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...we are the world.

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...we are the world.

Wow. wow. wow. Wide-eyed and squirming with anticipation I could hardly sit still in my seat, though I was afraid to accidentally pinch myself and find it was in fact a dream that I was really on my way to AFRICA! Six months after booking and waiting. And waiting…

But as I began to think more about exactly what I was setting myself up for by agreeing to do volunteer work with International Student Volunteers in a small community on the Wild East Coast of South Africa, I admit to a biiit of a freak out. And unsureness. Apprehensive to deal with a reality for people which I can only imagine in my head as one of poverty or the desperate need that is flashed on TV or in advertisements asking for child sponsorship.

At the same time, going to actually work and build things(!) and afterward hearing the kids laughing as they fly through the air at their first swing on a brand new playground set, I thought would definitely be an experience I will keep treasured forever. I couldn’t wait to meet the people, to hear their stories.

Arriving in Chintsa East I did think I must have got off at the wrong stop. A very lovely seaside town littered with beachfront holiday mini-mansions gave an immediate impression of The Hills-esque spring break. Oh, and the Township is just over the hill. The contrast between rich white people and poor black Africans was to me nothing short of a major shock and walking amongst homes in the Township, tiny, some having been assembled form random scrap, no running water or electricity, anyone’s initial reaction could have been one of pity. Sadness? Maybe, until I heard Beyonce blaring down the valley and kids running around at our feet singing along to “All the Single Ladies”. Goats and cows roamed the streets freely. It was a little surreal.

And as Mike, one of the founders of Volunteer Africa 32 Degrees talked about the work that the organization has so far accomplished in the township, particularly in developing the local primary school, I became thrilled that I could help to realize their “Township to Village” initiative, which focuses on closing the (very large) socio-economic gap which continues ever present in post-apartheid South Africa.

Our group of 12 Australian uni students, after being given a short tour of the school and briefed on the plan to build a lunch area and a couple of water-tank stands, keenly gripped our shovels, ready to begin changing the world. Digging a few holes and nailing planks of wood sounded great, we all agreed enthusiastically. I started searching for a spanner, with a vague idea that it should look useful for the purpose of tightening bolts. I also thought, apart from having to stand in ankle deep mud, digging a 50cm deep hole would not be an overly difficult task...ha! Drought dried brick-like clay and hole digging are not friends. Nevertheless, determined to complete what I had begun, I optimistically continued hacking at the ground all day. Overnight the drizzling rain became a steady downpour, and finding the site flooded out the next day, we kept reminding ourselves that this was all for the kids, whilst using leaky buckets to drain the water. But day-to-day, the projects began taking form, and I could finally see how a few wooden poles could become a table. I learnt how to use a drill without hurting myself. And goat-proof a razor wire fence.

The local kids, after watching what we were doing out of curiosity, became too eager to help shovel dirt into wheelbarrows. They were super excited when they figured out how to use our digital cameras or when we let them sit in the bus for a ride from the school up to the gate when we left work at the end of the day. Although to them, in most likelihood, it seemed that what we were doing was just another game, in a rural township where 75% of the population are unemployed, it was encouraging to see that our work there instilled in them an inspiration to become involved in change, even if only for a few minutes. But their view of the world was much more realistic than mine was at that age, or even now. I don’t envy them. I think I like having lived childhood in blissful ignorance.

But to people who can do something... can kids be given an education when there is no desk in classrooms even for the teacher to sit at?

Luckily at Chintsa East, VA32 and the volunteers are making amazing progress, and as a tourist town, there are quite a few business investment opportunities for people. But Chintsa is just one Township. One Township out of hundreds of thousands. Some receive no support whatsoever.

Heaving mounds of rubbish and rubble and barbed wire or working with antique tools and limited materials was not fun. But it did give me an opportunity to pause my life for a couple of weeks and see, and think. I tried to understand their lives.

And there was so much that I realised I could take back form the whole experience...just appreciate.

"And I wonder if I've been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I can remember feeling a little different. And, no... I'm not the same".


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