So, Ive been in South Africa for about 2 months now and I think its about time I give you all an update on my experience so far. I arrived in Joburg on the 28th of August with 32 other volunteers who were placed all over South Africa and Swaziland. We spent a few days there, in a lovely backpacker called The Ritz. Along with a meeting with our country representative, we were treated to a tour of Soweto, the largest township in South Africa. Spending time here gave me a real insight into the social situation in South Africa and its turbulent history. Sites we visited included the Walter Sisulu square of dedication. This square commemorates where 30000 people gathered in 1955 to protest about the rights of South African people and from this the Freedom Charter was formed. This, along with the apartheid museum, created a backdrop to which we heard many personal tales set against, like the ones we heard when we visited the Hector Peterson museum. We heard the story of Hector Peterson the second child to be killed in Bantu warfare, the protest that children held stating that they did not want to be taught in Afrikaans and would rather be taught in their native tongue. Other stories that stuck with me included the murder of a young boy who was shot dead by police just for putting his hand up in the black power sign as they drove past him. Quite frankly I was ashamed and disgraced that the human race could commit such atrocities in such modern times. I still find it bizarre to think that some of the people I work with lived through these tragedies.
Another thing that struck me about Johannesburg was how evident the rich poor divide was. Within a 5 minute drive of the fanciest houses (all surrounded by electric fences and gates laden with elaborate security systems) we would come across shanty towns in which tin shacks were forced together in squalor and dirty, cramped conditions. I really appreciated the time we got to spend in Joburg, I got a real in depth look at the history and it was also an excellent chance to strengthen friendships with volunteers that I had met on training. However I wasnt as impressed when 6 of us ended up staying an extra night because our bus tickets had been booked to the wrong destination!
Thankfully we did eventually end up in Polokwane, just a day later than planned! We were met by our host, Sue Altenroxal (the head of the enrichment centre) and whisked off to our home for the next year, a scary but exciting thought! We (me and three other girls Sarah, Lucy and Jenny) are staying in PEMPS school hostel in our little flat with a living room, two bedrooms, separate bathroom, toilet and shower rooms and a kitchen. We received packs about Mitchell house school and the local surrounding area and had the pleasure of meeting our rather mad land lady who refused to hear our names as she would just call us Fluffy!? We also found out that all our meals would be provided for us by the hostel which was a surprise and also a little bit of a disappointment as I was quite looking forward to cooking for myself for a year. The flat was a little bare at first but after putting up a ridiculous amount of photos and other memorabilia & finally unpacking my bags and making my bed with my nice fleecy red blanket it started to feel like home. It feels quite the norm now to say I cant wait to get home. Another surprise with the flat was the amount of things that had been left by past volunteers, our best finds being an old laptop, some iPod speakers (half broken but still work!) and a load of DVDs and books. Some more bizarre finds included juggling balls and a very large collection of FHM magazines! The flat is rather hard to upkeep weve discovered, no matter how much we clean the floor dust just seems to keep on gathering. Weve already had a few interesting guests including rats, cockroaches and even a few maggots. Lovely!
We started at the project the next day and had a tour round the enrichment centre and met all the children. There are three classes at the centre a junior class with ages from 3 years to about 9 years, a senior class with ages 10 to 13 and then a life skills class with ages 13 to 18. Each class has 8 children, a teacher and two teaching assistants. Our duties within the centre rotate each week, we spend one week in the junior class, one week in the senior class and one week working with an 18 year old boy called Lesedi. Lesedi has cerebral palsy & we act as a scribe for him as he is included in college grade 8 classes we also help him with catch up work & revision. School starts at 7.30 (which means the daunting prospect of getting up at 6 every morning!) and ends at 12.30. In the afternoon we help Lesedi with revision or homework, help Sue out with odd jobs or go to aftercare in the mainstream school till 5. Aftercare usually involves taking the registrar and keeping an eye on the kids whilst about 5 little girls crowd round you doing your hair (This can range from rather relaxing to down right painful as they try to make your hair longer!)
