As an English girl in her twenties who’d fallen in love with Africa many years ago, I was given an incredible opportunity to spend a month in the town of St Lucia, a place I’d never even heard of before, let alone visited in South Africa prior to working for African Impact.
What I knew already was that the area of St Lucia is incredibly unique - as one of the only places in the world surrounded by a World Heritage Site and huge coastline, it is home to the largest population of hippos and crocodiles in South Africa, while also boasting some incredible safaris, whale watching and Big 5 opportunities! Being used to the city, St Lucia feels like a jungle – monkeys in the trees, stars like you’ve never seen them before and even better, it’s warm almost all year round!
Further to that, I also knew that we had some even more unique volunteering projects, in the fact that you work directly in the local rural villages in an area still ruled by the Zulu royal family. The area has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and is ranked as one of the most deprived areas South Africa and volunteers work directly with the local people and families to improve their quality of life. Whether you get involved in the education or healthcare project, each day is something completely different, completely unexpected as you will spend Monday – Friday visiting the families we support, the patients we care for, the children we teach and this often takes place directly in their homes or in community centres in the village.
What I didn’t know before my time there was how much it would come to feel like home.
As a Londoner, the welcoming faces of both adults and children in the villages were something I never got used to; it was overwhelming the amount of love and warmth that everyone showed to me, whether it was the first time I entered the home of Grace, an obese lady living with the devastating effects of diabetes and HIV whom had no access to visit the local hospital, or the smiling faces of the children on our ‘Gogo 4 kids’ Family Empowerment Programme; an elderly grandmother supporting her four children who are unable to attend school.
For me though, the support groups are really what make the St Lucia projects so magical – attendance is voluntary, yet you’ll find the same memorable characters making the journey to come and sit under a shady tree in the quiet of the village each week and find out what volunteers are going to discuss. Led by volunteers and a translator, topics are discussed and there is a space for sharing thoughts, ideas and lots of laughter. These support groups are there to do exactly that; support. One of the support groups has even gone as far as to create a savings system, whereby each member contributes what they can and when a member is in need, they are able to loan the money and help each other out.
Despite speaking completely different languages and living completely different lives you all just seem to understand each other – it feels like a family that you’re instantly a part of and I hope those women got as much out of those four weeks with them as I did.
You’ll notice straight away that the villages surrounding St Lucia are extremely impoverished; running water is a scarcity, access to transport, education and medical clinics is severely limited and many, many families are living far below the poverty line, in one-bedroom shacks. As a volunteer, this is not something one can fix alone, but bit by bit African Impact are making an enormous impact on the village; providing sustainable gardens and access to better nutrition, actually listening to the health concerns of villagers who are unable to travel to the clinic and assisting them with advice and providing vital one-to-one education to young children who are sometimes unable to go to school as they must collect water for their family. African Impact and the volunteers are committed to making sustainable, long-term changes for these families; it’s not about giving them a ‘hand-out’ but instead a ‘hand-up’ and when I left St Lucia I’d felt I’d done exactly that.
Most importantly, I learned two things in St Lucia. Firstly, to respect and understand “African Time” – whether it’s hippos blocking the road, power outages, water shortages or a surprise Zulu village wedding you’re invited to, working directly with families and local people means things don’t always go to plan, but that is the adventure. That leads me nicely onto the second lesson – and what I tell all St Lucia volunteers - you can’t go in with any expectations because this is real Africa. That is St Lucia’s charm, it’s what gets under your skin and it’s what makes you never want to leave.