Swaziland: Volunteering and Travel

The best decision of my travelling life was this one, and it was the beginning of lots more amazing adventures, but also some terrible experiences elsewhere in the world.


livinf in africa cover pic

The first days of my new home:

Hi Everyone,

Sorry to mail you all the same mail but communications from here are pretty dire and time constrained, so I am making the most of the limited opportunity I have to send messages home.

Rarely phone signal, no Wi-Fi, limited electricity for charging stuff, too many of us to queue and use the worlds slowest PC and we don’t all get a turn every evening when there is a connection – or no storm that knocks the power out. It’s a little secluded here to say the least – but it’s really one of the greatest experiences of my life – after even a short few days.

I arrived in Swaziland to the backpacker lodge – which is really basic, shared rooms/safari tents and very basic communal toilets and showers – as you can probably imagine belong in a backpacker lodge in the middle of Africa. We take turns every night cooking for our fellow volunteers (30+ people, currently, as two volunteer groups are overlapping for the next week) and spend the rest of our time planning lessons for our children, or relaxing out the front of our lodge, making up our own entertainment till bed-time, which is very shortly after sunset and hanging out there before lodge electricity becomes super sketchy. It’s very relaxed which means the people are too – and despite being one of the oldest in the group, I am really, really, enjoying the company more than I thought I would. No-one here expects luxury, we have all seen Comic Relief, and to be fair, nothing we have seen or witnessed so far leads us to believe any of that is a TV lie. Whilst I have made new friends, the darkness of other’s lives still very much exists.

After having a relaxing first couple of days and touring the small poverty stricken nearby homesteads from where the children we teach come from and learning of their plights, having an introduction to the country, our teaching requirements and the level of care we would provide, we escaped to South Africa, on safari for 5 nights, to give us time to absorb the expectations of our following weeks, whilst the current volunteers finish up their placements.

What we didn’t realise was the trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa was an 11 hour bus journey away and there were 13 of us in a minibus. It was just like a school trip, except we were now grown adults in the same kind of space. Horrible – but a great way to really get to know each other. What we also didn’t realise was that we would be camping in small two-man tents in the middle of a national park in heat of 40+C degrees. I have never been able to survive on such little sleep before or been soooooo hot, ever, in my life.

We headed out on game drives every morning at 5am, found picnic spots for lunch that we all helped prepare, and arrived back at camp late afternoon. We also did night safaris and morning walks with armed guards which were amazing. 20 feet away from the most dangerous animals in the world (lions, rhino’s, hyenas, elephant, leopards, zebras, giraffes) with nothing but a ranger with a small rifle to protect us. The additional jeep of other volunteers that also joined us, also broke down within feet of hungry leopards…which wasn’t good…but we survived and returned to the lodge sunburned, tired and nervous about starting ‘work’.

The 30+ volunteers here all have been spread out between several small schools in Swaziland dealing with orphans or children with critically ill parents, in order for them to prepare for starting school when they are older, or simply just to be fed and donated clothes. I am at a tiny school all of my own in the middle of nowhere – where the official teacher hasn’t even turned up since I’ve been there, except for my first day…with 13+/-  3-5 year olds who don’t speak English. Needless to say, it was chaos, and I have no idea how I cope all morning with them with absolutely no support. I literally got dropped off on my first day by the taxi/bus where I was told to, and was left at the side of the road staring into the faces of 13 semi-naked, skinny and dirty kids. Never felt so unprepared and useless in my life.

However, I have resorted to serious lesson planning and preparation for each day now. We have made macaroni necklaces (all dyed various colours by my own fair hands) made play-doh, made masks out of paper plates, danced and obviously learned counting and ABC. It’s really tough as I now realise I cannot recall a single children’s nursery rhyme or game…but the trust and hope placed in our teaching skills is amazing so I’m hoping I do a good job – and I am trying hard to do so.

