‘I feel assured that there is no such thing as ultimate forgetting; traces once impressed upon the memory are indestructible’ – Thomas De Quincey
5 years have now passed since I first made the journey to Knysna, South Africa for a four week medical and community project with Edge of Africa. With this significant anniversary in mind, I want to share 5 ways in which volunteering has changed me as a person.
I decided to volunteer in South Africa soon after I received my last rejection from all the medical schools I had applied to during my A levels. The impact of those rejections placed some doubt in my heart as to whether I really wanted to study Medicine and if I was cut out to be a doctor. However, when I first stepped into Knysna’s government hospital that feeling completely disappeared. Whilst volunteering I shadowed the doctors and nurses in the paediatric, maternity, male and female ward and A&E. One of the most memorable moments for me was being able to watch a caesarean section and a hernia repair being performed in theatre. It is important to note that the doctors performing the surgery were also the same ones responsible for the majority of patients within the very busy hospital. I was in awe of their resilience and determination to provide the best care they could to every patient despite there being an obvious need for more doctors. At the same time they made sure to explain any procedure or management decision, they answered any questions I had, and took the time to teach me as if I were already a medical student. I am sure that it was the encouraging attitude of those doctors that was the catalyst for me to apply to Medicine again.
One of the most eye-opening moments of my whole volunteering experience was during a home visit with a nurse to see a man who was HIV positive and had tuberculosis. I will never forget the image of seeing him lie lifelessly in his bed, and when the nurse pulled back the covers his skeletal legs were the first thing to catch my eye. I had never seen someone so overtaken by disease and seeing him visibly suffering was a difficult experience for me. Witnessing such staggering effects of HIV and its stigma left a lasting impression and I knew when I returned to London I wanted to contribute in some way to the people dealing with HIV/AIDs in the UK. I came across the charity ‘Body and Soul’ which aims to improve the health and well-being of children, adults and families living with and affected by HIV. I became a volunteer on the children’s floor in their centre which provides a safe place for them to play and also has themed activities to help them learn about healthy living in a fun way. Volunteering in Knysna instilled an ethos within me to continue volunteering when I returned home and it has become a major source of happiness and fulfilment in my life.
I remember the first time I was driven around Knysna and what really stood out was how cheerful and kind everyone was towards a car full of strangers. Every person that I met in Knysna made me feel like I was their best friend that they hadn’t seen in years. That welcoming and hospitable nature was a stark contrast to the straight-faced approach I was used to in London. I cannot express how thankful I am for the warm-hearted welcome I received from the people of Knysna, it was a huge comfort to me as a young 18 year old travelling alone for the first time and eased the slightly homesick feeling I had when I arrived. We have a beautiful characteristic as humans which is to naturally smile back at someone who is smiling at you, this simple action unites us together for a fleeting moment and can have profound effect on our outlook for the rest of the day. After experiencing this in Knysna I now try to do the same when I’m travelling around London, it’s surprising how many people are initially shocked when they encounter someone smiling at them but you soon see the smile spread across their face in return. I challenge you to do the same to a random person next time you’re walking around on the street, you never know how it will change their day!
During my time in Knysna I lived in a house with 8 other volunteers, it was especially exciting for me because I had never lived with anyone except my family up until that point! Living with other volunteers made it easier to adjust to life in South Africa as we were all able to support each other and there was always someone to share your daily volunteering stories with. As I got to know each volunteer I discovered the immense diversity that existed in our backgrounds, upbringing, customs and even language just within our small group. One regret that I have from my time volunteering is that I didn’t spend more time with each volunteer that I lived with and just chatted with them about their life and what brought them to South Africa. Every person on this Earth has a different story to tell and when you take the time to listen and discover the life that person had led, you start to feel in awe of them. Learning about one another creates an empathy and respect that leads us to appreciate the unique contribution each person has made to this world. Now whenever I meet someone new through university or friends I try to consciously listen to what they’re saying to me. You would be surprised at how much you can learn about someone when you take a step back and just listen.
I know this sounds quite clichéd but it is definitely true for me, it wasn’t until I left my comfort zone and became a volunteer that I learned how to trust my instincts and believe that I was capable of anything. As an 18 year old I thought I knew all there was to know about life but I realised what I had known was only about life in my home town, there was a whole world I had yet to discover. In all the places that I volunteered in Knysna I realised that if I wanted to make a difference to the people around me and benefit from being there myself, I had to be proactive and take advantage of the opportunities right in front of me. This forced me to have the courage to talk to more people, to offer my help more frequently and to ask for more ways that I could get involved. In doing so I managed to meet two physiotherapists who brought me along to their clinic and some home visits and I was able to see how important they were in improving a patient’s quality of life. Although this doesn’t sound like a huge achievement, for me it was evidence that I was able to be proactive and that gave me a self-confidence and a belief that I could achieve whatever I put my mind to.
I have only spoken about 5 different experiences from the 4 weeks I spent in Knysna, there are so many more that I could tell you but I want to end by saying that I am extremely grateful and appreciative of the experience I had as a volunteer and it was in large part due to the wonderfully caring people that make up Edge of Africa. My advice to anyone who is looking to participate in a life-changing, memorable and uniquely sustainable volunteering project, look no further than Edge of Africa. I promise it will be something you remember for the rest of your life.