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Projects Abroad Volunteer Programs in South Africa
Mariska Neefjes, 20 years old, is from the Netherlands and currently a student in European Law at Maastricht University. She has been working for Projects Abroad from July to September 2011 as an intern for her studies. She has always loved traveling and learning about new cultures.
Highlights: The highlight of my volunteer experience was gaining the feeling that you actually can do something good for people. I think the work that the Human Rights Office does is really important, since it offers a chance for people who cannot afford a lawyer. The mock trial project was also nice, since it keeps the children off the streets after school. In addition to the work that I have done, I have also enjoyed traveling around Cape Town and seeing some of this beautiful country. The highpoint was definitely my visit to Robben Island.
Morning: During the week I started working at 9am at the Human Rights Office and since my host family was living in another area of Cape Town, I had to travel by train for 15 minutes each morning, usually together with some other volunteers. This is an experience in itself, with somewhat overcrowded trains. During the mornings I sometimes had appointments with clients and sometimes I worked on writing my legal opinions on cases that were handed over to me. In addition to this, once a week I went with my ISV supervisor to Lavender Hill, a really poor area of Cape Town, where we had meetings with clients who were not able to come to our office. Here you sometimes come across difficulties with language barriers. For example, since not all people speak English, some only speak Afrikaans.
Afternoon: During the afternoons we had lunch together with the volunteers, which sometimes meant going to a nice bar across the street and sometimes just eating the lunch you brought from home. After this I continued working on my legal opinions and contacting clients. Two afternoons in the week I went to Athlone, a rather poor area of Cape Town, where I worked on a mock trial project with 7 children between the ages of 12 to 14. This Mock Trial started off with a discussion project and learning the techniques to participate in a debate. After this we had the mock trial sessions in which we prepared the children to act like lawyers in a small case, which they would eventually have to do in a real court in front of a real judge. During the week ISV gave us a lot of social projects such as going to a prison for young boys or going to a shelter for women.
Evening: I think a typical evening did not exist for me, since we always did different things. Sometimes I was just staying at home and renting a movie with some of the other volunteers at the same house, but sometimes we always went out for dinner to a nice restaurant and we had drinks afterwards. However, there also are loads of opportunities to go to a nice party in Cape Town. In addition to this, barbecues are really popular in Cape Town! If you really like barbecue you should definitely go to Mzoli's on Sunday, which is a huge barbecue in the township.
GO: Why did you decide to volunteer with Projects Abroad in South Africa?
Emily: I decided to volunteer abroad in South Africa because I was really interested in South African culture. It sounds silly but in fifth grade I was obsessed with zebras and this got me interested in learning more about Africa but later on in middle school we started studying Nelson Mandela and my focus shifted from the physical aspects of the country to the unique cultural characteristics of South Africa specifically. This prompted me to start learning some Zulu my sophomore year of high school and the following year I applied and was granted a fellowship to fund my trip!
GO: Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.
Emily: Every day the van picked me and the other volunteers living with my host family and we headed into Vrygrond, a township outside of Cape Town, where I went to Masikuhle Educare to help the kids with daily activities. This included feeding the little guys, teaching the older kids how to write their names and lots of singing, playing, and laughing. Everyday at noon time the kids go to sleep for a three or four hour nap because for a lot of them it wasn't safe to sleep at home. There wasn't much for us to do so this ended our time there.
In the afternoon I would take the train to Muizenberg where myself and other Surf Project volunteers taught local kids how to surf and swim. This meant some fun warm ups on the beach including sandcastle building, practice paddling, and beach races until we took to the water and helped instruct the kids on when to paddle and stand up and pushed them into waves. This brings us to about five in the afternoon and after we helped the kids wiggle out of wet suits the other volunteers and I would grab some food and return to our host families later on.
GO: How has this experience helped you grow personally and professionally?
Emily: This experience has absolutely impacted my future, I have always wanted to go into medicine and this made me only want to pursue this field more because I think you can offer so much to people when you have these skills. I now know I want my focus for university study to be a human rights major with a pre-med concentration.
This experience has also made me realize what an amazing opportunity I have to work and go to school everyday and to take advantage of every opportunity presented to me and hope that an opportunity to return to South Africa comes soon!
About Projects Abroad
Projects Abroad is a global organization formed around the need for gap year programs abroad designed for students taking a break from studying. Since its inception, Projects Abroad has expanded to offer high school volunteer programs, and a vast variety of programs geared towards those taking a gap year or a career break. Visit the Projects Abroad website for more details on volunteer, teach, study and internship programs abroad.