Luckily, some days I get a visit from the craft making girls (who are really just extra pairs of hands if I plan a messy activity), or the sports boys visit to give us a lesson, so sometimes I get company.

I am getting really fond of my little kiddies too. They have such sad stories and it’s clear they really don’t get much attention from anywhere (through their sheer number and lack of guardians) and are so affectionate to me. Not cool when they wet themselves though and I have to deal with it. It’s really hard work – but really amazing to do though. I can’t tell you how much I love it out here with all its crazy experiences that I would never have at an office job as the Accountant I am in my everyday life.

Anyway, my half hour slot on the slowest PC is up so I must go. Hope this email fills in some of the gaps for you and makes up for lack of contact since I’ve been here. Please all stay in touch with me – it’s nice to hear about home too.

Will email again when I can.

Teacher Gemma xxx

The hard learnings of the children: 

The hard learnings of the children:

Hi Everyone!

Sorry for this being only my second email update in 3 weeks but it has been manic. We have just finished 3 days solid of storms that have cut power and phone lines…but I’m back in the land of contact now! You must excuse my spelling though…the shared pc is so dirty that some letters just don’t appear when I type.

Just wanted to say thanks to everyone who has mailed me and texted me since I have been out here…it’s lovely to hear from everyone and find out how life is going for you all back in England. I’m just sorry I don’t have the means or the time available to mail you all back individually. But please don’t stop being in touch with me!

I have had loads of questions from you all about various things out here so I will try to fill them into this mail as best I can in my very short 30-minute slot on the communal computer.

I have now finished a full two weeks of teaching my little ones and my class has now grown to 17 three-five year-olds of varying ability and illness. The teacher has also shown up, but she is also the cook, therefore I am mostly left on my own – which is really, really, tough. The lack of full time teacher is also becoming clear. The teachers, the cooks – they are all volunteers from the community. There is no pay for them and they are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s also important to remember that often these ladies are ill, malnourished and suffering themselves. I have the utmost respect for them.

The language barrier makes everything much harder; facial expressions, body language and tone of voice are really important. I am slowly learning very basic SiSwati but it’s a very hard language as many words include sucking your teeth and including a ticking/clucking sound…it’s the oddest language I have heard and very alien – but I will get there. Because I want to.

I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying teaching these little ones basic skills and language – and what a joy they are…but over this last week I have learned a lot of tough things about them and the culture they live in.

This next part is addressing some of the questions you have posed me – so if it seems weird me mailing these details, then sorry, but I just want to share my experience with those of you that have asked. And to censor parts wouldn’t be a true account.

As I might have mentioned previously, all of the children we teach are single or double orphans as a result of aids or poverty and we are here to help them with basic life skills and education so that however long they live, they will be able to function in society – or maybe even just feel love and smile for while they live their short lives – as some of them will never make it to school age.

Of my children, it is approximated that up to 90% may have HIV and the remaining 10% have not yet been tested, so who knows. A handful of my children are already ‘developing’ (AIDS) which is soooo hard to see. It turns them to zombies…they can’t concentrate, they cry and they are in pain (which is made worse by severe malnutrition) I think I have cried daily at their desperation and sadness. What makes it worse is that it is not unheard of for some of them to have been raped by older men who have been exposed to HIV and are still of the belief that to sleep with a child is a cure. That, on top of having no ‘well’ guardian, makes them tough little kids, but emotional and dependable on us white chee-cha’s (teachers) who have the time and the health and the energy to pay them lots of attention. We are working to profile all of the children we teach (understanding their background and circumstance) so we can deal with them better…but its harrowing.

