In the summer holidays of 2008, I went to visit South Africa for a volunteering assignment. It was an amazing experience that even know, 10 years later, I have not forgotten one detail about. Volunteering in South Africa was a life changing event for me. That’s why I decided to share this with you so many years later 🙂
I stayed on the project for 3 weeks and went backpacking through South Africa for another 3 weeks afterwards. It was an emotional and challenging period, but so rewarding. Instead of only reading about Africa on the news or learning about it in school, now was the chance to really get to know the continent, it’s people and the issues the country faces.
I was super excited 😀 Below I will share you with the details that I learned and what you can consider choosing an organization to volunteer with.
What's coming up
Choosing an organization to volunteer with
Before taking on this project, I had always just googled on “Volunteering in South Africa” or similar terms. If you have done the same, you will probably have ended up at very expensive programs! I never joined one of these projects, because I was sure there would be a better opportunity out there.
And there it was! In the end, the project I joined, was organized from the Netherlands. I got to know about this project because I saw some flyers hanging in the University halls! It was necessary to apply for the project because they had more people wanting to join than that could come. I attended the information nights and applied, and got in to join the project!
The group consisted of a group of 30 people – 15 high school students and 15 university students. We would go in two mixed groups of 15 people, each staying 3 weeks. Before leaving to South-Africa, our group got together many times. That was for preparation, but also because we organised many activities together to raise money for the organisation (Thembalethu) we were going to visit. The organization was at the time saving up for an ambulance and there was an ongoing need for funds for operations. All participants were asked to raise €500 so we would end up with a great amount!
It was very comfortable to join a Dutch organized organization. Check around you, with local clubs or organizations if such trips exist. You’d be surprised how many people know people that run NGO’s or local organizations and you may be able to join a visit there. If that’s not the case and if you are looking to find a place to volunteer, maybe this article will help: 7 Places To Volunteer Abroad For Free. There are plenty of places to go with good references.
If you do decide to go with a paid organization, I would suggest trying to speak to people that joined before. Or join information evenings or online webinars. This would be the minimum before transferring a large amount of money!
Prepare for what you will see
Once you have chosen the organization that you will join, it’s time to prepare! Of course you will have to arrange a visa and get your vaccinations, but it is also important to prepare emotionally. Especially if you are a first-time traveller to Africa, you may be in for a culture shock 🙂
From the moment you land on the airport in probably Johannesburg or Cape Town, it will be busy! Full with people, sounds, cars and maybe even animals 😉 On the way to your volunteering assignment, you will probably already see the first signs of poverty. Dirt on the streets, people begging, shabby houses. And then you are still in the bus or the car! In the end you will get used to this, but prepare!
During our three weeks, we got to know many amazing people. We had so much fun with the team of the organization and people took such great care of us. But were also exposed to the horrors of daily life in a region where over 40% of the people is infected with HIV. The harsh reality of families only being able to afford one of their kids (the brightest) to go to school and move on to go earn money for the families. Disabled people being treated like outcasts and ignored by society.
It was an emotional time – there was almost no one in our group that didn’t cry at least once 🙂 You can prepare yourself by reading about the country your visiting, maybe watching documentaries or youtube videos. The better prepared you come, the easier the first few days will be on you.
Activities during your volunteering trip
But let’s focus on the positive! Our project was mainly focused on local kids and after school care. We spent amazing times at the pre/after school activities with the kids. It was great to play some awesome games that we had prepared in the Netherlands. We were doing games that taught the kids English or math, or just games for fun! It was so clear that some of the kids were way ahead their peers. Really good English skills, very smart or fast. You could already see which kids would make it out of their villages.
Next to hanging around with the kids, we also visited care centres for the elderly and disabled, painted a new school, organised a sports week and much more! It was definitely a great experience and one that I will never forget. If we even made a difference in the life of one kid, that would have already been worth it.
Make sure to agree with your organisation what kind of activities you will focus on, and which ones you are not comfortable with. Teaching English classes to kids is much different from working with elderly or disabled people.
Also, if you go to volunteer alone, make sure to enquire if there are more volunteers staying at the project. If you are in a really small village and you only work for a couple of hours a day, it may get lonely!
Also, don’t forget to have fun! Next to volunteering in South Africa, I also went backpacking for 3 weeks afterwards! The combination was gold! Seeing the real Africa during the stay in a rural area, while also exploring the country. I would recommend everyone to embark on a backpacking trip in South Africa – with or without volunteering 🙂
Volunteering in South Africa – an unforgettable experience
These 3 weeks were one of the best times of my life. I saw so much and learned so much. Volunteering in South Africa or any other country can really enrich your life. So got a holiday coming up? Or want to take a gap year? Definitely consider volunteering as a destination for your time 🙂