Joanna Abderholden, an adventurous 17-year-old, traveled to the township of Port Elizabeth, South Africa for five weeks with United Planet this past winter. She wanted to have her first experience as a volunteer in a developing country and she is more than happy that she chose South Africa as that destination. We wanted to share Joanna’s experiences with you…
Joanna gave and received more than she could have imagined as she got to know the wonderful people of this glorious and complex town; so close to luxury, yet so steeped in poverty.
During her time in South Africa, Joanna was housed with other volunteers in the comfortable, suburban living quarters of Port Elizabeth–a very developed and safe area of the region. The dorm-style living quarters were fully equipped with a kitchen, three bunk beds and Wi-Fi. She made wonderful friends during her five week stay, and had the amazing opportunity to live with other volunteers from all over the world, including her roommate and closest friend who came from England.
Each evening when Joanna returned from the poverty-ridden township where she spent her days volunteering, she and her friends would reflect on their experiences. The stark-differences between her own comfortable life–back home as well as where she was staying in South Africa–and the lives of those she worked with during the day, caused her to reflect on how lucky she was.
Her host mother, who went by the loving name of “Mama” to all volunteers, added to the experience. Mama prepared dinner for everyone as they arrived home at night. Meals typically consisted of meat and rice, which Joanna described as enjoyable on most days. She explained, “Sure, the food wasn’t the same as I was used to in America, but that’s…[just] part of the experience.”
Joanna spent her days working at a few different projects during her United Planet Quest. She helped out at a daycare, spent time with children at an orphanage, and taught English. Her experience was amazing and well worth it, she says, and the children (many of whom were initially frightened of her), quickly adapted to having her around.
Luckily, most of the kids spoke English, so the language barrier was not an obstacle while playing games and singing songs.
At the orphanage, Joanna was touched by how much the kids and staff acted like a tight knit family. She remarked, “The kids were very lucky to be in such a loving environment; not only a place to live and be taken care of, but a home.”
The children at the orphanage were between one month and 16 years old. Most of the kids at this particular orphanage had diseases such as HIV, or had parents who died from the disease. The volunteers weren’t told which children had HIV and which didn’t as the staff didn’t want anyone treating certain children differently than others, knowing their predicament.
When asked what the most interesting or meaningful experience was during her time in South Africa, Joanna said that she really enjoyed the experience of staying overnight at a shanty with a local family. This family’s housing consisted of adobe walls with some parts covered by sheet metal, including what would normally function as a roof. Some tiles were patched together to make a floor, yet the ground was visible at points.
Although safety wasn’t an issue in the village, everyone had their own whistle just in case of an emergency. If anyone blew the whistle, the entire neighborhood would come running to help. There was a sense of community there where everyone looked out for each other. Joanna was very proud to watch such strong ties exist in the community.
Joanna encourages anyone and everyone who might be intrigued by this beautiful, diverse country, to visit and experience it for themselves, “I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world,” said Joanna, “I’ll always appreciate everything that I have after visiting South Africa.”