Mention Africa, aid and volunteers in the same breath and it’s likely to conjure up pictures of arrogant first worlders teaching African grandmothers how to suck eggs in poverty-stricken rural villages before vanishing in clouds of SUV dust for luxury week-ends on safari or scuba diving in the warm Indian Ocean waters. And at the end of their stay there will be a book or a blog bragging about how they saved mankind. Every time I get hot under the collar on this topic, my kids calm me down by reminding me that while Africans themselves might not always benefit directly, at least the overseas volunteers go away with a much better understanding of the good and bad of life on this continent.
Anyhow, rather than get hot and bothered, I want to talk about some wonderful volunteer projects I saw during a recent visit to South Africa’s Eastern Cape. For those of you who don’t know the area, it consists of some real gems for holidays surrounded by some of the worst rural poverty in the country, if not the continent. It looks its drabbest at this time of the year when the grass has been seared white by the frost or burned black in anticipation of spring rains so that one begins to understand why so many abandon their country huts for a shack in a city slum.
Between parents deceased of HIV/Aids or absent in the city and a – for the most part – dysfunctional education system, the kids there really lose out. One of the NGOs really making a difference for over 20 years is Khululeka, which provides training, materials and support for pre-schools and care-givers across a wide region. Their brochure modestly speaks of them delivering “comprehensive learning programmes that cover not only education, but also the care of young children. Modules included in these courses address the issues of health, hygiene, nutrition, safety and working with children affected by HIV/AIDS.” In 2003, Khululeka confirmed its professional status by becoming the only High/Scope Teacher Education Centre in Southern Africa. When you visit their offices, you are struck by the professionalism and dedication of their staff. Next time I go there, I would love a chance to join them on visits to the schools where they are active – there’s nothing like seeing kids enjoying learning!
I did get a chance to briefly visit another outstanding educational institution. Some years ago, a local housewife started a creche in her garage for the children of her domestic workers. Today it has grown to become the Get Ahead private school in a dusty, down at heel suburb with an enrolment of 800. The end of 2008 was the first time their students wrote the national school leaving examinations with some doing so well they were accepted as students at some of South Africa’s top universities. The only sad note of my visit there was learning that the headmaster of my old school – which boasts world-class education and sports facilities and a wealthy old boys network – has never accepted an invitation to cross town and see for himself how the other half are educated – and then give some thought to sharing ideas and resources!
My third visit was to a rural hospital, which I shan’t name because I know that spread out across the country are similar hospitals and clinics which share the same challenges and dedicated staff. Until you hear the doctors talking about the numbers of patients suffering from HIV/Aids, you can’t begin to imagine the strain placed on facilities that were already under-resourced. The staff work around the clock and have next to no social life, let alone safaris and snorkelling. The cases they handle are often complex with no expert to refer to. To make matters worse, the government procurement system is so inefficient that they regularly run out of drugs and oxygen and staff salaries are often in arrears; when I was there both water pumps were out of action. This week The Lancet published a series of articles on South Africa’s health system and while the academic researchers did a great job of documenting the system, warts and all, alas, it provided no firm recommendations that would quickly make life easier for the medical staff who had volunteered for such onerous tours of duty.
As you know, I like to end my editorials on African topics on an upbeat note. This week it’s not hard. When I look around me and see the number of young locals who have started NGOs rather than take the easy corporate route and are making personal sacrifices that would shame their elders in order to improve life on this continent, I can only be heartened at the future for Africa. It’s just a pity Africa’s political elite can’t abandon their SUVs, suits and spotlights for a similar life of service.