Well, I’m not really sure where that week went. It’s been hectic, to say the least.
Being a Project Coordinator, I have unsurprisingly discovered, is very different from being a volunteer. There is a lot more organisation involved, there is a much greater need to be proactive – if we don’t do stuff, then stuff doesn’t get done. It’s exactly what I wanted from this role, from this project, but I won’t deny that it is a lot of hard work.
So we arrived to Lekazi after getting only marginally lost: Toockey met us in her car at the police station and we followed her home from there, completely disorientated after the second turn she made but just grateful to have someone to show us the way. (Side note: Lekazi has even more hills than Nelspruit. Help.) We were shown into the house, fairly tired but happy to have a permanent(ish) home at last, after all our days of travel and planning and temporary arrangements without actually meeting any of the people we were contacting. It felt good to finally get the project underway.
As it’s the school holidays at the moment, a couple of Toockey’s kids were staying, and we had great fun for the few days they were here chatting with them about life in SA, Come Dine With Me, elitism, South African Pop Idols, Oxford, etc etc…
Didi, her son, spent two years in England when he was in his late teens, working on some kind of volunteer program running workshops and trips for extremely privileged Oxfordshire children (to give you an idea of the kind of wealth I’m on about, at one point he worked with Ollie off of Made In Chelsea. Uh huh). We had a great time talking about the places he visited in the UK, though definitely judged him for having spent time in Milton Keynes but never venturing to Liverpool. In general he’s just a hilarious bloke, with a more proper English accent than even I have, constantly coming out with hilariously incongruent sentences like ‘I had wine with Princess Anne once.’ Apparently he’s going through a ‘cabernet sauvignon’ phase at the moment.
We went to church with Toockey and Nipho (her daughter) on the first evening here – Nipho embarrassed because we were apparently about an hour late setting off – and it was all going very well until the part where we got hauled to the middle of the church and prophesied about. He would shout random words like “DOCTOR” and “GERMANY” at me and the whole congregation would gasp in amazement and erupt into applause when I mumbled that yes my grandpa was a doctor and yes I did go to Germany one time. I was having a perfectly lovely time listening to the service, sat out on the steps in the warm evening owing to our lateness, humming tunelessly along to the music – so it was a bit of a shock to have a strange pastor man suddenly getting all up in my grill and pressing his hand authoritatively to my forehead. We dealt with it very admirably anyway, I felt, but it did take him rather a long time to work his way through getting all up in the grills of and pressing his hand to the foreheads of every member of the congregation. I found myself idly wondering if God would mind if he didn’t bless each member of his church individually, or whether God requires his pastors to wear bright purple trousers, or whether God would mind really if I just came along and sat quietly in the corner for the music bit and then left. He does, after all, move in mysterious ways.
Aside from our brush with a branch of South African Christianity, we’ve had an incredibly busy week meeting with all the various project partners and organisations, teachers and homestay hosts, police and medical centres, volunteers and placement heads, tribal chiefs and the guy who sits in a chair all day opening and closing the gate to the tribal chiefs’ offices (he’s our new mate; when we first went there he greeted us with the biggest grin and said ‘Aaaah the British have come!’). We’ve helped recruit some South African volunteers through an organisation called ORT (Oneness Revival Team – don’t worry, I don’t know what it means either). Their project coordinator, Nonhlanhla, is so incredibly beautiful that I kind of don’t really want to even be seen with her. And she has a six year old daughter. We’ve also somehow managed to plan a training week for the volunteers for next week in amongst all of that, arranging talks from NGOs and language sessions and planning workshops and whatnot.
It’s been a learning curve to say the least. Things I have learnt this week:
- Wearing a scarf on your head when visiting a tribal chief and their committee is crucial if you do not want to be faced with a) stony looks from committee members, b) a fine out of respect for the chief and/or c) the possibility of being taken as a wife by the chief.
- Tribal chiefs perk up significantly when they are given b). We pondered that it is probably used to buy biscuits for their meetings.
- Threat of c) is probably only in jest, but best to just laugh it off politely and try not to look too nervous.
- Stalling is acceptable and not something to get angry at the driver in front for. Even if they may happen to do it several times. In a row. Just as the traffic light turns red. On a hill. I’ve discovered stalling is a real talent of mine, but I have decided to put it down to my Cambridgeshire upbringing.
- The same applies for drivers who are clearly lost and therefore slowing down in confusion at every turn.
- South African parking places often appear to have been designed without the actual size and shape of cars in mind. It genuinely takes me a good fifteen minutes to reverse out of Toockey’s drive every morning, sweating and loudly exclaiming ‘oh BOTHER’ (and other words) with every inch I move backwards, Rachel gesticulating wildly in my wing mirror from behind in an attempt to help.
- Around here, traffic lights are referred to as robots. I do a little internal giggle every time we ask for directions.
It’s been frustrating at times, especially with having such a time pressure on us before the volunteers arrive to get to know our way around – when we realise we passed the NGen (garage) we were supposed to turn right at for the ninth time in a row, it’s hard to force ourselves to do nothing more than sigh and more deeply ingrain the tire tracks in the sandy side of the road where we have to turn round for the ninth time. But then Carly Rae Jepson comes on the radio and we wind the window down and frighten everyone with our loud and terrible singing, and everything is all right again. After all, we do love our job.
Sometimes being here feels incredibly normal, amazingly like home: there are nights where we’ve sat and watched Come Dine with Me on the telly, chatted with Didi about the concrete wonder that is Milton Keynes, had a night-time cup of tea in the kitchen. But then amongst all this unbelievable normality, there will always be some incongruous detail to jolt us back to the reality of the situation:
“How much powdered milk would you like in your tea?”