Changed For the Better

Just like the lyrics to a song from the Broadway musical Wicked, “I have been changed for the better,” because my life has benefited from my trip to Cape Town.  Before leaving South Carolina to go abroad, I had no clue how much I would learn in the classroom setting and while sightseeing in South Africa.  I was unaware how close-minded I had become by living in the PC bubble.  This trip definitely broadened my horizons, and therefore changed my worldview, which will have a major impact on the rest of my life.

Reading Toxic Charity beforehand was smart because it prepared me for what I might see in South Africa.  The book in itself made me rethink if what I have been doing for others is helping or hurting them.  It also emphasized considering the lasting effects of attempting to do charity work beforehand.  For example, giving a beggar money will not be able to stop their drug/alcohol addiction, or whatever it may be that resulted in them becoming homeless in the first place.  One night when some of us were walking to the waterfront, Scott and I casually began making small talk with a woman and her two young children.  Somehow, the little girl and I started holding hands and swinging our arms while she told me these crazy stories.  I enjoyed spending time with her and laughing until I realized we were quickly approaching our destination.

When we parted ways, the women automatically started to beg for our money by telling us a story about how her family had not eaten in days.  Giving her some of my loose change would not be able to satisfy her family’s needs of a home and food.  As I have a huge heart for helping others, it saddened me to know that there was no way I could physically help this woman and her children better their lives.  It was impossible that I could find the family a home, food, and a job for the mother.  At the same time, if I were to offer this family some money then that would only be a temporary fix that could result in further continuing the root of the problem.  Many times, I try to take control and want to attempt to fix things by myself, but this was an issue much bigger than I could handle.  Since then, I have thought twice before volunteering my time and money to ensure that I am doing more good than harm.

Our day at Philippi Children’s Centre was also a real life example of what I learned from reading Toxic Charity, but in a different sense.  This time I learned to think about how the people feel that we are helping, instead of just how I feel after doing a good deed.  We traveled thousands of miles to a foreign country that we knew very little about and pretend to be skilled in tasks that we have never done before.  How can this be productive to the progress of finishing the new school?  Personally, I know that I am not the best painter, but I was assigned to paint the inside of the principal’s house anyways.  One of the workers had to teach me the proper way to paint and also wait on me to finish my part before he could paint the edges.  This man is an employee and he makes a living off working on the school.  When the project is finished, he will once again be unemployed.  The unemployment rate in South Africa is 25% and we helped in making the situation worse by taking their work.  When talking to this man he kept asking if we were coming back the next day in order to see if we going to take his work away from him again.

I learned that sometimes it is better to simply financially support an organization instead of going there to help.  I know that I personally slowed down the work and they may have even had to repaint the parts I did after we left.  If we had simply sent money (which I know we paid for our supplies), then they could have continued their normal work routine.  In a way, we were just being selfish Americans and wanted to see the result of what our money went to, the smiling faces of the children.

In addition, because we were a team that came from the United States, they felt the need to treat us specially.  They gave us teatime in order to have a break, a huge lunch, they had a special ceremony for us, and we all received a t-shirt in appreciation for our hard work.  In contrast, the workers rarely took a break, only ate a few slices of bread for lunch, and had their work taken away from them.  How would that make you feel to see special treatment given to a group of one-day volunteers, but not to you who daily puts time and energy into the project?  There was no reason for the SASDI team to do all those nice things for us.  It did make me feel good about myself, but at the same time, they needed to keep the money to use for the construction of the school instead of spoiling us.

Another lesson I learned when volunteering at Philippi Children’s Centre was when we were allowed to play with the 130 children who attend the school ranging from an infant to early school age.  Instantly after I arrived in the playground area, several children were already surrounding me to take off my hardhat, glasses, and mask.  The children’s actions spoke louder than their words.  They all desperately wanted attention.  This reiterated how Stuart Hendry told us that many of the dad’s are away from the home working in the mines.  Because of this, many of the children are being raised in a single parent home, particularly where the mother is the head of the house.  It made me realize how important women are in South Africa.

When Stuart was telling us about the lack of leadership in the country, it was a strange concept for me to grasp.  In the US, there are always people that are leaders whether we agree with their opinions or not.  The people of South Africa do not have the same mindset that we do.  Since Apartheid, many of the leaders of the country are ridiculed for trying to make a difference and it is unappealing for someone to even try to change things.  Therefore, they had to be taught such practices like how to become a leader in their community.  Seeing this through their children’s eyes helped expand my worldview where I was able to grasp the lasting effects of Apartheid. With that, it was encouraging to see that Philippi Children’s Centre has a female principal and teachers.  Even though the school is crowded and not in the best conditions, all the children still seemed to be extremely happy.  I learned that possessions do not equal happiness.  To know that these mothers are doing everything possible to help change the norm by getting their children educated is very inspiring.

In addition, since I am a female considering pursuing a career in entrepreneurship, seeing all these women and the college girls from the University of Cape Town be able to successfully launch their own businesses was truly stimulating.  If these people who come from very little are able to do this then why can’t I?  I mean, I have already created two business plans in my three years at Presbyterian College, why can’t I actually do something with them?  Even on Sunday when our group took around three hours to climb Table Mountain, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it helped me create a positive attitude to never give up on any task.  When we finally reached the top, it was by far the happiest moment of my life, and not just because we were finished, but because it was the biggest athletic accomplish I have ever been able to achieve.  I did have to take many breaks to rest and refocus, but I was still able to do it.  With the help of my friends, we were able to encourage each other along the way, even when some stranger tried to trick us into turning around and heading back down the mountain.  Usually I am determined to finish every project that I start, but now if I do begin to lose hope, I will remember that one time we hiked Table Mountain.  Since then, I always think back to that day and say to myself if I did that, then I should be able to accomplish so much more in my life.

Even though I did not realize this until I sat down to write this paper, the entire trip to South Africa helped shape my own personal vision.  At first, when Stuart gave us the assignment I thought it was silly and would not do me any good.  Nevertheless, since we filled out the questionnaire asking what our personal goals and aspirations were for the next year at the beginning of our trip, I subconsciously pondered them for the remainder of our time there.  Even by listening to all the speakers talk about leadership and motivation, it helped me narrow in on what is the most important to me in life.  Especially since I am a rising senior, I think I needed a little push to make me think about what I would like to do regarding all aspects of my life after graduation.

Being back at home in the good ‘ole USA for the past three weeks has given me time to rethink some things.  Not that going to South Africa has changed me into a completely different person, but I do have a better respect for another culture that I had never experienced before.  I stupidly used to think that everyone who lived there was very poor and doing nothing to better themselves, but I was most definitely mistaken.  Learning about a country’s history is an excellent way to help understand why things are the way they are.  I now know that South Africa is the fourth proudest nation in the world and they rightly should be.  Many times, I take for granted how lucky I am to live in America.  Traveling abroad has enabled me to expand my worldview and gain a huge appreciation for the people who live in South Africa.  It is funny that you usually learn the most from the people you least expect.  “Making plans to change the world, while the world is changing us,” is the lyrics to a song by Dave Matthews Band that perfectly describes my changing attitude towards my trip to South Africa.  My time in Cape Town allowed me to gain more world knowledge, but also learn more about myself that will stay with me for the rest of my life.


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