A typical day in the junior class involves starting off the day by doing some of the boys schedules. At the enrichment centre they use a system called PCS (picture card symbols) and they use Velcro backed symbols of the activities they do and then place them in order on their table. This is then followed by literacy and numeracy with a few of the boys whilst the others do perceptual and fine motor skills activities like threading beads and playing with play dough. The numeracy and literacy is very simple ABCs and counting to 20, this sounds like an easy task to do with 4young boys. However, its not! Trying to keep the attention of autistic children whilst theyre all doing different activities has proved rather difficult. For example whilst trying to get one boy to recognize the number on the card, the other whos meant to be counting stacking blocks has decided it would be a lot more fun to turn them into a sword/train and the other (seeing as youve left him alone for a whole 2minutes) has resorted to singing head shoulders knees and toes! Theres also another boy whos convinced every number is 14 (he even told one of the teachers he was 14hes 6!) Theyre all lovely though and the smallest improvement can really make your day. This is then often followed by the particular activity they have that day. On a Monday its horse riding, Tuesdays art, Wednesday ball play, Thursday music and Fridays swimming. I really enjoy swimming with the children, when I went last week one of the little boys kicked up a right fuss about going in, with tears and screaming etc. however after 2 minutes in the water he was laughing his head of and having a whale of a time! Also during the day we have morning ring in which theres a combination of sign language and singing songs greeting each other, who came to school today?, Whats the weather?, What are we doing? and practicing coloursnumbers. Its been a real opportunity for me to start learning South African sign language, especially farm animals as old MacDonald had a farm is a firm favourite of the children! This is followed by snack time, which means some tasty sandwiches (or scones on a Friday, my favourite!) for the staff. Some of the children also go to inclusion class which means taking them across to the mainstream school, I think the children really enjoy it although it can be rather awkward when the younger children ask questions like, why cant he walk, why are his feet like that?. The children in the junior class are adorable, however it can still be pretty challenging at times, for example one of the youngest boys loves to bite when he doesnt get his own way this had resulted in a few very painful bruises and twilightesk teeth marks (Sarahs even got a scar on her shoulder now!)
The senior class follows a similar routine but of course the change in children makes days in the senior class a totally different experience to days in the junior class. One aspect which I find really good experience is helping with two girls who have severe cerebral palsy. We have to feed them & change them which involves using the hoist and learning how to seat them correctly in their chairs. Theyre both lovely, although one did laugh at me whilst I was attempting to position her in her chair correctly for the first time! There are also children in this class where the importance of sign language becomes evident, as many of them are non-verbal. One boy signs to me Father Christmas (and has done since the end of October!) while pointing excitedly at the Christmas tree.
When we work with Lesedi it involves a mixture of taking him to his classes and scribing for him in the collage (life orientation, economic studies, art and culture and maths) and doing extra work with him in the enrichment centre. When we first arrived his motorized chair (which he drives himself) was broken, so this meant pushing him from class to class, which can be pretty hard work in the heat! However hes got his motorized chair back now, although we had to watch our toes when he was getting used to driving it again! Hes such a laugh and I think weve formed a real friendship. Its also a nice change to be doing more challenging work (its the first time Ive ever done economics). One thing that gets on my nerves though is when he found out I was younger than him he decided to call me his little one !
Its not been all work and no play though. Weve already had a 10 day holiday to Durban and Umzumbe which was amazing. If I was to recommend a must see place in South Africa it would be Mantis and the moon backpackers in Umzumbe. Its pretty cheap and in its own little jungle with tree houses, swimming pool, Jacuzzi and monkeys playing in the trees above. We went surfing & snorkeling at a beach which was about 2 minute walk away and I jumped of the highest gorge swing in the world (possibly the scariest thing Ive ever done!). We also got to meet up with other volunteers in Durban so there were 10 of us at one point, which was a great laugh.
Weve also been kept busy at the weekends with various excursions and were making friends fast with teachers and also the girls who live down the corridor (theyre all about 17-18 and in their last year of school). Also two boys who volunteer in a nearby village come over most weekends- mainly to use the shower! So weve seen the local game reserve, drove up into the mountains where all the banana and tea plantations are, been to a local break dancing competition, visited the surrounding townships (whereve been invited for dinner) and last weekend I experienced my first soccer match at the world cup stadium which is about a 5 minute walk from our flat (trust me those vuvuzelas are more annoying in the flesh!). Even just wandering around town is quite an adventure. Weve discovered street markets which sell really nice, fresh fruit & veg and whenever we go down there we always seem to attract lots of attention (Ive lost count of the number of marriage proposals!). And thats only half of it, so as you can see weve been pretty busy!
Making friends with the girls down the corridor has been great for learning the local African language- Northern Sotho. Weve picked up a little bit of Afrikaans but far more Sotho. The reaction you get when you say Thobela, le kae? (Hello, how are you?) is amazing, a smile will suddenly appear in the persons face and the surprise in their voice when they reply re gona, le kae? (Im fine, how are you?) is hilarious. Were picking up more and more phrases as we go along, although were no where near fluent yet!
Im going to leave it here for now, hope Ive not bored you all to tears! I would just like to thank you once again for your support in getting me here, I really, really appreciate it. Im having an amazing time and times just flying by so fast, thank you!