Elen Christiane Watanabe - Combined Law & Human Rights in South Africa
My name is Elen and I am 26 years old. I am Brazilian, and have lived in Japan for 3 years. Since I was very young I have been interested in volunteering, but I had never done any kind of volunteer work before going to the Projects Abroad Human Rights Office in South Africa last November.
I had my first month-long holiday after four years of working hard, and wanted to work or study abroad, learn new things, meet new people, improve my English and enjoy myself without spending too much money. I looked for an ideal programme online in Japanese and in English and found many exchange programmes, study tours, volunteer opportunities and internships. Among these choices, I decided on volunteer work because I wanted to help people in need and learn from them, and I also found that the volunteer work was more economical than many other programmes. Among all the different types of volunteer work, the Human Rights Programme was in particular the best choice for me because I had graduated in International Relations with the intention to complete a Master’s Degree in Poverty Issues. When I found the Projects Abroad website, which provided information about the Human Rights Programme, my decision was made.
I sent an email to the Projects Abroad Office in Japan, and then Projects Abroad representatives from different countries contacted me. I made a small deposit and received special access to information on their website concerning life in South Africa, accommodation and placement.
I was initially very afraid of the crime in Cape Town, because friends had told me terrible things about the dangers of the city. Nevertheless, when I arrived in Cape Town there was a Projects Abroad staff member waiting for me, which made me feel better. The driver took me to my host family’s house. I shared a room with two girls, Diana, from Germany, and Diane, from France, who became very good companions. Diane and I worked together at Projects Abroad Human Rights Office (PAHRO), so we went to and from work together on the train. When we wanted to return home after 7 p.m., we preferred to take a taxi instead of the train as the distance between the train station and our host family’s house was fifteen minutes on foot, too far to walk safely. Taking these basic precautions, I had no troubles with crime at all.
Spending time with my host family was a good opportunity to experience African culture and get familiar with the Afrikaans language. I took part in some activities with my host family such as going to church and on a tour of Cape Town, where I made friends with university students from Johannesburg, South Africa – and Luanda, Angola. I also had the opportunity to be with my host mother on her birthday, when we had a party with her big family and their friends.
My work was from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., from Monday to Friday. We had a schedule of activities for each week, and each volunteer decided which activity he or she would take part in. I visited a refugee camp, a prison, shelters for women (most of them victims of domestic violence) and took part on seminars about human rights where it was possible to exchange ideas with other South African Non-Governmental Organisations. Besides these activities, Fabian, a volunteer at PAHRO, and I developed a questionnaire to ascertain the percentage of Cape Town’s people who live in poverty. We distributed these questionnaires on trains and received up to one-hundred filled-out questionnaires in three days. Based on that research and some readings about poverty, I wrote a paper, which I still want to improve and send back to my project supervisor, Theodore Kamwimbi.
There were approximately seven volunteers at Projects Abroad’s Human Rights Office, but this number changed weekly because volunteers worked only for a few months. All the volunteers engaged in Projects Abroads’s projects in Cape Town, including ours, numbered twenty people. After work we frequently explored Cape Town together. Most of the volunteers were from the United States, Canada, France, Holland, Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia. I was the only one from Brazil and there was nobody from Japan. I hope my story can be a stimulus for South American and Asian people to have this kind of experience in their lives as well.
As I had applied for a month-long programme, I couldn’t learn everything and didn’t get to all the places I could have if I had stayed for two or three months. Nevertheless, I am very happy having chosen to do volunteer work in South Africa for the Projects Abroad’s Human Rights Office. The fruits of my work were many: I improved my research skills, established contact with NGO’s in Cape Town, made good friendships in South Africa, improved my English, opened my mind to better job opportunities in the future and was able to learn about a part of Africa’s vast culture.
I realised some months after returning to Japan that I had started trying to do little things for others without expecting anything in return. Before volunteering in South Africa, I thought I could not help people due to a lack of specialised knowledge, but I learned that little things do make a difference. My supervisor, Theodore Kamwimbi, always said to us “If you realise you can help anybody in anything, don’t hesitate, go there and do it”.
I am thankful to everybody I met in South Africa. I miss that time very much, but it was a starting point for the new projects ahead.