This is a excerpt from my recently published memoir “This Is Africa: Tales from a Summer with Grandad” which can be read about here. It includes other tales such as our ride on the worst highway in the world, an understanding of why is Africa under developed, and an unforgettable day trip through Kruger National Park in which we had a close but dangerous encounter with a herd of elephants.
How do you explain something that you cannot grasp the meaning of?– Something with so many perspectives, opinions, dreams, and stories. How can you tell a story when you haven’t even gained the full impact of it yet?
I tried to wait.
I didn’t write this piece for days. The days turned into weeks and then months. I had a journal full of my thoughts that I’d previously written, but couldn’t develop a consistent message to all of it. It was just scribbles all from a week I left behind feeling hopeless and helpless and encouraged and proud and every emotion in-between. I couldn’t possibly know how to feel about it all because there were too many emotions I had experienced. And I sure as hell couldn’t write about it.
Fast-forward two months from my week in the small African village known as Turkeyfontein; a village of less than one-thousand people in the northeast region of South Africa just west of Kruger National Park. In the valley of mountain ranges surrounded by wild bush and protected game reserves; where no outsiders come even though all are welcome.
Our Journey Awaits
The story has to begin with my Grandad and I. We set off in Johannesburg about a week before arriving in the village. The plan was to backpack sub-Sahara Africa for fifty-eight days largely with no plans at all. We desired to do some good – or, at least, we considered it good – so we looked into volunteer programs. This is the only bit of research we did for our trip and we started it early on.
About two months prior to departure, I started looking for opportunities to make an impact while we were in Africa. Both Grandad and I had little-to-no interest in the day-to-day well-thought-out programs that some of the longest and most well-known organizations offered. We respected the longevity of organizations like this, but didn’t want our impact to be structured as is the case with those programs in some instances.
Instead, I began contacting these organizations, explaining my desires to help, and asking for suitable smaller organizations that may be able to offer the type of raw experience we had desired. Through many failed attempts at finding anything at all, I was finally lead to Donald Monyela. A man, only 23-years-old, whose name deserves to be recognized.
Donald was a local guy in a village located forty-five minutes outside of a larger animal sanctuary I had reached out to. Donald had one year of experience in trying to develop a community program for the youth of his village, Turkeyfontein. We spoke via email for a few days and I knew this was the opportunity Grandad and I were searching for.
Anxious with unlimited impact abound, Grandad and I arrived in the village one month later.
A Raw Journey
It was quite the journey to get there. There are no organizational shuttles that pick you up from the airport – no tour buses full of western-world volunteers going to the same place you are – not even a guide to lead the way. Grandad and I were left to fend for ourselves on a highly uncomfortable route to the village that made us scratch our heads and ask if we had made the right decision in coming.
The bus was absolutely full. The station in which it departed from (which could hardly be called a ‘station’) was a shit-show. Crowded, people everywhere selling cheap plastic accessories and fruit that had looked a week expired; Grandad and I were the only white people in the station and therefore attracted the most attention.
As soon as we boarded our 22-seater mini bus in the very back corner seats, a sea of vendors swarmed the van; sticking their heads and products through the door begging us to buy from them while we sat there and waited for the van to fill every spot. Knocking on windows until they got our attention, climbing in the bus until they were pulled out by the driver, and not-so-patiently waiting their turn to give us their sales pitch, we said no to everyone and it began to feel a little hostile.
After about a half-an-hour in the station, we took off with a van packed to the brim with twenty-three people with two small children sitting on laps. Every other square-inch of floor space on that bus was filled with luggage. Sitting furthest from the one door in the bus, Grandad and I were effectively trapped in the bus – forget a quick bathroom exit. I’m not even claustrophobic, and yet, those kind of situations will have everyone feeling a bit heavy-chested and panicked.
We sat in that bus motionless, asses cramped, and as hot and sweaty as any car ride I had ever been in for the better part of five hours. Our heads were inches away from the sound system sub-woofers conveniently setup behind the last row of the bus; and the bass was relentless. South African club music pulsated and vibrated the van the entire way there. It was a miserable ride, but in the end, the driver who had intimidated us at first was very helpful in finding where to drop us off.
Turkeyfontein is a small village not found on any tourist map and even not located by Google Maps. It took a phone call and word-of-mouth directions to get there, but we eventually got there. Donald was there to pick us up at the drop-off on the edge of the village in the early evening. He brought his seventeen-year-old nephew, Glen.
Getting in Touch with the Lifestyle
I knew from our prior communication that Donald would be an easy guy to get along with, but his attitude was rather informal during the entire initial communication process and it would be almost impossible for him to understand Grandad and I’s concerns before we got there. Grandad and I were, admittedly, nervous for the day to come, but the four of us hit it off right away.
Donald alleviated all concerns of legitimacy and security on that first night in the village. We knew we were in good hands – and more importantly, the kids of the program were in good hands. That night, we went to bed in our small accommodation, living in the same house as Donald’s family, eating the same food they ate, and living the same life – if only for the next week. This is as authentic as it gets.
