Volunteer Review: Owen H., Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
A month living in Cape Town and you realize that every rumor you may have been told about Africa is a complete myth. High Crime, backward, primitive, permanently scared by colonialism? Any of these sound familiar. If so and you are put off then you will be missing out on what can be and what was the best month of my life.
My adventure started with the flight from Heathrow. Spending sixteen hours on a plane by yourself and negotiating terminal one is no mean feat. But by the end of the 13 hour flight I had already discovered the friendliness of South Africans and had been given a local Sim card by a very helpful air steward. A very good start I thought!
Once touched down in Cape Town I was met by Lucinda, one of the Projects Abroad staff, and a woman I was to get to know very well who then drove me to my accommodation. There I was met by the two other volunteers staying in the house who just spent the day sky diving! Neither could have been more friendly or welcoming. Within five minutes of walking through the door I had been invited to go shark diving the next day and within two hours I was getting ready for my first night out in Cape Town.
What followed over the weekend was a discovery of a social scene within the Projects Abroad volunteers and a togetherness that I would have thought was impossible. Despite the high turnover of volunteers with so many people coming and going there were real friendships and a desire to not only have a good time together but also discover all that South Africa had to offer. But more importantly to work hard together as a team and fulfill as much of our potential as possible before that dreaded flight home.
Come Monday I was ready for work. I entered the office with an enthusiasm to try my hardest that even at university I rarely felt, and that feeling never really went away. Over the next month I was exposed to poverty that I didn’t think existed, but out of it came a human spirit that gives you, as a volunteer hope that the problems in South Africa have a solution. The one instance that sticks out as I write this is when I sat down to talk with some refugees while we were out ‘on project’ they started eating. These men had nothing except the clothes on their back, a few blankets and some bread and milk. Yet they offered me to share in their meal. They were happy to share with someone, who in their eyes was a wealthy European who was offering them nothing but conversation. I couldn’t help but think that this sort of kindness wouldn’t be found in Britain.
To understand the human rights abuses in South Africa as fully as possible I split my time in Cape Town three ways. Firstly at Youngsfield Military Base Refugee Camp, where although with only a population of little more than one hundred it exposed every volunteer who visited to the problems facing South Africa than any book or journal ever could. Whilst there we spent a lot of time taking the details of the people there and listening to their problems so people more qualified than us could ensure their papers were in order and issues dealt with. While I was there the remaining occupants finally received solar lamps so the camp had light. It was a rewarding moment.
Youngsfield, despite the desperation and hunger within the camp, gave me my best memory of the trip. Since soccer is a big deal to everyone in South Africa I used it as an ice breaker for each new person I meet. No sooner did I mention soccer to a Burundian and pointed to my Liverpool shirt under my jumper did a soccer ball appear and within minutes 10 of us were having a kick about. To my embarrassment my walking boots let me down that day and my new friends, with their battered and holed trainers were soon running rings around me. I left promising to return and with better footwear!
Secondly I spent a lot of time researching and giving workshops in local schools. Although the education system for the Black and Indian population in South Africa is steadily improving after being neglected by apartheid, it is still lacking. Couple this with a 10% HIV prevalence rate in the Cape Town area and we felt it was necessary to give STI workshops. A difficult topic if ever there was one, but the enthusiasm of the volunteers and the attentiveness of the children made them very worthwhile.
Lastly I sat in on consultations with refugees who were looking for help and advice about anything from education to applying for third person resettlement. Although with only a year’s university education under my belt I could offer little legal advice but the lessons I learned of human suffering and the South African legal system were invaluable to me.
Making this heavy work schedule as easy as possible were my host parents. Despite having a three month old baby they couldn’t have been more friendly or willing to immerse us in their culture, from traditional BBQs to dinner time conversations about religion. Of course bonding was made all the easier because the host father had satellite television and supported Manchester United soccer club.
Finally, to epitomize how friendly a culture Cape Town has on the last day I went for a run around the local townships. On my way home a child playing in the road, on his one roller blade had fallen over, I stopped to help him up. Immediately as his three friends saw this they too dropped to the floor with their hands in the air wanting to be helped up, in that second everything I had read and listened to about the deep racial divides in the country seemed a myth. Even the scars on the back of Yves Butoyi which were a result of xenophobic attacks couldn’t stop me thinking that South Africa is moving in the right direction and I had been a tiny part of that advancement.
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.