Having just arrived at King Shaka International Airport in Durban, I was waiting to get picked up by WhizzKids United. After half an hour, I began to wonder what was holding them up. Perhaps there was a lot of traffic, something else had cropped up, or it was just African timing. It turned out that it was none of these reasons! Stefan had been standing a few metres away the entire time and we just hadn’t seen each other. The waiting was followed by a warm welcome at the airport, and then from the other volunteers at the WhizzKids United house.
The first time we drove to our Health Academy in Edendale, I was amazed by how beautiful the scenery was. We drove amongst green mountains and valleys, and I saw some villages that were built on the mountain side. There were some cows on the freeway and I also saw people walking or sitting beside it - apparently it is the shortest way to get from A to B. This made me think about some of the differences between my expectations before coming and the first impressions that I felt during my first week in South Africa. Besides the cows on the freeway, you can buy a cow’s entire head in supermarkets. I was also surprised to see that monkeys are not just found in the countryside further away from the city, as I saw one dashing past our office in Durban.
After those first impressions, we finally arrived at the Health Academy. I was nervous because, as I am responsible for training the staff there, my first assignment was to talk to the staff about the kind of training they required. As a new volunteer, I didn’t want them to feel offended when asking them where they felt they needed to refresh their knowledge, but everything went very well. Sitting together with the staff, we introduced ourselves and discussed the need of the workshops. Everyone was very welcoming and I received a lot of warmth from them, which made me feel accepted from the beginning. After the meeting, I was trembling with excitement, but relieved that there had been no problems.
I experience this kind of excitement with every new project I embark upon for WhizzKids United. It’s great to see the little differences that I can make for the kids and staff at the Health Academy. I’m highly motivated to take every little step I can to help reduce poverty and HIV, as well as fight for children’s rights. We are all living in the same world, and I think it is so important to build on our understanding of one another in order to make as big a difference as possible.
I am very happy to be here in South Africa. My first four weeks with WhizzKids United (WKU) were very exciting and have made a great impression on me. In the first week, I was given my first project straight away; it was the responsibility of running the Pick ‘n Pay Gardening project. I was very happy to be given this opportunity and I enjoyed the fast pace of the work, which helped me to settle into the WhizzKids environment much more quickly. I organized the collection of the seedlings, brought the Earth boxes to the Health Academy (HA), planted the seedlings with the kids and my colleagues, took pictures and wrote my first report. It wasn’t until now that I experienced situations during the day that have made me sit back and think about everything that has happened thus far, such as how I reacted to a particular situation, what I felt during these situations and how my colleagues behave and react to the things that they are experiencing. We have all come here with different life experiences and cultural backgrounds, but it is really exciting to see the similarities and differences between people despite this. Nonetheless, the change from my life in Germany to the South African society feels like a fluent transition for me. I’m interested and curious about this country, the people and their hopes, ideas and fears.
I have already been lucky enough to make South African friends very quickly who are keen to show me their country and how they live. Last week, I went on my first journey with a friend, Zola, on the taxi buses in Durban. It was really exciting to travel as so many South Africans do here. Moments like this give me goose bumps. Experiences like these give me a great feeling of happiness and appreciation that I’m alive and so lucky. One of these moments of endless happiness also occurred when I was with the kids at the HA. They were so interested in me, this “white stranger” they quickly expressed their eagerness to talk to me. I was overwhelmed and sat with the local children in the waiting area of the HA. They appeared to love touching my skin and used me as a climbing frame. It was a pleasure to see their smiling faces and bright eyes.
Despite the positive there is one challenge that I face every day; the English language. Sometimes it takes me longer to express what I want to say. I find it difficult to find the words I need to describe something and more and more frequently I say to myself, “That was a really good expression.” J In such a short time, it’s already getting better and I’m more and more comfortable and confident with English. I’m patient with myself and have enough time to improve all the skills which offer me further opportunities.
“I love to be a stranger.” This sentence describes me very well, because in foreign places I’m much more sensitive, attentive and careful. I hope to experience many more moments of happiness in that I just enjoy the moment and feel at one with the world.
In September 2007 I travelled to Africa, having never been outside of North America before, eager to discover a new part of the world that already fascinated me from the books I had read. I spent four months in Durban, South Africa, with side trips to Zambia and Mozambique, partly working as a missionary and partly just being a tourist. I got to know WKU CEO Marcus McGilvray because he and I were volunteering time at the same 'Bible Education Centre.' Along with my friend Jesse who was visiting me from Canada, I had the opportunity to help out with WKU's World AIDS Day Tournament in December 2007; This gave me a first glimpse of what great work this organisation was doing. By the time I went home in January 2008, something was tugging at me to go back to Africa.
I enrolled in a Ph.D program in Canada but I just couldn't get into my studies, always thinking about all the exciting and interesting things happening back in Africa. Besides this, I had felt a calling to do humanitarian work but didn't know how to get involved. Now, with Marcus having already invited me to come and work for him, all I had to do was pick up the phone. This is exactly what I did, to tell Marcus that I'd booked a flight and was coming back.
