A huge hug from Mama Thandi was my generous, and unexpected, welcome to the Cape Town township of Kayamandi.
Mama’s home would be the base for my ‘voluntourism’ trip. Five days of work at a centre for orphans followed by two nights in a five-star luxury lodge out of town, visited by stars such as Brad Pitt and Halle Berry.
Voluntourism is becoming increasingly trendy. A chance to visit somewhere exotic, work and stay with local people, while giving something back.
Though most of Kayamandi’s 20,000 residents live in shacks, Mama Thandi’s home was brick- built, and thankfully cool. I soon felt at home, alongside her daughter, son-in-law and two grand-daughters.
After a welcome cold drink and snack, it was down to business and I was taken to my place of work: the Kuyasa project.
Kuyasa (meaning ‘the sun rises’ in local language Xhosa) is a symbol of hope in this community – a non-governmental organisation run by Christians. It opens its doors daily to hundreds of children and young adults aged six to 18 years, offering them a meal (perhaps the only one they’ll get that day), and an education. It also provides a monthly sponsorship programme for orphans.
In many cases, the parents have died of Aids or children are abandoned because they have the disease themselves.
On the first day, I met children, staff and other helpers in the group who had travelled from Britain. We ate home-cooked food together most nights, feasting on chicken, lasagne, salad, steamed bread, meatballs and a braai (barbecue).
During our stay, half of us tackled painting doors, window frames and the exterior of a building in white, with a trim in green, while the rest dug foundations for a new playground.
I split my time between physical work and helping with lessons. At times, I thought my arms would drop off from painting, scrubbing, sanding, sharpening pencils, sweeping the yard and endlessly washing brushes.
I would occasionally dream of home and my soft, comfy sofa. But then a child would run through the centre, shrieking and laughing, and I’d come back to my senses.
The feeding scheme took place in the middle of the day. One afternoon I dished out 150 plates of food, and while the dishes didn’t look too appetising, each serving was carefully designed to ensure it provided the nutrients a child needs.
After lunch I would give lessons to around 40 six and seven-year-olds, encouraging reading, and the learning of times tables and vocabulary. By the end of each afternoon, I’d wearily trundle back to the homestay for dinner and a chance to relax, past the hair salons and mechanic shops, which line the streets of Kayamandi.
Usually, I was in bed by 10.30pm, shattered from hard work. Being tired felt good though – and a world away from my office job.
But I only really became convinced that painting walls and sweeping the yard would help this community in the long-term, however, by a chance meeting on my final day.
Abongile Khwaza, 21, joined Kuyasa in 2004 at 14, with no direction, hopes or dreams. Now she’s off to college to study social care and is keen to go on to university. She told me how small actions are part of a bigger picture, and that volunteers make Kuyasa a little brighter while improving young lives in a big way.
Nineteen-year-old Monde Ntoyanta was another success story. Once a drug-user, thief and school dropout, he joined Kuyasa and within a year won awards in physics and maths. He, too, plans to go to university.
I left on a high, knowing the good work would carry on. And while I should have gone to Grootbos nature reserve with a spring in my step, I could barely stand up after so much work.
Grootbos is a private reserve that overlooks Walker Bay, about two- and-a-half hours in a car along the coast from Cape Town, and is a haven for whales, penguins and sharks. Within these 2,668 hectares of beautiful rolling hills, which celebrate the best the country can offer in terms of flora and fynbos (local shrubland), is a high-end holiday resort.
My private cabin had stunning views across the Atlantic Ocean through a glass wall, and a terrace beyond that housed an outdoor shower. Taking a bath, while looking out across the reserve and the beach, provided a view I will never forget. At last, my tense muscles eased after Kayamandi.
But although the resort was utterly luxurious, this part of the trip was still about giving back to local communities. The Grootbos Foundation, a subsidiary of the reserve, also runs two schemes, a horticulture and life skills programme and an organic farming project, with entrants mainly from local disadvantaged communities.
So I could enjoy my sun lounger and its superlative views with a clear conscience.
- l Reservations: 0844 5738346 and virginholidays.co.uk. Flights are available from Manchester.