Top Tips for Volunteering in South Africa
Shelby Jan, an upbeat and vibrant Canadian spent 17 days participating on a “Teach and Surf” volunteer program offered through SAVE Foundation. The primary location of the project was in Dunoon, just outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Below she shares her astonishing experience and advice to others who are considering doing something similar.
Deciding to Volunteer in South Africa
This was my first volunteer project that was abroad, and outside of Canada for me. Over the years, I have completed extensive volunteer hours in the medical field (St. John’s Ambulance, various nursing homes, hospitals, and so on), which got my mind rolling on my willingness to try something outside of my comfort zone. I initially looked into locations closer to home (Costa Rica and Dominican Republic), yet South Africa continuously reoccurred as a place of interest.
After extensive investigation and reaching out to the organization, I made the executive verdict that South Africa and the “Teach and Surf” program was a match made in heaven, so I applied for the program. The application process was simple, straightforward, and someone was constantly available for any questions.
Once I made my final payment, I booked my flights and off I went. After 20 long hours of sitting on airlines passed (I flew from Canada to Switzerland, then Switzerland to South Africa), I was notably greeted by sunshine and summer-like weather (which was great since it was winter at home!)
I was taken to the volunteer house where I was introduced to everyone currently on the project, and met others as they came throughout the day. Immediate forms bonded with people from the USA, Iceland, Sweden, and many other countries. I cannot recall a time when I formed friendships and bonds so quickly, and we all keep in touch to this day. That evening we participated in a Braii (a BBQ), a South Africa tradition, and continued socializing into the early hours.
First Few Days
The next day (after a long sleep), us newbies had a walking tour downtown Cape Town, and were given ample advice on ways to use transportation safely, what to avoid and what areas were not recommended to go to, excellent places for meal and socializing, and any questions we needed answers to, everyone was willing to provide an answer from their experience.
We had the weekend to ourselves, so myself and a girl from the USA and one from Sweden made our way up Table Mountain, where the views were beyond breath taking. If there is ever the opportunity to go up Table Mountain, do it. There is the option of the cable car, or it can be hiked (be sure to do this in the morning to avoid the heat, and pack plenty of water) in approximately 1.5-2 hours, depending on your fitness level. The evening was spent at Camps Bay, where we enjoyed a sunset and had a delicious meal at Umi (definitely be sure to try the teriyaki chicken!)
Once the week began, we were assigned our schools. I was placed at Good Hope, a school in the community of Dunoon that had children from the ages of 0-8. When I first arrived, it was overwhelming and I was not sure what to expect, but my heart simply melted. All the children ran up to us, giving us hugs and yelling, “TEACHER TEACHER!!!” The love at that moment was irresistible, and the children were beyond anything words could describe.
There were three general classrooms (0-2, 3-5, and 5-8), where various activities were taking place that we were responsible for. Whether it be an obstacle course for the children to run through, a memory game, or having them come up with a shape in their hand and they tell you what it was, it made you feel like you were making a difference in their education and how they view the world.
Being I was there around Christmas, I was also blessed to participate in the Christmas party that took place. All us volunteers at SAVE Foundation put together bags that consisted of a toy, a pound of rice, an a few other things age and gender specific, and we even had Santa deliver the toys. Pure joy – that is the best way to attempt an explanation of the children when Santa arrived. We put up a little Christmas tree in the classroom, some garland, and a few other touches for the holidays as well to get in the festive spirit. Santa invited each boy and girl to sit on his lap as he gave them a gift, to which they happily opened and began to play with their toys. It was unimaginable to think that for some children this is the only gift they will receive, yet that is the reality.
Once mornings passed and I left Good Hope, we went back to the volunteer house for lunch, and were assigned to our afternoon projects. They either consisted of us teaching and skateboarding in the area with children slightly older (typically 10-13), went to a lagoon and searched for sea creatures, went surfing with an instructor, or had the afternoon off to do what we wished.
Tips & Advice
- There is currently a severe water shortage in South Africa, so keep that in mind. Showers are to be no more than two minutes per day (if needed, most people showered every 2-3 days as this impacted everyone, and everyone was understanding if you did not look your best).
- Uber was one of the best and safest modes of transportation while there, and I often used it as a solo female, and felt safe at all times.
- Entire this project with an open mind. I cannot stress that enough. If you go in with high expectations, you will be let down.
- If possible, stay for a minimum of one month. I stayed for two weeks (which was the minimum time), and wish I could have extended my stay. Although it is an option once you are there, plan accordingly ahead of time and stay for 4+ weeks.
- Dress appropriately!! This was one major mistake I made. During the day when it was 30 degrees Celsius, the sun was shining, and it was gorgeous, I went out in shorts and a t-shirt for the day. Bring a backpack with a sweater and pants for the evenings. When I left on days off in the morning, I did not return until the early morning hours, so the sun had gone down. Be sure to bring warm clothes once this happens, and do not underestimate how cold evenings get. I spent many nights shivering while having dinner once the sun had set.
- Bug spray will be your best friend. I did not do much research into mosquitos in South Africa, but they are vicious. On multiple occasions, I thought it was spider bites, and some were as large as tea-light candles, and were super painful.
- Enjoy what the area around your accommodation and project has to offer, as much as downtown Cape Town. The beach (a five-minute walk) had beautiful sunsets and views of Table Mountain, the restaurants (check out Catch 22 for great seafood, steaks, and drinks) had cheap eats and excellent food, and be sure to go to Thirsty Turtle on a Thursday night when drinks are buy one get one free! The bar is small, but the crowds are a lot of fun. If you desire, hit up Medley’s Beach Pub for the club-scene and dancing! Ladies enter free.
- Do extensive research on the country and Cape Town before committing. I had an incredible experience and cannot say enough about SAVE Foundation and the incredible work they are doing.
By Shelby Jan
Shelby volunteered in South Africa with SAVE Foundation - contact them today to arange a similar experience.