Anna Haas footprinter report from Polokwane, South Africa

Anna One

Last August I started my gap year in Polokwane, South Africa. Polokwane is a city situated in the Limpopo province of the country and isn’t a very well known place, but since arrival I’ve made it my home. Both my partners and I live in the outskirts of Polokwane in a school called Mitchell House – our work placement for the year – so we are slightly cut off from the city, having only travelled into it a few times.

Mitchell House has boarder accommodation, so we each have a room in the boarding house as staff members. It’s extremely convenient because it means that we are already at work in the mornings and don’t have to pay extra money for transport! It does however, mean that we have extra duties as boarding staff, as well as our daytime jobs. Duties around the hostel include waking up the kids each morning at 6am, followed by room inspections, independently supervising prep (evening homework class from 6.30pm – 8.15pm) and then finally making sure all the children are in bed with lights off by 10pm.

So sometimes there can be very long days, but the kids in the hostel are great so it’s very enjoyable. I did find it quite challenging just after we arrived to gain the respect of some of the boarding students – most of them are 17/18 so it was difficult trying to get them to obey me… I sympathise, it must be strange taking orders from somebody the same age as you!

My daytime job is up at the Enrichment Centre, the disabled facility of the school. I absolutely adore working there with the children because it’s so variable from day to day. Every week my partners and I rotate around each of the classes: Juniors, Seniors and Lifeskills.

Juniors – This class is probably the most challenging because it’s the youngest age group (3 – 7). It also has two extremely autistic boys who can’t speak and have to communicate through symbols that we make for them. I’m always so tired after a week in the Juniors, but they’re all so cute so it’s okay…

Seniors – This class is the next oldest group (8 – 13) and is probably the most relaxed. Disabilities in this class range from cerebral palsy to autism so like in all the classes, the children are at different stages in their writing/spelling/reading. This means that we have to take extra care with each child to accommodate their needs.

Lifeskills – This class is the oldest group (14 – 18) and is where we teach the children the skills they will require when they leave school. Even at this age a lot of the kids find basic things difficult, so we try and get them to do as much as possible. For example: after lunch they’ll wash and dry the dishes, they help with selling popcorn in the playground and they’re recently starting to grow their own vegetables in the Enrichment Centre garden to sell to teachers around the school.

My role in each of the classes is a classroom assistant. Each class has three adults including one main teacher – the Junior class has five adults because a couple of the children’s personal carers come into school with them. I’m responsible for helping the more able children with their work, setting homework, changing nappies, feeding at lunch time, playing games at break and just generally keeping an eye out for any trouble.

On Wednesdays all the classes go horse riding at a nearby ranch, we help the children get on/off the horses and walk round with them while they ride. I think experiences like this are so important for them, it allows them to try things that they wouldn’t normally be able to do and hopefully increases their confidence to try new things!

After the school day finishes at 12.30, we have lunch break until 1.30pm and then have to be at Aftercare (after school club) until 5pm. During our time at aftercare we have to take the register for about 70 children and sign them out again when they leave, hand out juice at cookies and play games with them later on in the afternoon.

So to sum up a typical day is looks like this:
– wake up at 6
– breakfast at 6.30am
– walk over to the Enrichement Centre at 7am
– finish work at the EC at 12.30
– lunch at 1
– aftercare at 1.30
– aftercare finishes at 5
– dinner at 6
– boarding house prep – 6.30
– DAY FINISHED – 8.15

We’ve also had the chance to travel during our time off. During the October holidays we visited other volunteers in Swaziland and worked a day in their project to see what it was like. We also went to markets and nearby waterfalls to experience some of the country’s culture.

Over the long Christmas break we travelled down to Cape Town and met up with all the other South African volunteers. We stopped off at loads of destinations along South Africa’s garden route and tried to experience as much as possible, including the world’s highest bungee jump, cage diving and riding some elephants. Since Christmas I’ve travelled by myself to Kruger National Park and took part in a tour where we camped in the bush for a couple of nights.

I saw so many amazing things, including a herd of fifty elephants that crossed the road right in front of our safari truck!! Our next holiday is at the end of June and my parents and brother are coming to visit which I’m really looking forward to, we’ll be travelling from Namibia to Botswana and then finally to Zimbabwe. After that I’d love to travel with my partners to Mozambique and experience some of the snorkelling opportunities there, but that’s still to be planned.

The travelling this year has been a huge part of the experience, it’s made me more independent, outgoing and willing to try new things. It’s also shown me how diverse our world is, a very useful piece of knowledge to have when I’ll be studying geography in September.

My personal experience of work and life in South Africa since my arrival has been extremely positive. I was very worried before coming out here that I would be homesick, but I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to be. Of course I miss my family and I can’t wait to go home, but I’m so distracted with work that the time has flown by. I also think that because my work revolves around working with people, I never feel lonely. There are times when it’s quiet – the boarders have gone home during the holidays or it’s a long weekend – when I do get slightly homesick, but I know I’ll be home again within the next four months.

Eight months into my gap year I can safely say that it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was a terrifying one to make, but there have been so many benefits from taking a year out. I feel like in one year I have learnt and experienced more than I ever could’ve in one year of university, so I’m hugely grateful for Hazel’s Footprints helping me get here. It’s also given me time to think about the career path I want to take, it’s still not definite but I’ve realised that I love working with children – a job where I’m surrounded by people is definitely preferable to an office job!

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