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Monday, 22 March 2010

Volunteering with the Ndebele community in South Africa

Written by Emma Finlay
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I would like to share one unexceptional day of the three weeks I spent volunteering abroad in South Africa.

Volunteering with the Ndebele community in South Africa, volunteering with People and Places, volunteer South Africa, People and Places, Emma FinlayIt started off normally except we were out of orange squash. No big deal, I took water instead. As I was walking to work, Elizabeth caught up with me, slightly out of breath, and handed me a small flask. “It’s your orange juice for lunch. I’m so sorry it’s late. I noticed last night that we had run out of orange juice in the lodge so I planned to get some from my house and give it to you this morning, but you are quicker than usual. I know you are here alone and that must be difficult – we all need family and friends. It’s my job to look after you and to be your family, so I wanted to give you juice from my home just for today.”

It touched me that someone would consider me a friend in this town where I had only been for 2 weeks.

The rest of my walk to work was also normal. Children waving excitedly at the crazy white girl, some calling my name; women bowing slightly as they passed; skinny cows, grazing where there was anything at all to graze at. I loved this walk every day - always feeling warm and welcome, occasionally even overwhelmed by a sense of comfort, of belonging, of this place slowly becoming my place.

Volunteering with the Ndebele community in South Africa, volunteering with People and Places, volunteer South Africa, People and Places, Emma Finlay

There wasn’t much going on in the shop where my work was based, just some guys hanging out and playing pool. Peter, my project “mentor,” local Pastor, vegetable seller, carer, bike shop owner, tour guide and friend to all, was on Pastor duty and would be delivering a service in the church later.

‘Sticky Fingers’ stopped by; she was three and lived next to the bike shop. All she seemed to eat was sweets, crisps, biscuits and lollypops. She constantly had sticky food and consequently her fingers were sticky. She would hold hands with me often, and so I had sticky fingers too. I worried about her. Her parents paid very little attention to her – keeping her quiet with whatever food she asked for and allowing her to wander alone a lot of the time, among the boys, the tools, the bikes, and the heavy equipment. Whenever she was around, I kept my eye on her.

Suddenly, one of the boys mis-hit the cue ball, and it jumped off the table with force and speed. It went directly for Sticky Finger’s head, missing by millimetres. I don’t think she noticed, and the guys just got on with their game, but the shock I felt was enormous and I began to cry. I gathered her up and took her outside to play, as much to calm myself as to protect her.


Not long after, Peter came to get me as I was going to attend his service. We have spent hours talking together – about South Africa, apartheid, life, and more. Through Peter I started falling in love with this country and her people.

Peter and I come from different worlds and have different perspectives on life. But, I understood why he needed a God and why he had a faithful loyalty to this God – God had served him well. He believed that while I was spending my time, money and energy to Volunteering with the Ndebele community in South Africa, volunteering with People and Places, volunteer South Africa, People and Places, Emma Finlaywork in Mapoch, I was also proving that I had a God too. The way he put it was that I was like a gift from God, and therefore it didn’t matter if I was a Christian, because he knew God was with me, even if I didn’t.

We were both happy, I think, with this conclusion, which is why I wanted to attend and be a part of Peter’s service – for my cultural learning and experience, as well as my understanding. I also wanted to pay this respect to Peter who had done so much for me.

It was a job to get me dressed appropriately – I needed to wear a large and long skirt, cover my shoulders and hair and minimize bare skin despite the heat. Once dressed in the right skirt, hair shawl and scarf, and equipped with bible and beads, I was escorted to church where the 2 hour service had already begun. My preparation had involved 5 elderly women who spoke no English, treated me gently and kindly, giggled a lot, and made me feel welcome and comfortable.

About 50 people came to the service, men on one side and women on the other. Peter introduced me to the congregation, to my pride and embarrassment, saying: “Emma, the white lady, is a wonderful person who has given her time and her money to be here with us – Praise Be the Lord” (chorus of praise from the congregation). “Emma has come a long, long way from the country of Ireland. Ireland is a cold place, which is why her skin is the pale white colour. Emma cares and wants to know and be with us and help us all. Thank you Oh Lord for sending us Emma”. (chorus)

There was singing, chanting, praying, standing, sitting, kneeling, bowing, clapping – celebrations of joy and pain. It was quite emotional and something very unique for me to be a part of.

After the service, and back in my own clothes, I went back to work. As I approached the shop there was a crowd inside surrounding Nathi, one of the men I’d worked with. He looked stunned and dazed. His face was covered in blood, and there was an old toothless man standing over him, praying and chanting, congratulating himself for saving Nathi and scolding Nathi for inviting the devil into his life.


