After an amazing few weeks in Morocco, I decided to take a short flight to Lisbon and spend a few days in Portugal. Europe in February can be dreary, but Portugal enjoys a temperate climate. So while is was often overcast or rainy, temps were in the 60s.
I checked in to my hotel on Rossio Square in late afternoon, and immediately went out to walk the neighborhood and head down to the Tagus River, which flows west to the Atlantic Ocean. The neighborhood around Rossio Square is lively, full of shops, cafes, churches, cobbled streets, and apartments. The hustle and bustle around Rossio is mostly the locals going to and from work and home, but there is plenty for tourists too.
Lisbon is a very walkable city once you know the tips and tricks. If you don’t, you will spend a lot of time huffing and puffing up the steep hills into which the city was built. I was lucky enough to find Pedro at Inside Lisbon, a local company that provides walking tours in Lisbon, and day tours to nearby Sintra, Cascais, and Estoril. I spent my first morning walking Lisbon with Pedro who gave a great overview of the history of Portugal and the city highlights.
I love churches and castles, and Portugal delivered. The Saint Domingos Church (Igreja Sao Domingos) is a macabre church that makes for a strangely jaw dropping first impression. The dim interior is painted a haunting orange, with ruined sections of old fire damaged church jutting out from the walls. The massive stone pillars are scorched from the fire that ravaged the church and there is still a lingering smell of burning in the air.
Then there are the streets….every inch of streets, sidewalks, and squares are paved with stones that were hand chipped and installed by artisans. Most are black and white and many are installed in wavy patterns….which can make for a dizzy walk across a busy square.
By mid afternoon, Pedro had walked me through the main Lisbon neighborhoods: Baixa, Chiado, Alfama, and Bairro Alto. We agreed to meet later that day for another walk – this time to sample the food and wine of Portugal. Frank and Denise, who hail from Maine, joined us this evening. The outing was full of laughter, great food, and an assortment of fine wines. Frank and Denise were warm and friendly company for this solo traveler.
Over the coming days, I would spend a rainy day visiting the Pena Palace and Cabo da Roca (western most point of Europe) near Sintra, and the beaches of Cascais and Estoril.
Portugal was simple to navigate, with friendly interesting people, great sites, and the starting point for my journey home. Adeus Portugal!
Marrakesh is possibly the most important of Morocco’s four former imperial cities (cities that were built by Moroccan Berber empires). The region has been inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times, but the actual city was founded in 1062.
The Jemaa el Fnaa is one of the best-known squares in Africa and is the center of city activity and trade. It has been described as a bridge between the past and the present, the place where Moroccan tradition encounters modernity. Today the square attracts people from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds and tourists from all around the world. Snake charmers, acrobats, magicians, mystics, musicians, monkey trainers, herb sellers, story-tellers, dentists, pickpockets, and entertainers in medieval garb still populate the square.
Marrakesh has the largest traditional Berber market in Morocco and the image of the city is closely associated with its souks (markets), a honeycomb of intricately connected alleyways comprising a dizzying number of stalls and shops.
There is so much to see and do in Marrakech, but the center of activity truly is the Jemma el-Fnaa square. And that is where we spent our first day in Marrakech. The sheer number of street performers is best watched both up close and from the rooftop cafes around the square.
Our riad is in the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter in the medina and affords us easy access to all of the cafes, performers, souks, music, mosque, and anything your heart desires in Marrakech.
During our days in Marrakech we visit the Jardin de Majorelle, the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, the Marrakech Museum and sample some of the best Moroccan food on earth!
On our final night in Marrakech (tomorrow we head to Casablanca for our last day in Morocco), we have another wonderful dinner accompanied by music and a bellydancer.
One of the reasons I travel the world is to learn about other cultures, beliefs, and traditions. I find it best to do this by living in a place, becoming part of a community. This is what I did in South Africa while I volunteered at a children’s home. While I couldn’t do this in Morocco, I was still able to better understand Moroccans in general and Muslims in particular because of the efforts of our guide. Aziz arranged for me to meet with a woman (Fatima) who talked to me about the strides women are making in Morocco. While Moroccan women do not have the same status as women in the west, they have come a long way in the last few years. Fatima is a college educated professional woman. She is slowly educating her two young sons about equality and respect for women. One willingly helps in the kitchen, while the other still believes it is woman’s work. Change comes in small steps.
