Layla Shahmohammadi

Layla Shahmohammadi | Pueblo, CO — Human and Organizational Development and Political Science, 2019

Layla Shahmohammadi is from Pueblo, Colorado. Layla is a freshman in the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University pursuing a double major in Human and Organizational Development and Political Science. In the summer of 2016, Layla will participate in the South Africa Service Immersion Program alongside two community partners, Missionvale Care Centre and Sapphire Road Primary, in Port Elizabeth. While there, Layla will work to promote self-development and provide love to the people of the townships, all while challenging assumptions and considering new perspectives.

Blog Post One:

“God didn’t make poor people. He made strong people.”

Candice (22 years old) May 25, 2016

For the few weeks I’ve been in South Africa, I have heard story after story that has affirmed the strength of the African people. Entrenched by corruption in government, the lasting effects of racial divides, and unemployment, the men and women living in the townships and lower income areas of Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth are all experiencing the harsh repercussions of the greater monster that has resulted from apartheid; the demobilizing divides of poverty. As a group, we’ve witnessed the difficult living conditions of blacks, colored, and Indians that resulted out of the geographic repositioning of racial segregation that took place during apartheid. On the Soweto Hospice visits, the tour of Joeslovo, and home health care visits at Missionvale, I’ve been an observer in an often emotionally and physically uncomfortable space. For days, I struggled to find reasoning as to why I was present in those situations. I felt wrong as an able observer to stand in their shacks and government given homes and have nothing to offer other than an unfamiliar face and inexperience. However, it is from those times I spent on home visits that I’ve gained the most understanding. I’m learning that total immersion is painful and difficult to accept but absolutely necessary for my understanding of where I am now. The time I spent in those places propelled my ability to be mindful and present while I’m volunteering at Missonvale and excited my passion to converse respectfully with South Africans. With time, I’ve realized that our presence as servants in these communities comes from our understanding of the real and difficult to accept conditions. The immersive nature of this program is one of the most beneficiary aspects of the experience because with the knowledge we gain from visits and interactions we better learn how to serve the people of Missionvale and Machiu and know in what ways injustice is inhibiting the lives of South Africans.

As Sister Ethal, founder of Missionvale Care Center, explained, justice is finding a way bring a community to the same condition of living that any given person would agree willingly or stand to prosper in. Most people wouldn’t agree willingly to live in the conditions of Missionvale or other townships. Justice is brought through raising the standard of living to that which you would stand for.

Witnessing poverty is difficult but also an inspiration in my own personal pursuit to combat injustice.


Blog Post Two:

What makes a leader?

“A leader must be able to lead from the back, not the front. They’ve got to see what it’s like for those in the back of the line to understand how to change anything above them.”

Poppy (28 years old) June 9, 2016

I look forward to the mornings I spend with Poppy and Thobeka dancing and singing together in the little yellow school kitchen. I’m a bad dancer but Poppy and Thobeka (who will openly admit to being as bad, if not worse, of a dancer as I am) try to teach me their moves as we prepare lunch and the afternoon sandwiches for the children. My mild humiliation is the source of great comedic relief. In week 1 of serving, some caregivers and staff members found out that I’m a singer and since then there hasn’t been a day without music. Regardless of my presence, they’re always singing but now I shamelessly join in with them. Poppy and Thobeka love music and a capella singing just as much as I do and daily we break out into three part harmony to our favorite worship tunes or Beyoncé/Adele standards. Thobeka’s is the rich and raspy alto to Poppy’s warm but brave soprano voices and I fit in where I can. I’m going to miss the casual camaraderie and friendly humiliation. I think about these experiences and know why I have to come back sometime soon. But I know, even in 2 years time, things may not look the same. Young and passionate women like Poppy and Thobeka crave more for their lives outside of Missionvale Care Center.

When I say this, I mean it in the most gracious way possible. Thobeka and Poppy are passionate about serving their community and ending the hunger and hurt among them, but Missionvale is not the place they want to be in 10 or even 5 years time. Pilchards and porridge don’t inspire Poppy and Thobeka in a way that allows them to lead people, especially other women their own age, to recovery, health and security. For them, receiving an education of their own is necessary for them to help prosper the lives of others.

Missionvale is one of the most valuable resources the township has. Since 1988, Sister Ethel has fostered a successful center driven by people who are passionate about combating injustice through service. It has become a lifeline for a community dependent on the physical, spiritual and emotional commodities provided by the holistic care system at Missionvale. Immersion in this community center has really shown me the kind of drive, genuine passion, and sacrifice it takes to be involved with non-profits focused on community health development. The commitment is huge. Unfortunately most of the staff members at Missionvale have held the same positions in the same unit since their original employment upwards of 20 years ago. The lack of opportunity for upward mobility isn’t necessarily avoidable; there are certain jobs that need to be filled and limited spots for executive positions that aren’t already managed. Women like Poppy and Thobeka want to have jobs where they can be more directly involved with management. Right now, they’re working in the care center because it gave them a much-needed income but both have expressed bigger dreams; Thobeka wants to be a social worker and Poppy hopes to take courses in becoming a receptionist.

