6 Lessons Learned from Volunteering in South Africa

March 3, 2015
6 Things I Learned from Volunteering in South Africa

I’d always been obsessed with the Discovery Channel with I was growing up. Watching the vibrant African wildlife and adventures unfold on the screen dazzled my imagination. From a very young age, I knew I’d find incredible things in this continent. In my last year of high school, I was awarded an amazing scholarship for my volunteer work with anti-homophobia and anti-bullying groups. This scholarship not only paid for my college tuition and living expenses but also included the opportunity to volunteer abroad anywhere I wanted. I settled almost immediately on South Africa to live and work with an organization called Edge of Africa based in the beautiful oceanside town of Knysna. I knew just from doing the research that I was in for an opportunity of a lifetime. And I wasn’t wrong!

While I lived in Knysna for 4 weeks, I worked as an Elephant Research and Community Conservation Volunteer. My week was divided by day into community and wildlife projects. On days working in the community I would teach English, maintain local nature trails, educate the public about native wildlife, or remove invasive species of plants. Other days I worked on the Elephant Sanctuary in Plettenberg Bay, cleaning stalls, feeding, researching and caring for a herd of 5 young elephants. These elephants had been victims of poaching, rescued from circuses or abandoned by their parents. It was our duty to provide them with a natural and healthy rehabilitation sanctuary until they were old and wise enough to fend for themselves in a game reserve.

I adored every second of every minute of every day, and learned six things that I never expected:

6 Lessons Learned from Volunteering in South Africa

1. It’s not as scary as the media makes it seem

Sure, the entire continent of Africa has certainly seen (and continues to see) its challenges. Many regions have little to no access to reliable food, water or electricity. Many areas face daily obstacles against disease, conflict and poverty. And unfortunately for all of us, this is the majority of what the media depicts to the rest of the world. And while these issues are definitely something that requires attention, we never see the stunning landscapes, the incredibly successful cities, the animal sanctuaries, the schools or the beautiful and safe communities.

South Africa has been painted with a dark color in the media, one it certainly doesn’t deserve. Throughout entire visit as a young woman traveling alone, I felt welcome, safe and protected.

2. Customs toward women are very different

I was raised in Canada where women are seen as powerful individuals; we don’t necessarily need to be married or hold high-status careers to be considered valuable. Women very much run the show alongside the men in my culture. And while I was never insulted or disrespected during my stay in South Africa, I did find that men treated me as if I were a bit fragile.

Chivalry was always very important. I hardly carried my own bags or opened a door for myself the whole trip. Occasionally, men were a bit aggressive with their advances to “court” me, however I never felt unsafe.

3. Some communities have nothing and everything at the same time

In some of the villages I volunteered in, there were no reliable resources. Very large families often shared small homes and running water was sparse. Some of the people I met had literally nothing but the clothes on their back. But the most wonderful thing about these people? They were genuinely and beautifully happy. I have never met a culture of people so happy to just be alive. Children made their own soccer balls and laughed harder and smiled wider than I’d ever seen. They had no material things, yet enjoyed everything about life. Just being in the sunshine and surrounded by friends was all they needed.

4. Travelling is more important than I realized

I didn’t realize how little I understood about the world until I returned to Canada after a month in Africa. I hadn’t experienced the racial divides up close, or witnessed extreme poverty. I didn’t know what feral dogs starving on the streets looked like, or how to properly use a machete to bushwhack. Now, I can’t imagine how anyone can go their entire life without traveling as far as they can. How can you live not knowing what other cultures eat or see or do? Traveling made me grow and learn in ways I didn’t know were possible.

5. Connecting with elephants is incredible

A large part of my work was done with maintaining and caring for a herd of 5 young elephants. I had never experienced a bond or connection with an animal like I did with these creatures. They are so massive and graceful they almost don’t seem real. They all had very different personalities and quirks. You could tell when they were scared or grumpy or excited. The way they interacted and bonded with us and each other is something I will never be able to explain.

6. It is possible to fall in love with a place

No one ever tells you the worst part about any trip is leaving. I fell so in love with the people, the place and the overall feeling of being in South Africa. I think everyday about returning, and can’t wait to feel that at home again.


Top photo by Unsplash. 

About Aaron Cosgrove

Aaron Cosgrove is a 21-year old seasoned traveller currently living in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Canada working as a radio host. As an animal lover, music enthusiast and equal rights activist, Aaron is a regular volunteer and can’t wait to be back in action discovering the globe again soon!

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