Postcard from Julia Roake – California, United States

It’s one thing to hear wild stories about poverty alleviation methods and the non-governmental organizations who organize such opportunities, and quite another thing altogether to experience first hand the collective efforts of NGO and community, rich and poor, privileged and restricted. As a student coming in with two years of academic study under my belt, I was, if anything, both prepared and unprepared for the challenges I faced in South Africa.

But it wasn’t only the previous academic work that transformed this experience for me, it was the people involved with the Dreamcatcher Organization that turned this experience into something memorable, into something that I can carry with me into my further studies, and help me to understand just a little bit more what it means to be impoverished, and what it means to live in an inequal society.

Margie Carolus, of course, was such a wonderful resource to have, before, during, and after the trip. Even if she was based in Cape Town, and nearly always separated from me, be it by ocean or by land, it was clear that she would do absolutely anything for her volunteers. She makes Dreamcatcher a gem of a NGO, contrasting the standardization of non-governmental organizations, along with the stigma that these agencies focus mainly on for-profit activities. It was obvious in the work that she did that she cared both for the communities and the volunteers sent, and that she took great care in finding a best fit for every volunteer.

My host family, too, provided a welcoming environment that I hadn’t expected when preparing for the trip. Ellen, a baker at the Oasis Centre, welcomed me easily into the folds of her family, and her efforts, along with her husband’s, allowed me a family in South Africa. Having grown up in a family where achievement was stressed over nurture, Ellen’s care helped to provide new insight into myself, as well.

I will not pretend that I made any sort of difference in Upington, except, perhaps, on the small scale, but I would not hesitate to say that this trip influenced me exponentially. Not only were community members willing to lend me their own insights into the situation of South Africa, but I was able to form my own opinions on inequality, health, and institutional injustices. And while I might not have made a difference, and my understanding of South Africa pales in comparison to the knowledge within the communities, I believe that this opportunity has given me the baseboard to start, perhaps, a lifelong journey in search of solutions for structural injustices.

I’d like to share one or two humorous anecdotes (which I hope show my own fall-backs, as well as the challenges of international aid) written while in the field:

–28 May, 2012– Teaching children, I would think, is never an easy task. Teaching children who understand about one in every ten words you speak is nearly impossible. Case in point: I was put in charge of teaching learners how to create Friendship Cards on 28 May. After about fifteen minutes of erasing, rewriting, and creating basic pictures, I had concocted a rather nice, easy to read diagram of what the cards should look like on the board. So far, so good, and the kids began to fold their papers just as I had shown them.

It was here things started to go downhill.

After a few rounds around the room, it became clear that only five of the learners knew what to do. Two stared at me like I had grown a second head, and five more were merrily getting to work…copying my diagram exactly as it was seen on the board into the inside of their cards. No matter how many times I explained that no, it wasn’t like that, and showed them my rather unartistic example of what a card should look like, I was, unfortunately, met with more blank stares and “Jeffrou, Jeffrou, write my name for me!”

Today’s lesson, admittedly, did not go well.

–16 June, 2012-The morning sun burns bright against the blue sky in Upington, South Africa, and uncharacteristic rarity of the harsh Kalahari winters. The day marks two occasions: the first, South Africa’s annual Youth Day, and the second, Sports Day at the Oasis Centre.

Approximately forty students show up for the event, decked out in white shirts bearing the Oasis label and smiles that could light up the already sunny grounds. Music blasts from loud speakers as parents, siblings and other relations take their seats to watch learners compete in a series of events: foot races, bike ridings, and wheel barrow racing, to name a few. Members of the Department of State and the Springbok Rugby team cue up behind a single microphone, all biting at the bit to crow proclamations of their contributions to the number one non-governmental organization (NGO) in the province, as Oasis was voted this year.

As the children line up to start the first events, the three employees of the bakery are busily at work preparing roosterbroid and sausage (a South African alternative to hot dogs) to the 150 odd attendees, as well as preparing 50rand ($6) baskets full of baked goodies in order to raise extra cash for the centre.

The day ends a success (minus two sick children and one sick volunteer) as the centre clocks in around 6000rand ($800) from both the baskets and donations, enough to buy badly needed supplies for classrooms, but not nearly enough to provide salaries for the staff when the school reopens in July. Without the aid of donors, who are in short supply with the current economy, Oasis may no longer be able to compensate it’s staff, and there is no telling how many of the workers will stay if they lose their already meager salary.

Dreamcatcher is one of the better organizations that I have seen in my years, and it comes with my highest recommendation. It is my hope that I will remain in contact with my new ‘family’-both in Cape Town and in Upington-for life, and that, perhaps, someday I will find myself in South Africa again, be it for educational purposes or otherwise.