Layla_Women together

I want to be able to come back to Missionvale and reflect with Poppy and Thobeka about the times we sang Rolling in the Deep or relished over the gold headbands they gifted each of us, but I also want to see them in the places and positions they dream of working in. As a native to Missionvale, Thobeka has a heart for her people and sees a need with working locally as a social worker. She wants to continue helping people at Missionvale, just in a different capacity. These professional positions don’t define success but they utilize the leadership potential these women are gifted with. Poppy and Thobeka inspire me because of their selfless interest in bettering themselves for the benefit of their children, their siblings, and the people of Missionvale. I am proud of them for their hunger to seek out more than what their current situation permits, for their willingness to pursue something greater for themselves, and for their hearts of genuine compassion. It’s admirable as a young woman to see other women anywhere in the world pursue their dreams and passions, at 19, 24, 28 or 40. They’re changing the world with their ability to care.


Blog Post Three:

“Nou gaan ons braai!”

Braai [pron. bry]

Derived from the word braaivleis that is Afrikaans for roasted meat; the term braai means barbeque and vleis is meat.

The closest (and possibly most endearing) words to the hearts of all South Africans make up the phrase “Nou gaan ons braai!” or, translated to English, “Now we braai!” These are Afrikaans words I came to recognize quickly. Within the first 48 hours on the ground, we were stuffing our bellies with delicious grilled meats at our first of many South African braais. I didn’t think I’d be able to eat as much meat as I have here in South Africa but I’ve learned a lot about myself in just a little over 5 weeks and consuming 6 pounds of sheep sausage a week is apparently one of them. The cohort and I all mastered the art of meat eating like what seems most South Africans have made a profession of – well for those of us who eat meat, anyway! For all audiences, regardless of food preference, the braai meant so much more than eating copious amounts of meat. The 6+ braais we either hosted or attended here in SA were some of the greatest times spent in community that facilitated family like bonding between the locals and us. The most recent braai was hosted in celebration of all of the people we came to love and admire at Missionvale Care Center and Machiu Primary School. It was done to commemorate our time at our service sites and permit a time socialize with our new friends, mentors, and family members outside of the work place.

After leaving campus this spring, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that our cohort never got to experience the braai that Dr. Mentzel had promised to host before our trip. It was one of the only South African cultural experiences that was explained to us in our pre-travel lectures. Even though we spoke about it, I came to South Africa not really understanding what a braai was. I had a general idea of what it’d be like but it took attending my first braai in Johannesburg to see that all of my expectations were pretty inaccurate. I wasn’t expecting the overwhelming sense of family like affection that comes from huddling around a fire for hours at a time; I wasn’t expecting the thought provoking and emotion filled-conversations that come in the midst of a braai; I wasn’t expecting the social high I would be on for hours after being immersed in South African company. I experienced these feelings after every single braai we celebrated. Very similar to my previous notions of a braai, what I have experienced thus far exceeds all the expectations I had before coming on this trip. My thoughts on the country as a whole were limited. I never studied the country’s history/culture before getting involved with this project and knew very little about South African politics outside of apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Names of leaders like Desmond Tutu and Steve Biko were completely foreign to me. I had no idea about the transfiguration of townships across the country and how racism dictated geographic placement and impoverished millions. But as I worked at Missionvale and learned about the historical linings of this country through lectures, museum visits, tours, personal encounters, etc., I heard story after story that helped shape my understand of this country’s reformed sociopolitical identity – a dedication towards implementing concentrated compassion in community. The immersion facilitated a type of learning that allowed me to put passion and emotion into my understanding of this country’s history. It has helped me see past generalizations and given me an insight on individual experience that cannot be replaced.

Though post-apartheid South Africa established democracy 20 years ago, the country is still not at peace with its government. In 2016, protests break out regularly across the nation and the upcoming elections are flagged with corruption and injustice. Not being able to cross over to Mossel Bay this last weekend at the threat of Molotov cocktails or seeing members of the Missionvale community bribed by the DA (Democratic Alliance) and dressed in their propaganda daily were immediate and personal encounters with the corruption. But for what its worth, I have seen South Africa as a country chasing after the heart of compassion. In the midst of its history of hateful, racist ideology that separated and paralyzed millions, South Africa sought out and achieved reconciliation. Just as it was separated, the country has been reunited. The South African braai united me with so many people across this country. The times I cherished during the many South African braai allowed me to nurture countless new friendships with friends of friends and deepen my relationships with the men and women I cherish from Missionvale. “Nou gaan ons braai!”

