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Although it got off to a rocky start, soon I had to ride in the trunk so all of our members could fit in the car!

Although it got off to a rocky start, soon I had to ride in the trunk so all of our members could fit in the car!

It’s no secret that when I first arrived as volunteer coordinator in May of 2011, my personality and the Zulu culture clashed. Badly.

The hardest lessons I have learned over the last 28 months have been about how to alter my conduct when working in another culture. It was particularly hard, as a young woman, to gain respect in a patriarchal atmosphere that holds experience, masculinity and age in high regard.

I had none of these things going for me.

And so for my first few months I fumbled along trying to make my mark as a coordinator. Mostly this consisted of attempts to work as hard and as much as possible. All I got was called “active.”

Then came a blessing in disguise – as my contract got extended I gained the opportunity to facilitate one of our weekly support groups in a community called Ezwenelisha – which means ‘a new world’ – and oh boy was it ever.

Fun with pedicures!

Fun with pedicures!

I was stoked for my first meeting with the weekly group, whose numbers had dwindled as the result of local politics and employment. Myself and the volunteers readied our plans, packed up the car, and headed to the group’s meeting point.

No one showed up. How anticlimactic!

However, bolstered by my fellow coordinator and local South African Nokwethemba, over the next two years the group grew and evolved. Nokwethemba busily recruited members of our 10 Families and home based care programmes, we made exciting and interactive plans like teaching about snake bites and performing pedicures on the members.

Slowly but surely I gained the respect of the group, and I found that once I relaxed and really started to bond with the community I started gaining, not the respect I thought I wanted, but the camaraderie of the communities, locals and even our staff.

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Our last meeting, with Monique, who will now be taking over the facilitation of the group.

It was with a heavy heart that I spent my last morning on project with my Ezwenelisha Support Group. We had gone through so much together; domestic disputes and violence, stigma around HIV status, visits to the beach, St Lucia and Crocodile Centre, the death of both my grandfathers, one of our members and many, many of the group’s friends and relatives.

This group of incredible men and women taught me about loving and grieving. They taught me that it was okay to ask questions at any and be unsure, and to lean on others for support. However, most of all, the group taught me about respect – how it’s earned, how to show it and how important it can be.

I owe a lot of my growth over the last two years to this group, and how through them I learned about relationships, respect, and most of all, how to just relax.

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When the first individuals suffering from AIDS were discovered in the United States in 1981, there was no such thing as World AIDS Day. These individuals suffered in a silence that surrounded HIV/AIDS for years, particularly in America but also throughout the world, until the first World AIDS Day in 1988.
For us at African Impact – St Lucia, the 1st of December is likely the most important date on the calendar. It’s a line underneath all of the work we do throughout the year with AIDS orphans, HIV education and support groups in the communities in which we work.
Worldwide, an estimated 33.3 million people are living with HIV, and more than 25 million people between 1981 and 2007 have died from the virus, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the main battleground in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS, and South Africa is an important area to work in because of the large number of individuals living with the virus. Our message on World AIDS Day was one of education – particularly surrounding HIV prevention and positive living.
An important part of raising awareness in a province whose HIV infection rate is approximately 39% is getting tested, knowing your status and living positively. Living in an area where life-saving antiretroviral treatment is available means individuals can still live long, healthy lives with HIV, and prevent transmission to their partners and children.
After a very successful World AIDS Day campaign in 2011, we decided to join forces and hold an event in partnership with the Sipho Zungu Clinic in Khula Village and Peace Corps volunteer Danielle Piccinini. The end result was a day filled with local talent, speakers and activities for kids and adults.
36Alongside the main event, the clinic and local NGO the Africa Centre held testing and counseling for HIV/AIDS and promoted sexual health check-ups for women and men.
Volunteers and staff spent the morning preparing food and setting up the event, which lasted the majority of the day and hosted over 400 people. With healthy living parcels to give out (which included toothbrushes, toothpaste and condoms), the volunteers also tested the crowd on their knowledge of HIV and gave out prizes for those who could correctly put a condom on a wooden penis.
This year’s UNAIDS Global Report detailed an epidemic that is on the decline, but there is plenty more to be done in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Travel restrictions on the HIV positive, human rights abuses in a number of nations and the ongoing battle to educate individuals on prevention and treatment remains paramount if next year’s figures are to show a continued decrease in the epidemic’s power.
We were proud to do our part this year in an area of the world where education is so needed, and although we work towards the goals of World AIDS Day every day of the year, to be able to celebrate with the rest of the world gives us a real high.
World AIDS Day is not only important for those 33 million HIV positive individuals living on all corners of the globe – it is an important day to remember those who perished first without the worldwide support of a day to encourage acceptance and spread knowledge.
Read more from our African Impact – St Lucia projects on our official blog.
We were Live Tweeting from our World AIDS Day event!
Check out the full album of photographs from the day here. 

