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Reflections of a Volunteer

SOUTH AFRICA | Saturday, 2 March 2013 | Views [525]

volunteer house

volunteer house

Almost a week without rain now and yet the sky has held promise of it today. Heavy dark clouds have rimmed the mountains around our valley, only to be blown away on the wind. The breeze is welcome but the heat of the last few days is beginning to feel oppressive and a sharp burst of rain would be very welcome.

The sun strikes mercilessly on our tin roof making the nights inside something akin to being in a sweat box. By day we cannot open the door due to trespassing monkeys and kittens and by night there are the throngs of mosquitoes vying for our foreign tasting blood. The night air is cool outside and with strategically placed smears of Marmite, I find I am left alone by the pesky blighters. Thanks goodness for our little window, where they frantically try and squeeze through the screen-in vain!

At last a small spattering of fat raindrops start to fall, slowly gathering momentum until the parched earth releases that sweet scent of relief that I have only ever witnessed in Africa.  The sandy soil will not retain the water, but the plants and grass will take what they can while still possible – the dry season is not far off now and soon the greenery will be lost to a dry parched yellow – inviting territory to bush fires. The rain has fallen steadily now for the last 2 hours meaning that only the shifts with animals need to be manned. The rest of us have free time. In our room we have all taken to our beds to enjoy the luxury of a daytime nap. Free time is generally heavily frowned upon!

Just one week from now and I will have finished my 6 week volunteer experience at Bambelela. I know that I will be sad to leave for there are many positives here. I have enjoyed taking care of the animals, giving back a little to the monkeys – most of which are here due to human cruelty, playing with and caring for the lion cubs, and enjoying the kittens who live on the veranda outside the volunteer house. The people I have met have been a mix of ages and nationalities, here for varying reasons and finding solace in the caring for animals. Friendships are formed more quickly living and working together with a common bond in the animals and, amongst the volunteers, a desire for travel and adventure.

 As with any community there are politics which inevitably cast something of a shadow over things. It is a disappointment to learn that the agencies whom we book through take such a large percentage of our fee that we are actually contributing very little to these worthy causes. This little known fact can create ill feeling because volunteering is not cheap and the accommodation can be somewhat basic to say the least! The volunteers may feel short changed, especially when they are expected to commit in excess of 50 hours in labour a week, and understandably question exactly what their funds are being used for. Time off is difficult as there are insufficient permanent staff, projects too physically strenuous for volunteers to manage all of which leads to disagreement. Personally I would cut out the agencies with their fancy brochures creating unrealistic expectation and employ someone locally in situ to promote and manage the volunteer programmes. There is no outside or government funding in most cases and dedication to wildlife conservation can be a pretty hand to mouth existence. There are staff who work long hours in return for only food and accommodation and for whom a R10 (around 70p) bar of chocolate is a real treat! Do we seriously undervalue our ever diminishing wildlife this much?

Next weekend I shall be staying with an old friend I first met in primary school in Zambia many years ago. Almost 11 years have elapsed since we last saw each other, but we know that those years will dissolve almost instantly. That, to me, is a mark of true friendship.

The following week I shall begin a whole new adventure, travelling from Pretoria, along the coast all the way down to Cape Town. Baz Bus, a backpackers dream, allows you to hop on and off at your leisure at any of the hostels along the way. For a lone traveller in particular, this exposes you to minimum risk. You are not obliged to stay at any of the hostels and there are many activities and excursions for those that do. Our newest volunteer has just joined us having done the reverse trip over a period of 2 months. Will my 2 weeks be long enough?

Tags: africa, backpacking, bambelela, baz bus route, kittens, lions, monkeys, volunteering

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