Volunteering in South Africa

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November 5th 2007
Published: December 3rd 2009
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On July 14, 2007, I cried as I said goodbye to my boyfriend at the airport and got on a plane to go study at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa for a semester. While I was there I had the chance to meet some incredible people, study music, learn a lot about South Africa as a country, Africa as a continent, do volunteer work with impoverished children, see a lot of beautiful scenery, and learn to dodge traffic while riding a bicycle through a busy campus on the left hand side of the road.

Part of the reason I chose South Africa as my location for studying abroad was simply the fact that I didn't know that much about it. That and the fact that my university only had exchange programs for music majors in schools in three different countries: Croatia, Hungary, and South Africa. After some debate, I settled on South Africa.

When I arrived at the airport in South Africa I easily, but with much anticipation and anxiety, found the sign for Stellenbosch University. I told them who I was but they seemed to be really confused. They had not come to pick me up. After a quick phone call to the university, it was discovered that when I sent in my flight information, they hadn't realized that I arrived the day after departing flight. They had sent someone to the airport the yesterday to pick me up. Lucky for me, there were two other exchange students on my flight. I can't even imagine what I would have done if I would have arrived at the airport and there wouldn't have been anyone to pick me up. This was only my second time traveling abroad.

I was surprised when I got into the university van and discovered that the steering wheel was on the right hand side of the vehicle. Some how in all of the reading that I did before coming to South Africa, I failed to learn that they drive on the left hand side of the road. Although I was insanely jet lagged and falling asleep in the van, I definitely took notice of the long stretch of land beside the highway that was home to thousands of impoverished families. The houses were nothing more than sheets of metal stuck together to create make shift houses. I had noticed the township;
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A ray of sunshine...
however, I had been way too tired and too amazed by the fact that I was in Africa to truly comprehend just then exactly what I was looking at.

The fact that so many people live in such a squalid place in such awful conditions still amazes me. These make shift shacks are often incredibly small and can house an entire family, if not more than one. I had only been in Stellenbosch for less than a month when I signed up for the ISOS (International Students Organization of Stellenbosch) arts and crafts program. Every week about 20 or more volunteer students would pile into the university vans and drive into Kayamandi (a township that was only about a 20 minute walk from campus) with boxes full of art supplies. Our two program leaders would choose a project for the week and we would go to the elementary school and help the kids to complete the project. Before we could begin volunteering however, we had to complete an orientation that consisted of going on a tour of the township.

Our tour was given by a leader of Prochorus. Prochorus is one of the major projects for helping those
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This is before we found out that the ground is essentially clay. Shovels were next to useless.
who live in Kayamandi. The following is from the Prochorus website.

"The name Kayamandi means "sweet home”, alluding to the bitter irony that 65%!o(MISSING)f the population of 20 000 lives in shacks. An average family consists of eight people, often three generations are forced to share a two-bedroom house.

Having to make ends meet on a salary of R1 000 (about $136) per month or the pension of one senior family member, contribute to the hardships that most families endure. The community’s greatest needs are in the areas of youth and health care. There is only one doctor visiting the clinic once a week. Some of the youth get involved in crime, drugs, and alcohol abuse. Many of them remain unemployed because they cannot speak English or because of their crime record.Currently Kayamandi has a population of about 33.000 people on 75.06 hectare and 10%!o(MISSING)f the population are children under the age of 10 years and more than 50%!o(MISSING)f these children are from single mothers. More than 70%!o(MISSING)f the population in Kayamandi live in squatter camps with out a proper infrastructure. In these camps there is a very high rate of malnutrition, poverty and
HIV and Aids and also crime. The literacy-rate is also very low. On the other hand Kayamandi is still rich with Xhosa culture which is based on "UBUNTU" that is HUMANITY."

The day of our tour it was so cold and rainy. This was the first time I had ever entered the township and my first time to ever be in a place like this. We were walked us to different areas of the township, and showed how people live. It was so dark and dreary and I can still feel the sting on the inside of my nose as I remember some of the rancid smells that came out of some of the buildings that we entered. Plumbing and electricity was very primitive. If you saw a TV there was often at least a half a dozen people crowded around it. We saw women skinning chickens on the side of the street only to throw them, still bleeding, straight into the trunk of a car. Then the paradox that I would see again and again in Kayamandi happened for the first time, as soon as I could peel my eyes away from the horrid sight of the chicken
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Time for the pick axe...
car, I saw four or five laughing boys running up a hill with one beat up umbrella, their arms wrapped around each other singing in the rain. Their cheerfulness was breathtaking.

The following week, I hopped in the van again and went to Kayamandi Elementary School to volunteer for the first time. I was so nervous to go. I was completely prepared for and expecting the students to resent the fact that we were there. I was expecting to go into the school and have the students look down at us as if to say, "who do you think you are coming in here? You don't know us! Really, who the hell do you think you are?". Imagine my surprise when we entered the school to cheering, jumping, clapping, smiling children who were clamoring for high fives and our attention. I was so surprised by this uninhabited excitement that I nearly cried.

One day our craft was the making of seemingly innocent sock puppets. That is, it sounded extremely innocent until we actually started passing out the socks. It was then that I think all of the volunteers realized that most of these children can't afford to buy
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Success!! Overall, I think it took us about 8 hours to finish the sandbox.
socks, and wanted nothing more than to just keep the sock and wear it. Instead, we were telling them to take the sock, color it with marker and glue things to it. Many of the children could simply not understand why we would only give them one sock and not two.

Makes you appreciate everything that you have.

While I was in Stellenbosch, I also got involved with two other volunteer groups. One of them was also based in Kayamandi and was independent from the university. Twice a week at two o'clock, Kelly would come pick me up and take me to the learning center. There I would help wherever I was needed, tutoring children in math or English or leading simple art classes. Toward the end of my time there, the high school students were preparing for their English test. The student's first language is Xhosa so naturally, reading and understanding The Gift of the Magi was quite difficult for them. There were many words in it that they did not understand. I sat at a picnic table going through the whole short story with a group of high school students crowed around me and explaining the

Watergarden mailbox I decorated!
words and what was happening. These children were so attentive and willing to learn it was unbelievable.

Sometimes I would get picked up early and help with the food program. The learning center had just pretty recently received a sponsor who donated a certain amount of food for lunch everyday. The children who were dedicated members of the program got first preference. Other children from the township were also welcome to come; however, they formed a separate line and would only get fed if there was extra food. There was usually enough food to feed at least half of the additional children. Usually, my job consisted of trying to keep the lines orderly or helping wash the dishes. I was very much dismayed one day when I was briefly put in charge of checking the children's ID cards and stamping their hands to indicate that they could get in line for food. It extremely unnerving to stand in front of all of those hungry little eyes knowing that eventually I would have to turn some of them away, meaning they would not eat lunch that day.

Working with the Watergarden program was unique from the Kayamandi projects not only in it's location, Klapmuts, but also in the fact that the children spoke predominately Afrikaans. Since I was studying Afrikaans at the university at the time it was a good chance to practice what I was learning in class; however, 'what time is it' and counting will only get you so far. For example, I understood 'Wolf, wolf, hoe laat is dit?" a game we played which means "Wolf, wolf, what time is it?" but beyond that...

I was working with the Watergarden program during the time that they opened their library. Even though I couldn't understand what the children were reading, or what I was reading out loud with terrible pronunciation for that matter, it was easy to see how much the children just enjoyed being able to sit with an adult and read.

Additional photos below
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The small building on the right is the library.

The window I took this picture from was really dirty, but you can see a little bit of the houses.

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