HIV is diagnosed and recognised but the medical resources and treatments are too expensive for the majority to benefit from, and you only qualify for help when you are ‘developing’ full blown aids…which often means it’s too late to help them have a life (which could be extended into adulthood if they had that medical support early enough – it should no longer be a life-limiting or deadly disease these days). So knowing that these gorgeous innocent children won’t have a life as we know it, is extra hard – especially when they’re naughty and it seems harsh to discipline them. Discipline in this country is a beating – which is acceptable in their society, but none of us volunteers condone or carry out this treatment and therefore they love us more – but take greater advantage of as we do not touch them. I remember one day that a child was being extra naughty and one of his classmates casually got up from his seat and handed me a stick that had been sitting on the window sill of the classroom since I got there…it took me a moment to realise that I was to hit the misbehaving child with it. My heart broke. I now understood why this large stick had always been there since I first arrived. I had never removed it because I assumed it was one of the kids toys and who was I to move it…but at that moment, realisation set in as to its actual purpose.

As if to mirror my horror learning, one of the younger lad volunteers here had a terrible realisation experience just today… his favourite little girl (I know we shouldn’t have favourites) in his school (he has been here for a month and has watched her deteriorate in health) has been clearly progressively been ‘developing’ AIDS and her mouth is so ulcerated she can’t eat anymore. She spent today being so sick and weak at school that he had to carry her 2km home in 40 degree heat to her, also ill, grandmother as both her parents had died. The grandmother cannot afford the £5 injection she needs to get better and she will get no care from her guardian who is knocking on deaths door herself. He managed to get the injection for her from a local ‘doctor’ and paid out of his own money for it, but the doctors think it is already too late…he genuinely does not believe he will see her alive again after the gravity of todays situation. He cried on my shoulder for hours this afternoon on the steps of the lodge… This is such a hard experience and days like today make you realise so much about our own lives. One of the shining personalities of my own class, a beautiful little 3-year-old girl, has been unwell and has not made it to school for 2 days now. I dread to think what is happening. They’re only innocent little children.

HIV and AIDS education is widespread. You find free condoms everywhere (public toilets, bars, supermarkets) and lots of info about the disease on billboards at every turn (50% of the population here have HIV – our kids are the vulnerable ones and therefore form a much higher %) but there is a lot of denial about the possibilities of people being infected due to the stigma. The safe sex educators did widespread demonstrations on how to use a condom using sticks as their example of a penis…but this has unfortunately led to many people taking it literally and after having sex, putting a condom on a stick in the garden like it’s some form of witchcraft. I can’t tell you how many sticks previous volunteers have seen like this in gardens and fields. They messed up big time…It’s terribly sad.

I won’t even go into the hospital work and visits we’re doing – that’s heavy stuff too and really hard. Bear with me for those harrowing stories because, I can’t not tell you about them.

On a lighter note, I get marriage proposals on an hourly basis – the cost of having a wife is a certain number of cows so I’m hoping that being worth 30 cows is unaffordable for most of these men and my Dad can rest easy that I will be coming home without a husband.

I’m so glad I’m here though…this is life changing stuff that I already know is going to stay with me forever.

And now I have to leave you all again…we are off to Mozambique on Sunday to join the ocean conservation teams as a form of respite from our teaching, so it may well be another week before I’m in touch again…

Thanks again for all your mails and texts – keep them coming – I don’t want to forget my home, although we are living in very different worlds right now.


A break to the sea, a change of volunteers, and back to school:

A break to the sea, a change of volunteers, and back to school:

Hi Everyone,

Hope all is well back at home – or Afghanistan for my military friends – wherever you all are!

Just wanted to check in again and say ‘hello’, but not much to report this time.