Aziz also moderated an intense discussion with our group about how Moroccans feel about terrorists (they fear and dislike them) and how westerners sometimes mistrust Muslims.
We spent some time with pre-schoolers learning the Quran in a fun way with women in their Fez neighborhood. These were smiling happy children, not much different from the children we know and love in our own country.
Our time with the farmer, Mohamed, and his wife and Idris, the djalaba shop owner, and his family allowed us a look inside the family life of average Moroccans, who happen to be Muslims.
So, I leave Morocco with a better understanding of its people, history, customs, and beliefs. It isn’t perfect. People sometimes skirt the law. Its healthcare system is lacking. There are still too many poor families. But it is a warm, funny, exotic, and ancient country with people who make great food, love their children, and strive for a happy life…Inshallah.
The Sahara – it’s where I had that moment, the one where you say to yourself….I’m here! Oh my….I’m really here. And I had that moment while sitting atop a camel, on top of a sand dune. If this is a dream, don’t wake me.
Our first stop was at the camp where we would spend our nights in the desert. I use the term “camp” loosely as our accomodations were more than tents. Furnished with beautiful furniture and rugs, flushing toilets, and showers, they rivaled hotel rooms in the real world.
We drove to another part of the Sahara in our 4 X 4 vehicle and met with a family of nomads. They had been in this particular spot for two weeks and would probably be moving on in another week, once their goats had finished off the nearby vegetation. The family was comprised of a mother, her children and their spouses, and her grandchildren. Someone asked if she thought her grandchildren would grow up to choose a different life. She was surprised by the question….why would they? This is their destiny. This is their life. Life is about what we know. To most westerners life is a house and a job and family, with the added distractions of modern life. It’s what we know. To the nomads life is following the water, the vegetation. It’s their job. They love their families, but they are accustomed to loss. There are no doctors or hospitals in the desert. If herbal medicine and prayers do not cure, then they bury their dead.
In the desert I saw beautiful and happy children. A woman showed us how she spins camel hair into wool. The baby goats squealed in fear at our approach. Life was as it should be, just different.
Day two in the desert heralds the arrival of the camels! Their fur is coarse and their eyelashes are long and thick, and they do not spit! They were actually very well behaved, sure footed, dromedary. Our guide dressed in his best royal blue Arabian garb and made sure we had a memorable experience.
Nights in the desert are cold, crisp, lit by stars. We would be bundled in our thermals and heavy clothes overnight into early morning, then in tee shirts and shorts by afternoon. Our hosts entertained us at night around a big fire. They drummed while we danced and star gazed. Magical.
I had been looking forward to Fez and it did not disappoint. It was as if we left the 21st century and all preconceived notions of urban design behind as we entered Fez’s Medina. Fez is often considered the world’s most well-preserved medieval city and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The souks are brimming with color and contrast. The ancient section is a maze of narrow streets filled with bazaars, shops, cafés, donkeys, and people. We were entranced by the vibrant display of age-old urban tradition, and the intensity of life bursting around every corner.Our riad is pure Moroccan design and hospitality. We are welcomed with mint tea, cookies, and the smiling face of owner, Abdullah.
Our guide, Aziz, arranged for us to have dinner with a local family. Idris owns a djalaba shop in the medina and he and his wife, Nadia, have five adult children, all of whom live with them. Even their married son and his wife are living there until they finish building their little home. Idris and Nadia are clearly very proud of their children. Two of their children joined us for dinner. Idris’s daughter very shyly explained that she doesn’t date (she is 22). She is working for a bank and her parents will decide when she may keep company with a man (of whom they approve). Their son (age 26) does have a girlfriend who lives in France, so they only see each other every few months. In some ways we are all so different, and in others we are the same. We love our children.
VolubilisVolubilis was a Roman settlement constructed on what was probably a Carthaginian city, dating from 3rd century BC. Volubilis was a central administrative city for this part of Roman Africa. Volubilis was also administering contacts with the Berber tribes which the Romans never managed to suppress, but who only came as far as to cooperate with the Romans for mutual benefits.
