Renee Ross - Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
I have always wanted to volunteer in Africa; perhaps it was my fascination with the ‘Lion King’ as a child, or my interest in the continent during my school history classes.
As a recent graduate of North-eastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, I thought the international volunteering opportunity provided by Projects Abroad was the perfect transition before I started full time employment and furthered my studies. While completing my bachelor’s degree, I had the opportunity to study in South Africa twice - and loved every minute of it. As a result, when a friend told me about their volunteering experience at the Human Rights Office in South Africa, I knew it was the ideal destination and program for me.
South Africa is a unique place to complete an internship focused on human rights because the apartheid ended just 19 years ago. Even though much progress has been made to right the wrongs of the past, action still needs to be taken to ensure all people are treated equally with no violations of their rights.
The disparities are visibly seen throughout the country. That being said, South Africa is a beautiful country and the South African spirit of warmth and kindness stays with you forever. The people are so friendly and immediately put you at ease.
I spent three months at the Law and Human Rights Office in Cape Town, South Africa. The advantage of having a long placement was my ability to see projects through their completion and to be lead volunteer on several projects throughout the duration of my stay.
Through my first few days at PAHRO I spent half my time on case work and the second portion on the social justice excursions. I quickly found I enjoyed the fieldwork more than the cases and as a result, I worked closely with the Social Justice Coordinator, Shuan Solomons, on the social justice programs. He is a great supervisor with a nice sense of humor and gave me the flexibility to create my own programs.
Even though I did not take on many cases, I know my fellow volunteers were saying what wonderful hands on experience they were receiving—unlike internships at law offices in their respective home countries.
My favorite project was working with Freegender, a grassroots NGO advocating LBGT rights located in Khayelitsha Township – the largest township in the Western Cape. I prepared a 50-slide power point presentation for their organization to use at a rally event. I also had the opportunity to interview the grandmother of a murdered lesbian, Phumeza Nkolonzi, to include in the presentation. It was amazing to give a voice to this woman who had lost so much.
Three fellow volunteers and I attended the rally on a Saturday and had a lovely experience supporting these women. Attending the event was the culmination of my efforts, and it was great to see the presentation be utilized by the group.
Another one of my favorite projects was a holiday program that we ran at a Khayelitsha primary school. We not only played with the children, which was a blast (think face painting and blowing up balloons), but also developed educational programs to present to the children as well. Some of the themes included HIV/AIDS education, fire safety, human rights and religion.
My Host Family
My host family was amazing beyond words and conveniently located in the suburb of Plumstead close to the human rights office in Rondebosch.
Zelda and Justin Bagley are the warmest people. I enjoyed my three month stay at their home. My host mother – or rather my big sister, as I referred to her, was wonderful and we grew incredibly close.
There was always a variety of food to eat. They even allowed my local friends into their home, as I knew some South Africans from my time spent there studying abroad. We always had a lot of laughs at the dinner table. On the last evening of my placement, my parents were also in town visiting and we all went to Pirates restaurant in Plumstead for dinner.
It was a memorable evening and a great way to say “goodbye” to them. I am still in contact with them and I know when I return to South Africa again we will meet up.
There is so much to do in Cape Town and South Africa, for that matter, in your free time outside of the office. Whether it is climbing Table Mountain, going to Camps Bay, seeing Cape Point, or traveling the Garden Route, there is always something to do to keep you entertained.
A fellow volunteer and I rented a car and travelled to Port Elizabeth one weekend. We had a great time exploring a new city and hitting the beach. Furthermore, the shopping was affordable and I had a great time going to the Biscuit Mill and the V&A Waterfront with other volunteers. My roommate Anny and I would often go to the V&A Waterfront for dinner after work. The sunset is incredible.
The three months flew by and I was sad to leave South Africa. I know my story in South Africa has not ended and I will be back again in the near future. My volunteer experience will always stay with me.
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