In one month’s time, I will be in South Africa. This is my fifth trip to the continent. It’s been nearly five years sine I’ve been in Africa – that trip, in Autumn 2007, was also to Cape Town and South Africa, also to volunteer for eight weeks and travel around afterwards.
So why go back? Surely this is just a deja-vu of my last trip, except with my husband in tow – the old hand meandering down memory lane while guiding him through the loss of his Africa virginity.
Not quite – although many have assumed I’m returning to the same project, or looked askance when I point out this isn’t my first time at the rodeo. Others visibly balk at the idea of going to Africa at all – especially South Africa – “don’t you know how dangerous it is?”, “don’t South Africans hate white people?”, “what about AIDS?”, “Isn’t there a lot of guns and crime?”
There’s no denying that South Africa has some daunting statistics to it’s name. South Africa is widely reported to have the highest rape incidence in the world. South Africa has more people living with HIV than anywhere in the world – 5.6million of the estimated 34million worldwide. There are gangs in Johannesburg who literally hijack buildings. There’s even been a recent spate of hair theft.
So it goes without saying that “safety first” will be at the forefront of my mind. But I think there’s more value to a country than its crime statistics and horror stories. My experience of South Africa is one of a beautiful, thrilling and contradictory country, with mind-boggling natural beauty, and a warm and generous people – yet a nation still scarred by its past and struggling to find its palce in the modern world.
Grand so, I hear you say. But there’s a whole world out there – why go back where you’ve already been?
I won’t lie – it’s partly selfish. I love Africa, and South Africa in particular. I want to go there with my husband – I want to be the person who takes him there, and show it off, as though this nation of 53million people is a funky new coffee shop I’ve found. I want him to love it as much as I do. I also want to revisit the most fabulous high tea I have ever discovered. Once is never enough.
But there’s more to it than that.
The last time I went to South Africa, I had been struggling with a depression that came to a head about two years later – and from which I only now consider myself truly recovered. After the ups and downs of my volunteering placement at Baphumele Children’s Home, I came home mentally and emotionally refreshed – and galvanised for change – amazed, appalled, challenged and joyful from all I had seen and done.
But rather than reflecting on my experience and using it to inform my choices, I threw myself into another long term volunteering project in the UK (and a somewhat ill-advised romance with a surfer/artist, just for good measure). I then decided to head back to Dublin and threw myself into full-time drudgery to pay the bills (and a more salient romance with an old friend, which worked out much better than expected). I didn’t really come up for air until my depression pulled me up short and forced some serious self-reflection.
I wanted to engage with what I’d seen and experienced after leaving South Africa, but I never did. It became this awesome thing that I did once, that the rest of my life could never compare to. I felt as though anything useful I’d ever done was done there, and that nothing I did back home would ever be “worthy” in quite the same way. I wanted my experience to be more than something to rant about when I got tipsy, but I never could.
It’s one of the reasons I’m going back – and one of the great things about the crowd we’re going with. They actively educate volunteers about global issues and development, and have provided a framework to encourage volunteers to continue to engage with those issues when they return home.
This trip isn’t just about doing something worthwhile when I’m in South Africa – it’s about making that count for the community I live in here in Ireland. I want my knowledge, skills, loud voice and somewhat overbearing personality to be put to good use – raising awareness of global development and encouraging debate.
I’m better placed to do this now than I was five years ago. I’ve learned more about myself, and much of my paid work and volunteering here in Ireland has given me the capacity to deal with this differently from last time.
And hopefully, in my own very small way, I can do some good.