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Volunteers' Stories




Teaching English to Disadvantaged Children on a voluntary placement in Knysna, South Africa

I feel have become much more independent, self-confident and improved my ability to extemporise ten-fold. I also think I’ve become better at communicating.  Being quite quietly spoken, I really had to project my voice in class to have any chance of holding the attention of 50 or so chatting kids. 

Also, talking to kids and teachers whose first language is not English, and especially with my broad Scottish accent, I had to learn to speak slowly and clearly to make sure I was understood.  Mind you, even when I thought I was enunciating perfectly I still got many a blank look or smile and nod - and that was from the English guys.

Perhaps more than anything, working with kids in the township who have literally nothing, yet still greet you every morning with huge smiles on their faces can’t fail to change your attitude to and outlook on life.  It’s cliché, but it really makes you think about how much we take our lives and opportunities for granted, and what an outrage it would be to waste them.

The best thing about the placement was undoubtedly the kids. Although they could be hard work at times, the huge smiles on their faces when you waved or said hello to them in the playground (especially the wee ones) would melt your heart.

 No matter how bad a day I’d been having (a lesson not going quite to plan or a class being especially naughty) the smiles on their faces made it all worthwhile. Not once did I leave school feeling anything other than happy to be there and thoroughly glad I’d come. Outside of school, I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know some great people, going on some fantastic trips (cheers Jim - Travellers organiser) and all-in-all leaving with many fond memories that I’m sure will last a lifetime

Can you describe a typical day?

A typical day starts early: somewhere between 6 and 6.30, depending on how many times I hit ‘snooze’ on the alarm clock. That gives me just enough time for a quick shower, a bowl of cereal and a few cups of strong coffee before Jim arrives to give us a lift into school. We usually get there at around quarter to 8, just in time for the bell (which has to be a contender for longest school bell in South Africa - if not the world – you honestly think it’s never going to end…) and the occasional sporadic staff meeting. On Mondays and Fridays, the kids have ‘Devotions’ first thing and assemble in the car park (for want of an actual assembly hall) to sing hymns and prayers. To hear all 800 sing the Lord’s Prayer in perfect note and harmony would bring a tear to your eye – beautiful doesn’t do it justice - it’s an awesome spectacle.

For my first few classes another teacher sat in to make sure the kids didn’t eat me alive (I’d been forewarned they were a “naughty class” and the kids, bless them, did their utmost to live up to this tag throughout. After that, I taught the class on my own. From 8 until 8.50 the whole school has a reading period to try and improve their English. Once this is over, each Grade follows its own timetable, with 2 periods before short break, 2 after, and then long break (which, at 20 minutes, isn’t really all that long). The kids have afternoon classes after long break, but since we were picked up again at around 1, we only really had 4 teaching periods a day, plus the reading period.

The rest of the day we had to ourselves to indulge in such multifarious activities as laundry, lesson planning, nipping to the internet café, taking a stroll down-town for some lunch or even going for a wander to the waterfront. Oh, and napping. You do get terribly good at napping in South Africa. Dinner was usually around 6-ish, lovingly prepared by Pauline, bless her heart, and was most often enjoyed in front of a riveting episode of Isidingo or Backstage – depending on the preferences of various housemates. After that, it was either a night in front of the TV (and South African TV really does have to be seen to be believed… it’s so horrifically bad it’s actually quite entertaining) or out to Chillis or Zanzibar for a few drinks. Either way, it was always relatively early to bed, to recharge the batteries in time for an early start and another hectic day in Knysna.

I had an amazing time in South Africa, truly one of the best experiences of my life. It’s a fantastic country, full of friendly people, and I’m definitely endeavouring to return at some point in the future. Many thanks to all at Travellers for making it possible.

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