Unlike so many other Roman cities, Volubilis was not abandoned after the Romans lost their foothold in this part of Africa in the 3rd century. Even the Latin language survived for centuries, and as not replaced before the Arabs conquered North Africa in the late 7th century.
We were amazed by the condition of the mosaic floors in the complex given that they are over 2000 years old and have been exposed to the elements for centuries. And in the middle of this historic site, the pelicans have erected their giant nests precariously at the top of the pillars.
Much of the stonework that was removed from Volubilis was used to build the palace of Moulay Ismail in nearby Meknes. Below is a photo of the stables at the palace in Meknes.
Ismail’s famous stable housed 12,000 horses under a single roof supported by stone arches. An enormous granary adjoining the stable stored grain at controlled temperatures to enable both the horses and the residents to survive a long siege. It is difficult to convey the size of the stables, but when standing inside it appears as though the arches are three stories high and go on for hundreds of yards.
We leave Fez to journey to the Sahara, but along the way there are some beautiful people and landscapes. Until next time….I hope you enjoy these images.
When I would dream about going to Tangier, it was the Tangier of the 1940s that stoked my imagination. At the top of Africa, with Gibraltar and Spain on the horizon, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean….Tangier seemed exotic and a world away. But it was the beat generation vibe that I read about in books about authors Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Alan Ginsberg living in the International Zone of Tangier that really framed my impressions of Tangier. Fragments of the Tangier of the 1940s still remain, but it is also a new city in many ways. So I revised my dreamy expectations and enjoyed it nonetheless.
As we entered the city we happened upon an unexpected Fantasia performance – beautifully dressed horses and riders, running in formation while firing ornate guns into the air. It’s a kind of hokey show put on for cruise ship passengers, but it is beautiful and full of pageantry….and we watched from the outside with the locals, so all the more fun.
A friend of friend connected me to Nick, a young American Muslim who moved with his wife and children to Morocco 2 years ago. Nick was kind enough to spend an evening with us to talk about his perspective on life in Morocco. He is happy in Tangier and has found ways to adapt to living in a place so different from his home in Delaware. Thank you Nick and best wishes for your continued happiness.
Next afternoon, we were off to the Cave of Hercules, west of Tangier on the Atlantic Ocean. It is believed that Hercules slept in the cave before his 11th labor. It is also believed that the opening is a mirror image of the shape of the African continent.
One week in to my Moroccan adventure and we are joined by a small group (ten) from the states. They come from Washington, Wisconsin, Arizona, Maine, and DC.
Our time in Rabat included a visit to King Mohammed V’s tomb (somber), the medina (lively) and dinner at the beautiful restaurant – Dinarjat (delicious).
Morocco has always beckoned. It’s exotic, warm, and full of contrasts. Deserts meet mountains, Islam meets Judaism, and life is sometimes on the edge. I will admit that part of the allure was avoiding a month of Pennsylvania winter weather and spending it somewhere warm. But Morocco proved to be so much more!
As I touched down in Casablanca, the movie of the same name was running through my head. But the Casablanca of Bogart and Bergman is no more alas. So after a day of walking the city and visiting its mega mosque, we headed north to the blue washed town of Chefchaouen in the foothills of the Rif Mountains. We checked in to the lovely Riad Darechchaouen where Abdul charmed us with his smiles and humor.
It was in a tiny restaurant in Chefchaouen that I had my first traditional tagine – a berber dish named for the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. We would try several versions of tagine over the coming weeks, but none will compare to that first experience.
While in the Rif Mountains we had a chance to meet Mohammed and his wife, who hosted us for a home grown and cooked meal on their farm. We picked the vegetables and herbs with Mohammed and learned how to make couscous, then feasted on the resulting meal.
We also spent an afternoon visiting nearby Tetouan, where we toured a craft school that is training the next generation in the Moroccan trades of woodworking, ceramics, tile, and plaster carving.
After several days in Chefchaouen and the Rif, we were off to Tangier.
I should mention now that readers of my South Africa blog will note that my Morocco blog is much more abbreviated. Chalk it up to procrastination and bad time management. I have belatedly figured out it is much easier to recall and write when in the moment. Lesson learned.
