Volunteer Review: Natalie K., Teach English and Other Subjects in South Africa
I have travelled to many different countries, both for pleasure and to work, but none have given me such a satisfying or rewarding experience as my time spent in South Africa.
I had thought of South Africa as a fairly developed Country, renowned for it's natural beauty and high crime rates, whilst harbouring throwbacks of the apartheid system. But what you expect and what you get are always two very different things. After my flight was cancelled, a 21-hour wait at Heathrow airport, a 12-hour flight, and a 2 1/2 hour car drive I was there. A small rural town built alongside a very long dusty road. My home for the next three months would be a small farm surrounded by mango trees and ostriches.
I had been placed in a Secondary school embraced by a township, along with three other volunteers, my mind exploded with what to expect!
The conditions that confronted me at the school were humbling but equally intriguing. A brick walled classroom, broken glass, bits of wood and dust, was where I would be teaching. Walking into a classroom totally uninformed, lacking confidence and unprepared, I was met by 44 astonished faces warily sizing me up. With old rickety desks, three to a desk, two to a chair, consuming every conceivable inch of the room, space was an unavailable commodity. Chalk was hard to come by, uneven blackboards led to scrawl rather than notes, and a duster became an unexpected bonus.
I was allocated Grade 9 Mathematics and Grade 10 English; the ages were from 11 to 26! 1 was expected to teach these to exam standard for the end of term. Communication was a challenge since the mother tongue of both teachers and pupils was Northern Sotho of which I spoke nothing, and my English was very different to their `African' English. Trust also became a very large factor in my teaching success. The distrust of the children towards me ran quite deep and was gradually more frustrating but nevertheless understandable.
We experienced a few rough weeks as the children slowly adapted to us and began to trust us. They would refuse to talk to us, claiming that they didn't want to because we were white and educated! Well what could we do about that? At times we did wonder if it was worth all the effort, but these children deserved the benefit of the doubt, and time and patience paid off as they slowly began to trust us and we could start to teach them something and build relationships with them.
There is no doubt in my mind that it was definitely worth the effort. The day when one of the pupils wrote in his book that he had had a dream since he was a little boy that he could meet someone from outside of South Africa, and that his dream had come true the day I began teaching his class. That he felt so grateful that he had been given the opportunity to meet me, and learn from me, was for me the most rewarding thing, that you were someone else's dream! And that you could have such an effect on these young people.
I feel that because we had experienced some difficulties to begin with the end result of having built up relationships with the children, and seeing the improvement in their English was so much more rewarding.
On the final day my English class had prepared a song for me, which they sang in true `African' style. The realisation that I meant something to them and that they were sad to see me go was totally awesome! It broke my heart to leave them all and I couldn't help but feel a little patronising, returning to my English life, but I know that we were more than just `Gap' year students looking for something good to put on our CV and something to fill up our year. We gave these children so many things they haven't received before, whilst in return we were given so much.
They are some of the most inspiring people I have had the pleasure of meeting. They have such a happy outlook on life despite much adversity and discrimination. They are so eager to learn and better themselves and most want nothing more than the opportunity to learn. I feel so privileged to have been a part of their life; they have given me such an appreciation for my life and the opportunities open to me, not to mention a lasting set of memories and relationships.
I cannot emphasise how much I've gained from my trip to South Africa. I hope to go on to teach, possibly abroad and this has given me the knowledge and the confidence to proceed with this career in mind.
The people I met were like no others, the culture I experienced was unique and the memories I have will stay with me forever. I have made life long friends and relationships, and really do believe that I benefited these children enormously, and I am sure at some point in the future I shall return to Vaalwater.
They will never forget us, as I will never forget them. If you have the opportunity to go, go!!
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.