Many of my friends, when I told them I was going to South Africa, had responses that varied somewhat along the lines of “Oh, another white girl going to South Africa to ‘help’ the children.” Although this was in jest, “voluntourism” experiences like that happen all the time. However, this trip was not voluntourism and every member of it consciously made sure of that. The goals of the trip were to learn about the effects of apartheid and the history of South Africa, as well as sustainable development and responsible tourism. Additionally, my personal goals for the trip were to get out of my comfort zone and do my best to remain mindful. I definitely did these things in my time in South Africa. I can’t possibly choose between all of my meaningful experiences there without writing a short novel, so I will just write about one.
One of the most rewarding and most difficult experiences was our outreach work with the church in a township in Port Elizabeth. We were split up into groups and each group walked out to a site to bring food supplies and offer prayer in the form of song to a sick member of the community. My group went to the house of an important man in the church who became too sick to attend services. Everyone crowded into his small home and sang beautiful, melodic songs that moved the man (and everyone in the room) deeply. Essentially, the service was brought to him.I really saw how strong the community was and how they were able to lift each other up. Next, all the groups met up and we all went into an elderly sick woman’s home. I didn’t think we would all fit (there were probably over a hundred people) but the home was packed to the gills and surrounded by people. I was very close to the sick woman, at the center and I saw how she was moved to tears by the singing. I shook her hand before leaving (as we all did) and I really saw how the community treated everyone as equals and how everyone cared so heavily for each other. I am not a religious person and the situation was very difficult due to how intense it was, but I found it so beautiful. Learning to live with one’s own discomfort is the key to escaping one’s comfort zone and, for me, it allowed me to grow as a person.
There’s really no way for me to encapsulate how much this trip meant to me, except to say that it was life changing. That is not an overstatement, as it deeply affected how I view social justice, politics, racial issues, sustainable development, and privilege. I am so thankful for the experience.