| 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.
It 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.
The 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.
But 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
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