Ikhaya le Themba… it has been one month since I saw the cheeky, radiant smiles of the little ones, the buzz of an organisation that never finishes, the proud stroll and watchful eyes of the teachers.

Ikhaya le Themba… when I close my eyes I am back there, I hear my name like a children’s choir, my feet follow the steps again from Miss Amy’s up to the library, past Titshala’s class and into the kitchen, miss Noma’s territory.

Ikhaya le Themba… how did we get from volunteer work to sense of community, from cultural exchange to friendships for life? Now I am back in my Europe of opportunities and smart career moves, all the while thinking about the other side of the world, where I found a purpose and a home. You made me feel that way, taking me into your arms and taking me by the hand, and opening my eyes with a sticky glitter finger.

How are you now? How are my big grade sixes, are you still acting and dancing, who can already do the split? Are you taking care of each other, is your homework still too easy, are you looking forward to graduation? What is happening with my brave boys, are there volunteers you can play soccer with, are you teasing the girls? What about the little ladies of grade 1? Did you find new chicken-mothers, did you practise on the jungle jam, did you make a purse out of paper (again)?

On a sunny day in Cape Town, October 2018, I took the bus from the student district Observatory to the other side of the mountains, the beautiful Houtbay. I did not really know what to expect, and I can tell you that pictures and stories on a website cannot prepare you for reality. At the foot of the informal settlement (or township) of Imizamo Yethu (or Mandela’s Park), kind Nicolette picked us up and drove us through. Let me remark two things here. First, Ikhaya le Themba is a gated space on the relatively good side of the settlement and they have very good security (thank you Boet Thembi!). Second, the reality of the township is not what you imagine, nor comparable with what you saw on TV. It is not better or worse than what you thought it would be, it is just the reality you have to deal with each day. They say that for social work volunteers, it takes about a week to get used to the sight of poverty, and then it is the background to your work.

Working with the children over the five months, I spend at iKhaya le Themba has been tiring, sometimes a bit boring, sometimes quite frustrating, and always a little chaotic. In other words, it was just like working with children. We, the volunteers, were just young people playing with and supporting children, no matter our background, no matter their situation. Each day working there was not transformative nor uplifting, nor bathed in warm fuzzy feelings, instead, the weeks had a normal rhythm; we worked and enjoyed the work. The (vulnerable and orphaned) children… they get to be children in our eyes. Ikhaya le Themba enables children to be children, children that play, that do their best at homework, that are sometimes naughty, that laugh loudly, and that have a family to love and fight with. As a volunteer you get to be part of that family, part of the structure that is provided to these children every day. More than a hundred children are many noses to wipe, questions to answer, pieces of paper to get and bruises to kiss. It is also many hugs to receive, funny faces to laugh with, bright souls to connect with and memories to cherish.

When I came to iKhaya le Themba, I knew that I wanted to use my background in theatre and art management to make a personal difference for the organisation. Fortunately, I was able to teach drama to the older kids, and perform a nativity play with them at Christmas. I also experienced the daily management of an NGO in South Africa, an amazing effort of the entire staff and director Susan Hill. During my final month I worked with Susan and even now that I am back in Europe we continue working together. What started as a nice way to spend my time in South Africa, next to being a tourist at the beach, turned into a real urgent and heartfelt connection that I wish to develop and cherish in the years to come.

Ikhaya le Themba… I smile through my homesickness and thank you for the love you gave me. Each day, even if the work seems endless or the situation hopeless, even if there is misunderstanding or just tiredness, I remember the impact of love.

By Renske Ebbers