Volunteering in South Africa

Volunteering in South Africa

Cape Town, South AfricaI’ve been thinking a lot about South Africa the past couple of weeks as I have been planning a honeymoon there for a lovely couple. They leave today and I cannot wait for them to experience this amazing country! South Africa will always hold a special place in my heart because I’ve traveled there twice for 3 months each time. In 2003 I went to South Africa through BUNAC’s Volunteer South Africa program. I lived with a local family in Athlone, which is a suburb of Cape Town, and volunteered at a local primary school called Sunnyside. As of the 2001 census the racial makeup of the suburb was 3.21% Black African, 69.66% Coloured, 23.45% Indian/Asian, 3.69% White and 0% from other races. When I first found out that I would be living in a “Coloured” community I had to educate myself on this term because here in the United States the term “Colored” is considered offensive and has a different meaning. In Southern Africa the term is used to describe an ethnic group which Wikipedia defines below:


In the South AfricanNamibianZambianBotswana and Zimbabwean context, the term Coloured (also known as BruinmenseKleurlinge or Bruin Afrikaners in Afrikaans) refers to an heterogeneous ethnic group who possess ancestry from Europe, various Khoisan and Bantu tribes of Southern Africa, as well as peoples of West AfricaIndonesiaMadagascarMalayaIndia,MozambiqueMauritius, and Saint Helena.[2]


Besides the extensive combining of these diverse heritages in the Western Cape — in which a distinctive Cape Coloured and affiliated Cape Malay culture developed — in other parts of Southern Africa, their development has usually been the result of the meeting of two distinct groups. Genetic studies suggest the group has the highest levels of mixed ancestry in the world.[3][4] However, the maternal (female) contribution to the Coloured population, measured by mitochondrial DNA studies, was found to come mostly from the Khoisan population.[5][6]



Whenever I would tell a white South African that I was going to be living in Athlone they thought I had lost my mind because it is an area that you wouldn’t normally go and with my long, bleach blonde hair I definitely stood out. There were four volunteers that lived with my host family – two Dutch girls and a bloke from Dublin, Ireland. The two Dutch girls had a different volunteer placement at a home for disabled people and came home most afternoons in tears because the conditions where difficult. Des (the guy from Ireland) and I immediately hit it off and became the best of friends. I am so thankful that we were placed together because I don’t think I could have gone through this life changing experience on my own. Sunnyside Primary School needed so much that it was overwhelming. Des helped with the computer class since his background was in IT. I became close with one of the 1st grade teachers and helped with her class a lot because she had 40 five year olds with no assistant. Des and I also worked on improving their library which was a project that the volunteers before us had started. We called around to local white schools to see if they had any books they would like to donate, went and picked them up, and then cataloged them. There was also an after school program called the “Achievers Club” that helped students struggling with reading that we enjoyed helping out with.


The teachers at this school are truly angels. Each class only had one teacher and around 40 kids. They had limited resources but they loved what they did and it showed. Not every school in South Africa is this fortunate. One of my favorite things about my time at Sunnyside was once a month at the staff meeting everyone would bring in a dish to share and we’d all have lunch together. It was so much fun to try all of the traditional Cape Coloured foods and listen to everyone speak in their very distinctive accent which you will only find in this area!


Towards the end of my time volunteering I decided to go to the township of Kayamandi, which is outside of Stellenbosch, to see my friend Katie for the weekend. I wanted to see the community center where she had been working and meet her host family. This was the first time Des and I had not been together since I got to South Africa. Kayamandi means “sweet home” and is a much more impoverished area than Athlone where I was living. It is a black township which is mainly a shanty town with a few cinder block houses.


Getting there safely was not an easy task. Katie set me up with the daughter of a friend of hers – a young African girl who goes to school in Cape Town but lives in Kayamandi. We met at the train station in Cape Town so that I wouldn’t have to travel alone. Together we rode in 2nd class. It is so hard for me to explain what it is like riding 2nd class in South Africa as a white girl. I was nervous but tried to look confident as everyone was staring at me….sizing me up. The train stops outside Stellenbosch and once you exit the train you have to walk along the train tracks and up the hill into Kayamandi. This was the scariest part. I stood out like a sore thumb walking with everyone who worked and went to school in Cape Town and was returning home for the weekend. As we walked up the dirt hill there were people butchering and cooking chickens on the side of the road. I was surrounded by tin shacks.



We worked our way up the hill and I could finally see the community center was just a short distance away. I relaxed a little. I had made it. My friend Katie walked out of the community center and started to wave at me and then it happened. A man grabbed me from behind and put a huge blade to my throat. His accent was so thick and hard to understand that he had to say it three times….”Give me your bag or I’ll kill you. Give me your bag or I’ll kill you. Give me your bag or I’ll kill you!” I had run over in my head many times what I would do in this situation. I didn’t do any of it. I lifted my bag over my head and handed it to him. If he had told me to take all my clothes off I would have done it. One of things I learned through this is that when someone puts a knife to your throat you will do ANYTHING they tell you to do.  All I remember seeing as this was happening was the young girl I was traveling with standing in front of me with her mouth wide open. As soon as I handed him my bag he ran off and left me unharmed. I never actually saw him.


Katie ran down the hill to where we were and I was completely calm. In total shock. I could not comprehend at that moment that I could have just died. Had he decided to cut my throat more than likely there would have been no consequences. The prisons are full and these things happen everyday there. I would have just been a stupid American girl who was in a black township when I shouldn’t have been. But I was a volunteer. I was there to help. No one would want to hurt me, right? However, when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose and I honestly feel no ill will towards that man because he was probably just trying to feed his family. Although the poor guy didn’t even get my wallet which was in my coat pocket. He did get my camera though, which is why I have no personal pictures to post in this blog entry.


I always hesitate to tell this story because I don’t want to make people scared to go to South Africa. It is an amazing country and you should definitely go! You would never be where I was as a tourist. I was young and naive and had a false sense of security since my friend lived in Kayamandi and I was walking with a local in broad daylight. If I had simply looked behind me while walking up the hill and noticed him following us I might have been able to prevent it. The locals who had been working with the volunteers at the community center to make their home a better place were furious. They know that if these things happen to the volunteers then we won’t come back and they need us. It didn’t stop me from coming back to South Africa. I returned in 2007 for another 3 months but not as a volunteer this time. That trip was completely different but I will save that for another blog entry.


Even though this one bad thing happened to me it does not take away from all of the amazing people, places, and experiences I had during those three months. This entry does not even scratch the surface of everything I did and experienced in South Africa as a volunteer. South Africa is a place that stays with you. The memory of it is always close at hand. Even though I’ve been twice I wouldn’t hesitate to jump on a plane there again…like my honeymoon clients who are somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean as I type this.

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