The next day, Donald told us everything we need to know. Things about the kids, things about his life, how he grew up, the short history of the village itself, and his plans for the future of the organization. He’s a natural-born leader and it shows in just a single conversation with Donald. His conviction and persistence, his sympathetic yet powerful story, and his way of conducting himself and holding his audience; he was born for greater things – things even greater than the organization he started or the village he was born in. What he is doing with the kids of Turkeyfontein, although wonderful, is no bound on the differences he will bring to South Africa. I truly believe that.
He told us of a life growing up that I couldn’t even fathom. A world without WiFi is one thing that I couldn’t fathom, but had accepted before I arrived. However, he informed us that the village had only got electricity ten years prior. Donald had lived over half of his life without electricity. Matter of fact, that morning, there was no electricity in the village. Even after ten years, the outage is unstable. Not only that, but Donald’s home was one of only three homes with running water in the village. In a world caught up in itself and the digital age, these kind of living conditions would humble anybody.
By mid-afternoon, we finally got to start meeting some of the kids. I can only imagine what was going on in their heads. For most of them, we were the first white people they’d ever seen up close and in-person. We were the first volunteers that the village had ever seen and that Donald had ever taken in. We would get stared at as we walked the dirt paths up to the village market where we would frequently get approached by locals either introducing themselves or just getting a closer look.
Interacting with Locals: Why is Africa Under Developed?
This is the first feeling that comes without explanation. Upon arrival, Grandad and I derived so much attention; attention that I didn’t bargain for but had to accept. I supposed I expected it, though. I’d heard and read stories about white volunteers in villages just like Turkeyfontein becoming the center of attention and unlimited photographs; ordinary volunteers becoming village celebrities overnight – I’d prepared myself for this and was even anxious to see the truthfulness of these accounts. I guess, I just didn’t expect ‘paparazzi’-type attention to last the entire week.
In a way, the extra-attention calmed. The kids were the first in the village to get used to Grandad and I. After they touched our skin to watch the pale fingerprints their touch left fade away enough times, after they ran their hands through our soft hair enough times, and after they poked at the extra weight in our legs enough times, they began to get used to white people being around. What I didn’t account for was every other new person in the village we ran into that we had to go through the same routine with all week. It wore tired on me, personally. Grandad didn’t seem to mind as much. I can’t put together my feelings about it and why I felt it wear on me.
Throughout the week, the kids were mostly shy. There were spurts when it’d feel like they were really coming on to Grandad and I, but the communication breakdown came with the language barrier. Most kids could speak English, but, of course, were very timid to. They’d rather laugh at each other’s attempts at answering Grandad and I’s questions to them. This was typical and to be expected from a group of children ranging in age from six-years-old to seventeen.
It wasn’t until a little after mid-week when Donald began to realize this and called for them all to sit under a roof-covered portion of his home while we waited for a storm to pass through. He led a discussion in which the kids, still, stayed relatively reserved. I believe Donald saw this as the turning point of his organization. It had officially grown bigger than just him and the kids and he had to let them know that this was the direction in which it was moving. Other people were going to want to acquaint themselves with these unique children and he asked them to be open with us.
After that moment, I felt like we started to truly connect with a few of the kids who relinquished their reservedness and it was worth the entire experience. The children we met, all so uniquely special, all with so much underlying character and intelligence, all witty and devilish but tender with care; these kids made such an impact on me.
An Un-Skewed Perspective
Not knowing remotely anything of the outside world, their lives were such simple ones in the village; especially true of the younger crew. Hardly wavered by the digital age and yet to be corrupted by what it presents, only preoccupied by the moment and not looking forward to anything past the present. It was such a simplistic lifestyle children of Turkeyfontein led; similar to that of any child in America and around the world. Instead of seeing the differences, I recognized the similarities of village life to my own childhood.
Grandad was such a hoot with the children. From what observations I made, elderly in the village were well-respected as may have been suspected. However, most led a very humdrum life. I never came across a later-in-life adult with as much enthusiasm as ‘Mkhulu’ (the kid’s adopted nickname for Grandad meaning ‘elder’). His spunk at such an age as his surprised the kids and they grew fond of it. I’ll never forget as we were playing a matured version of duck-duck-goose, Grandad sprinted around the entire circle of kids chasing down one of the younger ones who saw it as their advantage to pick on the old guy who moved slow. After he caught his breath, he was able to bask in the group’s laughter at his efforts and it brought such a genuine smile to his face. That was a moment for me, too.
I’m proud to share that the supportive community around me successfully raised over $650 for the children of Turkeyfontein through an end-of-the-week talent show that the kids put on. I don’t say this as a way of boasting the impact Grandad and I made on the community we visited; it was only a part of the entire experience. Because, in the end, the kids gave Grandad and I more than we could have ever given them.
Grandad and I left the village one week after arriving with open hearts and hugs from the children. There was so much sentimental value in seeing their emotion as we left and how they all came to see us off early in the morning after such a long day dancing in the sun the day before. It told me that our visit meant something to them, and that’s all I could have asked from the entire week.
Looking back, we couldn’t have made a better decision in visiting the village. It wasn’t so much as volunteering our time as it was being presented such an exquisite opportunity to live. To the kids, I know we will remain in-touch – and I cannot wait to see you prosper.
Want more about my experience in the village? The good news is I have recently published a memoir of our summer in Africa. Read more about “This Is Africa: Tales from a Summer with Grandad”.