What These Village Kids in Southern Africa Taught Me About Life

My volunteer experience in Turkeyfontein, Limpopo.

Photo by Adam J. Cheshier

How do you explain something that you cannot grasp the meaning of? Something with so many perspectives, opinions, dreams, and stories. How can you tell a story when you haven’t even gained the full impact of it yet?

I tried to wait.

I didn’t write this piece for days. The days turned into weeks and then months. I had a journal full of my thoughts, but couldn’t develop a consistent message.

It was just scribbles. All from a week I left feeling hopeless and helpless and encouraged and proud and every emotion in-between.

I couldn’t possibly know how to feel about it all because there were too many emotions. And I sure as hell couldn’t write about it.

Fast-forward three months from my week in the small African village known as Turkeyfontein.

A village of less than one-thousand people. In the northeast region of South Africa. Just west of Kruger National Park. In the valley of mountain ranges surrounded by wild bush and protected game reserves. Where no outsiders come even though all are welcome.

The story has to begin with my Grandad and me. We set off in Johannesburg about a week before arriving in the village.

We planned to backpack sub-Sahara Africa for fifty-eight days, largely, with no plans at all. We desired to do some good — or, at least, we considered it good — so we looked into volunteer programs.

This is the only bit of research we did for our trip.

About two months before departure, we looked for opportunities to make an impact.

Both Grandad and I had little-to-no interest in the day-to-day well-thought-out programs that some of the longest and most well-known organizations offered.

We respected the longevity of these organizations but didn’t want our impact structured. As is the case with those programs in most instances.

Instead, I explained to them my desire to help, asking for suitable solutions. They connected us with smaller organizations in need and able to offer the type of raw experience we desired.

Through many failed attempts at finding anything at all, I was finally lead to Donald Monyela. A man, only 23-years-old, whose name deserves to be recognized.

Donald was a local guy in a village located forty-five minutes outside an animal sanctuary I had reached out to.

Donald had one year of experience in trying to develop a community program for the youth of his village, Turkeyfontein.

We spoke via email for a few days and I knew this was the opportunity Grandad and I were searching for.

Anxious and with unlimited impact abound, Grandad and I arrived in the village one month later.

It was quite the journey to get there, too.

To help organizations like Donald’s, there are no shuttles that pick you up from the airport. No tour buses full of western-world volunteers going to the same region you are. Not even a guide to lead the way.

Grandad and I were left to fend for ourselves on a very uncomfortable route to the village. It made us scratch our heads and ask if we had made the right decision in coming.

The local bus was packed full. The station in which it departed from (which could hardly be called a ‘station’) was a shit-show.

Crowded with scam artists. People selling cheap plastic accessories and fruit that had looked a week expired. Grandad and I were the only foreigners at the station. We attracted the most attention.

We boarded the 22-seater minibus and waited for it to fill. We sat in the back row and had to climb a pile of luggage to get there.

A sea of vendors swarmed the van. Sticking their heads and products through the door begging us to buy from them. Knocking on windows until they got our attention. Even climbing into the bus until they were pulled out by the driver.

Each of them not-so-patiently waiting their turn to give us their sales pitch. We said no to everyone and it began to feel a little hostile.

After about a half-an-hour in the back of the bus, we took off with a van packed to the brim. Twenty-three people with two small children sitting on laps. Overcapacity. Every square-inch of space was filled.

Sitting furthest from the door, Grandad and I were effectively trapped in the bus. Forget a quick bathroom exit.

I’m not even claustrophobic, yet, that bus would have anyone feeling panicked.

We sat, asses cramped, and as hot and sweaty as any car ride I had ever been in, for the better part of five hours.

Our heads were inches away from the sound system’s subwoofers. Conveniently rigged behind the last row on the bus. The bass was relentless.

South African club music rattled the van the entire way there. It was a miserable ride. Luckily, the driver who had intimidated us at first was very helpful in finding where to drop us off. Who knows where we would have ended up without his help.

Turkeyfontein is a small village not found on any tourist map. Hell, it’s not even located by Google Maps. It took a phone call and word-of-mouth directions to get there.

Donald was there to pick us up at the drop-off. It was early in the evening. He brought his seventeen-year-old nephew, Glen.

I knew from our prior communication that Donald would be an easy guy to get along with. His attitude was rather informal during the initial communication process.

Grandad and I were, admittedly, nervous for the day to come. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. The Internet only warned us of how dangerous what we were doing was. Gangs, wild bush animals, being the only foreigners around — it all meant risk.

That would be almost impossible for Donald to understand. After all, we were under his watch. To him, Grandad and I were out of harm’s way. Luckily, the four of us hit it off right away.

Donald alleviated all concerns of legitimacy and security on the first night in the village. We knew we were in good hands — and more importantly, the kids of the program were in good hands.

After hours of conversation, we went to bed in our small room. Living in the same house as Donald’s family. Eating the same food they ate. Living the same life — if only for the next week.

This is as authentic as it gets. Exactly what we were looking for.

The next day, Donald told us everything we needed to know.

Things about the kids, things about his life, how he grew up, the short history of the village itself, and his plans for the future of the organization.

