Volunteer Review: Sam Ferguson - Law & Human Rights in South Africa
My month with Projects Abroad was spent in South Africa, where I interned at the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office (PAHRO) in Cape Town. I was lucky enough to spend a very happy month there. The project is run by Theodore Kawimbi, who is one of the most remarkable people I have ever had the pleasure to meet and work with. His level of dedication and commitment are a source of inspiration for everyone connected with the project.
A placement at PAHRO allows volunteers to get their teeth stuck into a huge spectrum of programs. During my time I participated in a research project on mental health in South African prisons, assisted clients with their cases, participated and put in motion social outreach programs and was able to fit in a number of visits to juvenile detention centers, court hearings and townships too.
The level of participation is left to the individual volunteer, which I think is a good system as it encourages volunteers to form their own ideas and get involved in innovative ways. The work that the office does is invaluable, and I learned a great deal about the field of human rights, which I hope will give me a leg-up as I am studying law at the moment.
The country itself is astonishing to say the least. I was able to get out of Cape Town on a few occasions to take part in wine tasting tours, which are ever so much fun! The countryside outside of the city is dramatic and rugged, and the people couldn’t have been friendlier.
The atmosphere in the city itself was bouncing by the time my placement began, as I was lucky enough to be there during the FIFA World Cup! I didn’t manage to get to any games as I was on a tight budget, but being there was an experience I shall never forget!
There has been a lot of bad press thrown South Africa’s way with regards to safety and so on, but from my experience, if you are sensible and accept that every city in the world has areas through which you wouldn’t walk alone at night, it’s unlikely that anything can go wrong. The only trouble we came across were a few incidents of pick-pocketing, but again this can be avoided with a little common sense.
The family that I stayed with could not have been more accommodating. Quinton and Esme Coert made my stay as enjoyable as it could have been. The food they cooked was delicious every night, and they were very understanding about late nights! Their daughter, Hannah, was two years old when I was there, and is the cutest infant I have ever seen and used to getting attention from volunteers!
Although work takes up a lot of your time, the weekends are your own, and no-one was adverse to two or three nights out a week. The social aspect makes everything so much easier, as well as giving you friends to do things with in your spare time. One of the main activities I did was surfing, although it got very cold during the South African winter! I also did all of the tourist things, such as visiting Table Mountain, safari, wine tours, etc.
One story which comes to mind as I write this was the time that we visited Table Mountain. It had been a very late night the day before, and we arrived at the foot of the mountain around mid-afternoon. The group then split; with one half (including myself) opting to take the gondola to the summit. The other half decided to attempt the arduous trek on foot. Once we reached the summit, we realised that there would not be enough time for the trekking group to reach the summit before the last gondola descended! In vain we tried to call them, but it was too late. We settled in to wait for them at the top, after sending ‘hurry up!’ messages to the second group.
There is a good restaurant at the top, and we enjoyed a very nice meal and a few drinks before strolling around the summit taking nice photographs. Meanwhile, the second group were racing to the top in order not to be stranded. They arrived (thankfully) with minutes to spare, before being ushered onto the gondola without even enough time to take any photographs! Having run the last mile or so, they were drenched in sweat and very unhappy! I have received news from them since however, and they managed to visit the mountain again and spend a nice afternoon there. The moral of the story seems to be; don’t climb the mountain unless you’re sure you won’t get stranded at the top!
One of my fondest memories of South Africa is the friends that I made. I keep in touch with a lot of them, and we are hoping to meet up for New Year’s Eve in Paris, although the organization is proving tricky. You meet so many people from so many different backgrounds and countries during your time with Projects Abroad, and I think it’s this which makes it so special.
I would not hesitate to recommend the experience to anyone, and I’m definitely planning on doing it again! I left South Africa with numerous offers of places to stay in the country, as well as across Europe and beyond, and I will be sure to take them up on it!
The most important thing however is the work that organizations such as the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office undertake in countries like South Africa. During my time there I saw so many examples of the difference which is being made by Projects Abroad. Without organizations such as these, the situation would be a lot worse.
The experience of your first visit to an informal settlement is one which you will never forget. It is daunting at first, but then you begin to realise how happy the people are to meet you and to hear about your life. It is a truly humbling experience to see the happiness the people carry around with them as they make their lives better. I urge you to experience it for yourself.
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.