I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to travel to anywhere in Africa that they do so on a volunteer project like I did. It was the best way to see the culture of South Africa, without all of the strings of being a tourist attached. The volunteers were free to participate in tourist activities like tours, but we were also invited to cultural activities in the village that were otherwise closed to outsiders.
We went to two traditional Zulu parties, one held for the breaking of the ground for the new Day Care Centre, and another for the death of our friend's grandfather and the passing of the head of the family to her father. The best experiences I had were ones not set up by tourist companies, but personal invitations to things I would otherwise not have had the opportunity to attend had I been travelling myself.
I guess here I'm supposed to tell you how profound my experience was – but I think that there are no words to describe it. Just like I couldn't wholly describe to you a South African sunset, or the Indian Ocean; I can't really describe how it felt to take care of the children at Senzangethemba. It is something that one has to experience for themselves because for each individual, volunteering in a developed country provides something different. It provides perspective, knowledge and understanding. We speak so much of “us” and “them”; for those who experience the developing world first-hand, the use of those words seems irrelevant.
The change I've experienced is somewhere inside me, and it's something only I can understand.International development is something I would definitely like to get involved with after traveling. I guess seeing the world really puts things into perspective and defines one's goals.
Living in a developing country, to me, is ideal. Raising my kids in an arena where material things mean very little to the children would make me feel like a better parent, not having to shield my kids from the materialistic Western approach to living. Life seems so much more simple, and yet so complicated at the same time in Africa, that it keeps you guessing all the time. It's the way I would love to live, and a way of life I think everyone should experience.
The faces of the children at the day care will bring me both joy and haunt me forever. I hate to know that I will wonder for the rest of my life what happened to those children, and what will happen to the ones that come to Senzangethemba later on. Hopefully I'll return next year to see their progress.
The questions asked about HIV, and the lack of knowledge presented by even the adults at their classes is worrisome, and to me provides a clear indicator of how the HIV/AIDS epidemic is going to continue to have a devastating affect on KwaZulu-Natal. It makes me sad to think that the man that is probably going to be the next president, from this province, tells the population he does not have HIV because he showers after sex; and they believe him. And who should they believe? He's their leader. He's educated. They are not. And that is the story of so many developing villages – including the one I worked in. They are lied to and taken advantage of by those they have no choice but to believe.
I'm not saying that I've changed the world. But maybe I helped a few babies become more socialized, gave some toddlers some extra attention that they wouldn't have received at home, and gave over eighty children every day two meals they would not have received otherwise. I also taught a group of thirteen teenagers about HIV and how to protect themselves, things they were not already taught at school. I provided first aid to some fungal infections, cuts and burns.
Maybe I didn't change the world, but part of me likes to think that with these things and others, I planted a seed in myself that will make me keep going back to Africa, and I haven't lost faith that a small group of people can change the world.
Thanks to everyone that's been reading my blog and who supported me through my trip. Of course, my mom and dad, who provided funds, as well as my grandparents and aunt and uncle. Thanks to Rob for calling me when I got sick, and giving me the world news when I couldn't rely on the South African radio. And thanks to Michelle and Andrew; our project managers – you two are doing such an amazing job, I really hope to accomplish what you have myself someday. And to all the volunteers I worked with; all of you have something special within you that made you come to South Africa.
“Traveling is not just seeing the new; it is also leaving behind. Not just opening doors; also closing them behind you, never to return. But the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes.”-Jan Myrdal