Volunteering In South Africa

About a year ago I was teacher training in a school in a little town in England, I was enjoying it but realised that it was not the career path for me just yet so I set about looking for a job. I have always loved travelling, and lived abroad a lot when I was growing up, in Hong Kong, Germany and Northern Ireland, so when I saw an advert for a fully funded placement in Sweden I applied, and then before I knew it I was heading of to South Africa. No they did not get the flights wrong! Sweden was a more administrative role and the organisation I was being placed with suggested I apply for the Children Rights Europe- Africa exchange.

To be honest I did not know a lot about South Africa before I arrived, indeed the one nugget of information that I kept telling everyone was that they have penguins there, which of course nobody believed! However as I told people about where I was to spend 9 months, they all warned me about the violence and crime that they or other people had experienced in South Africa, although many seemed relieved that it was Cape Town that I was heading for and not Johannesburg.

There were stories of violent crime, jewellery being ripped from your person, weapons and rape, this was not sounding like a place I wanted to be. However I was still too excited to let this sink in, and wanted to keep an open mind, after all I was going to Africa!  So what were my impressions stepping off that plane 7 months ago. Well to start with it was a very long queue, perhaps this was a sign of the disorganisation of developing countries? Then as we drove away from the airport there were slums, something I had only seen in pictures before, even the shopping mall that we stopped at to buy essentials was a little run-down compared to home. What had I let myself in for? This really was a developing country, without all the creature comforts of home, this really was going to be a cultural experience! And one I was not sure I wanted. Yet all of these observations were just surface things, scratch a little deeper and you see that South Africa is a warm and welcoming place with a wealth that is not measured in money but in the smiles and kindness of strangers, in the music played on the trains and buses as an expression of the many cultures and the sheer happiness of the people, for the beauty in the scenery like the clouds over Table Mountain that make it change it’s look three or four times a day. Cape Town does have a problem with crime, but it does not make it unsafe, if you are careful and sensible and give the city a chance you will see that it has a lot of culture, warmth and excitement to offer. I arrived thinking I would get none of the creature comforts of home to find that Cape Town has all the culture one could want and more, there are live concerts, opera, nightlife, good food, amazing beaches and much much more.

 It was comforting when I met a British Tourist one night in Long Street who was frightened to be out alone past a certain hour to be able to say, Cape Town is not like that, be sensible and you’ll be perfectly safe! I arrived thinking I could never be at home in a place with such violence and poverty, in a place with such a dark history, to find that I am now very much at home, cycling along main road to work, popping to Vishoek (Fishhoek) market on a Saturday Morning, even getting used to Potatoes and Rice served with the same meal!

 So what about the job I came here to do. As this is a Children’s Rights Exchange I was placed with a Children’s Rights organisation in Diep River, called Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (RAPCAN). RAPCAN, is a well established NGO that works at the local, provincial, national and international level, aiming to prevent child abuse and neglect. I was placed with the research and advocacy department. At first I thought that this was going to be a very dull experience, it was clear that this was going to be a desk job and I could easily do that back home. Once again however I was gladly proved wrong. As part of my job I have conducted research on the situation of children in the Western Cape, which was very interesting and informative, I have attended community workshops, even help design resources for them which was a very enjoyable experience and really taught me the problems faced by people really trying to make a difference on the ground, I have presented reports to the department of education in order to persuade them the importance of a particular design of programme, I have then helped design that programme with a team of other people, knowing that the design could be integrated into Life Orientation in the future. For ‘just’ a desk job I have had the chance to see all the work that goes into the background in order to change laws, to design curriculums, to make a difference on the ground. I have been furnished with so many new skills, researching and writing reports, facilitating workshops, designing curriculums and so on. Even though I do not get to see directly the difference this makes, for example the child that chooses not to become pregnant because there are other options, but I really get to see the hard work and process that goes into making a difference in the community. I have seen how the work in schools in Lavender Hill has helped turn those schools around, the children now have safe toilets and a better learning environment, the educators now see a route they can take to achieve their goals.

Even the smallest thing you do can make a big difference, and although you may not see and feel this everyday, if you step back and look you will see that you have made a difference by giving your time and energy, even if that means somebody more qualified is able to do their job because you are photocopying or making tea! Although believe me, once they see what you are capable of there is no way you will be doing that as a volunteer. In my experience the organisation will look at your skills and enthusiasm and give you a chance to shine for the time that you are there.  Volunteering does not only change how you think about a place and country, but how you feel about yourself. I would never have imagined that I would go travelling across Africa by myself, that I would present at meetings to the department of Education, give radio interviews, or design resources that could be used by children in South Africa for years to come.

For me volunteering changed a lot. I was lost and confused before I came here, and while I do not know exactly where I will head next I know the kind of work I would like to do and the kind of difference I would like to make. Volunteering is one of the best things you can do with your life, but like anything, you get out what you put in, if you go with a closed mind and negative expectations, then unfortunately that is what you will get out, but if you go being open and willing to give a lot, then you will get a whole wealth of experiences, skills and memories out of it. I would not change these 7 months for the world, I am only sorry that there are only two left!