Where am I most comfortable?
Me and my partner (Kiera), are working at an early childhood and adolescent development center called Masibambisane (Masi). Masi is a medium sized establishment in Eldorado Park in the heart of Soweto, Johannesburg. Community plays a huge role in not only geographic space but also how people identify themselves in Johannesburg. Our first week at Masi was really rough. Being on a pilot progect in a community center is never easy. People at the center know how things are run and are very proud of what they have built, and for good reason. Masibambisane sees about 150 kids ranging from 3 to 21 years old every day. They provide them with at least one meal and the support to go back to families which are often very broken and facing harsh poverty, extreme unemployment, high rates of HIV and AIDS and rampant domestic violence. Masi also visits the homes of children to make sure that their home life is acceptable. Or that’s what the pamphlet says.
On the inside, Masibambisane is struggling to stay afloat. With waning funding opportunities, very temporary staff and low preforming students they do what they can. So here come two American girls, no older than most of the volunteers nor some of the students attending the center, who have been advertised by a large company to change how they run for the better; to drastically improve how they preform day to day.
This is a lot of pressure, and in addition to the pressure, it is not well viewed by the staff nor the administrators of the center. Kiera and I step in to an entirely new environment where language barriers don’t stand nearly as high as cultural ones.
On Tuesday I spent the morning shadowing caregivers on home visits. Initially I felt very comfortable, cultural immersion is something I love and I couldn’t wait to see what was beyond the center walls. I was met with harsh looks, mutters, warnings from the caregivers to keep my head down due to the active violence and drug crime in the area. Needless to say I was slightly shaken. Not only for my own safety, but for the kids and for the volunteers who lived in the area. Returning to the center I had time to think and to mull over the things I had seen and experienced, and how I could use those to better understand the center.
On top of getting to know the community we got to know the hectic life at the center. That afternoon the staff was called into a meeting at 3:30, when all the kids are most active, and Kiera and I were sent in to supervise approximately 100 kids from 5-21, most of whom spoke primarily Afrikaans or African languages. When bringing this up with our supervisor later, we were reprimanded for tattling and told not to bring it up again.
It takes a lot to shake me out of my comfort zone. Maisbambisane did an excellent job in two days. And although there were times that I felt powerless and that I had ended up in the wrong place, they were echoed by a vigor to help and to better understand the history, and the difficulties that these people face each and every day. While I get to go back to a warm bath and an electric blanket, the kids and the volunteers at Masi live within something that was very difficult for me to handle for a day. Through this week’s uncomfort, I am growing into an atmosphere and into a community that I hope more than anything I can bring something beneficial to.