I am home, but I am missing the little girls of St George’s Home. And I miss Ed and Heather and my fellow volunteers. But I also miss the feeling of South Africa…the thrill of the crashing waves, the ruggedness of the landscape, the wildness of the animals and the bush, the hipster vibe of Cape Town. I look back on my weeks in South Africa and I am grateful for the life I have in the USA. South Africa is a country with a painful history and it still has a long way to go. But I choose to remember the beauty, the good people, the hopefulness. So as I close out my South Africa chapter, I’ll leave you with a quote and a pictorial sampling of the colors of South Africa. I hope you like them, and thank you for all of your comments over the last two months.
“We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” Nelson Mandela, Inaugural Address, Pretoria 9 May 1994.
Sadly, week five brought an end to my time with the girls at St George and I was beginning to feel a little homesick. Fortunately, Matt (my son) arrived from the states the next day and we started a new adventure: Safari! Matt barely managed to get a decent night’s sleep and we were up before dawn and off to the airport. We flew to Johannesburg, then on to the tiny Eastgate Airport near Kruger National Park. We opted for a private game reserve – Kapama River Lodge. http://www.kapama.co.za/kapama-river-lodge
The lodge itself offers true African bush luxury and impeccable service. Every meal is an adventure and many are staged in a different picturesque setting. But the main events are the game drives. Our guide, Sello, and tracker, Freddie, were top notch. At most lodges the schedule is:
5:00 am wake-up call
6:00 game drive vehicle departs
7:30 stop for coffee in the bush
9:00 return to the lodge for breakfast
From about 10:00 to 4:00 there is free time that can be used for a nap, a bush walk, a spa treatment, hot air balloon ride, endangered species center visit, among other things.
4:00 pm Drinks, snacks
4:30 early evening game drive begins
6:30 cocktails in the bush (in the dark)
8:00 back to the lodge for dinner under the stars
I must have gained 5 pounds!
Nothing prepares you for the first sighting of an animal in the wild. My personal favorites were the first night sighting of lions, the first giraffe, the first elephants. But they are all so majestic, so beautiful. And they all seem relatively unconcerned about the big tan blob full of smaller blobs. A word of explanation: Sello, our guide, explained that the animals are used to the game vehicles (big tan blob) and have come to know that the vehicles do not pose a threat (and are not edible!). As long as passengers (smaller blobs) stay in the vehicle, they are perceived as part of the vehicle. Of course when we spotted an animal you could hear a pin drop as we were speechless with awe. No one moved or spoke. The only sound was that of the animals and the clicking of cameras.
In South Africa the big five are Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Rhino, and African buffalo. The leopard alluded us. They are few in number and nocturnal by nature. But we saw the rest of the big five and they were incredible to see. We watched as two brothers in a family of elephants rough housed near a watering hole. Nearby a baby elephant clung to his mama with his trunk. Cute factor: through the roof! Scary moment: three adult males decided we had been there too long. This was the only time we had to back away from any of the animals we observed. On one drive we came across a pride of lions feasting on a kill. Mother lion had killed an impala and after she had her fill, she left the remainder to her cubs.
In addition to the big four, we saw: zebra, giraffe, hippo, hyena, wildebeest, kudu, warthog, baboon, mongoose, bushbuck, nyala, civet, monkey, and some others. And the birds! All sizes and colors. This was the only time I wished I had something more powerful than my Canon Powershot camera. Although, I was able to zoom in on some of the larger birds and get decent shots.
During an afternoon bush walk we were accompanied by an armed guide for obvious reasons. But he indicated that in eleven years he had only fired it once. The bush walk is a good opportunity to learn about insects, small animals, and poop….yes, poop. The trackers often use these tell tale deposits to find animals in the bush.
During the evening stop for cocktails in the bush I admit I was nervous. The only light is the spotlight from the vehicle and all of the night sounds of the bush are amplified, eerie. But by the second night we learned to trust our guides. They know exactly where it is safe to stop and, let’s face it, loosing a tourist is not good for business. The night sky in South Africa is beautiful to behold. It is everything you imagined from films and books.