He’s a natural-born leader and it shows in a single conversation with him. His conviction and persistence. His sympathetic yet powerful story. His way of conducting himself and holding his audience.

He was born for greater things — things even greater than the organization he started. Or the village he was born in.

What he is doing with the kids of Turkeyfontein, although wonderful, is no bound on the difference he will make in South Africa. I truly believe that.

He told us of life growing up that I couldn’t even fathom.

A world without WiFi is one thing. But, when he told us the village had only got electricity ten years prior, I couldn’t believe it.

Donald had lived over half of his life without electricity. As a matter of fact, that morning, there was no electricity in the village. Even after ten years, the outage is unstable.

Not only that, but Donald’s home was one of only three homes with running water in the village. In a world caught up in itself and the digital age, these kinds of living conditions would humble anybody.

By mid-afternoon, we finally got to start meeting some of the kids. I can only imagine what was going on in their heads. For most of them, we were the first white people they’d ever seen up close and in-person.

We were the first volunteers that the village had ever seen and that Donald had ever taken in. We would get stared at as we walked the dirt paths through the village market. By children and adults alike. We’d frequently get approached. Most of the time it was by people just getting a closer look.

This is the first feeling that comes without explanation. Upon arrival, Grandad and I derived so much attention; attention that I didn’t bargain for but had to accept.

I guess I expected it, though. I’d read stories about white volunteers in villages just like Turkeyfontein. Becoming the center of attention and posing for unlimited photographs. Ordinary volunteers becoming village celebrities overnight.

I’d prepared myself for this and was even anxious to see the truthfulness of these accounts. But I didn’t expect ‘paparazzi’-type attention to last the entire week.

The kids were the first in the village to get used to Grandad and I.

At the beginning, they touched our skin and watch the pale fingerprints their touch left. They ran their hands through our soft hair. They poked at the extra weight in our legs. Once they did this enough times, they began to get used to white people being around.

What I didn’t account for was every other new person in the village we ran into. I didn’t expect to go through the same routine all week. It wore me tired.

Of course, Grandad didn’t seem to mind as much. He was a social bee.

Throughout the week, the kids were mostly shy. There were times when it’d feel like they were really coming on to Grandad and me.

But we couldn’t conquer the language barrier.

Most kids could speak English, but, of course, were very timid. They’d rather laugh at each other’s attempts at answering Grandad and I’s questions to them.

This was to be expected from a group of children ranging in age from six-years-old to seventeen.

About mid-week, Donald realized the kids weren’t trying to interact. He called for a gathering while we waited for a storm to pass. All the kids sat in a circle in his home.

He led a discussion. Still, the kids stayed reserved. He told them how great the opportunity was to have foreigners — English speakers — in their village. The kids listened intently.

This was a turning point in our experience and of his organization. It had officially grown bigger than just him and the kids. We were just the beginning.

Other people were going to want to acquaint themselves with these unique children. He asked them to be open with us.

The kids listened. We started to connect with a few of the kids who relinquished their reservedness. It was worth the entire experience.

The children were all so uniquely special. All with so much underlying character. And intelligence. All witty and devilish but tender with care. These kids made such an impact on me.

Not knowing remotely anything of the outside world, their lives were such simple ones. Especially true of the younger crew. Hardly wavered by the digital age and yet to be corrupted by what it presents. Only preoccupied with the moment and not looking forward to anything past the present.

It is such a simplistic lifestyle children of Turkeyfontein lead. Like that of any child in America and around the world. Instead of seeing the differences, I recognized the similarities. Though in vastly different circumstances, children played like me in childhood.

Grandad was such a hoot with the children. The elderly in the village were well-respected. But most elderly folk in Turkeyfontein led a very humdrum life.

I never came across a later-in-life adult with as much enthusiasm as ‘Mkhulu’ (the kid’s adopted nickname for Grandad meaning ‘elder’).

His spunk at such an age as his surprised the kids and they grew fond of it. I’ll never forget playing duck-duck-goose. One of the younger kids saw it as their advantage to pick on the old guy who moved slow. To everyone’s surprise, Grandad hopped up and sprinted around the entire circle of kids.

After he caught his breath, he was able to bask in the group’s laughter. It brought such a genuine smile to his face. That was a special moment for me as it was for him.

I’m proud to share that the supportive community around me successfully raised over $650 for the children of Turkeyfontein.

We hosted a talent show that the kids put on to raise funds. It was streamed live through my Facebook account.

I don’t say this as a way of boasting the impact Grandad and I made on the community we visited. It was only a part of the entire experience.

In the end, the kids gave Grandad and me more than we could have ever given them.

We left the village one week after arriving with open hearts and hugs from the children. There was so much sentimental value in seeing their emotions as we left. How they all came to see us off early in the morning after such a long day dancing in the sun the day before. Nobody asked them to come to say bye.

It told me that our visit meant something to them, and that’s all I could have asked for the entire week.

Looking back, we couldn’t have made a better decision in visiting the village. It wasn’t so much as volunteering our time as it was being presented such an exquisite opportunity to live.

To the kids, I know we will remain in touch — and I cannot wait to see you prosper.

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** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **

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