It all started with a generic email…

I had not long left University. Graduating with a 2:1 was something I never thought I would do. I was proud of myself and excited for this new start in my life, anticipating what the future might hold for me. I wasn’t entirely sure about what I wanted to do, or even where I’d start. All I knew was that I was going to take each day as it came and keep up the positivity. In this blog I want to write about how volunteering in a small South African community changed my life. And it all started with a generic email.

Tearfund is a Christian international relief and development agency that has been around since the 1950s; they are passionate about ending extreme poverty in this generation, and are extremely motivated to making a difference in other peoples’ lives. I had often been impressed by the work they did after hearing about them at an annual festival, and had subscribed to their emails. It was this one day that I received a generic email from Tearfund, advertising the trips they were offering, partnered with the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme. In a nutshell, ICS makes it possible for people to travel and work or volunteer in other countries. This way you can learn about a country through experiencing a different culture, and do something to support the community you’re placed in. I was immediately interested in this opportunity and looked into it right away. To cut this next part short, I attended an interview, got accepted onto the programme and fundraised £800 in order to go. Once in South Africa, I would be volunteering under Zoe Life, a charity partnered with Tearfund who would be coordinating and supporting all of us whilst on our placements.

The best part about this trip? The friends I made! All of us UK volunteers flew over to South Africa together and met up with our fellow South African volunteers. They would also be working in teams with us in our various communities around Kwazulu-Natal and Limpopo. The first day after flying into South Africa, we travelled onwards to a centre where we would meet our in-country volunteers, and receive our training for the next 5 days. We had slept since our flight and were feeling more rested after our approximately 14 hour flight (with a short break in Dubai). We pulled into Skongheim Christian centre and I immediately smiled when stepping off the bus. I will forever remember how my fellow South African volunteers were singing in Zulu and clapping to greet us. This was the start of something new. I was soon going to be getting to know a small number of my South African and UK volunteers very well, and making great friends too! Our training week came and went. I was very happy with the team I would be working with and was excited for all the work I was going to be doing.

Next came the journey to the region of Austerville, Wentworth in Kwazulu-Natal where I would be volunteering at Blue Roof Lifespace for the next ten weeks. I would be staying with a host family, with a lady called Auntie Noels and her two dogs (if you know me, you’ll know I love dogs) and living with two UK volunteers and one South African volunteer. Over ten weeks we worked with some companies based at Blue Roof called City Celebration, a dance company and Lalela (translated into Zulu meaning ‘to listen’) an art class for the children in the surrounding area. We also helped out at a centre called WOW (Women of Wentworth) where we helped write up cvs for the unemployed youth in Wentworth, and created pictures and storyboards for the nursery there. A project we began working on ourselves was something called ‘Durban East Spoken Word’ where we attended Durban East Primary school. Here, we delivered some short bible study classes during the morning break time for anyone who wanted to come along.

All of us as volunteers took away different experiences from this trip. For some it would have been amazing and they wouldn’t have wanted to leave; others may not have been so enthusiastic. But this is okay because we all came from different backgrounds, fields of work and experiences, and had different reasons for coming on the trip. I personally loved this experience from the diversity, culture and work we did out there. I had my eyes  opened to a country brimming with a community spirit that was friendly and genuine. The South Africans are extremely hospitable. Auntie Noels is used to having volunteers and students come and live in her house, sometimes exchange students would come for a year at a time! She loves to have people round and has hosted Zoe Life volunteers for a few years. So to sum up my time in South Africa, I made amazing friends, learned a lot about another culture and how to really appreciate those who are different to me. Having this experience has changed my life. In a separate blog, I will be writing about how we in the western world often have a lot of material wealth and how I think that we could actually be happier with less stuff.

Another important thing to remember about this trip was that it was not a holiday. I didn’t go to South Africa to sit in restaurants, eat nice meals and take photographs with a glass of wine. There is nothing wrong with doing any of that; I personally enjoy holidays where I can dress up and take photos. But the purpose was to go to places where the need is greatest (Tearfund’s words). I went to a place where there is a massive drug and alcohol abuse problem, with rubbish everywhere, and I witnessed some people only living in houses with one room. And it’s this kind of stuff that breaks my heart. Yet I still saw a community of people that lived with this hope and joy; they didn’t have a lot of material wealth but they chose to live each day and make it count. But I have come home and I have struggled since coming back. We in the western world are consumers, always wanting more and more material wealth from the size of our house to the clothes we wear. I am not commenting on any of these issues in this blog. I am just saying that when you choose to visit a country where you meet people of a different culture and material wealth to yourself, you will not forget what you learned when you come home. Next time you buy clothes, you might remember that a person from a different country made that shirt who was paid very little, and having that knowledge will influence your decisions. So I want to encourage you to travel and see countries with different cultures. Because you will take something away from what you learn there, and I really believe it can help you live your life more grateful and more selfless.