As my plane approached Cape Town airport, I couldn’t hide my excitement with the beautiful views of the mountains and the beaches.
I was so genuinely happy to discover everything that Cape Town has to offer.
I was excited to meet my home stay family, to set foot on my fifth continent, to explore a new country, to eat beef after a month of eating almost completely vegetarian meals, and to learn about and experience South Africa.
For the first time during my fellowship year I was neither anxious nor worried to be traveling to my next destination. I only had positive thoughts and good feelings even though I didn’t know my home stay family, I had only a few contacts in Cape Town, and I knew very little about South Africa.
Fortunately, my first week in South Africa was one of those experiences where everything fell into place in the most beautiful and unexpected way.
After being picked up from the airport by my lovely home stay mom, I spent the next few days settling into my new home and spending time getting to know the family.
My home stay family was incredibly welcoming and we laughed, shared stories, and enjoyed wonderful home cooked meals together. In total there are eight of us: my home stay mom, my home stay dad, their 19 year old daughter, their 15 year old son, a 17 year old student from Germany, a 15 year old student from Thailand, and a man in his late 50s from France.
Little did I know, Marc the Frenchman would become a major support system here in Cape Town. During my first week he was like a father to me as he helped guide me around the area and adapt to a new place with a new set of challenges and opportunities.
At first I didn’t expect to be able to communicate with him since I was told that he spoke very little English and I speak very little french. However, within minutes of meeting we discovered that we both can speak Spanish and from that moment we started an incredible friendship.
He was here on a working holiday where he using taking his five weeks of vacation time to help children by volunteering in Cape Town. After hearing about my fellowship project, he immediately invited me to come with him to where he volunteers.
Thanks to his kindness, guidance, and support I spent my first week at a government hospital for children with physical disabilities and a government school for children with hearing challenges.
At first I felt overwhelmed as I learned about the incredible struggles and challenges that these children experienced.
I learned at the school that some of the children have faced abuse and abandonment. I heard how some of the parents aren’t really involved in their children’s lives and many have a variety of problems from substance abuse to overwhelming poverty where they can hardly afford the $10 USD per semester tuition for their children to attend the school. I also heard stories from teachers that many of the children are unable to effectively communicate with their parents and that despite this fact many parents make little or no effort to learn to communicate with their children and learn South African sign language.
At the hospital I was overwhelmed with emotion on my first day as I saw so many children bedridden with amputated limbs, legs secured to the ceiling with rods and screws sticking out through their casts, and with bandages covering severe burns and wounds.
It is easy to get caught up in the negativity of these children’s situations and realities, but I didn’t want to have that mindset and so I readjusted my perspective and tried to look at everything in a different way.
I looked past the disabilities, the challenges, the depressing stories, the tantrums, the plaster casts, and the bandages and what I saw was truly beautiful.
Now, every day I see happy, strong, and resilient children learning, playing, laughing, and smiling.
I have met so many passionate, compassionate, funny, fun, and wonderful children.
Everyday at the school I have been enthusiastically greeted with huge hugs by inquisitive, curious, funny, and caring kids who do so much to make me feel welcomed and included despite a major language barrier.
Everyday at the hospital, I make great memories playing ball with the children, joking around, reading stories, and partaking in intense UNO tournaments.
Even though I have only spent a few days at the school and the hospital, I can’t help but be inspired by the children’s strength, resilience, and positivity.
One six year old boy at the hospital has really left a strong impression on me. When I first met him his leg was hanging from the ceiling, secured with a rope pully system and he had scars, open wounds, and burns all over his body. He later told me that he had been ran over by a car and dragged along the street a few months ago in a horrible accident. Despite these horrific injuries and trauma, he is one of the happiest kids I have ever met. He always has a smile on his face and I have never seen nor heard him cry, complain, or frown. His positivity and strength are beyond inspirational.
By spending time with hospital and school staff I have also learned about the different programs that help these children.
At the hospital I was happy to see that there are several different volunteer groups, a large play room filled with toys, and a staff of loving and caring nurses.
I met one male nurse with two children of his own who said, “Seeing the kids like this breaks my heart, but I like that I can do something about it and try to make their days a little better. Like look at him. I have been here for four months and have never seen him have a visitor. Even though this is my last week at the hospital, I am going to come once a week to visit this little guy and bring him snacks and little things so that he knows that he is loved and that someone cares about him.”
At the school I was similarly inspired by the children and staff.
By observing different classes, I learned how difficult it can be to address learning challenges in a situation where many children are in the beginning stages of learning their first form of communication.
With children at all different parts of their learning journey, I was happy to spend time with staff and teachers who were genuinely passionate about helping and teaching their students. I learned that a few of the teachers take the time to offer free fortnightly South African sign language classes for parents.
I have also seen how teachers work hard to help their students not only learn the school material but also learn to become empowered, active citizens of South Africa. I had the pleasure of shadowing a teacher who took extra time at the end of the day to talk to me about what it is like teaching at the school. She passionately spoke about her work saying, “My goal is to teach these children to walk out of those school gates as active and participating citizens. I don’t want them to learn to use their disability as an excuse. Children are South Africa’s future, and I want THESE children to be a major part of building and improving this country.”
As I continue my work with the hospital and the school in the next few weeks and begin new work in social services and the legal system, I am excited for everything that I will continue to learn.
My first week in Cape Town has been an unbelievable experience.
While I have made amazing strides for my project in such a short amount of time, I have also had the opportunity to explore the gorgeous sights of Cape Town.
I have turned fifty shades of red while relaxing on the stunning beaches.
I visited the penguins at Boulder’s Beach in Simon’s Town.
And I have visited the city with some great new friends.
With more project opportunities and adventures on the horizon, I am beyond grateful and excited to continue my journey in South Africa and beyond!