When I applied for ACE in South Africa, all I knew was that we would be working with women and children in a township as well as working on a construction project. I didn’t know very much of what to expect or what to think about the experience. All I knew was that I was excited, and that hopefully I would be able to make a difference in someone’s life and that perhaps my life might be changed as well.
My first week in South Africa, we worked a sports camp with some of the kids from the township we were based in. We would plan our lessons and practice sessions the night before and gather our materials for the day on our way to the field. However, on nearly all the days that we were working, our camp did not go according to plan. We were left to improvise and be creative on the spot in order to create the best possible camp experience for the children. Often times, by the end of the day, when I looked back at what we had accomplished, I was struck by the thought that literally anyone could have done what we did that day. We didn’t do anything particularly special, we just ran around with the kids and played with them while attempting to teach them a little something here and there. It was a humbling realization, but troubling nonetheless because then, why was I here? Why did someone need to pay to fly me halfway across the world to run around and play with these kids who are perfectly capable of running around and playing on their own? This all sounds very cynical, I know, but I couldn’t help but wonder if my presence in that township in South Africa was making any sort of difference, or if it was unrealistic in the first place for me to expect myself (some random person from a faraway country), to make any difference at all in so short a time.
“Often times, by the end of the day, when I looked back at what we had accomplished, I was struck by the thought that literally anyone could have done what we did that day. We didn’t do anything particularly special, we just ran around with the kids and played with them while attempting to teach them a little something here and there. It was a humbling realization, but troubling nonetheless because then, why was I here?”
You might be expecting this blog post to end with a giant “BUT” and for me to share about how I realized what a huge and lasting difference I was actually making in South Africa and how my life and the lives of the people I worked with will never be quite the same. However, that is not my story. Instead, I’ve had to think back to those first couple weeks of sports camps, and that last week of construction and women’s empowerment and realize that I didn’t do anything outstanding or special. In fact, one group of volunteers after another cycles through that particular township and interacts with the people there. Perhaps the kids will remember our camp or remember something they learned, but perhaps not. Perhaps the women will be able to use the skills we worked on to find jobs, or perhaps they will use the skills learned from the next group. Perhaps the children will like the playground equipment we built, but perhaps it will become run down or broken in a short time. I’m not sure. But what I do know is that for those two weeks of sports camp both the kids and I had a whole lot of fun. During women’s empowerment, those ladies were given the chance to practice new skills. And finally after leaving the construction project, there was new, fun, and colorful playground equipment for the kids to use and enjoy for however long a period of time.
And me? I came back with a whole new perspective and respect for the people of South Africa. I experienced a taste of the beautiful country and was given the opportunity to learn of its history and rich culture. And for all that, I’d say the experience was worth it.