Career breakers Jane and Robin tell their volunteer story

By Sallie Grayson. Filed in volunteer stories  |  
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Robin and I are both 56; he had a career with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, followed by 15 years as a design and technology teacher.  I was running my own IT and web related business; we met in 2009 and soon started talking about the idea of taking a year out to travel and do voluntary work.  We read about people and places in an article in the travel section of Saturday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.   We knew we wanted to do some voluntary work, preferably in a school and preferably in Africa, but wanted to know that we would be placed somewhere we could make a genuine contribution and wouldn’t be putting local people out of a job!  So we liked people and places’ approach – especially because they carefully matched volunteer skills with the project needs.

Every morning for four weeks we walked to school along the stony rutted lane between the township houses.  As we walked, Ace, our host, would call out greetings to his neighbours; as a schoolteacher he is a respected figure in the community.

Although the days were hot, some mornings were chilly and there was mist lying in the valley.  I was glad to see that most of the children also making their way to school had coats or sweatshirts, often several sizes too large or too small, and were wearing woolly hats.

Some mornings the 900 or so children would line up together in the playground for assembly before the day started.  Often before the teachers had arrived, the children began to sing, stepping back and forwards in rhythm.  As the teachers arrived they joined in with the harmony – what a sound!

As the children filed off to their classrooms the teachers would greet us, they insisted we learned some Xhosa so it was “unjani? “-“how are you?”  and “ndiphilile, nkosi” – “I am fine?”, “unjani wena”, “and how are you?”

Robin and I spent four weeks in September 2011 at AV Bukani primary school in the rural and disadvantaged township of Nomathansanque in the Sundays River Valley area of South Africa’s Eastern Cape.   Before we left the UK, People and Places had asked us for detailed information on our skills, abilities and interests, and after discussion with the school’s Head it was decided that we could be of most use in the school’s computer lab, helping the staff get more value from the educational software available to them.

The computer lab had been provided by previous donations to the Calabash Trust; the software was provided by the South African government. We worked closely with the teacher in charge of the lab and the computer committee with a representative from each year group.  All the children except the reception class used the computer lab for at least one lesson a week.

There were many challenges, some thrown up by the elderly hardware, and some by the software which was not always appropriate – we were puzzled by the perception skills programme which asked the children to compare the sizes of a dart board and a snooker table – unlikely that children living in a deprived rural area would ever have seen these!

Some of the teachers were much more confident in using computers than others and had a much better grasp of the possibilities for the children’s learning, so one of our aims was to support and encourage the less confident.  Our first week was spent observing lessons in the lab, and on each Friday morning we had a progress meeting with Paul (people and places local partner), the Head, and one or two of the teachers.  These meetings were very helpful in ensuring that everyone had a clear and shared idea of what we were trying to do, and how and why.

We stayed during the week with Ace, an English teacher, and his wife Nombolelo, they made us very comfortable and once we had relaxed in each other’s company we got on well.  There was no running water in the township for the first 10 days, so Nombolelo was getting up very early and boiling kettles for washing water; it was awkward for all of us.  Robin was delighted to discover that Ace a shared interest in football and had a TV which showed UK Premier league games!

At weekends we stayed in a guest house in Port Elizabeth, where it was wonderful to be able to have a shower!

Paul organised some cultural visits for us and also took us to Addo Elephant Park; the highlight was getting very close to a large family of elephants splashing in a water hole.

School finished at 2 p.m., sometimes earlier, so in the afternoons we had the opportunity to make some local friends.  Two Irish Catholic nuns lived and worked nearby and took us out one afternoon; they ran a small computer laboratory in another local primary school and gave classes to most of the community.  They had also set up a crèche in a deprived Afrikaans speaking township not far away.  We also met a white farmer’s wife who took us to visit a crèche she’d set up in a nearby ‘informal settlement’ i.e. a squatter camp with no amenities – the inhabitants were the very poorest of the poor.  With Ace and Nombolelo we were invited to a ‘braai’ at the home of another local citrus farmer and his wife, who worked with Nombolelo in the local library.

Robin and I are both 56; he had a career with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, followed by 15 years as a design and technology teacher.  I was running my own IT and web related business; we met in 2009 and soon started talking about the idea of taking a year out to travel and do voluntary work.  We read about people and places in an article in the travel section of Saturday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.   We knew we wanted to do some voluntary work, preferably in a school and preferably in Africa, but wanted to know that we would be placed somewhere we could make a genuine contribution and wouldn’t be putting local people out of a job!  So we liked people and places’ approach – especially because they carefully matched volunteer skills with the project needs.  Organising an eight-month round the world trip was a huge task that took us around 18 months and inevitably as our time as volunteers was just part of that year out we probably didn’t prepare as well for it as we might have done.  We actually flew to South Africa from New Zealand, meaning that I suffered horribly from jetlag which made the first few days really tough.

After  our four weeks were up we were lucky enough to take two weeks holiday in South Africa, a week travelling along the Garden Route by backpacker bus, and a week in Cape Town in a very comfortable backpacker hostel.  Then it was onto Kenya for another volunteering stint, but that’s a whole other story! I would certainly recommend volunteering to others;

I am so grateful that we were able to stay in the home of a local family; we learned so much about the local culture and history by just talking with our hosts and their friends.  The four weeks went by very quickly; my lasting memories are of the children’s enthusiasm, their singing; and by the warm welcome we received from everyone.

To see video interviews  with Jane and Robin about their volunteer experience click here

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