This was a column I wrote in the summer of 2009, just before I left my placement in Cape Town with Projects Abroad:
It is the middle of winter here in Cape Town. The days are warm and the nights are cold. The city is full of energy, bustling with the sounds of cars and minibuses, music, shouting, barking, laughter, echoes and footsteps. Giant mountains surround the city, majestically towering over the people, breaking the wide and wild sky overhead.
Over the past weeks, I have fallen in love with this country — its landscape, its people, its corruption, its unity. It is nothing like the upper-middle class suburban bubble that I call home. Actually, it is nothing I could have ever even imagined.
The atmosphere at the heart of Cape Town is similar to that of any big cities in the States, such as Boston or Denver. Commercialism is abundant, skyscrapers and beautifully-designed office buildings crowd the streets, lights and neon signs brighten the evening, and a certain level of overall style saturates the area. But just outside of the city, the third-world colors of South Africa truly shine.
Driving down the highway, I see shanties overlapping each other for miles on either side, built out of cardboard, tin, trash, bed springs, wire and rope. My gaze lingers on young children kicking up dust, running around tires, and playing soccer barefoot with large bottles. I watch their older brothers and sisters pace along the roadside with their thumbs up, hoping for a ride that won't come for hours, if it even comes at all. I see mothers with hopelessness and exhaustion etched across their faces. They trudge through the grass on feet worn and caked with mud. I watch them, clutching round-faced infants wrapped in long cloths close to their breasts. This is the hand they have been dealt. This is the life their young ones will unfortunately grow to lead. What other choice do they have? They are stuck in the same merciless cycle one finds in every other third-world country. Without money, there can be no education. Without education, employment is out of the question. And without some kind of job, they find themselves back at square one.
This dark and ever-present reality was part of what inspired me to teach English to first-graders in Cape Town this summer. After months of fundraising, working part-time, babysitting, and pulling my hair out, I was placed at Fairview Primary School through an international program called Projects Abroad. Fairview is a wonderful public school located in Grassy Park, which strives towards a proper and thorough education for each and every student. But for every teacher, there are usually about 40 children, with minimal classroom resources. I am assisting almost 100 children in total, working on sentence building and structure, reading and writing. Each class makes time for storytelling and recreation each day to keep the children's minds open and stimulated. In addition, music and song are highly integral parts of each child's education, as they allow children to learn all kinds of concepts and values in a playful and interactive way.
Fairview Primary School was constructed during apartheid in 1975. During this period of extreme segregation and discrimination against nonwhites, Grassy Park had been a primarily colored area. The school itself was a pre-fabricated building, only meant to last for about 10 to 15 years. Now, 35 years later, the building still stands, although it is slowly falling apart. The walls are only 28 millimeters thick, almost guaranteeing poor teaching conditions for both the winter and summer months. The sports field which is used by around 1,000 children each day was replaced 10 years ago, but is now a field of dust. "There just seems to be no money to fix up the school," Principal Aubrey De Wet says. "Funds have always been such a large problem." Unlike most other countries, South Africa demands a fee for any child to attend any school, whether public or private. In addition, schools already receive very minimal state funding. Therefore, it becomes very difficult for schools to offer any financial aid to their families that struggle to meet ends with the school fees. Last year was the first year Fairview Primary ever had to turn down places for incoming students. And we think our education system has problems.
However, there are some very positive things about this specific school. Firstly, the school offers a range of intramural activities after hours. These activities are taught by gracious teachers who give their time up willingly and refuse payment. Teachers also stay with their same class of students from Grade 1 through Grade 3, which helps to compensate for such a large student-teacher ratio. Furthermore, the school refuses to use physical disciplinary action. Finally, there is always a steady flow of volunteers passing through the school, whether they are placed by Projects Abroad, through other schools and universities around the world, or are independent travelers.
The volunteer work in the school has given me such a strong feeling of personal achievement and satisfaction. Teaching here has also taught me patience beyond what I ever thought I would be capable of at my age.
In fact, this entire adventure so far has been nothing short of amazing. Many people told me "traveling changes everything" before I left and even on my flight, but I never expected just how right they would be. Being out of my comfort zone and experiencing this whole new world has given me a completely different perspective on life. Why did I ever care about what clothes I wore, or what kind of cell phone I had, or who was right in last night's argument?
Here, clothes do not matter. Cell phones are all pay-as-you-go, and are too expensive to use frequently. The internet is a luxury. The train stations are packed with people but at least smell better than the London underground. Cars do not slow for pedestrians, no matter how young or old. Youngsters stray from safety without fear, running across streets, dodging traffic left and right. Stray dogs look both ways before they cross.
At night, it is safer to go through red lights than to stop at them. The marketplaces are alive with locals and tourists. A stranger looking for attention calls out of his car asking where an attractive girl's father is, and does he know she is out? Men wait at intersection stops to sell handmade crafts to people in their cars. Make up is almost nonexistent. Women stick by each other, and are always looking to offer advice. Time means little. Family means everything. A sunset on Signal Hill is a piece of artwork. A sunrise in Nature's Valley is the presence of God. Culture is celebrated. Food is never wasted. Innocence is a gift. Forgiveness is essential. People are beautiful. Struggle is normality. Music is everywhere. Life is for the moment.
If I may offer only one piece of advice from my experience, it is this: explore humanity. Venture out of your little corner and get your hands dirty. Expose your eyes to the wonders of the world we live in. Eat things that disgust you. Try things that scare you. Get to know the kinds of people you judged before you even met them, and reassess. Reach out to anyone who reaches for you. Reach out even when they don't reach for you.
And don't bother planning it all out, because the best plans often go astray. Instead, be spontaneous, and experiment your way through life. The best things happen to us when we aren't looking for them.
About Projects Abroad in South Africa:
Projects was incredible to me. When I applied to the program, I was only 17 years old - one of the youngest volunteers ever to travel to Cape Town alone through Projects, they told me. PA took wonderful care of me from start to finish. Once a week, we had social networking events for all of the volunteers in the city, and the volunteers would all catch a bus from their houses together. However, it was not a program that was so protected that I was sheltered from the culture of South Africa. I definitely experienced my fair share of everyday life while I was abroad. Projects Abroad doesn't hold your hand, but they do help you in every way they can extend their reach to you. There is a certain level of maturity that needs to come along with traveling abroad through ANY volunteer program. Projects gave me an incredible opportunity and did what they could for me, but with every program, it is the STUDENT that creates his/her true and unique experience.