Here is the final instalment in the series of newspaper articles I wrote based on my experience of working abroad in 2004-5 (originally published 4 Feb 2005):

Rugged coastline of the Garden Route

The magnificent, rugged coastline of the Garden Route

“Back from the blazing heat of South Africa to the cold, grey winter of Sutton Coldfield, I look back at my time in Africa with a shiver and a smile. I have seen and experienced many negative aspects of South Africa but the gloom does not dim the depth of history, fascinating culture and overwhelming brilliance of the natural environment.

Too often people focus on the well-publicised problems of South Africa blinkered to the potential of the country. South Africa has shown resolute determination in overcoming obstacles in the past and there is no reason to think it will not finish the race to achieve economic and social progress for all.

Before I left for home, I experienced a short break to the Eastern Cape (southern coast of Africa) with a fellow Children of Fire volunteer. We stayed 100km inland from the coast but it could not have been better situated – in the middle of five different game reserves.

Playing with tiger and lion cubs

Playing with tiger and lion cubs - one of the best experiences of my life...

The highlight was entering a tiger enclosure in one of the parks. Although the rescued Tibetan tiger was only an adolescent his strength was still formidable and it was unnerving to turn and see him bounding over from the over side of the enclosure before jumping up onto my shoulders. It took my a while to get over how lucky I’d been to play fight with a tiger and three smaller lion pups. Weeks later, I still have scars from their teeth and claws.

I spent most of my time in South Africa working for Children of Fire, a charity which primarily aims to help the young survivors of burn injuries, providing them with a wide range of post-traumatic care. This can vary from plastic and reconstructive surgery to psychological counselling to help deal with the most serious long term problem associated with burns – society’s prejudice towards disfigurement.

In many areas of our work Children of Fire finds that individuals are unwilling to accept disfigured and disabled children and their equal place in our society. Indeed Children of Fire is currently facing legal action after an individual claimed to be emotionally scarred from seeing pictures of burns survivors in an awareness campaign.

Children of Fire also aims to help the communities which are most at risk to fire – the squatter camps (shanty towns) which often do not have electricity or proper sanitation. Entire families are often forced to live in makeshift shacks no bigger than a garden shed. Unfortunately, on my last day in South Africa, I attended the scene of a fire in one such squatter camp. Over twenty families lost their homes and all their possessions in the fire, but thankfully no-one was injured.

Remains of shacks after fire

The burned remains of around 20 shacks in Alexandra township in Johannesburg

Children of Fire volunteers attend the fire scenes to hand out disaster recovery bags containing food, clothes and other necessities allowing people to feel human in the midst of tragedy. We also compile reports into the cause of the fire to help and prevent similar fires in the future.

The Umashesha (“quick mover”) volunteers, who live in the squatter camps, use their knowledge to educate the communities in fire safety and preventative measures. In African countries, this can involve education to dispel common myths about and superstitions. One such shocking example concerned an epileptic child falling into a fire during a convulsion. He was left, with the parents too afraid to touch the child as they feared he was possessed by the devil.

During my time in South Africa I have lived with young people from over 20 different nations. The AIESEC Work Abroad Programme surpassed all my expectations about the intensity of the cultural experience it could offer. To find out more about the AIESEC Work Abroad Programme click here; or click here to donate or find out more about Children of Fire.”

Read more about my experiences of working abroad by following these links:

South Africa: The World in One Country
South Africa: Finding Christmas Spirit in the Sun
Polska jest Rajem: Poland is Paradise

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About Jon Maiden

Founder of Goalvanise which enables people to create their Life List online, and inspires and supports them to achieve their life goals. Check out the Goalvanise blog here or my personal blog here.

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