Maya's Volunteer Experience at a Township in South Africa

Maya Symes from the United States spent six weeks participating on a community and educational volunteer program in the township of Du Noon in Cape Town, South Africa which she arranged through IVHQ and the SAVE Foundation. Here she shares her incredible experience.


Applying to Volunteer in Cape Town 

Upon returning to Miami, nobody has understood me when I've said that I'd rather be back in Table View, South Africa - spending my mornings in Zusakhe, a preschool in the overpopulated township of Du Noon. It's difficult to explain the sort of bonds I formed with the children at my school, the amount of love and affection I received from the first moment I met them. Zusakhe Primary School has a student population of around 163 children, ages 2-6. From the outside it doesn't look like much: being constructed of shipping containers and having no access to electricity, the streets littered with trash and sewage. However, when you enter the classrooms of Zusakhe, you'll see the eyes of these beautiful school children immediately light up as they run towards you, jumping and climbing your limbs screaming out "teacher! Teacher!"


What My Placement Involved

SAVE Foundaton IVHQ Volunteer South Africa

My mornings at Zusakhe consisted of 30 minutes with Two Years, primarily being chased around and tickling the children, as well and blowing bubbles as they shrieked in amazement while running after the bubbles in fascination. Next we would work with two more of the other four classes, an hour each, before returning back to the volunteer house, named 22, in Table View for lunch.

Being vegan, pretty much everyone has asked me "where you able to eat in South Africa?!" and the answer, not so shockingly is yes. Despite what most people believe, I don't think I've ever eaten so much, and so well, in my entire life. Table View is a beautiful beach suburb located on the Western Cape, approximately 20 minutes North of Cape Town. Our volunteer house was just a five minute walk away from Catch 22 - a popular local sushi spot, Jerry's - a local burger bar, an amazing Italian bakery, Melissa's - a decadent bakery with the best soups and juices you'll ever taste and countless more food options. Other than the amazing food options, we had easy access to Bay Side Mall, Skin Trade Tattoo, local grocery markets, bars, clubs, and my favorite, Shawarma Express, a falafel shop that we always seemed to find ourselves at.

After lunch, depending on my project assignment for the day, I would either swim, surf, skate or play soccer/netball with an assigned group from Vissershok Elementary School,  usually around the ages of 10-14, along with the other volunteers from Zusakhe Primary School. Working with the older children was probably the most rewarding portion of our days, as they all spoke relatively fluent English and were all so unique and energetic individuals.

I can speak on behalf of all volunteers when I say that you'll never learn so much about cultural boundaries/differences, global stereotypes, and living conditions than you will working with children. The stories they told me and some of the situations and events I witnessed were heart wrenching. One of the boys, TJ, who was quite popular with all the children, told a friend of mine how his arm had broken so many times it began to rot from the inside - if he happens to break it again, the doctors would have to amputate it because his parents can not afford the cost of surgery to repair his arm.

My third Friday at Zusakhe, 15 minutes prior to us leaving with the children on a field trip to Green Point Park, one of the girls in year 2 began seizing in front of all her classmates. A few of the teachers told us they believed that her illness was due to worms. After the situation de-escalated, the principal  told me how she had to contact a social worker because the girl's mother won't let her get proper medical treatment that was recommended by the doctors at a local clinic. While it may have been six weeks of happiness it was undoubtedly accompanied by tears and sadness.

After our afternoon projects we were free for to do as we pleased for the rest of the day. However, Mondays and Fridays were always half days, so we never had afternoon projects on those two days of the week. What we did with our late afternoons and evening was always weather and energy dependent, due to the bipolarness of the weather in the Western Cape and the amount of energy we exerted while working with the children. Some of the activities we usually did were relaxing at the beach and watching the sunset, hiking up Table Mountain or Lion’s Head, or just chatting listening to music at the volunteer house. 


Learning About Other Cultures

I distinctly remember one Monday afternoon, where we sat on the couch from around 2:00 until around 7:00 discussing controversial topics such as euthanasia, abortion, the death penalty, and so forth. During those 5+ hours I learned so much about international perspectives and cultural boundaries, as well as what many foreigners view America and Americans to be like. It’s important for me to note that in my 10 weeks abroad volunteering, I only met two other Americans my age. To be more specific about a few things that I learned, or rather observed,  a close friend of mine from Belgium who mainly was a spectator of the discussion, was absolutely shocked at the cost of education in the States and said that “America makes absolutely no sense.”

Another point was when we discussed the costs of health care in the scenario of individuals receiving free and emergent medical attention when overdosing on drugs prior to individuals who needed medical attention that wasn’t as emergent but not due to ‘poor life decisions’, it wasn’t comparable as individuals in the UK receive free health care from the NHS, whilst health care coverage in the States can be costly and is under the threat of being inaccessible to even more of the population. I also observed that it’s a common stereotype of foreigners to believe that most Americans own guns because of our 2nd Amendment rights. For the first time in my life, I was actually teased for being American, and I can honestly say that I was not at all surprised by the disbelief and criticism that came from my foreign friends about the United States. 


Meeting Incredible People

Volunteer IVHQ SAVE Foundation Experience Cape Town

Most unforgettably, the individuals I volunteered with and the friends I met, who made our house 22 feel like home. I spent both my Halloween, as an intergalactic space specimen, and my not so favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, with people I had just met. This Thanksgiving, to most people’s disbelief, I ate 49 rolls of avocado and cucumber sushi! It wasn’t for fun, because I subsequently threw up a few rolls after the 49th piece, but I still got that feeling of eating just a little too much on Thanksgiving, despite failing to get to 50 rolls. My friends taught me so much, especially about myself. They allowed me to feel vulnerable and supported me nonetheless. They are a huge contribution to the life-changing moments and joy I experienced while abroad.


By Maya Symes 


If the idea of going to volunteer in South Africa appeals to you and you would like a similar experience to Maya contact IVHQ or the SAVE Foundation today.


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