My experience of volunteering in South Africa

In 2013 I decided to volunteer in South Africa. This was something I had dreamt of doing since I was around 10 years old and had a bedroom flooded with posters of the inspirational Princess Diana during her visits to poverty-stricken countries around the world (what an amazing woman!). I’m not sure why I was so adamant that I wanted to go to South Africa specifically, maybe it was the bright and vibrant culture, that loud, funky, tin-drum music, or the fact that I knew just how much those guys love fried chicken (seriously, I ate a lot of fried chicken in South Africa) Still, whatever the reason, I was sure as hell going to make it there!

Now, if you’ve thought about volunteering before then you will probably have noticed that the whole process seems to have become a bit of a catch 22 over the last few years, with more and more companies seemingly cashing in on the human desire to help others. This has of course resulted in a significant rise in the costs of participating in volunteer programmes, leaving many of us, frustratingly unable to do so. Added to this the numerous news stories of corruption within volunteering companies- money not being used for the right purposes or ending up in the hands of the wrong people- and it’s become a little more difficult for us to find the perfect placement…..

But, that wasn’t going to stop me- I desperately wanted to do something both helpful and valuable with a trustworthy and reputable company. And so I began trawling the internet for days on end until I eventually stumbled upon ICS.

“ICS is a UK government-funded development programme that brings together 18 to 25-year-olds from all backgrounds to fight poverty in overseas and UK communities. To volunteer overseas with ICS you dont need cash, skills or qualifications – just the ambition to make a difference.”

Sounded perfect. All they ask of you is that you are able to attend a training weekend within the UK (with the costs of this later reimbursed to you), get up to date with all the relevant injections you’ll need to work within your chosen country (again the costs are reimbursed) and finally, to fundraise a specific amount of money before your departure. All pretty simple and relatively easy stuff.

So, I attended the training weekend where I met some really lovely people, got up to date with all my injections even though I’m scared s***less of needles and began fundraising through a ‘Just giving page’.

After around 3 months of continuously pestering everyone who came within a 10 mile radius of me to donate to my fundraising efforts, finally I reached my target and was ready to depart on my 3 month stint in East London, South Africa. I was told to make my way to Gatwick airport and upon my arrival, I was greeted by a big group of volunteers and a ‘team leader’ who passed me an ICS T-shirt, making me easier to spot in the over-crowded airport. After this initial meet and greet and sizing up of the people I would be spending every day and night with for the next 12 weeks, I began to feel less-nervous and more like I was part of an earth-loving, humanitarian stag party (I think the T-shirts helped).

My first week in South Africa felt a little bit like going back to school, except this time there was no outdoor playtime and no middle-aged dinner ladies offering me leftover Victoria sponge cake. This first week consisted of 8.30 wake up calls for breakfast then on to 3 hours of training classes covering everything from politics to problems within the developing world. Then lunch break followed by another 5 hours of how to handle language barriers with African children, how to get sponsorship for community projects, how to create the perfect fundraising strategy for events…. the list goes on. So whilst I did learn a lot during this time, I was also so overcome with anxiety and excitement that I had the attention span of a squirrel on crystal meth. This made it pretty hard for me to both stay awake and retain all of this new-found information. And I was not alone in this either, although the Team leader’s did their best to keep us all as upbeat and engaged as possible.

10 days later, training course completed, off we all went in a rather over-cramped and slightly unsafe-looking minibus to our selected villages. And boy was it a shock to my fragile system. Stepping off the bus, backpack in tow, I was greeted by no less than 20 chickens, a very aggressive-looking cow and now a whole lot else. I don’t know why but I had previously envisioned this moment with crowds of little children running up to us all, greeting us with big smiles, open arms and a look of puzzled interest. Yet standing there on a dusty side road in the middle of absolutely nowhere, staring at the small concrete hut that was now to be my home, it felt as if not a single person had even bat an eyelid at our presence.

I’ll be honest, I felt a little bit deflated as we began unpacking our bags.

It quickly became apparent to me that by ‘basic living conditions’ as laid out in my contract with ICS, that I really should have googled just exactly what ‘basic’ meant. Our tiny little hut was to be shared with 5 girls- 3 beds, two buckets to pee in, two buckets to wash ourselves in, two electrical stoves to cook with and a small fridge/freezer. That was pretty much it. And it wasn’t going to get much better- we had arrived during winter and it was so cold that I actually started wearing a self-made scarf turban whilst sleeping just to make sure my ears didn’t freeze and drop off during the night.

My first day at school was not exactly what I had planned either. Classes started at 8 but if the headmaster (who had the key for the school gates) didn’t fancy coming in at that time or was running late for whatever reason, then both teachers and students had to congregate outside in the freezing cold, waiting for him to arrive. As you can probably tell, the headteacher and me didn’t exactly become best mates. My class itself was a very mixed bunch which both filled me with happiness and simultaneously drove me crazy. From my very first day at school, I quickly realised that my class of 30 or so students had formed a sort of divide within the room. Subconsciously done or not, one side was full of the hard-working, ambitious eager to learn and open-minded kids whilst the other was filled with the distracting, procrastinating, unenthusiastic class clowns.

This, at times made it very hard to control the class.

They did however all respond very well when I made them stand outside the classroom, listing the names of every bone within the human body until they were willing to sit in my classroom and successfully participate, without firing screwed-up bits of homework at each other. They also liked chocolate so I always carried a bag to school with me to use as a reward for taking part and positive behaviour. I know that probably sounds sly to some of you and as a former teacher myself I mostly disagree with this method of ‘bribery’ but at that point it was pretty much my only option. I began to form some really close bonds with those kids and started to feel a real sense of excitement and interest resonating from them when I entered the class room. I really started to look forward to going to school and teaching something new, whilst motivating the kids to achieve their goals, regardless of their current circumstances.

Things weren’t always rosy though. Seven weeks on in South Africa and I got very very sick. I won’t bore you with the gory details but what started out as a small stomach infection turned into me going temporarily blind, throwing up every time I opened my mouth and eventually waking up in hospital hooked up to a morphine drip. Did I mention I’m s*** scared of needles?! It was an interesting time to say the least… one that ultimately resulted in me having to fly home early as I just couldn’t make a full recovery under the living conditions I was in.

I didn’t want to leave and I was gutted when I was told it was the best and pretty much the only option for me but I also held great value over the time I did manage to have there. Volunteering taught me a lot, not just about the world but about myself too. I learnt that I can adjust surprisingly well to a simplified way of living- on many occasions I actually questioned wether I had in fact been living my life in the wrong way in the western world for the past 20 years. Walking to get water in the morning, bathing in a bucket, teaching in a school with no roof, seeing how happy the children were just to receive brand spanking new text books or a bit of chocolate- all the little things I (and many of us) take for granted, now hold so much more weight in value. Having time away from the ‘outside world’ with no access to internet or social media did wonders for my mental health and clarity of mind. I felt so relaxed and proactive, I was actually doing something useful with my time instead of just scrolling through Facebook to see what everyone else was doing. I was able to give something back, maybe only temporarily but I did my little bit and I’m proud of that. It is something I will never forget and I hope to do again soon!


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