Monday, 2 July 2012

Diary of a Volunteer in South Africa


First day of school!  And it actually is as exciting as a first day of school when I was a kid.  Today we went to the Bulugha school and helped with the preschool class.  Learning the names will be quite the task, let alone pronouncing them correctly, but that’s the goal.  Xhosa is the language spoke by most.  Xhosa incorporates all types of tongue clicking that has so far been lost on me.  I can only imagine it’s a skill you are born with.  My hope is to master it enough so as not to be laughed at by the time I leave. 

The schoolroom is probably an 8x8 ft. room at best.  But there are 30 kids that couldn’t be happier to be there.  It’s amazing how quickly they latch on to you.  “Miss! Miss! Miss!” is quite endearing.  We taught them the letter “C” today.  Played outside (sharks and minnows – if anything is a universal game, it’s that), colored and sang songs.  All while overlooking a field of zebras. 
In the afternoon we went to the Green Sleeves Orphanage.  It breaks your heart to know that all of these kids are without parents, either from losing a parent to AIDs, drugs or just being abandoned entirely.  The children embrace you as if they’ve known you forever.  A 4 year old, Lithle, wouldn’t let me put her down.  We took them on a long walk – all of them barefoot while I struggled in my sandals.  They also ate everything from every tree along the way.  I wouldn’t have the first clue if any of it was edible or not but they seemed to know their way around pretty well.  We played on the swing set for a while before it was time to go. 


Today I went with several girls to the local Chintsa East church in the township.  And by church I mean a small hut with plastic chairs and a desk as the alter.  Brother Rubin and everyone were very warm and welcoming – they gave up their seats for us, shared their bibles and completely embraced us.   The enthusiasm with which they conduct their services, and just general enthusiasm for God and Jesus is like none I’ve ever seen.  Loud and active song, dance, praying out loud (screaming, with some crying), and an endless amount of “Amens!”  It’s refreshing to witness people so freely expressing themselves and their worship.  It’s also a wonderful glimpse into such a warm and loving culture.  I don’t think any kind of touristy experience in Chintsa East can top being this close and personal to the local community and really understanding this great part of South Africa.


Had a nice weekend away in Mdumbi – about 4/5 hours north along the coast.  Very very rural but absolutely gorgeous.  The hostel there is completely sustainable and everything used is reused.  You stay in little rondavals with thatched roofs on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  While there we had a chance to visit the local preschool and it was great to get to see another classroom on the Eastern Cape.  Literacy in Mdumbi was much higher and the day was much more structured but we got some great ideas and it’s definitely something to aspire to. 

Back in Cintsa we taught the kids one of the activities we learned in Mdumbi.  They go around in a circle and say “Hello, how are you?” and “I’m fine” while shaking hands.  After school there was a special event promoting the launch of a local bamboo project - Thuba Bamboo.  The mission behind it is to increase the Eastern Cape economy and establish co-ops in local communities and teach business skills.  Five women from Cintsa East were selected and have been making a variety of products out of bamboo.  A lot of community members came out for the launch and the school choir performed led by the preschool teacher, Phumla.  As if this woman could do any more – she’s a teacher, a student, a mother/grandmother/foster mother, Friends of Cintsa advocate and an overall amazing community leader.  If there were more people like her in these townships, I have to imagine there would be a lot less AIDs, drugs, teenage pregnancies and illiteracy. 


Today was a great day at Bulugha preschool.  The preschool classroom at Bulugha is tiny for 30+ students.  There is a room next to the classroom that is filled to the brim with everything from a bed frame to watering cans to school resources that are buried underneath everything else.  The volunteer coordinator and I decided it would be great if we could do something about this while we are here and propose revisions to this space, i.e. cleaning out the storage area, organizing the contents, incorporating new shelving and maximizing classroom space.  We took pictures of the crowded conditions and wasted space and also did a site measure of the entire building.  We created a floorplan and then a new proposed floorplan and put it all into a powerpoint.  It was presented to the head of our volunteer organization for approval to build and fund new shelving units.  It was then presented to the principal of Bulugha and within a half hour of showing it to her, she had the whole school working in the preschool classroom and adjoining room to clean it out and get rid of rubbish and putting resources in their correct rooms.  Though I’ve never seen so many cockroaches in my life, it was so wonderful to see such a quick and positive response to the problem.  The kids were so helpful (and found my response to the cockroaches amusing) and more than willing to help out.  The classroom has never looked bigger (and cleaner!) and I’m excited to see how the changes promote a more positive school experience for our preschoolers. 


Last day in South Africa and very sad to leave (also sad to have 36 hours of travel ahead of me).  I’ve had a wonderful two months in this great country.  Highlights of the last several weeks include: a trip to the mountainous and enchanted town of Hogsback where we got our fairy cards read and climbed a huge treehouse; a safari with a friendly ostrich and lions that were far too close; concerts given by students at both Bulugha and Cintsa East schools; a Lantern Festival including children from all areas of the community with beautifully handmade candle lanterns, songs and sunset; and a final trip to Cape Town to see the wonderful wine lands, Cape Peninsula, Table Mountain and enjoy amazing cuisine. 

I think above all else, though, I will have appreciated most my time spent with the wonderful community and great people of Cintsa East.  I’ll miss everyone greeting each other on the street, the enthusiasm of the school children and incredible self-sufficiency and discipline they display at such a young age, the rich culture, traditions and beautiful language of the Xhosa people, and, of course, the community leaders that set a wonderful example for all those that live or visit this great part of the world. 

I can’t say enough positive things about this experience or my unwavering appreciation of it.  “Cheers” and “Enkosi” to all my new friends and the very special town of Cintsa.  


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