Four barren walls sit roofless above a decrepit foundation. In a small village on the Wild Coast of South Africa, this hollow structure echoes of failed government policy and the lingering effects of apartheid. Its initial intentions stood for a noble cause: to bring an additional classroom to an over-populated school. Yet, its realization was halted due to dried up government funds. Instead, it sat vacant for years, occasionally harboring valueless items from local villagers in need of storage.
This was the image I, and ten other volunteers from the U.S. and Canada, were faced with when arriving in South Africa. It was a community divided along racial lines and strict socio-economic boundaries. To compound the disparity, black villagers were crippled by second-rate education. Our initiative with International Student Volunteers, along with the assistance of local organization, Volunteer Africa 32° South, was to finish this dilapidated building.
As routine work began on the classroom, my fellow volunteers and I were exposed to many of the truths of village life. In a community isolated from the economic advantages of the beachfront, work is hard to come by. As a result, many able bodied adults find it necessary to make the daily migration to the predominantly white beach front communities and businesses. In the village, running water is scarce and sanitation is minimal. In some cases, the land in which the village expanded to is actually owned by the government. As a result, many of the homes are only temporary structures, for if a villager is faced with potential eviction, a ‘shanty’ is much more sensible.
While taking breaks from laying cement, I would observe the children at play, kicking amongst themselves a flat soccer ball. It confounded me to think there could be joy found in the form of a tattered ball. But I’d failed to recognize the radiant connection the children shared with one another. Though their circumstance is anything but ideal, they shared in the struggle together. There was a tangible sense of community even among the youth. It was then that I came to see the village in a different light.
By dwelling on hardship and injustice, I’d overlooked the hope this community embodied. As testament, our reception from community members was incredibly warm. There was never an instance where a member of the village didn’t meet my eyes with a smile, wave, or thumbs up. In a situation where there is historical precedent for contempt, we were treated as equals and welcomed as sisters and brothers.
It was in our connection to the community where we worked, and the relationships we’d observed amongst the villagers, that I found my joy. I’d discovered the invaluable traits that they do possess: community, as well as respect for themselves and others. All of which produced a sense of gratitude and hospitality for us as their guests.
When we departed from the Wild Coast to embark on our two-week adventure tour, I remained hopefully vigilant for similar characteristics amidst other African cultures. I was not disappointed. Across three countries and through poverty and affluence, we were subject to similar forms of hospitality and kindness. The effects of such warmth and support were contagious, as our traveling group developed deep connections to each other, as well as to our hosts. Many of these connections still exist today.
This experience, as both a volunteer and guest in a foreign culture, helped me to develop a deeper comprehension of the role I play in my community at home. It revolutionized my perspective, making me painfully aware of how often I put my individual needs ahead of others. It revealed to me the importance of interdependence, relationship, and respect. Furthermore, it taught me that concealed within the existence of living for others, lies the key to happiness. After coming to this conclusion, it was obvious to me that these people, on this distant continent, had given more to me than I could have ever given to them.
Andrew Hafnor, ISV Volunteer in South Africa
University of Colorado, Boulder