Finding Myself in South Africa
By Emily Trama
All my life I let anxiety dictate every decision I made. My life wasn’t run by me, it was run by worry, fear and irrationality. I missed out on a lot of experiences because of it, but one day I woke up living what felt like a dream in the heart of a game park in South Africa. At first I could only describe it as an out-of-body experience until I allowed myself to recognize the moment as something I was living through my own free will.
Before my trip to Kwazulu-Natal, I was always too scared to try things that weren’t familiar to me, to go places I had never been, especially on my own. However, as I got older and was figuring out what I wanted out of my life, I realized that what you are passionate about can push you far, far beyond a point you never knew you could pass. I wasn’t completely sure at the time what I wanted to be exactly, but I knew who I wanted to be, someone who helps others. So, one day sophomore year of college, I found myself sitting in front of my laptop in my dorm room on the phone with my parents telling them this is something I had to do.
My deep seated desire to be a person who can better the lives of others made my anxiety feel so distant. I was going to volunteer for two weeks with a non-profit organization, Reach Out Volunteers, to donate my time at a game park for one week and at daycares for a second week. Life felt completely unreal as I stood at the shoreline in Durban, watching the warm waves of the Indian Ocean wash up and down the sand. Anxiety wasn’t my keeper that day, it wasn’t even an old nagging friend, it felt like a complete stranger.
My first week in South Africa was spent on the Somkhanda Game Reserve, the most beautiful place I think I will ever know. We spent our days driving around the park looking at and learning about the gorgeous, native wildlife. I will never forget the heartbreak I felt hearing about the plague of poaching the country endured or how physically ill I felt hearing about the cruelty its animals edured. We did what we could in the time we spent on the reserve; pulling alien plants from the dense bush, sweeping the land for snares and traps set by poachers as the sun set. Ah, yes, the bright sunsets that spilled over the green mountains… How is it that the places that go through the ugliest hardships are the most beautiful?
I asked myself that question every night that week as we sat under the dark night sky and saw every star a human possibly could. I swear you could see the dust of the galaxies in the pitch black sky. Never would I see that at home where light and gas pollutes the sky whereas electricity was greatly lacking where I was- but that’s the irony of it all, that view from Somkhanda came at a cost for those who laid beneath it all the nights before and after me. That last night, one of our leaders, a Zulu native named Bheki, gave me a Zulu name, “Themba…” hope.
I didn’t feel such awe again until I stepped out of the game car at a small creche in Monzi. Not even five minutes into being at the daycare I found myself in an epic game of tag with a bunch of preschool-age children I had never met before or could even communicate with. When we tired out, they gathered around me, looking down at my camera as I scrolled through the pictures I had taken of the animals I saw the week before. “Indlulamithi” one would shout pointing at one of the photos. “Giraffe” I responded in English. “Giraffe” they echoed and giggled back to me.
I spent the rest of the week mixing cement with a shovel, molding bricks for new parts of the creche, weeding the playgrounds and repainting chipped wood and blank classroom walls. Every break I got I played soccer with the boys or let the girls braid (really just pull) my hair. And when we got back to work, they would cling to the fence between us, laughing while Bheki sang “the Wheels on the Bus.” Each afternoon, we sadly said our goodbyes as we climbed back into the truck, waved hellos to the older kids walking down the long dirt roads as they came back from school, and talked obsessively over the sweet things the children did or said that day.
On our last day we threw a party at one of the creches, packed with balloons, candy, snacks, bubbles and lots and lots of songs and laughter. I couldn’t not cry as they sang “If You’re Happy and You Know it” to us before we departed for the last time. From the moment I waved my last goodbye, I knew that all I wanted to do for the rest of my life was help people and see such bright and genuine smiles again and again and again. If I had let my anxiety tell me “don’t do it” as I put in my first trip deposit eight months earlier, what would I have learned about myself between then and now? Everything changed when I stepped on the plane at JFK last June, everything, and I would change absolutely nothing about it. I found myself in South Africa, and I will be forever grateful for that.
To learn more about how you can help visit rovolunteers.com