Building, General Building Projects in South Africa by Laura Briggs
Ever since going to South Africa for the first time when I was 14 I have wanted to return; I loved the people, the culture, and I wanted to give something back to a country which has taught me a lot. I wanted to do something that would be of lasting benefit to the community, and decided the building project would be the best way to achieve that.
The Building Project
I’m not sure what I expected going to the building site, but it definitely wasn’t what greeted me when I got there for my first day. It seemed really small and was on the same site as a crèche. The time we spent with the kids was just as worthwhile as the time we spent building. On the dry days we would get to work and start building as soon as we got there at about 9am. We would mix cement and build the walls with sandbags, the sand of which came from just outside - nearly all the materials we used came from our doorstep.
It was quite hard work, but the people I worked with, and the sense of achievement you gained from seeing the walls slowly rise up, made you forget about that. The majority of the time I would go home tired but buzzing because I knew I had done a good job and worked hard. Everyone on the project mucked in and we had such a good laugh. In our breaks we would do a number of things such as play with the kids, throw frisbee, and on one occasion the boys built a sandcastle – they were so proud of it!
One of my favourite days on the building site was when I worked on the roof. I was stunned at what I could see. The informal settlement seemed to go on forever; it was hard to imagine the sheer number of people who lived there. When I had adjusted to being on the roof, I was passed tools and materials then got stuck in. I stayed on the roof for about 2 and a half hours, and managed to get covered in cement. I was tired, but I had finished what I had wanted to do and I felt really good. When the kids were playing outside, they all looked up pointing, waving and smiling.
Working at the Crèche
On rainy days we would help out in the crèche, playing, teaching and feeding the children. Every day the children would greet us with a massive hello and hugs as soon as we walked through the door, putting huge smiles on everyone’s faces. I found feeding the kids really enjoyable, and it was nice to know that Berni, Tanya and Edward, the staff at the crèche, found it a great help as well. A lot of the time I fed a little boy called Diago. He took ages to eat, and would look around him and watch the other children between each mouthful. On one occasion he had had enough food and started feeding another child, Logan, I laughed a lot so he smiled and carried on. It was amazing how quickly you got to know some of the children’s characteristics and quirks, and how quickly you got attached to them.
On the weekends I did touristy things with other volunteers from Projects Abroad. A highlight of which has to be climbing Table Mountain. We went up the skeleton gorge route, part of which goes up a waterfall; I loved it. The views at the top were amazing, I had been told before I left England to take lots of pictures, but no one back at home needed to be worried that I wouldn’t. I wrote postcards on top of the mountain looking down at the sea, and posted them in the mountain post box. Something I did 4 years ago and something I will do next time I am there.
A Saturday tradition was to go to Biscuit Mill for brunch, it is a big complex made up of 2 massive food tents, restaurants, stalls and shops. You could get food and drink from all around the world and in the 4 weeks I was there I never had the same thing twice - ostrich burger is definitely something I would recommend. The atmosphere in there was like something from a carnival, with music, and crowds of people chatting and laughing. It had a really laidback weekend vibe. I bought a cookbook there to take home, so hopefully I will be able to recreate the feel of Biscuit Mill for family and friends.
My Host Family
I was nervous on the way from the airport to my host family, but I soon learnt I had no reason to be. The Davis family were so welcoming and the other volunteers staying with them were really friendly too, especially the lady I was sharing a room with, who was also new.
Evenings at home were cosy and relaxed. My host mother Brenda cooked delicious food and I really enjoyed the meals where we all sat around the table chatting for ages. The other volunteers I lived with were from Holland and Germany, so I learnt a bit about their culture as well as the South African one. I remember laughing with everyone about Brenda and her daughter saying that gossiping in Afrikaans was much more fun than gossiping in English - you would never get information like that from a guide book! On cold evenings my host dad, Charles, would light a fire and we would sit around it chatting, reading, or playing cards games, some of which got quite competitive, but it was friendly rivalry and we had a lot of fun.
Final thoughts on South Africa
Being part of the building project was being a member of a family. A family made of everybody in the crèche, Dean and the volunteers. If you ever had a bad day, everyone else would help you through it, they would make you smile and remember why you were there. The crèche went through a really tough time while I was there, and knowing that our love and support helped them through it was very special.
I went on the project to build, to leave behind a physical thing that would last. I didn’t realise I would leave so much of myself behind as well, but I‘m so glad I did. I have met and worked with amazing people and have made friendships that will stay with me forever. I really look forward to the next time I go to South Africa, to experience more of the culture, meet more of its people, and give a bit more back to a country very close to my heart.