We spent last week in the beautiful Mozambique. (The coast bit was beautiful anyway – the rest of the country is torn by civil war and landmines still lurking, so no random wandering allowed, which is not so nice). It was the last week my original group of travellers had together (many of them were short-termers who came for just a month of school volunteering – I am a longer-termer but still was given the break) and we had a super time…The weather was stunning, we scuba-dived, snorkelled with whale sharks, swam alongside a school of more dolphins than the eye could see, kayaked between islands, rode horses at sunset, and generally relaxed. The beaches were empty and it was really relaxing after a tough few weeks. We shared a huge round 13 person mixed dorm with only a roof and floor and mosquito nets for protection from the wildlife. We regularly woke up with wild dogs curled up next to us and various wildlife joining our sleeping space. There was electricity for two hours a day and no clean water on the coast, so we showered in brown copper smelling water for a week…which wasn’t pleasant and we suspected we’d get blood poisoning from it, but we all embraced it. Also not pleasant was the 13 hour bus trip there and back but that’s another story. We were pulled over by the police at regular intervals and fined for not wearing t-shirts, not wearing flip flops, being asleep, taking pictures of armed civilians (where the ‘police’ would either steal your camera – or if they were feeling generous, would just demand and watch you delete incriminating evidence of the prolific gun presence), being white etc. it’s a massively corrupt country…but wow…if it wasn’t for the incredible charity guides we had, this incredible experience would not have been at all possible.

All of my friends who I have spent the last month with went home on Monday, bar one of the young lads who is out here the same length as me (for those of you who don’t know, I have just extended my trip to be home in another month instead of next week – thanks Mum for sorting) and it was a very sad day. This is such an intense experience you get very close to people fast, and also emotionally dependant on them which is strange in such a short space of time, but it’s an experience very difficult to describe to others. It’s so much more than your common garden holiday romance. It’s something so much more intense than anything I have ever experienced. It almost feels like a secret world only a small few had a ticket to, or would ever comprehend. We are the minority. We saw it. We lived it. We were there.

The new group arrived Monday to take the ‘originals’ place but they are a very mixed bag of people so I’m not too sure about them yet. They are all doing their safari at the moment so there are only 6 volunteers here at the lodge this week – all aged 18 so I’m feeling a little bit like a fish out of water being significantly older. Luckily there is a group of Swedish backpackers who are closer to my age here at the moment, who we coincidentally met in Mozambique, who are staying for this week too, so I have good company in them – thankfully!

School began again on Monday and I was crazy excited to see my little brats – I missed them. I didn’t stop wondering how they were or what they were doing. It will be hard to go home for good if that’s what just under a week away does. The teacher has not turned up the entire week I have been away, or since, so I have had them all to myself which is such hard work -but a good hard if you know what I mean? They have the attention span of gnats and without a translator in the room I cannot understand them enough to help them with everything so they get naughty quickly. They are super excitable this week…I wonder if they truly understood that I was coming back for them? But I am already used to this. On bad days I come away really upset with myself because I feel I do not have control over them and that I’ve let them down, other days I beat myself up because they were so perfectly behaved I worry I haven’t let them be children enough…its hard work trying to naively reconcile in my own head what is good for them.

Aside from our South African safari, Moz and schools – we are also busy doing lots of other things. We have been quad biking through a national park, visited the capital city of Mbabane (where I got followed by a man with a chicken and a stick for about 2 hours – which was a little unnerving), hiked up surrounding mountains at 5 am in the morning to avoid the heat (and still made it to school on time), spent Valentine’s day at an African music festival, watched authentic African dancing ceremonies and when we get enough time off we sneak into a nearby 5* hotel via a back entrance for a spot of swimming and proper food. So, it’s not all work, work, work. We find ways to release. We have to. It’s the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves and to be the best for our kids.

Not much else to report really – it’s been a very quiet couple of weeks indeed. In African standards anyway.