All good things come to end and we said good bye to Kapama and Kruger and boarded the plane back to Cape Town. With just a few days left in South Africa, Matt and I explored Table Mountain, the Victoria & Albert Waterfront, and the Cape Peninsula. We also took a boat to visit the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his incarceration. The island is now a museum and National Heritage sight and the prison tour is conducted by former political prisons. Those of us who watched the end of Apartheid from our living rooms, who read about the injustice, who read or watched Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, cannot know what it was like to live it.
Table Mountain is iconic from any perspective, but nothing can prepare you for the views from the top of the mountain….breathtaking. You have the option of hiking up (about 2.5 to 3 hours) or taking a cable car. At the top there are the usual tourist amenities – café, gift shop, restrooms. There are also several marked hiking paths, native plants and flowers, and the aforementioned amazing views.
The Cape Peninsula drive takes you from Cape Town south to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. First stop for us was Hout Bay, a busy fishing village with beautiful nearby white sand beaches. Then we were off to Boulders Beach, home to a large colony of African penguins. This protected natural environment is one of the only places to observe this species up close. Further south the coastline gets wilder with steep cliffs and huge crashing waves. It was near the Cape of Good Hope that we spied large numbers of baboons. Like many Americans, I think of baboons as lovable, human like primates. South Africans would disagree. Baboons are not exactly beloved by residents in and around Cape Town. In fact, “gangsters” seems to be the frequent term used for these invaders of homes and automobiles. Watching them is fascinating. Just don’t feed them. It takes only one incident for a baboon to figure out that humans are linked with good food.
Baboons are widespread, so it is not unusual to see them at the side of the road. In such cases, exercise caution. Keep your windows up and your doors locked as in places like Cape Point, baboons have been known to open doors and jump into cars. The dominant males especially have large teeth and a dangerous bite. This video shows some baboons invading and helping themselves to lunch in a private home. http://gu.com/p/3gx5b/sbl
Matt and I carefully observed the baboons near Cape Point from the safety of our vehicle, but you cannot tell me this mother and child aren’t just adorable.
And so we leave South Africa. We leave with a new appreciation for the people, the wildlife, and the majestic beauty of the land. I’ll have some final thoughts next time.
When you arrive in Cape Town and drive from the airport to the city there is a vast area of shanties and shacks that stretches from the highway as far as you can see. In South Africa these settlements are known as townships. My host in SA, Ed Scott from Via Volunteers, suggested I take a tour (it is not safe to go unescorted) of Khayelitsha, the largest township in the Western Cape. Ed arranged for me to go with Loyiso Mfuku from Khayelitsha Travel (yes, even this shanty town has a travel agency). Loyiso lives and works in Khayelitsha and was a fountain of information as well as a smiling and enthusiastic tour guide.
Now here is where I’ll ask you to indulge me. Before you scroll down to look at the pictures from my visit to Khayelitsha, please take a moment to read the next few paragraphs about the history of Khayelitsha. It will provide context and its an interesting part of South Africa. Thank you.
Khayelitsha, a township in South Africa
In South Africa the word ‘township’ has a different meaning than we know in the United States. Definition: a suburb or city of predominantly black occupation, formerly officially designated for black occupation by apartheid legislation.
Information about Khayelitsha (extracted from the archives of the Khayelitsha Festival)
Few will remember that the birth of Khayelitsha was at the center of a cauldron of popular resistance. Because the government was receiving such bad international news coverage and growing local resistance over the continual harassment, raiding and tearing down of communities forced to squat in make-shift shanties, it was decided something had to be done at the highest level. The result was the formation of Khayelitsha – `a suitable site for emergency settlement of about 1000 legal families to whom some form of shelter must be given immediately.’ (Argus 14 May1983).
On 30th March 1983, the then Minister of Co-operation and Development, Dr Piet Koornhof, announced plans for a new settlement for Africans called Khayelitsha. Meaning ‘new home’, Khayelitsha was intended by the government to provide housing to all ‘legal’ residents of the Cape Peninsula, whether they were in squatter camps or in existing townships, in one, purpose- built and easily controlled `dormitory’ township. It was reported in the Cape Times 1 July 1983 that Dr. Koornhof said that it was `sound planning’ to have all the Peninsula’s black people ultimately housed in Khayelitsha .
