In July 2015, my six year old son and I set off on a wonderful adventure. For me, it started as a mini “mid-life crisis”, having reached the glorious forties and realised that I hadn’t had a gap year or a career break, apart from my maternity leave, which had been hectic and not much of a restful break.
My husband and my boss both agreed to an unpaid sabbatical and so the plans fell in place. I wanted to go back to Africa – where I was born, and I wanted to learn and to teach, and to work with children. I had hoped that my son would appreciate his life in London more, as well as deepening his compassion and empathy for others, and reveal new perspectives.
Through friends we learnt about All Out Africa’s volunteer programme in the beautiful Kingdom of Swaziland, a peaceful and stable country nestled between South Africa and Mozambique, ruled by absolute monarch, King Mswati III. SiSwati is the official language (very similar to isiZulu) and English is widely spoken and the medium of communication in businesses and schools. Sadly, Swaziland is critically affected by HIV/AIDS, leaving many children orphaned or vulnerable.
So we signed up for the “Kruger & Orphan Care Programme for Families”. We were based at Lidwala Lodge; a very comfortable backpacker lodge set in a stunning garden at the foot of the Sheba’s Breast Mountains, and also run by All Out Africa. In total, we were a group of 11 volunteers, all from countries in Europe, my son being the youngest and me being the eldest, with a mix of ages, backgrounds and cultures in between.
We were placed at Ezulwini Neighbourhood Care Point (NCP). This is one of about 6 pre-schools for orphaned and vulnerable children that are supported by All Out Africa. The community are also encouraged to get involved with these care programmes, so the school is staffed by local volunteers, who are both inspirational and full of love for the children. The staff at Ezulwini consists of one teacher, and two ladies responsible for cooking breakfast and lunch for the children.
There was a comprehensive orientation programme before heading off for our teaching experience. We helped facilitate the lessons at the school, for 43 children between the ages of four and six years old. The curriculum included teaching the children the days of the week, and the months of the year (in English and siSwati); the alphabet; counting to 20, how to write their names, the senses, and the importance of hygiene. The mid-morning lesson, usually included story time and songs. Lessons are taught in English with the teacher translating into siSwati.
My son had lots of opportunities to help out, from teaching the children numbers, to reading some of his favourite stories at story time, watering the school veggie garden, dishing up the lunch for the children, helping with the sports day and cleaning the classroom each day.
The afternoons were busy too, the organised activities included: visiting the children’s ward at the local hospital, siSwati lessons, teaching a small group of children how to care for a horse and to ride, homework club for older children (which really challenged my maths knowledge). All of these activities were very well organised by the team at All Out.
Other volunteers in our group painted a new school, helped dig and plant veggie gardens, and helped the sports coordinators with the sports programme which is rotated across the schools, and includes, sports days, swimming at the lovely hot springs (the Cuddle Puddle), and horse riding.
Friday afternoons were more relaxed, with organised visits to local craft markets and local sights, such as the beautiful Swazi Candles and the vibrant Manzini Market.
Weekends were our own. Swaziland is small, but has some wonderful nature and game reserves to explore. Mlilwane and Malolotja were our favourites. Activities included zip lining across a gorge – exhilarating and exciting, hiking (lots and lots, so pack your boots). A visit to Ngwenya Glass is a must!
We also had the pleasure of a homestay in a rural area, living with a wonderful family for two days. What a wonderful cultural exchange, one I would highly recommend.
As part of the programme, we spent 5 days in the Kruger National Park – a very well organised safari, and ‘roughing’ it in small tents (did I mention I am 40+), and searching for animals from dawn to dusk. Being from Africa, I have been lucky to have done a few safaris in my time, but All Out’s Mpho has got to be one of the most knowledgeable, hospitable and fun guides I have had the pleasure of being led on safari with. He was ably supported by Tammy, a quiet, gentle man, who has a sharp eye for spotting game in the bush.
All Out Africa also facilitate a Child Sponsorship programme: “Access to quality education is a right for every child. However, many vulnerable children do not have access to education due to the associated costs of education which is a burden especially on poor families. By sponsoring a child, you are making a difference in a child’s life by giving him/her the chance to go to school, which is an important step in breaking the cycle of poverty!”
Travelling with my son, was such a pleasure, with the community eager to help -from catching local transport, to teaching in the school, to our homestay, to visiting local sights and tasting Swazi Cuisine. We felt welcomed, relaxed (there is no hurry in Swaziland) and safe – the experience, made my heart sing – and I hope to be back very soon!