Small Steps Together …

Oscar Wilde once said ‘The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention’.

I recognise how agonising it may feel when lecturers continue to brag about the important of volunteering in order to enhance your CV, but last summer volunteering became much more to me, much more.

‘’We are delighted to be in a position to offer you a place in our 2019 Volunteer programme.’’ The email that started my African adventure, I was so excited and couldn’t wait to meet my team, it all happened so fast I literally blinked, and it was time to go.

Nothing could have prepared me for the moment we stepped of the plane, that overwhelming feeling of ‘I can’t believe I am actually here in South Africa with nine other people’.  We were all as apprehensive as each other and didn’t really know what lay ahead of us. As we drove for hours upon hours upon HOURS, I had the opportunity to absorb what would be a defining experience for me.

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While in South Africa I had the opportunity to teach in Michael’s Secondary in Supinstad. NM3It wasn’t like teaching at home where you have 25 children in a class, along with an interactive whiteboard and a multitude of resources. Instead, my class (yes, my class) had 35-45 children per day with a blackboard being our only resource. We had to get very creative when making lesson plans which kept the children interested. Words cannot describe how the children absorbed every word we said, they literally loved to learn. (Unlike children here; school as a heaven of peace, not a punishment.)  It was so humbling to see how children with nothing more than a pencil and paper tried so hard in the classroom. I will never forget how excited the children got when we did a science experience with a balloon and Dearbhla’s hair- it is a moment I will never forget. Also think of the best teacher you have had in your life and multiply it by 100 that is the equivalent to the principal Shaki: he is the most inspirational teacher I have ever met. While we were in South Africa, he traveled 8 hours to Johannesburg so a child could sit an exam with the hopes of attending university. This is just one of the amazing things he did to give the children of his school the best opportunities he could.

After two and a half weeks in Supinstad we moved to Phokeng, a much larger town than we were used to. Within this town, situated a shopping mall…a very different type… IT HAD FIVE SHOPS!

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While in Phokeng, we worked in a squatter’s camp… breath-taking is all I can say. Everywhere I looked it was just tin huts with no electricity or running water and small shacks which people lived in. The most heart-breaking part of it all was seeing children run around these homes, with no care at all because they obviously don’t know any different at all. The Tsholofelo Community (Community of Hope) which we worked with run the crèche’s, school and clinics within the camp, the camps have around 15-20,000 people living in them. While teaching at the creche and school it was amazing to see how interested the children were as they would literally move their chairs as close to you as possible, they were so eager to learn… there was no such things as too close for comfort.

Volunteering for Friends of Africa gave me the chance to meet 9 of the most amazing people I have ever met, I had a chance to get to know them in a way that I never would have, had not for that experience. They are the only nine people in the whole world who can relate to this experience with me.

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Don’t get me wrong it was also very hard at times, hearing about the natural everyday hardships that they face every day and seeing the strength they must overcome them while knowing the only problems I have truly faced are nowhere near in comparison.

South Africa will always have a special place in my heart. If you ever have the chance to do international volunteering, please do it you will not regret it.

It took me until I was leaving Africa to fully grasp the fact that I had arrived.

Niamh McNally is a Final Year Bsc Communication Management and Public Relations student at ulster University. She can be found at: Twitter – NiamhMc_Nally

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