A groundswell of popular resistance opposed the move of all Cape Town’s so-called `legal’ Africans to Khayelitsha. Main criticisms of the Khayelitsha plan related to the forced removal of all Cape Town’s African residents and their re-settlement so far from the city with nothing but the most rudimentary services, in extremely high density, dormitory accommodation.
By April 1985 30,000 people had moved to Site C, an early suburb of the emerging city. By February 1986, 35,000 people had moved to Site B on 900 serviced stands.
By 1990, with the unbanning of the ANC there was visible option to local authorities and a call for a rent and electricity payment boycott, to oppose housing conditions. The civics emerged as the most vocal opponents to apartheid’s brutal authoritarianism. The South African Defense Force became a regular presence in an effort to stem the growing community resistance. With 3000 Green Point families relocated to Macasser stands, the population of Khayelitsha was now conservatively estimated at 450,000 and unemployment stood at 80%. Only 14% lived in core housing, with 54% in serviced shacks and 32% in unserviced areas. A handful of residents had electricity and most families had to fetch water from public taps.
Khayelitsha grew rapidly during the 1990s as migrants from the Eastern Cape, previously discouraged by the apartheid regime’s influx control legislation, arrived to look for work. By 1995 there were well over half a million people living in Khayelitsha.
Fire was a constant hazard until electricity was provided, as residents used paraffin and candles for cooking and light. Winds blowing across the flats spread fires quickly, destroying many crowded homes. Crime rates increased dramatically during the 1990s on the Cape Flats. Police presence was minimal and in this climate, vigilante activities grew. Taxi wars were another feature of the early-mid 1990s as associations of drivers fought to control the lucrative routes between the Cape Flats and the center and suburbs.
1994 heralded a new epoch in South Africa with the first free, democratic elections and the election of Nelson Mandela as president. With the introduction of transitional local councils and local elections, shanty towns slowly began to transform into suburbs. Later a vast area beyond Harare was developed consisting of tiny homes in long rows. The railway line was only extended to these areas in 2008. By this time the population of Khayelitsha was said to be over one million, although accurate data was lacking. There was still no hospital in the entire area and other services, including policing, were hopelessly inadequate.
Apartheid is over in the statutory sense, but its stark legacy – a severe housing shortage and many thousands of shacks – remains in Khayelitsha. As per the 2005 Population Register, an average of 52% of dwellings constitute informal housing and 38% formal structures in Khayelitsha. Today Khayelitsha is home to over 1 million people. 2/3 of the population is under the age of 30.
Khayelitsha is today one of the largest township in South Africa. Since the democratic elections in the country in 1994 when the ANC came into power, living conditions in the township have improved. There have been developments such as new brick housing and new schools being built, a Khayelitsha Magistrate’s Court, Primary Health Care facilities and the creation of a central business district in the Township. Crime rates remain very high and while a substantial proportion of residents are experiencing improvements as a result of infrastructure and welfare interventions there remain many challenges ahead.
The people of Khayelitsha, together with many others throughout the country, having fought the struggle for liberation now face a wide range of social and economic development challenges inherited from the apartheid past. Since 1994 a wide range of programs focusing on social and economic development have been implemented. Government has adopted a number of programs, among others, the Urban Renewal Strategy as well as the Integrated and Sustainable Rural Development Programme aimed at combining resources, working in an integrated way and ensuring maximum, visible, enduring and sustainable outcomes that benefit communities in the poorest areas of our country. Through these and a range of other programs, both provincial and local governments are confident that they will in time achieve the goal of a better life for all.
The history of Khayelitsha is characterized more than anything else by the triumph of the will over seemingly insurmountable odds.
Thanks for taking the time to read this information from the Khayelitsha Festival archives. Now onto the photos. While there is a sad history to Khayelitsha, there is hopefulness too. Unemployment is high, but entrepreneurship is growing and supported by several programs. There is a developing middle class. We met many wonderful people at Khayelitsha that day and it was an informative part of my experience in South Africa.
