I decided to volunteer abroad as every now and then I like to do something that puts me out of my comfort zone, so I chose South Africa as I wanted to go somewhere that I had never been before and somewhere I didn't actually know much about, so I would be in a situation that was unfamiliar to me. I decided to go after leaving college as I believed the experience would help my confidence and independence for going to university – I figured that if I could go to a foreign country by myself and live with a family I had never met before, then moving out and studying for a degree shouldn't be a problem!
I decided to go with Projects Abroad because of the support that was given. Even before I had made my mind up at to exactly where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, they were on hand to answer any questions that I could think of. I also liked the fact that the price covered everything for when you were out there, so once I got to South Africa I was just able to enjoy my time there,without having to worry about budgeting and therefore possibly missing out on certain opportunities, such as social events.
I was actually very surprised when I first came out the airport – people drove on the left hand side of the road and the road signs were familiar! Not too different from home. But the thing that really shocked me, which I think affects all visitors and volunteers, is the very distinct gap between the wealthy and the impoverished. Coming from the UK, this sort of obvious divide between the poor and rich does not exist. People are not living in houses which they have constructed out of whatever materials they could find. When I was driven past the oldest and second biggest township in Cape Town I realised that this was something I had never witnessed before.
I was part of the 2 week special placement, which I really enjoyed – even if it did go too quickly! My host family were some of the nicest people I have ever met. They made me feel so welcome and comfortable, and the food! Sometimes I do find myself wistfully thinking of the delicious meals that Faye used to cook – including homemade foccacia bread, which is probably my favourite food of all time now!
The first week I was there felt like a crash course in getting to know Cape Town and its history in Human Rights, as it included visits to places such as the Slave Lodge, the District Six museum and Robben Island.
I also got to visit several townships where I was able to talk to South African citizens. This included helping out at a soup kitchen, which many of the children attended. Those children displayed a tremendous amount of energy and love, attaching themselves to you at any opportunity! I definitely felt like a piece of my heart was left behind there.
At the weekend I had the opportunity to complete the famous “Garden Route” trip, which, although involving a 5am start, was definitely one of the best parts of my time in South Africa. The two days included a three hour safari, a walk with lions and the chance to ride elephants! My favourite part however was visiting the wildlife centre where I had the chance to interact with lemurs (and by interacting I mean having them clamber all over me!)
The second week was when I was really able to focus on the current Human Rights issues that South Africa is facing. I met people who are currently tackling these issues, such as those involved in the African Scholars Fund and Gun Free South Africa. These groups really made me aware of what exactly were the causes of children not being able to receive education and illegal gun ownership, and what was being done to resolve these problems. I finished the week by presenting to the other volunteers in the Human Rights Office on The Access to Sufficient Food in South Africa. I learnt a lot from researching it and I hope the other volunteers also learnt something new.
It was quite difficult to leave South Africa in the end. Even having been there for a short time, I had made friends who I know will be my lifelong pen pals and totally immersed myself in the new, exciting culture of Cape Town. A few days after I had returned I went to a local music festival which I have been going to for a few years. It felt rather strange to be standing in a muddy field in wellies, when a week before I had been seeing animals such as springbok and ostriches in the wild - which were on sale to eat at one of the food stalls!
I am already planning my next trip to South Africa with Projects Abroad, but it might be more wishful thinking seeing as I am about to become a student! But my advice to those thinking of volunteering is not to think about it too much, obviously planning for your trip is important but try not to get too caught up in what might or might not happen when you're there – just go for it, you won't regret it.