Our time with Schools 4 Schools ended on an incredible high with the Partnership Exchange Program and Leadership Forum. The Leadership Forum bought together South African and Australian students for a five day camp. The students chosen are the dreamers, leaders, motivators and achievers from their schools and communities, through a lengthy selection process we had chosen one Peer Educator from each school that we work in. The idea of a Leadership Forum was born from the belief that inspiring things could happen when young leaders from across the world are brought together and the belief that young people from completely different backgrounds have a lot to learn from each other.
The forum focused on HIV / AIDS, drugs and alcohol and gender roles and family structures. Gender roles and family structures is a topic that encounters some of South Africa's biggest issues including teenage pregnancy, abuse, gender violence, rape, traditions, gender roles and family breakdown. Everyone in the room had been impacted by this topic in some way. Without planning it, we had a session on sharing where anyone who wanted to had the chance to share their own stories. We learnt a lot that day. We had Peer Educators tell us about their alcoholic fathers, abuse they have experienced, growing up with no parents and attempting suicide. Together we sat in the room and listened to these heartbreaking stories that were happening to our friends. Nearly everyone was crying. The issues became much more than statistics to us, they became real, very confronting and very sad. Personally I felt helpless, knowing these Peer Educators had to go home to these situations at the end of our camp.
The last couple of days were about generating ideas, strategies and action plans to address these issues within South African communities. Some of the ideas included plans to change misunderstandings about condoms, starting a creative arts centre to help youth use their energy in a positive way, a big brother program that helps young boys find positive role models, a community resource centre, a plan to increase the facilities at schools and a dream of combating criminal behaviours in young people. On the last day when the students presented their ideas for change I was glowing with pride.
The forum turned out to be everything we had dreamed it to be and so much more. We made the right selection choices, and had the most amazing group to work with. I know the forum inspired the students to create change, it gave them the opportunity to form friendships with like minded people and students from across the world. It was a tangible outcome to our time in South Africa. First we envisioned it, then we built the concept, we secured sponsorship, organized transport, accommodation and logistics, completed applications, interviews and selection, researched the issues, secured speakers for each topic, facilitated sessions, mentored and guided the students to come up with their plans. When it all came together I thought - did we really make this happen?
During the last week of the Partnership Exchange the Australian students attended school in South Africa. As volunteers this was a great opportunity for us just to spend time at the schools. Often we just turn up, run a session and leave very quickly. But spending time at the schools and in classes, reminded me why we always include 'lack of opportunity' as an issue facing students at these schools. The biggest problem I believe is that the teachers are lazy. Often students will not have a teacher for the whole day. I don't know why. Maybe the teacher is late, maybe they just decided not to turn up to school. So the students sit waiting in their crowded classrooms, they talk and muck around and when they get board they normally walk around the back of the school and start smoking marijuana. This scenario is happening across all our schools. At a lot of schools there is very much the feeling that everyone has given up, no one cares. This is particularly the case at Mcothoyi High School, a school located in a very rural community about half an hour south of Durban. Mcothoyi is a school that is deeply affected by poverty but more than anything it is run down. The rooms are absolutely filthy (none of our schools have cleaners, but at other schools you see students sweeping the classrooms each morning), all the windows are broken and there is a pile of wooden tables and chairs sitting outside rotting. There is a school sign that has fallen over, no one bothered to pick it up or move it and now there are plants growing all over it. A whole room full of computers was donated to the school. But there is no computer teacher, some of them are broken and they are in a room with only a few chairs. The computers rarely get used.
I visited my last school, Sidelile High School, during the Partnership Exchange. As I said goodbye to the Peer Educators at my last school I very much felt like I wasn't ready, as though it was way too soon, as though I had just gotten to know the Peer Educators , as though I had so much more to do, as though my impact had been too small.
My last few days are about saying goodbye to everyone, packing up and visiting all the places I want to go just one more time. In so many ways South Africa has filled me up. Here I am surrounded by likeminded people, a job I am passionate about and friends who I love. Coming to South Africa was my dream, but it has been better than I ever imagined, I have learnt more than I expected to learn, I stayed healthier and happier than I ever could have hoped. I have loved and laughed more than I remember doing in my life.
So to my sponsors and supporters, you made my dream possible. To the people who followed my journey and sent me words of encouragement, you are the reason I continued to reflect and write. To my family and friends, who I can't wait to see, you are the reason I am coming home. And to my African brothers and sisters, who made me feel safe and happy in dangerous and weird places, you made me see Africa as a place of richness, of culture and life. To you I say ngizohamba, ngizokukhumbula, ngizobuya (I will go, I will miss you, I will return).