BY LEE MOHLERE
I have been really fortunate to travel a good amount in my life but something I always wanted to do was live abroad and work with children from other cultures. I first looked into doing something like this six years ago. I had lived in San Francisco for five years and I was ready for a change. I looked into different programs for living abroad but in the end decided to move back home to Shelter Island to be close to family and friends again. I was really lucky to get a teaching job in East Hampton and, three years later, get tenure. My abroad plans were always in the back of my mind and last year, in my fifth year at my school, I knew I had to go for it because if I didn’t it would be a huge regret in my life.
The planning started in January of 2010 for a January 2011 departure. I researched a lot of programs and only one stood out from all the rest, Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS). CCS is a worldwide volunteer organization that has been profiled by Time, National Geographic and The New York Times. Its mission and what was offered fit my needs perfectly. I then went to my school principal and assistant superintendent to discuss what I wanted to do and request a sabbatical. Everyone was very supportive and the school board approved my leave. In the following months, the real planning began with booking flights and researching travel plans around my volunteer work. It also involved renting my house, selling my car and working to try to finance the whole thing.
The few weeks leading up to my departure were hectic, doctors’ appointments, lots of shots, packing and making sure I had everything in order to be gone for six months. As my parents drove me to JFK, I had a flood of different emotions. I was sad to say goodbye to my family, terrified at what I was getting myself into but mostly excited to do something different, see the world and meet new people. After 17 hours of flying, I landed in Cape Town. What a sense of relief, I hate to fly and — WOW — I was in Africa!
The volunteer house was nice, located about 10 minutes outside of downtown Cape Town. There were about 15 volunteers in the house, all staying varying amounts of time and ranging in age. The majority of us were from the U.S. with others from Canada, Europe and Australia. Cape Town is such a beautiful city with the mountains to one side and the ocean to the other. The downtown has a lot of neat neighborhoods to check out and there are amazing beach spots up and down the peninsula. Not far outside the city, in the cape flats, are the townships. The categories and descriptions of people during apartheid are still used in South Africa today: black, colored and white. There are four black townships in Cape Town: Langa, Nyanga, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha.
Khayelitsha is huge. Five million people live in Cape Town and two million of them live in Khayelitsha. There is a mix of tiny stone houses and tin shanties. Many families are without electricity and running water. There are portables set up around the perimeter for everyone to share but they are rarely serviced. Driving around the townships, one sees people and garbage everywhere. It is such a stark contrast between the city of Cape Town and the townships and the segregation is so obvious.
WORKING WITH THE KIDS
For my volunteer work, I was placed in a pre-school/kindergarten in Khayelitsha. I worked Monday through Friday from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. I knew the conditions would be poor but, when I stepped into the classroom on the first day, I was definitely surprised. The rooms were bare with no resources or materials at all except for an alphabet and number chart on the wall. I had 50 kindergarteners who spoke the local tribal language, isiXhosa. The local teacher looked at me, pulled out her cell phone, sat down and said, “Teach, teacher.”
Those first few days were the most challenging times I’ve ever had as a teacher. Over the next three months, I did the best I could with what I had, brought materials from the volunteer house, taught the kids songs and games but mostly just gave the kids attention and love and dancing, lots of dancing!
My time with the children in Khayelitsha was amazing and I’m so thankful for it. It was at times frustrating with the lack of materials and lack of help from the local staff, at times scary from seeing the physical punishment laid on the kids — from hitting to making them balance on one foot for 20 minutes — to wonderful: there was dancing, tons of hugs, smiles and laughter.
These children have so little and are so happy. It was a lot harder than I thought to say goodbye. I definitely connected with many of the kids and it’s so difficult to know I won’t see them again or to wonder what their futures hold. It was a daily struggle to check my emotions at the door but, as my director said, their situation is not for me to judge or have opinions about; it’s not good or bad, it’s just different and that’s all. These children are going to be okay. This is always how it’s been and all they know. So I walked away with that and so many amazing memories of these kids, whom I’ll never forget.
