh of the slightly inebriated.

“Come on, Frank, what’s the story?”

“Yes, I was talking to my mummy, but we’re good now,” he replied good-naturedly.  “I’m lucky I get to talk to her whenever I want to now.”

“You couldn’t talk to her before?”

“No, there were times when I couldn’t talk to her and it was very hard because we are very close,” he explained.

“What’s the story with that Frank?  How come you couldn’t talk to her?”

“I can tell you my story.  Do you want to hear it?”  We all paused.  The conversation had just turned somber and was suddenly a little deeper than we’d expected. But, what the hell.  Frank was a nice guy.  Our curiosity got the better of us.

“Sure, Frank.  Tell us your story…”

Frank was born and raised in the Congo in a family of seven. He never knew his father, so when Frank was 15, he told his mother he would be the caretaker of his family. At that time, he had to choose between working in the mines and enlisting in the army.

He decided to work in the mines so he would be able to return home periodically. For three-and-a-half years, Frank performed strenuous, back-breaking labor without the benefit of machines or the protection of safety measures. Every three months, he was allowed to visit his family. Many of his homecomings were bittersweet, his joy at seeing his mother and his family muted by the grieving wails of the families of his friends who’d died in the mines.

With no electricity, the family would gather around a candle to reminisce and tell stories until his mother fell asleep, then they would all turn in. It was during one of these visits that Frank talked to a friend of the family, a South African businessman who encouraged Frank to move to Cape Town and take advantage of the plentiful opportunities available there.

The businessman arranged for another friend, a bus driver, to transport Frank from the Congo to South Africa. The businessman paid for Frank to get his passport and, with only a set of clothes and bags, Frank hopped on the new friend’s bus.

The bus carried Frank through several different areas of Africa, allowing him to collect multiple entries on his new passport which, according to his new friend, was all Frank needed to enter South Africa.

Once he reached the Botswana/South Africa border, however, there were complications. Frank did not have the correct documentation to enter the country and his only ally, the bus driver, abruptly abandoned him. Frank was arrested because of his lack of documentation. He could not defend himself because he could only speak a few Congolese dialects, but not English. For three months, he was transferred around to various jails, during which he stopped eating and fell ill. He was unable to make any calls or talk to his mother, and Frank knew he would die alone in a foreign jail, surrounded by strangers. So he simply waited for death, resigned and hopeless.

He didn’t die, though. He got better. Some Zimbabweans “adopted” him and told him how the prison would periodically release a certain number of random prisoners, and they taught him where to position himself so he would have the best chance of being released.

The day came when Frank was able to walk out of the jail as a free man. He was technically in South Africa now, but his journey was far from over. He still needed to get to Johannesburg, which was a several days’ ride from his current location.

It took a few days for Frank to find a bus that was headed to Jo’burg but, since the jailers had taken all his money, he had to sell all his remaining belongings for the bus fare. With a contribution from a kind-hearted fellow passenger, Frank managed to get the last seat on the bus.

Having no money or possessions, Frank was unable to afford any food. Toward the end of the bus trip, he resorted to begging the other passengers for the scraps from their meals, subsisting on the chicken bones from discarded KFC meals.

He finally arrived in Jo’burg, where his best friend’s brother was waiting with a warm meal and a train ticket to Cape Town. Frank felt like he had a purpose again. He finally called his mother to let her know where he was and what had happened. She wanted him to come back home, but he assured her he was okay now, and continued on his odyssey.

Upon his arrival in Cape Town, Frank was ready to seize the opportunities promised by the South African businessman several months before. But it wouldn’t be that easy. The man’s phone number was invalid, and there was no listing of him anywhere. Frank tried reaching the businessman several times to no avail and finally realized he was, once again, completely alone in a foreign land.

Without any other prospects or ideas, Frank joined the legion of other homeless people in the train station, running to carry bags and perform other services for passengers. Sometimes he would take the initiative to wash their cars, even if they didn’t want him to. Some people yelled at him, others tipped him well. Most simply ignored him.

Frank realized that his inability to speak English was hampering his ability to pursue the opportunities he’d dreamed of, so he began to teach himself English. He read random English books to get a sense of how the words were used and he began borrowing and watching movies with English subtitles, replaying the dialogue and repeating the phrases and words thousands of times.

There was one woman who was a regular train passenger. Frank had helped her several times and washed her car (even though she just yelled at him). Sometimes she would tip him R30-50 while other times she would act as if he didn’t exist.

But one day, as Frank was carrying her bags to her car, the woman turned and suddenly asked Frank if he would like to come work for her. This was the moment he’d been waiting for, so he jumped at the chance and agreed to show up at her restaurant.

In the restaurant, however, he encountered more resistance: the other workers hated his new boss, and immediately distrusted Frank. They refused to teach him how to work any of the coffee machines, despite the fact he’d been hired as a barista. Things did not look good, and Frank was worried he would lose his new job.

During his first week, however, something happened that would change his life: the restaurant had entered a coffee-making contest, where various baristas would concoct different variations of coffees and espressos. On the day of the competition, the other workers abruptly refused to participate, leaving only Frank as the sole representative of the restaurant in the competition. Frank refused to quit and, despite his inexperience and sheer terror, decided he would stay to do his best.

Before his turn, he went into the bathroom and prayed vehemently. When he emerged, he felt like a different person. After the contest, Frank could not recall what he said or did, but his performance was stellar enough to garner a second-place finish in the competition and earned him the respect of the rest of the staff.

He spent the next three years working in the restaurant, teaching himself how to be a barista and, ultimately, a bartender. He was able to buy a cell phone and would call his mother regularly to check-in.  He was making enough money that he could send some home to help the family. The restaurant eventually closed due to financial difficulties, but Frank had crafted a set of marketable skills that he took with him to his new position as the bartender at the Cape Town Lodge.

“So now I can talk to my mummy and send her money and we are okay.” Frank wrapped up his story with a small, contented smile while we all stared, mouths agape.

We stammered to find the proper words, but couldn’t think of anything with enough gravity to convey our emotional response to Frank’s story. We finally settled on a chorus of “thank you”, feeling a little guilty we couldn’t give him better words.

We heard many uplifting and heartwarming stories while we were in South Africa. We met business leaders whose passion for empowerment inspired us to make a difference in our own communities.

We learned about the struggles, hardship and bloody history of South Africa, all with a strong undercurrent of hope and optimism.

But it was the powerful story of a deceptively simple hotel bartender that taught me the lesson I hope to remember forever:

“Appreciate the opportunities presented to you and act as if adversity is not a barrier, but merely an opportunity to build yourself into a better person.”

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