I joined WKU on a full-time basis in June 2008. At that time the organisation's work force consisted of Marcus, three or four international volunteers, and two local field staff working with schools. The organisation's office was the kitchen of Marcus' house. I initially took on the responsibility of Program Manager, but with no previous training or experience in project management, I was clueless. Fortunately, after a couple months, local professional soccer player Paul Kelly came on board as Program Manager, and I moved to Monitoring and Evaluation; This was also new to me, but much more in line with my background in mathematics and statistics.
With the help of researchers, volunteers and partners from around the world, we built up an M&E system over the past four years that I believe is very advanced for an organisation of our size. We have presented our results at over a dozen conferences around Africa and should shortly have our first paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. From May 2011 I also added Finance to my responsibilities; the reality in the NGO world is that you'll rarely be doing only one thing.
When I joined WKU I told Marcus I would probably stay for two years. At that point I intended to go back to Canada afterward and continue with an academic career, but love intervened! My love for a beautiful young lady named Ayanda, as well as my love for the work at WKU, kept me in this post for 2 1/2 years longer than I had originally planned. Even then it was a very difficult decision to leave, but being newly married and with two children in our care, I felt I needed to put family first and move on to a job that could offer more long term security.
Working with WKU has been a thoroughly unforgettable experience. I will remember the faces of the many kids we have helped over the years; their passion for life and their hopefulness that we sought to encourage. I will remember the literally dozens of international volunteers and local staff members that I was privileged to work (and in my cases, live) alongside. I will remember the skills and experience I gained from this challenging work - working for a small NGO involves a lot of self-teaching and trailblazing! And I will remember the rewarding feeling that comes with working, not for a promotion or a raise, not for a higher profit margin or successful new product line, but simply to help those in need.
My favourite moments with WKU come from the World Cup tournaments I attended over the years, where I was able to see first hand the joie de vivre and friendliness of the kids, and see in a very tangible way how much WKU meant to them.
I feel very blessed to have spent this time with WKU, and I want to especially thank WKU's illustrious CEO, Marcus, for always being there for me as both a boss and a great friend. I congratulate Marcus and his fiancée Andrea on their engagement. I congratulate WKU on their many accomplishments to date and wish them God speed on all future endeavours. Viva WhizzKids United, Viva! Halala WhizzKids United, Halala!
Nothing could have prepared me for my stay in South Africa, and quite frankly I didn’t know what to expect. The common knowledge on Africa as a continent, or the stereotype, usually revolves around poverty, safaris, extreme heat and diseases (HIV in particular). What I wasn’t told before coming here is the overwhelming passion, love and smiling faces that you meet every day. There is a mixture of very different cultures living in harmony even after all the history behind South Africa. This might disappoint some, however there aren’t any tigers chilling at the traffic lights, and people don’t get from A to Z on an elephant. There are however, little thieving monkeys, who do pop out of nowhere to grab any piece of fruit left lying around!
WhizzKids United’s house is situated in Durban, close to the beach. Durban has everything a developed western city would have; bars, malls, football pitches, 6 aside pitches, restaurants etc. There are no apparent signs of the poverty in Durban, in the presence of the buzzing atmosphere on Fridays and Saturdays. Amsterdam, the local bar just down the road has been the highlight of my Friday nights in Durban so far! The office is a ten minute drive from the house, also situated in an urban environment, just off Florida road, which itself is full of bars and cool restaurants. The reality of what really goes on in South Africa doesn’t hit you until you drive to Edendale, 70 km from Durban. This is where the Health Academy is located, providing adolescents with HIV treatment, HIV tests and psychological support. The staff is super friendly, and the kids always have a smile on their face. It is incredible to see, despite very poor living standards (compared to the west and even to Durban) these kids can smile, and enjoy what they love doing, which is football.
In my first week, I helped out coach Brian in his coaching, training for the life skills coaches of the health academy. We performed basic football drills, which I had done before. However, I had never linked football drills to deep lying messages, which are designed to give the kids hope, teach them life skills, and teamwork. Some of the kids didn’t have shoes, some of the kids were bare footed and most of the kids just had slippers on! They performed the drills perfectly, and the skills they could pull off with flip-flops were impressive; I personally would have definitely broken a bone trying to play in flip-flops.
I’ve met great people, and continue in doing so! It’s been a definite eye opener, in terms of what to prioritize in life. I’ve had a fantastic three weeks so far, and am looking forward to the remaining weeks I have left here. I’m looking forward to doing whatever I can, to try to make a little difference in the lives here. Last night whilst watching the news I heard a South African man being interviewed on AIDS and about the use of protection. He said ‘’I already have HIV, why should I use a condom?! I’m already dying’’. It is unfortunately a fight against extreme ignorance, a lack of education and poverty. However, one has to try to be the change one wants to see in these people and every little step towards progress leaves South Africa a better nation, than what it was yesterday.