Blog Post Four:

For me 

For me 

Christ, He died for me

The melody is replaying in my mind with the words I hear over and over in Colleen’s sweet and dry voice. I sing softly on top of her voice, which guides mine along without even knowing the words. Singing together feels like home.

Who am I

He sets me free…


“Africans have a fresh sense of creativity that other people don’t have. We are drawing people to Africa with our art. I mean it’s got to be something. You’re all here, right?”

– Atang Tshikare (36 years old), South African visual artist

Atang says this and I ask myself what drew me here. It was over six months ago when a friend from school told me about the OACS service-learning program in South Africa. She urged me to apply to one of the four programs and I knew immediately which country I wanted to go to. Looking back, I would have said it was the experience of traveling to a new place in an unexplored part of the world, the opportunity to practice holistic approached service in Missionvale, and the chance to gain perspective that drew me to South Africa. But while I was here, I found gratitude for the takeaways I never could have predicted. I found that living with ten other students is the best way to build character (respect and patience specifically) and being involved in a place like Missionvale – where things are anything but routine and unexpected delays in delivery are not so unexpected – is the greatest way to practice stillness. These past six weeks fostered countless emotional – and unforgettable – experiences that grew my awareness of others needs and wants in a way like never before. On this trip, I began a journey of what intentional mindfulness looks and feels like.

Finishing out our final days in Cape Town on the Township Art Tour was the most fitting way to close out our trip. The tour throughout the colored streets of Woodstock ended with a conversation with Atang. The artist offered his brilliance and confidence and painted South African pride with every word like a stroke on an empty canvas. Street art is a medium I’d never studied before the tour. The TAT street art program is a movement introduced in neighborhoods like Woodstock, ridden by crime and poverty, to initiate positive growth by tourism. The street art deploys messages of peace, preservation, protest, and politics. All in the name of informative justice and expressive freedom, all done to lift up a community and encourage change.


Most of the street art we saw was ornamented with elements that were not originally put there by the artist. On some of the art pieces, the guide asked the group to differentiate the marks on the work that weren’t done by the original artist as either vandalism or tagging. I think our guide indirectly described tagging to be when an artist decorates another person’s work with an addition that doesn’t inhibit the original message of the piece. Vandalism is when the addition obstructs the art piece and impedes its original message – though I am still not 100% certain because our guide was a bit ambiguous. More times than not, we went without a unanimous verdict on whether or not the addition was tagging or vandalism.

The ambiguity of this all somehow paralleled the thoughts we battled as we served in Missionvale and Machiu. Tagging or vandalism? Do we focus on the isms or the immediate needs in a society that has been tagged by poverty and vandalized by racism and hate? These were questions we faced as we discussed the sustainability of our program and how we would continue working to facilitate change. This topic of sustained change was brought before our cohort on an individual basis and directed towards the group as a whole. I believe we should approach mediation to the issue of ism or immediate need in a way our tour guide did by calling the obstructions to the art “vanda-tagging”. There are people who feel more equipped to address the ideological means while others want to help provide immediate relief to an issue. We cannot focus solely on one and forget the other. I’ve learned so much from being in South Africa but I’ve solidified my belief that solution requires a combination of efforts; raising the awareness of lasting implications of racism, sexism, and other isms while addressing immediate need with help. I am thankful to have been apart of a program that helped me understand these systems of injustice and corruption. I witnessed first hand the kind of paralyzing affect that once flourishing hate ideology can have on a country. I also witnessed those who rise above the adversity and fight for change daily.

South Africa vandalized all of my misunderstandings of its history with colors of love and progression, with unsettlement and protest. It tagged me by inspiring me with a desire I’ve recognized before; an affection for representing those who go unrepresented and together discovering healing in a broken world.

Who am I

He sets me free…


3 Comments Add yours

  1. ed nichols says:

    I agree, Layla, total and complete immersion is hard maybe even impossible. But how I admire you for trying and doing the best that you can. At the end of the day the best thing that can be said about a person is that they did the best that they could with what they had. I know sometimes it seems pointless even useless. But do not be discouraged and over time it will add up. And if you keep doing the best that you can with what you have one day you will look back and say “Wow, I really did make a difference.”. Ed


  2. Layla Shahmohammadi says:

    Thank you, Ed. I’m learning week by week that the work I’m doing isn’t what matters, but more so it’s what I’m taking away from being at the center by witnessing the conditions. This way I can use my resources and opportunities to empower the center with future contributions and fundraising. Immersion is giving me inspiration to evoke change in the future and continue seeking justice.


    1. ed nichols says:

      Layla, Do you have any specific fundraising project in mind? If so, go for it! Ed


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