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Published: August 8th 2012
On Saturday 21st July 2012, volunteers on the Lekazi project (Bethan, Bex, Joe, Jess, Kelvin, Tak and Tori) were met at Johannesburg airport, excitedly awaiting what the next 8 weeks would have in store. We were greeted by Winnie and Vuvu our driver and began the long trip from Johannesburg to Lekazi, which is located near the city of Nelspruit. We were instantly met by our first culture shock: a truck residing across the major road without any warnings. As a result, cars were driving across the sandy bank onto the nearest other busy major road. After a slightly dodgy off road transfer we continued the long drive. The scenery became steadily more mountainous, as we passed mixed scenes from fields of orange trees to small shabby towns and upcoming government housing. Eventually we pulled into a very pretty house and were delighted to find out that it belonged to Thembi, the owner of our guesthouse. As we were shown to our lodgings we were reunited with our project coordinators Anna and Stefan and all gathered around just in time to watch the most amazing sunset between the mountains from our very own garden.
Then the preparations for dinner began. We were treated to a braai (an African style barbeque) and upheld our gender stereotypes as the boys started the fire and the girls were shown how to make pap, apparently a necessary skill in Africa for impressing your in laws. Pap is the stable diet of most Africans, a cross between porridge and sticky rice, and more challenging to make than it appears! The dinner was amazing, the meat from the braai was delicious. It was also made all the better by the fact that it triggered Thembi’s horrified reaction to the fact that Bex was a vegetarian, a fact that would always remain a little bit of a sore spot, for according to her, at the heart of all South Africans are singing, dancing, alcohol and red meat.
The next day we were informed that the mains often cut water off due to major water shortages and as such we were to be without water for the foreseeable future. This was to be a reoccurring theme of our trip. Fortunately water was always available from a tap in our garden. It seemed very apt that we would have to fill buckets from a tap now that we were in Africa, though the novelty soon wore off due the fact that we had to go collect water in order to simply go to the toilet. However, aside from water shortages and the occasional power cut everyone adored the guesthouse, which very quickly became home. The best part was our patio / garden which allowed us to see for miles and sample some of the wildlife. So far monkeys, baboons, newts and a snake have been spotted. In fact, we were to discover that our heavily barbed wired garden was more to do with Thembi’s fear of baboons rather than any particular security threats.
We then began training week, in which, despite knowing everyone in the group well from the training weekend and the night we spent in Johannesburg together before being picked up, we were still subjected to some amazingly strenuous and hilarious ice-breakers. Amongst the more memorable ones was the cardboard box game in which one had to pick up an ever decreasing card board box using only our teeth, trying to uncover a bin bag that we were all standing on and scrambling around like lunatics to steal objects from each other’s teams before we finally realised we would have to work together in order to obtain all the objects and win the game.
Training week also consisted of preparing presentations, health and safety talks, beginning to understand cultural differences and a SiSwati language lesson in which we all attempted to make the infamous clicking sound. We also noted our aims for our project as well as our hopes and fears, and it was reassuring to find out that everyone else was equally apprehensive about what we would be facing. Yet these worries were resolved when we met Gladys, a wonderfully inspiring matriarchal figure who was involved in starting up and co-founding Tenteleni. She emphasised the importance even of our presence in inspiring and opening the eyes of the children we would be working with, as well as being good role models from the fact that we were volunteering and contributing the community.
This was to be followed by a whole range of inspiring individuals and non-government organisations we were to meet during the training week. Nito who had grown up in the area, gave us a great insight into the life of young people with his wealth of local and cultural knowledge. He also informed us of some old traditions and even taught us some African dance moves. We also had talks from SANCA (who provide help for alcohol and drug abusers and were shocked to find out that it wouldn’t be surprising if many of the learners in our class were on cannabis), GRIP (who look after and supported women who have been affected by rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse) and SOS (who have an entrepreneurial outreach and family strengthening program as well as running the orphanage we were to have our non-formal placement in). We were also immensely impressed by Youth for Christ, who had a much wider focus than just religion, and do an amazing job in supporting young people through further education and in life in general.
We also began to explore the local area, and were met by a large range of reactions, not surprising as the nine of us must have increased the white population of Lekazi by many hundred percent. As instructed we greeted everyone with “sanibonani”, which usually changed peoples’ expressions from wary to friendly and excited. Over the coming days we would find the community increasingly welcoming and soon felt properly integrated: recognising familiar faces, being enthusiastically greeted by the local market woman and later being recognised excitedly by pupils from our respective schools.
Training week also consisted of an orientation day. Despite having been prepared for teaching with limited resources and practising our teaching skills by teaching Tak who is from Japan all the English idioms we could think of, we were all in for a massive shock. Attending lessons, let alone being on time, as well as the concept of a class being quiet were clearly not customary. Approximately 60 students were crowded into each class room and even when the teacher did turn up, there always seemed to be a general murmuring and often a lack of desire to learn. Yet in contrast all the students seemed to have very good manners and many seemed excited to meet us. Most of our schools had an assembly the day we went in, and simply stating our few sample SiSwati words made the hundreds of students before us laugh, cheer and scream to an unbelievable extent. In fact, in the school Tak and I were in, a couple of students ran up to us and welcomed us by supplying us with niknaks, a kind of cheesy maize crisps. The rest of orientation day consisted of meeting teachers, observing lessons and talking to the learners. This resulted in many questions such as what it was like in the UK, whether we went to Will and Kate’s wedding and most commonly, whether we knew Beyoncé.
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