At St George’s Home for Girls (SGH) the noise level can be deafening. Imagine 30 girls coming through the doors in waves after school. They are hungry, full of energy, and chattering away. They settle down to pray grace, eat (and they clean their plates….no whining!), and pray again after. Some of the girls want to do their homework right away. Others try to convince me they have no homework. Some just want to sit on my lap and read. Every day there is something new. Who knew I would be conducting a math class by my third week!
My relationship with the girls of SGH started with skepticism. Who is this woman? Will she want something from me? Should I trust her? Add to that the fact that they are used to college age volunteers. Instinct told me to take my time, observe, and let the girls’ actions dictate my approach. I started by taking a few children’s books to a table and reading by myself. Within a short time a little one wondered over to look over my shoulder. Then another, and so on. I was over the moon. It wasn’t long before some opened up and let me in a little bit. By week two I could read their moods as they walked through the door and I tried to react accordingly. Most of the girls don’t want to talk about why they are sad, but they will give you an earful when they are mad at someone! Sometimes they just want to be held while they cry (without asking any questions). The parents reading this will know how hard it is to not ask questions. The girls of St George have been let down or harmed by the adults in their lives. SGH provides a safe and loving environment for them, but as human beings we all want to feel connected to and accepted by our own families.
In my last blog about SGH I mentioned that the girls began to open up about their dreams. I spent a day “interviewing” ten of the girls on our make-believe red carpet. We started with easy questions like ‘what is your favorite color? Pink and purple reigned. Favorite food? Mac & Cheese (some things are universal). My last question was ‘What do you want to be when you grow up’? This took some time. They hadn’t seemed to have thought about it. They don’t have a lot of role models outside of their immediate world. But in the end they were up to the challenge and here are their answers:
Teacher – 4
Waitress at Spur (similar to Applebees) – 3
Careworker – 1
Limo Driver – 1
Lawyer – 1
As the weather warmed up in week four, I decided a little organized outdoor soccer was in order. Organized? Order? Not happening. I bought a soccer goal and balls and set it up in the yard. What I know about soccer would fit on a pencil eraser. Everyone wanted to be the goalie, they would pass the ball to an opposing team member, they were running out of bounds. It was happy chaos. But I was saved by one of the local high school kids who enthusiastically coached and played with us. Thank you, Robinson. As you can see in the pictures, the girls play barefoot. Which bothered me more than them.
On my last day at St George, I felt like I was gritting my teeth all day. Part of me wanted to slip away unnoticed so I wouldn’t have to say goodbye. How would I leave these girls who now owned my heart? In the end I did say goodbye. And I got so much more than I gave. Graeme Cairns, the director of SGH, hosted a little going away ceremony and three of the girls gave speeches. There were hugs all around and I left with a very big lump in my throat.
As a child I remember playing with a wood burning tool. You would plug it in and the metal tip would get very hot. You could then burn designs into a piece of wood. I thought about that on my last day at St George. I feel like all of these beautiful little faces are burned into my heart. I hope they stay with me forever. I want to always be “Aunty Kathy”.
I want to end with a few words about the staff at St George, and my hosts in South Africa – Ed and Heather Scott from Via Volunteers.
Graime Cairns, Delia, Neelsie, Allrick, Vreda, Yvonne, Joy, and all of the other good people who care for the girls at SGH – thank you for letting me come into your home. Your love for the girls is evident and they clearly feel the same about you.
St George receives only half of its funding from the government. The rest they must raise themselves. So in addition to the care, feeding, housing, and nurturing of the girls, they must do the work of raising awareness and funding.
Ed and Heather Scott from Via Volunteers were my lifeline in South Africa. They not only arranged my volunteer assignment, housing, transportation to/from St George, they served as problem solvers, arranged social opportunities, introduced volunteers to each other, organized tours and airport pick ups, and many other things that made me feel at home in such a faraway place. One of the young volunteers told me that Ed and Heather were like parents to her. Ed and Heather work with several organizations in South Africa – environmental, animal welfare, children. Ethical volunteering is a priority for them and they will not work with an organization whose ethics are questionable.
You can learn more about St George’s Home for Girls and Via Volunteers at the links below, or feel free to contact me.