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WorldLearn

Mid-winter in Cape Town, and we were hosting a braai (BBQ) for 50 people.Women from Masiphumelele township were passing out embroidered bags and beaded ribbons. They had made them to say 'thank you'to twenty young foreign volunteers who had been teaching in the townhip library. There were hugs and tears. Then I heard two battered cars pull up, pounding music. Iglanced out andsaw a group of lads from the coloured township of Ocean View. They asked if they could perform a breakdance to say goodbye to the volunteers. Fifty people applauded as the lads spun and flipped in the car park.

Kate RisharIt was the end of the third program we have run for WorldTeach. Our involvement started in 2004 when we were in Boston, MA, visiting my sister-in-law. She was working for WorldTeach, an NGObased at Harvard that sends volunteers to teach in developing countries.Would we be willing to start a two month program in Cape Town? So began an experience that has touched many lives, not least our own.

The volunteers are all high calibre people.It is a competitive process, as South Africa is now their most popular summer program. Initially, the volunteersoffer computing, literacy and math holiday programs in Masiphumelele township. These is a greathunger for education and these courses have proved very popular. We were all moved when a group of mothers arrived, singing and praising... ‘thanks for giving good teaching for our children.You gave us teachers, nurses and doctors for tomorrow. Volunteers you must not go back, we need you’wrote one mother, Gertrude Mhlabem.

Breakdancers from Ocean ViewThe volunteers also spend five weeks in needy schools as assistant teachers. The breakdancers were from a mixed race school in a troubled area.. dancing was their way of showing appreciation of the two volunteers who had been in their school, who had led debates about sex, drugs, politics, and where in the world is a place called ‘Canada’?

You never know what impact a volunteer program might have. There is something electric that can happen when you place enthusiastic, capable young people from one part of the world in local communities. Often it is hard to see the outcomes of the relationships that form, but sometimes they are tangible: one volunteer trained two unemployed adults in computing and both immediately found work.Another volunteer got to know a family, and she is going to pay for their child to go to a better school.She also set up a book sponsorship initiative. Others produced a very impressive guide to education and careers (see www.capetown.at/yazi) that is now being widely distributedto libraries and schools by government.

Claudette and her studentsBut the benefits go both ways. For many volunteers this is their first experience of living abroad. It is not easy to come to terms with a developing country, where wealth and poverty live side by side. Many describe it as life changing. They have to adapt and teach in an unfamiliar world. It lifts their confidence, often challenges their ideas, gives them new vision and helps themfaceglobal realities.

Cape Town offers a microcosm of the world, full of stark contrasts. Here you see astonishing natural beauty, endless concrete housing, mansions, shanty towns, chefs, hunger, eminent professors, crowds of unemployed, private jets, rickety buses. Witchcraft, diviners, ancestor worship, imamas and priests,Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, black, white and brown – our volunteers learn to navigate a crazy maze of poverty, education, culture and politics. They come to terms with a complex country, putting together all they learn in orientation with their day-to-day experiences of the ‘rainbow nation’. Here the issues of the world are concentrated, laid bare, extreme, cheek by jowl.

It is a big eye-opener! I like to think that they learn more than they can teach. And the volunteers are the first to agree that the program should be called 'World Learn’ rather than WorldTeach.

We hope to enlarge the Summer program to 26 next year, and work is underway on a year-long school placement program in Cape Town. For more details about WorldTeach’s work see www.worldteach.org

 


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