Postcard from Imogen Healy – New Zealand

My South African adventure was part of my “elective” – an overseas experience for medical students.  I only had 2 weeks available to volunteer, which I initially thought was not going to be nearly enough to settle in.  I was very wrong.

I began with two nights in Capetown and was orientated to the South African lifestyle by a fantastic host family.  One day I was taken to visit a township where I got a tour, visited a museum, tried the local beer and ate an authentic home-cooked lunch.  After Capetown I set off for a smaller town called Riversdal for the weekend.  It was lovely of Dreamcatcher to break up my stay so I could see more of South Africa.

Melkhoutfontein is an inland village made up of 5,000 coloured people.  It was falling to pieces in the 1980’s during Apartheid -there were only shanties and mud roads with no electricity or running water.  Just a 5 minute drive away lies the coastal town of Stilbaai – home to a community of wealthy, white people and made up of many holiday homes that are only inhabited 1 to 2 months per year.  In 1989, a lady named Anthea offered to drive home an ill, elderly man from Stilbaai to Melkhoutfontein.  On the journey home he told her, “My people are dying.”  As Anthea drove around his town and saw the environment she vowed to make a change.  Since that day, she has become known as the town’s “Dreamcatcher”, and today Mekhoutfontein is a very different place.  It has 3 small food shops (similar to dairies), 1 school, 1 clinic and 10 churches.  Most people live in small, concrete houses (with electricity!) and the employment rate is much improved.  I was very rarely allowed to walk on my own anywhere here, even though it is actually a very safe place with one of the lowest crime rates in South Africa.  My lovely host Katrina would get up early just to walk me to work most mornings!

Media report DCKIDS + ImogenHBecause I could not speak Afrikaans, my interaction with patients was limited.  But I would enjoy meeting new patients and hearing their stories (with Beryl as a very kind translator!).  I also spent some time with “Sister”, who functions half way between a nurse and a doctor.  There are great HIV programs in place which one key Counselor carries out. They have managed to reduce the mother-to-child HIV transmission rate to zero in Melkhoutfontein, a huge success story.   I also spent some time with the youth and played with children at after school programs.  It was hugely rewarding when I could help out with something at the clinic, or teach a child a new English word.

I was so impressed with the friendliness of the Dreamcatcher staff who were more than welcoming.  I felt at home close to instantly with my Melkhoutfontein host family and would talk for hours with my host Mum about life!  The best part of this project was the chance to live such a different existence in a community of laughter-loving, appreciative people.  Seeing the way these people live brought a whole new perspective to my world.

There is one word to sum up South Africa – stunning.  The country, and the people.