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To see more videos and read more about our African Impact projects in St Lucia, visit our official blog

Watch this video, created by the volunteers in May, of what it’s like to be on our community project. Most days, the volunteers on our community project spend their time at one of the day care centres in Khula Village. On this particular day, three of our volunteers from The Netherlands teach the young ones at Simunye Creche.

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If I could make a list of the lists I keep, let me tell you, it would be long. To-do lists, shopping lists, a list of tasks for each week’s planning session, a list of messages I need to send, a list of books to read.

However, by far the most important and valuable of my lists is my “Long-Term Goal” list, which I keep both as a Sticky Note on my laptop and written out on a piece of paper that is pinned above my desk.

Call it obsessive, or anal-retentive, or whatever you’d like, but last week it served me very, very well.

Last week was one of those weeks where everything just falls into place. All the months of planning all of a sudden come to a head in a handful of days, leaving you wondering why coordinating such plans seem to be so difficult. Although the timing wasn’t great, with just Sofie and I working at the moment, this superweek was nevertheless an extraordinary feat.

Now let me tell you why, because you’re all probably sat there thinking you accomplish goals everyday and don’t feel the need to write a blog about it.

First – I have small goals that I complete every day. They involve things like the Primary School not taking a random holiday, or celebrating a holiday a week after it was meant to be celebrated. My small, daily goals include the Home Affairs Office not changing their opening time without notice or a strike blocking the main road.

I can tell you see where I’m going with this.

My big goals are things like getting a sign put up at Inkanyezi Creche, or redoing the Children’s HIV Education booklet. They’re things that would take days to do at home, but weeks or months to complete here in KwaZulu Natal. As a result, this superweek is receiving a blog.

Volunteer Donna explaining to the boys about respecting the library and its books.

The first accomplishment occurred on Monday. After a discussion with Peace Corps volunteer Danielle, I got to thinking about why we weren’t using our container of donations. The container (meant to be turned into a library) was nearly finished, and certainly the kids wouldn’t mind that all the books didn’t look 100% in order anyway.

So Monday’s Khula Afterschool Club arrived and off we went to open the container to a handful of the learners. Success! Eight boys read along with three of the volunteers, Shwele and I and we all had a blast. Check that one off the long-term goal list!

The second long-term goal checkmark came on Tuesday, when three of the volunteers, Shwele and I (I’m beginning to see a pattern there…) headed out to Monzi, a farming community about 20 minutes away from St Lucia, to host an HIV Education course for a farming compound. When thirty people showed up we were a little overwhelmed, but only 15 sat the test on Thursday, and all passed with flying colours!

Our location for HIV Education on the farm in Monzi.

It was a great achievement, as it’s so important that we teach the workers in the area, because many of them are migrant workers – a group most at-risk for contracting HIV.

Along with teaching high-risk groups in the community, the volunteers also helped me achieve my third goal of the week by creating more resources to make the course more of a workshop than a class. They did so by creating games with flash cards, adding more interaction between the participants and the teachers of the course. It also gives the volunteers more to do when Shwele translates the course into Zulu for the learners.

In all it was a great week. We teach our volunteers that they must take small victories like the kids smiling, the building of bricks or the creation of a lesson plan, as big victories during their time with us. This is important because it helps manage people’s expectations. However, every once in a while a week like this one comes out of the woodwork when we least expect it, helping us stay a little more sane and spurring us on to achieve more of our goals.

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Gogo Togo and Gogo Joyce had a fantastic time bantering as their feet were soaked in bath salts.

For those who don’t already know, my life (and job) can be incredibly random. Sometimes I have trouble deciding what I would like to blog about, as most of these random life and job events have somehow become just normal occurrences of the everyday.

However, I’ve been pestered about keeping up my blog, particularly when it comes to these random things that are usually also hilarious, so here it goes – the first in a series of what I’m sure will be oddball stories that will probably garner laughs, confusion and maybe outrage, depending on the day.

Let me start with something that happened just this past week, at the support group I help facilitate each Wednesday.

Our African Impact volunteers work on projects in two separate areas – Khula Village and Ezwenelisha. Both are rural communities composed mostly of Zulu-speaking South Africans, although Ezwenelisha is much more spread out and some would say more “traditional” than its Khula counterpart down the road.

