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Posted by on Friday, July 18, 2014 in Service, Summer.

In my last post, I promised to report more details about my trip to South Africa through Vanderbilt’s Office of Active Citizenship and Service (OACS). So here it is:

In the beginning, we focused on learning as much as possible about our area, our service projects, and the people with whom we’d be working. I knew that for me, the big picture of this trip to SA was about learning and discussing everything related to community development, education, poverty, HIV/AIDS, racism, post-apartheid society, you name it. So on the first day, we toured the Walmer township under the guidance of a local man named Prof. This is a place of tin buildings, buckets for toilets, communal taps, and illegally-connected electric lines. We closed the tour with an hour at a local “jazz bar,” a traditional dance performance, and dinner at Prof’s house.

Walmer township. Photo by Else Sharp.

The next day, I went to my specific site of service, which was the Human Dignity Centre serving the Walmer township. This is a primary school up to Grade 3. First impressions: kids, kids, kids!

When I returned the following day to begin assisting a teacher, I spent most of the morning helping second-graders with assignments and reading books to them. It’s those moments where I had little bodies all around me, little minds expectant and hungry to learn and talk and hug, that I cherish the most. Once I showed a student maps of the world, South Africa, and the U.S., and he was so excited to see where he was, exclaiming “This is me?!” while point to the dot of Port Elizabeth.

Me with my girls Amara and Sinovuyo.

That afternoon as part of a series of weekly guest speakers, we met Mama Gladys, who takes in needy orphans as her own. Her biography is one of redemption from difficult circumstances, since her own experiences motivate her to do the work that she does today.

Later that week, we enjoyed more traditional African dancing––this time we were the dancers!––and a braai with the director of the volunteer organization Khaya.

Our group was staying in a guest house in an upscale suburban area, and to work in a less fortunate area forced me to think about and deal with the feelings of privilege that come with straddling the stark contrast between the first and third world. When our coordinators were planning our visit to SA, it had been an option to stay in homes in the townships, but it wasn’t viable for for our group. I thought at the time, living in the township would have alleviated my feelings of guilt about having WiFi, hot water, and a fully-stocked fridge––in other words, Western comforts––but I realized that serving from a place of self-imposed “suffering” is no better than coming from a place of privilege.

Part of the OACS experience is meeting these challenges, and throughout the following weeks, we spent a lot of time discussing and reflecting these types of service-related issues.

More posts to follow!

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