Why Travelling Overseas with a Purpose and Volunteering will Change Your Life
Madeline Lewis recently travelled in South Africa and volunteered her services with the organisation VESA – Africa Unearthed. You can read more about her experience which will hopefully inspire you to do something similar and join the world of voluntourism…
Travelling overseas with a purpose is probably one of the best feelings you can have, because not only do you get to experience a new place, but you also get to make a difference. I’m talking about ‘voluntourism’.
I recently went to South Africa with a company called VESA - Volunteer Eco Students Abroad. After many hours on a plane and then a very long ride on a small ‘bus’ I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the town of St. Lucia, a beautiful estuary that’s of a world heritage status.
I never thought volunteering in another country for just two weeks would be so rewarding and life changing. Although this is not my first travel experience, you could definitely say I have the travel bug. However, I have something even more than that now. An undying appreciation for what we have and the beautiful world that surrounds us. I’m so excited to continue exploring it!
There were three parts to the volunteer work and each was equally rewarding. Most of our work was carried out in a village called Khula. Our group of sixty were split into three groups and rotated the type of work we did every two days.
During our two days of construction work, my group and I installed septic tanks at the local day care centre, painted building walls with fresh coats of paint and we also created a big vegetable garden for the church. I have never mixed so much concrete, dug into the ground so deep or felt so liberated knowing that what I was doing would help so many people.
It was hard to concentrate on the task at hand over these few days because the adorable children running around the area wanted to play and chat; they wanted to know everything about you and it was so funny to see how intrigued they were. I’ve never been shown so much affection, it was so lovely to see, but also very sad at the same time because a lot of the children were orphans who lived at the day care centre.
These two days of construction work with our leader Tom were hard, especially in 40 degree heat, but it was so worth it seeing the smile on the village people’s faces. I’ll never forget it!
Little Canadian Mel was our leader for education work and this was one of my favourite few days in St Lucia. These two days at the crèche (child care centre) were full of such joy because we all made so many new friends and even taught one of the little girls her first English word! The positive attitudes from the children were so uplifting and you completely forgot the fact some had no family and lived in extreme poverty- they wouldn’t show their sadness for this one bit!
We drew pictures in the sand, threw glitter all over the place, told stories and created characters for puppet shows. Each morning we would go on walks with a local called Zine (Zin-aye) and collected all the children through singing songs and playing games. To see them all flock to the call was unbelievable. We’d start with three and by the end of the twenty-minute walk we’d have fifty!
The kids were so amazing, they just craved love and affection, and so they were thrilled to receive it from so many different people for a whole week! I made a very close friend at the crèche, her name was Ashesha, but we called her ‘Onesie’ because that’s what she wore on the first day we met her. I was very sad to leave her at the end of our working week; I wish I could have brought her home with me! For teaching placements you might want to book a TEFL certification course.
My days of conservation work with leader Jess were some that I experienced things I never thought I would in my wildest dreams. I have such a passion to work with animal initiatives now that I’ve experienced just a little bit of it.
During these last two days of work I met two extraordinary animals- Juba and Moya- the tamest Cheetahs I’ve ever seen. We took so many photos playing with them, getting cuddled and kissed by these beautiful spotty creatures while our hearts beat loud and very, very fast. We re-filled their water, cleaned out some other cat’s pens (namely a very scary feline called Bar One). Mind you, we did all the work- cut the grass with machetes and picked up their droppings- while the animals were still IN the pen with us! We were actually told to do everything in twos so one could keep an eye out for the sneaky cats so they didn’t sneak up behind us! It was such a thrilling and exciting day.
Our second day of conservation work was carried out at a crocodile enclosure. When we arrived we were taken on a tour and shown so many ENORMOUS crocodiles- they were even named and the biggest fella there was ‘Washeasha’. We also saw some deadly snakes, dwarf crocs and a few alligators before we were set to work. We cleaned out an area to create an abattoir and then collected rubble, mixed cement, painted and refilled water tanks.
However, the highlight of the day was after lunch when we were able to enter a crocodile pen to collect crocodile eggs from a nest! This was a scary task because we had SEVEN croc eyes watching us from about ten metres away the entire time. It was so thrilling because a few crocodiles became territorial and tried to attack the group (lucky we had a Steve Irwin prodigy on our side to tame them back into the water). Collecting their eggs was for a good cause due to the low survival rate they’re given if they stay with the mother. So gathering them and putting them into an incubator increases their survival chances by about 70%!
This was our last day of hard work for the communities that so desperately needed it. We were sad to be done our good deeds, but excited for the week ahead planned as a big thank you for all we did. I couldn’t have asked for a better week, although I was shown soon after that it could at least be matched!
To be honest though, we were thanked each day when we knocked off work at around 5pm. We would meet up with the other two groups and have a beer followed by a swim back at the backpacker we stayed at. There was always fun to be had after dinner as well with drinking games, dancing, ping pong, wildlife walks and sing-a-longs were had one night when we had a black out too!
But yes, don’t worry; it’s not all hard work, sunburn and bruising for your labour of peace and love. The following week is all about you, as a big thank you for the effort you’ve shown! This even included crossing the border into Swaziland for a night before we made the journey back to Johannesburg to fly home.
We were treated to a day at Cape Vidal, which is the nearby National Park’s beach. We played beach volleyball and cricket, snorkelled, swam, cooked a barbeque and enjoyed the sun and company of each other.
We endured a very eventful safari another day, which involved our jeep being chased by a fully grown lion, a curious giraffe poking it’s head around for a look and a family of elephants coming over to see what the noise was all about. The scenery on this trip was absolutely beautiful too, just to top a great day of discovery off!
Other activities during this week included multiple village visits, whether it was to see cultural dances or have our fortunes read by a fortune-teller or ‘Isangoma’. We also had a great time on a croc and hippo cruise as the sun set, which turned into a bit of a party, and we were all very excited to visit Swaziland on our last two days of the trip too.
We crossed the border of Swaziland on our twelfth day in Africa, ready to enjoy shopping at the markets, quad bike riding, horse riding, swimming and one last night with our new friends. We were all very sad to be leaving the next day, but so grateful we’d had this experience.
In conclusion, our trip to volunteer in Africa was unbelievable, unimaginable and unforgettable. Words are not enough to do this trip justice, but I can’t say enough how rewarding and inspiring it was. I met the most amazing people and have made a few friends for life, while bonding an even closer friendship with those I already knew. If you’re looking for a sign or life changing experience, then volunteer work is definitely a great option for you! If I could spend my life doing things like this it would make me extremely happy.
I’d do it all again and look forward to many more voluntourism trips that I have planned for the future!
By Madeline Lewis
If this experience has made you think you would like to do something similar check out our volunteering overseas directory where you can search worldwide organisations and projects. You might also like to view our opportunities to volunteer in South Africa.