South African Adventure This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   South African Adventure

by J. B., Halifax, MA

The wheels of the plane touched the earth and I was filled with so much excitement I thought I would burst, as though I was an exorable volcano of emotions about to explode. I was off on the adventure of a lifetime, halfway around the world, in the mysterious region of South Africa.

I had been preparing for this for a long time. I loved camping, had always wanted to travel and thought of myself as a compassionate person. One day, when I was in sociology class we were discussing different groups and the teacher mentioned a group responsible for pairing up doctors with volunteers who travel to remote parts of the world to administer inoculations and medicine and teach people basic health procedures. After looking into this, I was paired with a doctor going to South Africa for the third time. I would need to give up two months of my summer vacation: two months of fun with my friends, luxury and comfort, for a remote country. But there were people who needed me. I was on my way, with visions of being a great hero to these people, saving lives and giving them hope once again. I was the great American giving up my time to help the poor "savages" of Africa.

I leaned over the man sleeping beside me and strained to look out the window, expecting to see dense jungle with monkeys and maybe an elephant. The scene that greeted my eyes was far from what I expected: the grey pavement and sleek tall skyscrapers of a modern metropolis mocked my naive perception of this far-from-primitive city. There must be some mistake, I thought. This can't be Africa.

Then the loudspeaker came on: "This is your captain speaking. We have just landed in Johannesburg. The temperature is 17 degrees Celsius and the time is 8: 15 a.m. I hope you have enjoyed your flight and thank you for flying South African Airlines."

My heart sank. I thought about the villages we were going to stay in and hoped they would be more primitive than this. How ignorant I was about the culture and geographical make-up of this country.

Disembarking, I stretched, preparing myself for the next leg of the journey. As I sat on the bus, I saw the landscape change from a modern metropolis to flat, dry grasslands with a few trees scattered here and there. Then the countryside turned more and more into a picture from National Geographic. Later rolling hills covered with dry grass and spotted with huts and cows greeted me. We were headed for a tiny village on the east coast of South Africa. I had no idea what to expect. I knew of the prejudice against whites in this area and knew that the Africaans (whites from South Africa) were afraid to go into this area. I had no idea how they would treat us.

When the bus stopped and we got out, I saw the most breathtaking scenery I had every beheld. A mile of pure white sand beaches glistened like fresh fallen snow, and towers of rocks ascended on either side. The water shimmered a deep turquoise as the waves played with the sand. The beach beckoned me to frolic in this surf and explore the depth of the craggy castles formed by the relentless battering of the ocean.

But that would have to wait; there was much to do before darkness set in. We would have to establish good relations with the chief of the village and find a place to set up camp. The chief was dressed in Western garb and was proficient in English. People were kind and receptive, offering to help in any way they could. One woman brought us a jug of water from the stream and a couple of the men helped dig a hole for our outhouse. The thought of not having a regular bathroom nearby had never occurred to me.

To my great joy there was time for a stroll along the beach. As I walked I thought of home and felt the first pang of homesickness. I hadn't taken a shower in four days and didn't know how long it would be until I could. There was no faucet for running water and no light switch for electricity. The people were friendly but wary, and the doctor remained strictly professional. I longed for home, but there was no time to be homesick; there was too much to do and people who needed me.

The next morning came too soon. I was still exhausted from the journey and not quite used to the time change. The climate was extremely dry and we had to be careful of every drop of water we used. We ate a hurried breakfast and set out to tend to the sick and prevent the healthy from getting ill. I wondered at all the children crammed into one house. And where were the mothers? Little girls not more than eight carried baby brothers or sisters on their backs. It was winter, yet none wore shoes. Some were better off and wore sweaters and long pants. I thought about my huge wardrobe at home and appreciated what I had taken for granted. My eyes watered as I thought of these kids in the cold; my heart ached for them.

"What's your name?" I asked the little girl sitting on my lap.

She rattled off a few words that could have been Greek and I realized the only way I would be able to communicate my love was through my actions.

"Where are these kids' parents?" I asked the doctor.

"The mothers are too busy carrying water, cleaning the house, making meals, caring for their gardens, taking care of the affairs of the family to watch the children. The older children usually take care of the younger ones."

"Well, where are the fathers?" I queried.

"Most of them go to the city to look for work. They stay there for many years and save up money. Then they come home and stay until the money runs out again. Then it's back to the society," he replied.

I thought again of my own parents, both of whom had good jobs close to home. There were so many things I had taken for granted. As the days wore on, I saw more needy children. My heart ached for them and somehow, even though I was doing all I could, it wasn't enough.

"Isn't there more we could do for these children? They need so much. Most only have one or two sets of clothes, and none has shoes," I said to the doctor as we were eating dinner.

"They are a lot better off than most of the kids I know back home." He grew silent and I looked at him with a puzzled expression.

"What do you mean?" I asked quietly, still stunned by his comment.

"At least these kids are happy. Look at them. They all have smiles on their faces. Do you hear them complaining because the new sneakers they just got aren't Pumps? They run around laughing and smiling, having fun. Kids in the United states don't appreciate all they have."

I lay quietly in my sleeping bag that night and vowed never to complain about my clothes again. I realized that the material possessions I had were not the most important things. I was grateful I had so much, but more important was what you couldn't buy. As I placed my head on the hard ground, for the first time since I left home I didn't complain that I didn't have a pillow.

The days passed and as I neared the end of my summer, I awoke one morning to the sound of rain. It was a joyful sound. The country was in a drought, and it was still two months until the rainy season. I unzipped my tent and looked outside. The parched ground greedily drank the waters that poured forth from the heavens. I enjoyed the feeling of the water as it trickled down my face. Suddenly the doctor came running toward me.

"Quick, get dressed. There's no time for breakfast this morning," he said in a hurried tone.

"Why, what's the rush? Isn't this rain great!" I said nonchalantly.

"No!" he roared. "It's the first rain of the season and it's still very cold out. Many babies are going to die in this rain because the mothers can't keep them warm and dry. Grab all the blankets we have, and hurry!"

We arrived at the village as fast as we could, but for some it was already too late. Mothers sat in the corner of their huts holding their babies in a desperate attempt to keep them warm. We gave them blankets and administered medicine to those who were sick. One woman sat unwilling to let go of her dead baby. I cried as I lay in bed that night thinking how awful it must be for those mothers to lose their babies for want of a blanket.

The lessons I learned that summer are ones that can only be learned through first-hand experience. I had come to South Africa with dreams of changing someone's life. I realized that night that the life that had changed was mine.


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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