Megan Baker - Human Rights in South Africa
I decided to volunteer abroad, because every so often I like to do something that puts me out of my comfort zone. I chose South Africa as a destination as I wanted to go somewhere that I had never been before and somewhere I didn't actually know much about. I decided to go after leaving school as I believed the experience would help my confidence and independence for going to university. I figured that if I could go to a foreign country by myself and live with a family I had never met before, then moving out and studying for a degree shouldn't be a problem!
My first impressions of South Africa
I was actually very surprised when I first came out the airport – people drove on the left hand side of the road but the road signs were familiar! Not too different from home. But the thing that really shocked me, which I think affects all visitors and volunteers, is the very distinct gap between the wealthy and the impoverished. Coming from the UK, this sort of obvious divide between the poor and rich does not exist. People are not living in houses which they have constructed out of whatever materials they could find. When they drove passed the oldest and second biggest township in Cape Town I realised that this was something I had never witnessed before.
My Human Rights Placement
I was part of the 2 Week Special project, which I really enjoyed even though it went too quickly! My host family were some of the nicest people I have ever met. They made me feel so welcomed and comfortable. Sometimes I do find myself wistfully thinking of the delicious meals that Faye, my host mom, used to cook – including homemade foccacia bread, which is probably my favourite food of all time now!
The first week I was there felt like a crash course in getting to know Cape Town and its history in Human Rights, as it included visits to places such as the Slave Lodge, the District Six museum and Robben Island.
I also got to visit several townships where I was able to talk to South African citizens. This included helping out at a soup kitchen, which many of the children attended. Those children displayed a tremendous amount of energy and love, attaching themselves to you at any opportunity! I definitely felt like a piece of my heart was left behind there.
The second week was when I was really able to focus on the current Human Rights issues that South Africa is facing. I met people who are currently tackling these issues, such as those involved in the African Scholars Fund and Gun Free South Africa. These groups really made me aware of what exactly were the causes of children not being able to receive education and illegal gun ownership, and what was being done to resolve these problems.
I finished the week by presenting to the other volunteers in the Human Rights Office on The Access to Sufficient Food in South Africa. I learnt a lot from researching it and I hope the other volunteers also learnt something new.
I also had the opportunity to go on the famous Garden Route trip at the weekend, which admittedly did not begin brilliantly (5am start!) but which was an absolutely amazing experience. We visited the Botlierskop Game and the Cango Wildlife Ranch which meant a lot of encounters with animals. Having a love of animals already I really enjoyed myself, as well as the fact that I had never had a chance to do anything like this before. Because of all the travelling involved, I was also able to see so much of Cape Town and really appreciate its beauty and diversity.
Leaving South Africa
It was quite difficult to leave South Africa in the end. Even having been there for a short time, I had made friends who I know will be my lifelong pen pals and totally immersed myself in the new, exciting culture of Cape Town. A few days after I had returned I went to a local music festival which I have been going to for a few years.
I am already planning my next trip to South Africa with Projects Abroad but it might be more wishful thinking, seeing as I am about to become a student! But my advice to those thinking of volunteering is not to think about it too much, obviously planning for your trip is important but try not to get too caught up in what might or might not happen when you're there – just go for it, you won't regret it.