RACE AN OBSESSION
CCS offered many cultural activities throughout my time in Cape Town. Every week I had an isiXhosa lesson. I definitely got a few key phrases down but it is a really tricky language, especially because three of the letters are clicks. We took drumming lessons, so fun! We also spent a lot of time meeting and speaking with people from the townships; District 6, a community that was destroyed during apartheid; and people from the healing and reconciliation committee. Their stories and experiences were mind-blowing and their compassion and forgiveness were amazing to see. As many of them said and it’s true in most places, people are obsessed with race and we have a long way to go to resolve racial conflict. There are a lot of empty promises from the government and many people won’t see their land and homes, which were taken from them because of their skin color, returned in their lifetimes. I felt very fortunate to travel to South Africa and be able to speak with so many people who lived through the most desperate times of apartheid.
It was strange in a sense to be in the townships in the mornings and then go off to the beautiful city and do wonderful, touristy things. But it was a nice escape from one reality to another. Cape Town is such an amazing city with so much to see and do. I went to a soccer match at the new FIFA stadium; it’s a whole different type of team spirit. We drove down the peninsula to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. The landscape is so beautiful with huge, rugged mountains leading down to blue/green ocean. Definitely the biggest highlights were visiting the wine country, going on safari and cage diving with great white sharks: terrifying but one of the coolest things I’ve ever done!
ON TO BRAZIL
After my three months in South Africa I flew on to Brazil. It was a tough transition for me because I was really sad to leave South Africa and it was a bit overwhelming to be at the beginning of a whole new experience. I lived in the city of Salvador in the state of Bahia. My new living conditions were much more basic and the city, being 60 percent favelas (slums) and dangerous areas, was not as easy to enjoy. I knew it would just take time to get used to and a big reason why I took this journey was to challenge myself.
My volunteer placement was at Caasah, a government- and donation-funded home for people with HIV. The home was made up of two parts, adult and children sides. On the adult side, men and women could stop in for social services and medical care. They also could live there if they were recuperating from a serious illness or if they were in their final days. The children’s side was home to 23 kids from the age of 2 months to 17 years. These children were either found on the streets, abandoned by family or their parents had passed away from HIV/AIDS.
I paid a few visits to the adult side but my time was spent primarily with the children. My tasks included helping with the babies, bathing, feeding, changing, holding and chasing after the toddlers. With the older kids, we danced, played outside, played cards, games, drew and made paper airplanes. One weekend, a fellow volunteer and I surprised the kids on a Saturday with water balloons and ice cream for “make your own sundaes.” It was such a blast. Needless to say, the “toss” turned into an all out war and out of 100 balloons, I think I threw one but I got soaked!
It was really nice for a change to work with children outside of a classroom setting. I felt a special connection with these kids; maybe because I was in their home environment, maybe because of their situations, I don’t know. These children at Caasah are amazing! Carlos is 14 and has lymphoma. He is in and out of chemo every week. He is an unbelievable artist, loves teaching people origami and has the sweetest personality. Sandro watched his mom die of AIDS. He was bounced around among different family members until they decided he was a “demon” child so they dropped him on Caasah’s doorstep. A month later, he contracted meningitis and lost his hearing. He was hard to get to know at first but, once he lets you in, he is funny, loves to beat people in cards and loves magic.
All of these children have different stories and have been through so much but they are the most warm, caring, fun and special kids I have met. Most of the babies are in the process of adoption but the older kids have been there most of their lives and they will remain there until they turn 18 and have to go out on their own. Despite their situations, these kids are very fortunate to have a place like Caasah as their home. They are well taken care of and they have a true family dynamic.
Saying goodbye to them was very hard and emotional for me. I was so lucky to have had the time with these kids. I will never forget them and hopefully one day in the future I can return for a visit.
Through the program in Brazil, I took Portuguese lessons twice a week, capoeira (a Brazilian art combining martial arts and dance) lessons every week and, in my free time, I traveled around Bahia and down to Rio de Janeiro. Definitely the highlight of my time in Brazil was the people I met and just the music, vibe and energy of Brazil. I went to many festivals in Salvador with drumming and dancing in the streets, bossa nova performances and live reggae concerts.
I have been home about a month now and it’s so nice to be back around the things that I missed so much, my family, friends, dog and little things like a hot shower, TV, a cell phone, and driving a car. I have always known how lucky I am but this trip definitely put things in perspective. I had some of my most challenging times and some of my best times. I learned a lot about myself, other people and other cultures.
I can’t wait to return to my first graders in East Hampton in September and share with them all that I have learned.