Written by Peregrine Travel Centre SA team member Adriana.
For the past 10 years I’ve had a desire to give back in a small way and combine it with my love of travel. I finally had the chance to incorporate a volunteer project into my recent adventure to Africa and it was one of the best things I have ever done!
I took plenty of time researching, to find a program that benefited both the local community and the people involved. There is a lot of negative conversation around volunteer tourism, and some for good reason, however when done through a reputable organisation and in the right way it can be a rewarding experience for everyone involved. Enter Ali Paulus, the magnificent lady who runs and founded Volunteer and Explore. This organisation has been in operation since 2006 and through the many projects Volunteer and Explore supports, both through volunteers and internships, they have been giving back to local communities in South Africa and making an incredible difference. Volunteer and Explore offer opportunities in wildlife conservation, Big 5 research projects, Marine Biology, teaching in schools, helping underprivileged children and so much more.
Personally, I knew I wanted my experience to be helping children. I’ve always loved kids and I knew that this was how I wanted to spend my time. I found the project called ‘Township teaching with Doreen’ – a day care centre in a township called Masiphumelele (Masi) about 40 minutes out of Cape Town, where I could teach the local children English and help them prepare for school. After speaking with Ali and going through all of the information, I knew this was the perfect placement for me. I convinced my friend to join me on this epic adventure, and we were signed up and ready to go!
We were picked up by a private transfer in Cape Town and taken to the volunteer house in a small town called Fishhoek. We were met by the lovely Mandy, who lives in the township and helps Ali with running the project. Mandy was lovely, so welcoming and had the biggest heart. We spent the day with Mandy, who showed us around and gave us a briefing on the house, the project and all of the important safety information for our stay. That night we were treated to a welcome dinner and joined by Ali and her lovely daughter Leah, who both gave us a huge list of fun things to do to fill our afternoons and weekends during our stay.
The next morning, we headed off for our first day at the day care centre. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what I would experience over the next two weeks; I knew this experience would open my eyes to a whole new world, but I don’t think I realised just how much it would change my life. The instant we entered the centre we were greeted by smiles and energetic children yelling ‘teacher, teacher’ in excitement as they rushed over to give us big welcome hugs. That feeling of instant love right there, in that moment, made me realise just how much these kids appreciated their teachers and the opportunity to learn. The day care catered for kids from the age of 0-6 years of age, we spent a majority of our time upstairs with the kids aged 4-6 but had the opportunity to spend time with the littlies as well (and for me, a huge baby person, I spent a lot of time getting extra cuddles with the littlest day care kids).
We were there from 8:30am until 12:30pm each day and Agnes (the amazing centre director) let us plan lessons out ourselves and have control over what we’d like to teach the kids. Most of the children had a great grasp on English already, a reflection of the impact of past volunteers spending time with them. Over the two weeks we taught the kids how to tell the time on a clock, about the weather, shapes, numbers and our favourite part – sharing a little bit of Australia with them! We took over some books about Aussie animals and by the end of our stay the kids knew how to identify a Kangaroo, Koala, Wombat, Emu and so many more animals. I also took them over a little piece of something special to me, as a big Adelaide Crows fan, I wanted them to have an Australian Rules Footy and taught them how to kick and mark and about the game unique to Australia. A little something they now have to play with each day during play time.
I knew what we were teaching them would help prepare them for their next step of education as they start school, what I wasn’t prepared for is the lessons that I would leave with from them!
A highlight of my time with the kids of Masi was when they were dancing and singing. Someone would grab a tambourine and suddenly, another kid would start to clap and someone else would sing a note and then they’d be off in a chorus of enthusiastic singing and dancing in their circle! Their eyes would light up and they were in a zone of pure joy and happiness as they sung and moved their bodies – to both traditional African songs and some English favourites as well. From such a young age they have an incredible rhythm, they’re born with it and their booty popping and hip swinging put my non-dancing self to shame. I even had a 5-year-old try to teach me how to move properly like they did – which by the way I received a high five of approval on my last day for finally mastering it! In those moments, while they were dancing and laughing, I would often take a minute to stop and watch them and take in their joy. It’s hard to describe how special these moments were to witness in person, but every day since I have watched at least one of the videos of them dancing to remind me of them and put a smile on my face!
These kids don’t have a lot, they are growing up in small shacks with very little comforts. But every day they have big smiles on their faces, an eagerness to learn and are filled with a happiness that is indescribable. This happiness shone through most when they were teaching us about their lives – when they’d teach me how to speak in Xhosa, or when they’d sing and dance and get us to join them – that is when I saw past what their lives looked like from the outside and really saw how lucky these kids were.
We were taken on a township tour by Mandy, through her The Township Sisters tour company, which gave us a real insight into the local community and what life is like for the kids we were teaching and their families. At first glance, Masi may not look like much, but dig deeper and you are exposed to a close-knit community filled with families from a myriad of African countries; each bringing with them their own traditions. We were welcomed into the home of another local family, with the lovely Nonny cooking us a traditional African meal for lunch and talking to us about raising her boys in the Township. We visited the local library, community centre, arts and craft shops and wandered the streets being greeted by friendly smiles everywhere we went.
This tour gave me some perspective, that even though from the outside it looks as though the people of Masi have very little – they are in fact rich in many other ways. Instead of feeling sorry for the kids at the day care centre, I walked away knowing that their lives are filled with love; and although the township will continue to need assistance both financially and from the likes of volunteers, it is a community built on a solid foundation and the families here are doing everything they can to give their children the best start in life.
It’s the old cliché that you read before you volunteer – ‘you’ll always come away having been the one who benefits most’ – and for the most part I think that rings true for me. I could see the impact volunteers had on the day care centre; from the way the kids already spoke and wrote in English and the previous lessons they had learned, so it definitely isn’t a one-sided experience. I walked away feeling like I had made a difference in the lives of these children and I felt so appreciated by the day care centre staff for all that we’d done to assist. However, for me this experience taught me things that I hadn’t yet learned in my previous 31 years of life.
I learnt that no matter how hard or unfair life may seem, you can always choose to be happy and look at the positives. I learnt that we really don’t need all the fancy materialistic things in our life to make us feel complete or fulfilled. I learnt that family and a sense of belonging to a community can make a big difference to people’s lives. And I learnt that a small kind gesture, such as giving up your time to help someone, can go a long way in the lives of many. (Oh and I learnt that if you ever need to smile and forget about whatever may be going on in life – dancing/ singing it out is always a great idea!) All of this from a group of kids under the age of 6!
Travel for me has always opened my eyes to the world, shown me the bigger picture and changed the way I think about life, but volunteering for me has been life-changing! I cannot recommend it enough for people who may be looking to incorporate something similar into their next holiday plans. I hope one day I am able to return to Masiphumelele and spend more time with these kids and the community – but for now, a piece of my heart will always be in Masi and I’m so thankful that I was able to have this incredible experience!
If you’d like to know more about volunteering in South Africa with Volunteer and Explore, and the different projects available, contact the team at Peregrine Travel Centre SA who can assist you with your plans and helping you incorporate a similar experience into your next holiday.