Review: International Development in South Africa by Emma G

In January 2015 I participated in a four week volunteer placement with Projects Abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I applied for the International Development placement and spent an incredible month working with a local non-governmental organisation meeting people from all around the world and exploring a new city and a new culture.

My South African host family

During my placement, I stayed with the Davis family in Steenberg, an area about 40 minutes on the train from the CBD. Brenda and Charles have hosted volunteers for many years and the photos of smiling foreigners which cover the walls of their home are testimony to their experience and popularity.

From the moment of my arrival I felt welcomed and part of the family and it was great to meet the other volunteers who were to be my housemates for the month. Despite being very different in many ways, I got on really well with my new multinational family and it was fascinating learning about their cultures, languages, past travel experiences etc. We went out for meals and drinks, chilled out on the beach and spent evenings playing cards and listening to Brenda tell stories of her past volunteers. I never felt homesick and I thank Brenda with her hearty meals, wonderful family and constant supply of home-made cupcakes for that!

Volunteering in Cape Town

Although my placement was relatively short, I made the most of every opportunity to explore the city and its surrounding areas. On my first full day in Cape Town I did a wine tour in Stellenbosch and on the second day went to Boulders Beach to see the famous penguins, seizing every opportunity that came my way. I really enjoyed walking around the CBD and was amazed by the diversity of the city centre which, with its beautiful architecture, sprawling Company Gardens, manifold museums, quaint and colourful Bo Kaap community, bustling Green Market Square, fancy waterfront area and beautiful views of Table Mountain, offers something for everyone.

A free walking tour was a fantastic way to see the sights, whilst also learning about the political and socio-cultural history of the city, and I would definitely recommend a trip to Long Street one evening for a few drinks – a great place to meet new friends and let your hair down!

I had a couple of lovely meals at the V&A Waterfront and also sampled South African steak with traditional putu and chakalaka and indulged in some fantastic sushi, but the possibilities are endless! For the more adventurous and energetic you cannot leave Cape Town without climbing Table Mountain. A cable car runs up and down the mountain every day, but for the real experience the gruelling climb up a seemingly never ending rock path is an experience I certainly will never forget. I was pretty exhausted and very sweaty by the time I made it to the top, but the views were spectacular and worth every ounce of energy!

International Development placement

While I had great fun meeting new people and exploring the city, I did not lose sight of the real reason why I came to Cape Town; and my volunteer project lay at the heart of my overall experience. I worked for an organisation called ‘Where Rainbows Meet’ in Vrygrond, Cape Town’s oldest township, which is home to over 40,000 residents. Problems of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and gang crime are rife in this informal settlement and Rainbows is a holistic social development organisation, which offers a diverse range of projects and services to try to address some of these issues.

The work was challenging, at times harrowing, but extremely rewarding and the staff was inspirational in their dedication and unceasing focus on serving the needs of the community. Rainbows was only established seven years ago, but has grown in response to the social ills in Vrygrond and its premises in the sprawling settlement now incorporates a day care centre, computer training facility, organic vegetable garden, sewing and beading centre and community kitchen. While I have worked for other development organisations in the past, I was bowled over every day by the impact that this relatively new, small-scale organisation was having on so many lives.

I was based in Rainbows main office in Vrygrond and helped in the development of a new first aid project, fund raising and proposal writing. I received far more responsibility than I ever anticipated and was even invited to attend important business meetings and home visits with the senior staff, which were a fantastic experience. The staff was incredible and they really welcomed me as one of their own. I enjoyed joining in with the office gossip, laughing and joking with my new colleagues and, after just a couple of days I was officially classed as a ‘Rainbow’s Girl’.

Memories for a lifetime

While it is difficult to identify one or two highlights of my four weeks in Cape Town, a couple of experiences will be hard to forget in a hurry. During the Garden Route tour, I did a bungee jump off Bloukrans River Bridge – the highest bridge bungee in the world – and it was possibly the most terrifying but exhilarating experience of my life! I had never really considered doing a bungee jump before, but I felt that it was a once in a lifetime experience and I would regret it if I didn’t take the opportunity – I am so glad that I went for it!

I will always remember the fun that I had in the Rainbows office and, in particular, our multiple daily renditions of John Legend’s ‘All of Me’; whenever I hear that song now I am transported back to the office and reminded of my wonderful time there. Finally, I was amazed at how close I could get to people from such different backgrounds and cultures in such a relatively short space of time. I made so many friends during my volunteer placement and really hope that we can stay in touch and maybe even meet up again in the future.

My overall experience in Cape Town was unforgettable. I will never forget the incredible dedication and enthusiasm of the Rainbows team, how welcoming my host family were, the diversity and bustle of the CBD, the spectacular views from the top of Table Mountain or my new friends. Cape Town is a wonderful city and I would recommend anyone to go there and experience it for themselves.

Emma G in South Africa

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This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. To find out more about what you can expect from this project we encourage you to speak to one of our friendly staff.

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