On Wednesdays, the volunteers, Nokwethemba our medical coordinator and myself head out to Ezwenelisha to sit under a big tree for our Ezwenelisha Support Group. The group is for those affected or infected with HIV (in an area where 70%-80% of the population is infected with HIV, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t fall into this category), and takes place each week. Normally we have 6-9 regular members, who come together to discuss their weeks, health and sometimes a subject that they have asked us to research the week before.

Now this week in particular the ladies and Bheki (our token male member) had been talking about suffering from sore feet. Many  of our members walk long distances, wear uncomfortable shoes and have a tendency to go barefoot (I can relate). So we decided  to treat our members to some pedicures while teaching them about keeping their feet healthy.

Hilarity and randomness obviously ensued.

Jess, Miriam and I set up buckets of bath salts as well as different stations for feet washing, scrubbing, massaging and nail painting. What a hit it was! Our two Gogos enjoyed it the most – arguing over whether they’d have their toenails painted like teenagers – they loved getting special treatment.

Me giving the Induna a pedicure as some of the other support group members look on. They felt honoured to have him visit us for the morning.

Now you can imagine this type of event garnered some attention from passers-by, and funny enough one of these individuals ended up being the community’s incoming Induna (chief), who will be inaugurated at the end of April.

He stopped his truck and yelled out to us in Zulu, asking what we were doing. And instead of answering him with an explanation, Nokwethemba invited him over to see for himself.

And thus Miriam, Jess and I ended up giving the chief of Ezwenelisha a pedicure. Not something you do everyday now is it? And as you can imagine he greatly appreciated it, even jokingly propositioning a couple of us to be his third wife and as he left exclaiming that he would be back next Wednesday for another.

Talk about improving community relations. Pedicures all ’round!

 

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I found HIV education my most rewarding experience as a volunteer, and channelled a lot of my energy into teaching at the primary school.

The following is a blog I wrote for our African Impact – St Lucia blog. You can read more of my entries as well as blogs from volunteers and other staff members on that site. 

Making a difference during a short period as a volunteer can seem like an objective that’s out of reach. However, with some alterations in what it means to make a “difference” while volunteering in sub-Saharan Africa, volunteers can feel like they’re part of a process of development that’s making a great impact on the communities in which they work.

However, volunteers must overcome the emotions surrounding the voluntourism process that can make them feel helpless and disappointed.

Upon their arrival, volunteers never think that their emotions over the days and weeks to come can be plotted out on a chart like the one pictured here. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, volunteers are eager to jump into projects with both feet. While a great attitude to have, it’s a lack of preparedness that leads to the feeling of pessimism that follows. Often this is because volunteers arrive with a certain picture in their minds, only to have that picture altered when they land at their destination.

Once the rollercoaster of projects is introduced, some volunteers experience a feeling of discontent, perhaps feeling helpless or powerless against the development process. Many of the ups and downs that come with volunteering on the projects are based around the notion of making a difference, and what constitutes the measurement of a difference made.

When working with sustainable development, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where life’s pace is very slow, making a difference can seem like it takes a lifetime. As a volunteer (and even a staff member) it is important to remember that with each day on projects comes a success. Every day means we are moving towards the achievement of our goals as volunteers, staff members and as an organisation.

If you’d like to make a difference during your short time as a volunteer, think about the following quick tips before embarking on your experience:

Do your research 

Reading up on the organisation you’ll be volunteering with, the project you’ll be working at and the area you’re travelling to will all help you acclimatize easier once you’ve arrived on site, particularly if you’re volunteering for only two weeks.

Fundraise and bring needed materials 

Often a project will send you a list of items that are needed to help the projects work, or can supply you with a project “wish list” upon your request. Sometimes it’s as simple as bringing lightweight art supplies (like cotton balls or pipe cleaners) or medical materials like bandages, which you can see being used while you’re out on projects.

Arrive with personal goals in mind

Think of your skills at home and build some expectations around what you would like to achieve personally. From there, learn all you can about how you can use your skills to positively influence the project as a volunteer. If you’re a photographer, offer your photographs to be used as promotional materials; if you enjoy writing, maintain a blog for the official page or if you possess a green thumb, offer your services more often during farming and gardening projects.

Talk to everyone 

Speak to the coordinators and managers of the project you’re on about what their upcoming goals are. Usually they’ll have a task for you to take on or an initiative you can start.

Expect a mixture of flexibility and rigidity 

Some things you can change and some things you can’t. Project managers and volunteer coordinators are willing to take volunteer ideas and use them to the best of their ability. However, remember that your suggestions must align with practices that work towards African Impact’s sustainable development agenda.

Throw caution to the wind! 

Experience everything and throw yourself into projects. Make suggestion after suggestion and work hard to put your mark on the project. That way, you’ll really see how you’re making a difference in the longrun.

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