I wanted to go to Nathi and make sure he was ok, but I had been warned that I should go nowhere near blood if I saw it – the HIV rates in this community were unknown but suspected to be as high as 40%. I wanted to scream at everyone to get out, because the crowding was not helping him, and I wanted to grab the old man by the scruff of the neck and kick him out the door.

But instead I tried to stay calm. I knew that Nathi had epilepsy. In fact, his epilepsy was the main reason he was here. I realized he had just suffered from an epileptic seizure, which stopped only seconds before I arrived, and the blood was because he had bit his tongue during the seizure.

Nobody around Nathi seemed to know what to do – no one had done anything to cushion the seizure. They seemed very uncomfortable with what they had just seen. The crowd had gathered to watch the freak-show seizure and after they thought he was cursed. The old man believed that he had prayed the seizure away and that somehow Nathi must have invited it through dealings with the devil. Worst of all, Nathi seemed to believe these things too.

Once we made sure Nathi was stable, and the blood was cleaned up, he went home and life returned to normal. When Peter came back I told him about what had happened and sympathy swept across his face. He talked to me about the situation. Clearly, the medical care Nathi was receiving was not good enough – he had medication which he shared with others who also had epilepsy and it had been years since he’d discussed his epilepsy with a doctor. There were two other people in the area with epilepsy and all of them were in the same boat. Nathi’s seizures were frequent and extreme. Neither Peter nor Nathi knew what a seizure was, how to recognise the onset or avoid inducing them. The condition was considered embarrassing and shameful.

Volunteering with the Ndebele community in South Africa, volunteering with People and Places, volunteer South Africa, People and Places, Emma Finlay

Peter also told me that many years ago his brother had epilepsy and a doctor had told them that epilepsy was genetic and hereditary. Peter should expect to develop it at some point as well. Since that moment, Peter had been waiting for the day when he would suffer his first seizure. This led to a long conversation between us about South Africa and the legacy of apartheid – the quality (or lack of it) of healthcare, education, social support and services for a large black community. I understood that things were better now, 14 years after Mandela was elected as president, but they still weren’t right, and they certainly still hadn’t corrected all the inequalities apartheid had left behind.

I was so angry and frustrated. As I walked back to the lodge that afternoon I decided I had to do something. I rang my Dad and asked him to research everything he could about epilepsy. Ten minutes later, he rang me back with the Irish Epilepsy Association website open and dictated the entire Question & Answer section to me. After telling him my day from the beginning to that point, I ended up in tears again, but I was so thankful for the warmth, comfort and relative normality from just speaking with my father.


After the call, I wrote up an information leaflet about epilepsy. I took them back to the shop and took Peter through the content carefully. I felt that Nathi might be ashamed to know that I had seen what had happened earlier, so I needed Peter to be the one to help him. I saw the relief in Peter as I told him there was nothing hereditary about epilepsy. He was also surprised to learn that seizures were a nervous system issue and not related to muscular activity and that they didn’t normally damage the sufferer. I also made clear that with monitoring and medication, epilepsy could be completely controlled.


Later, I watched from a distance as Peter took Nathi through these same pieces of information. I could see that much of it was new information for Nathi, who had actually suffered a second seizure later in the day and was visibly shaken and embarrassed.

Volunteering with the Ndebele community in South Africa, volunteering with People and Places, volunteer South Africa, People and Places, Emma FinlayIn those moments I was sad that so many were unnecessarily self-conscious and ashamed by a condition that could be assisted and avoided. I was also angry that everyone assumed that these people were cursed with devil attacks. But I also felt positive that I was doing something which might make a difference in this world.

The rest of the evening passed normally enough. I was extra grateful to the people who prepared my meal. I got special enjoyment from playing with the kids and helping them with their homework, and I gave them bigger hugs and kisses when they went home to bed.

I chose to write about this particular day not because it was better, more difficult, or more successful than any other day. It wasn’t. I could have written about the day I arrived or the day I left, my birthday, the day we cycled 50km, the dance performances, or the beading days... but I picked this day because it was the one which I can recount to demonstrate the thing which had the biggest impact on me when I was working in South Africa – my emotions. On this day, I felt warmth, comfort, happiness, love, contentment, anger, frustration, fear, sadness, embarrassment, pride … and I felt them all at the same time, and that made me feel alive.

I believe everyone should put themselves outside of their comfort zone and give up some of their time for others. Take a chance and step out of the normality and simplicity of every day and volunteer abroad; it is monumental and rewarding. For me, it changed my life. That is why I am going back.

Volunteering with the Ndebele community in South Africa, volunteering with People and Places, volunteer South Africa, People and Places, Emma Finlay

©Emma Finlay

Emma volunteered with People and Places http://www.travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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