Every Friday morning at 8am I am tackled to the ground by 30 screaming children. While it may sound like a rough way to start a Friday, it’s the highlight of my week. It is a part of my weekly routine to volunteer at Ikaya Primary School in Kayamandi, the township next to Stellenbosch. During the apartheid, non-white people were relocated to townships under the Group Areas Act, which began the removal of non-whites from designated white areas in the 1950’s. Out of the adult population living in South Africa, almost 40% live in townships. Due to the informal nature of the settlements, townships are a maze of rough dirt roads and shacks with very little infrastructure. While apartheid has since been abolished, these areas remain some of the poorest, most crime-stricken communities in the world where HIV/AIDS and violence are prevalent.
Although these townships are a part of the sad legacy of apartheid, they are not always what they appear to be and the people that live there will amaze you. They make a life of happiness and joy out of what we would consider to be nothing. Their resourcefulness and ability to come together as a community is something to be admired. Townships are anything but bleak—they are full of life. The first way I experienced this is through spending time with the children who live there.
Four other students and I teach a class of pre-primary (kindergarten) students. Our group of teachers consists of one other American, two Dutch girls, and a South African girl. Learning how to cooperate across cultural lines has been a good learning experience in itself. Each week, we make lesson plans for the kids regarding different topics they are learning about in class that week. My favorite weeks were fruits and vegetables. The week we did fruits we brought in all different kinds of fruits for the kids to try. We blindfolded the kids and had them try different types of fruits and guess what they were. It was amazing to me how many kids had never tried pineapple or pears! To be funny, we fed one kid a lemon and the look on his face was absolutely priceless! All the kids laughed and luckily he was a good sport about it. The next week, the theme was vegetables and to no one’s surprise, they were not nearly as excited as they were about the fruit.
If there is one thing I have learned from spending time with the students, it’s the power of love. One of the difficult aspects is not being able to talk to the children in their first language. They all speak Xhosa and very little English. I wanted so badly to be able to ask them about their backgrounds and their hopes and dreams but simply couldn’t. That being said, the language barrier didn’t stop bonds from forming and joy from being shared. Every day was a new day filled with fun and laughter, which showed me what we were truly there to do. You quickly learn that, as a volunteer, the kids are changing your life more than you are changing theirs.