Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Volunteering in South Africa

Volunteering in the New South Africa

So, we are back in Clare. But for a time, and maybe a long time, our hearts are still in Africa.
My son, a transition year student, participated with me in a month-long volunteer project with an organisation called help2read, a project based in a suburb of Cape Town called Muizenberg. At the moment it is a pilot programme but the director tells me she will soon will be operating in schools in the townships of Masiphumelele and Hout Bay (where the Mellon Foundation, known as ‘Irishtown’ in the Cape Peninsula, has built hundreds of houses). Every day for a month we worked with six primary schoolchildren. For half an hour each we read to them and encouraged them to read to us. We played cards sometimes and drew pictures of pirates and kings and butterflies. Our children, the students of Muizenberg Junior School, came from the local community and from places like Mitchell’s Plain, a coloured settlement from where it takes two hours to travel to school, and Grassy Park and even Khayelitsha—the township on the edge of the Indian Ocean, home to over a million. Some of our students like Esther, Rejoice, Joyful, and Fleming were refugees from Burundi and Rwanda and the Congo. Some of our students like Tyler were disadvantaged white South Africans. In the days before apartheid the school catered only for whites. Now it is 90 percent black and coloured, although the majority of teachers are white. While the infrastructure of the school is excellent, a legacy of pre-apartheid, the student body is bursting into every available space and the resources are stretched to breaking point. If the arrive at the door of the school, the school will take them in as long as they buy a blue uniform and white shirts and socks and black shoes. The school has tried to make a policy of not turning children away. These students were quite possibly among the luckiest of students and the school itself one of the most racially integrated in the country. It is the face of the new South Africa. It is putting its best foot forward. It is the model of education, and the contribution of volunteers like ourselves only make it better.

So what was it like, people ask when you come back. Well, really the experience is so profound, so different to your usual life that you could speak about it for days on end and still not quite capture it. Picture arriving after a 12-hour flight in Africa. It’s 6 in the morning, the January sun is dazzlingly hot, and you are there waiting four hours for your pick-up from the volunteer organisation with no idea of what lies ahead. At even that first moment we had stepped out of Western, Northern Hemisphere lives and into a slower pace. When a South African says ‘now now’ to you don’t expect it mean now as in double time. (Expect it to mean today, tomorrow or sometime next week.) Driving directly from the airport you see the township of Langa—one the biggest townships in the country. What strikes you is the rolling sea of tin roofs, thousands of tiny shacks, painted different colours. Some are collapsing. But most, amazingly so, are sustainable homes. Not long gone from the days of the ‘one family/one bed’ rule, the townships are slowly transforming into more acceptable housing. When you talk to people about township living you begin to understand that it is their ‘home’. Ask a person from a township to move into a wealthier neighbourhood and they will most likely refuse. A few weeks after our arrival we met a white South African couple, living in a wealthy suburb on the coast of the Indian Ocean who explained to us that their maid travelled two hours a day, each way, to work at their home. She was invited to stay for month while the couple went on holiday but she refused point blank. Didn’t even consider it. Why? Because where the whites lived was isolated. No community. No camaraderie. No neighbours living a shared experience. Not ‘now now’, she very likely said, ‘not ever’. Her employers take care of her expenses and have bought her second shack-cum-house in her township. If everyone did this, if the haves continue to give to the have-nots, then the new South Africa may be able to lead Africa itself, eventually, out of poverty.

Our own accommodation was on the edge of the Indian Ocean in a hostel where we shared living and cooking arrangements with other volunteers, surfing fans, and long-term residents, most of them from the Congo or in transit from the townships. With only five working hot plates being shared among 30 plus residents, dinnertime was chaotic. If you suffered from insomnia, then the beach hostel was not the place to lay your head at night. There was Willie, the oddest of characters, who wiped his face and arms and counters with the same dish-rag, keeping the place tidy albeit not germ free it must be said. There was Kweze and Ryan the young black surfing stars and Patrick the sharkspotter. There was Alex whose children and their mother lived in a township and he elsewhere because he was unable to marry her until he had given a dowry to the father, part of the Xhosa culture. Occasionally his beautiful children visited him at the hostel. There was Dom, a barefoot blond dreadlocked 19 yr old from Manchester with spider tattoos and wearing his board shorts down around his ankles looking for his passport and wallet that had been taken after another binge of heavy drinking. There was red-headed Una from Scotland on her way to India, after two months assisting in an orphanage in a suburb called Athlone, to work in another orphanage. And there was Aine, a 40 year old teacher from Limerick, taking a gap year and volunteering in the same reading project as ourselves. She was a teacher of Irish and French and my son practiced his French with her and occasionally his Irish, laughing together sometimes when no one else understood what they were saying.

We were looking for an opportunity to give something back and we found it through volunteering in South Africa. That we got to also experience a different place in the world at the same time was a bonus. The idea of ‘Meaningful Travel’ sums it up quite well: Volunteering and travelling. Within an hour from the township outside Port Elizabeth, where Sr Normoyle intends to urge volunteers to build a hospice for the Missionvale Centre, the elephants and giraffes and lions and cheetahs roam free inside private game reserves. But outside, in the streets, the new South Africa is breathing new life into itself. My son and I were part of that breathing life, a life full of contrasts, of tremendous beauty and poverty. The memories of the springbok on the grassy plains and the girl in the blue dress, Rachel Kunda from the Congo, on the sidewalk in Muizenberg are etched in hearts and minds forever.