I’m not going to mention the cockroaches I find in my washbag every morning, the fact you have to fist bump the communal kitchen work surfaces to scare the monster cockroaches into hiding before you enter the kitchen if you need a top-up of water, the care you have to take of the clothes you have hand-washed that is hanging on the lines out of the back of the lodge from monkey thieves, the same ones that jump on your safari tent roofs at horrendous times of the morning and you run from if you have anything of interest in your hand when you make a dash for the bathrooms…

On the subject of washing – I had an interesting experience this week. Some of my clothes that I brought out with me are completely knackered. Stained with mud and dust, falling apart at the seams and no amount of vigorous handwashing that I did was bringing them back to life. At home I would not have even given them to a charity shop. So, as I would at home, I left the ruined clothes in a bin at the lodge. After returning from school that afternoon I was called to the lodge reception – where I found my pile of clothes sat on the desk. The ladies that run the lodge looked awkward and informed me that the cleaner had been found in possession of my discarded clothes and they wanted to be sure that they hadn’t been stolen from my tent. I was horrified. The cleaner had clearly found value in what I had tried to bin and had certainly not taken them from me. I assured them that I had intended to throw them away and that she was very welcome to have them if she would like them. They were returned to the cleaner with no repercussions and days later I see her wearing my clothes, mended and perfectly cleaned. I was so ashamed of my wastefulness and complete naivety that from that moment on I threw nothing away – and handed everything directly to the cleaner. Someone’s apparent rubbish is absolutely someone else’s treasure. Consider me humbled and corrected.

Gemsy xxxxx


Teaching more than ABC:

Teaching more than ABC:

Hello everyone,

It’s time for another check in…

So…I have survived another week with my beautiful kids.

I think I am finally in a routine with them and actually succeeding in making them learn things…and I’m no longer the novelty white person they can take advantage of! I think being on my own with them all of last week really helped, even though it was pretty stressful and upsetting at the time. I feel much better when I get home from school now and my imagination is finally working on a child’s level and lesson ideas are coming much easier…I think by the time I go home I will be an expert on them. I just don’t want to accept I have to leave them, ever.

However, it’s not just teaching them abc/123 that can make a difference with them…my kids are exceptionally crazy, badly behaved and a little off the wall. This is widely attributed to them being from the hills, rather than the busier valleys like all the other schools and comparisons provided by my fellow volunteers who are based in the village schools, not the hillside tribe I’m assigned to. I guess we have the same phenomenon in England with people in small villages…. ;0)

Because of the lack of exposure to ‘mainstream’ society, there are many things my little ones need help with, beyond curriculum. I have had many small breakthroughs in this area with the kids…my first favourite – ignoring their education entirely, is that I have taught them to use the toilet (no small feat). They often stand and wee wherever they might be with no regard for whose legs and feet get splashed (often mine). Many times during playtime the girls would squat in the field outside the classroom in the middle of a game amidst a chat with their friends. The boys don’t even stop running around – they simply undo their flies and go for it whilst on the move. When they do make it to the actual toilet, my next job is to make them go one at a time instead of 3 little girls sitting on the seat with a boy weeing behind them – sure it saves time, but it means they all get soaked in wee…and they risk dirtying the only outfit they own. (Do you still want your shorts back Mum?). When these kids only have the one outfit they are stood up in, it’s so important to look after these clothes…I’m trying so hard to teach them to preserve what little they have. They just truly fight for ‘today’, not trusting that there will be a tomorrow that includes their favourite things.

I am also slowly getting them used to not snatching and hiding any toys, or paper, or crayons I give them. They are like magpies and there are various sneaky hiding spots of collected goods around the area of the school. These kids have nothing to their names so I guess it’s understandable…but I’m getting a little sick of doing daily treasure hunts before I go home and having to wrestle kids to the death for the lid of a pen or a piece of chalk they are hiding in their mouths.

They are also learning that not everything I give them is food. Everyone knows kids will eat anything but this is getting ridiculous – they are so hungry all the time. They have eaten blue-tac, play-doh, glue, the insides of the felt tip pens, crayons, string, balloons, you name it. Daily I’m shoving fingers in their mouths to stop them choking. It’s funny when they try to deny they have eaten the play doh or pasta because I used food colouring on them and it stains their mouths, but all kids think adults were born yesterday, right? But also it gave me kick in the guts to have the realisation that I had made valuable food into inedible toys and I struggled hard to decide which was more important. Motor skills and education, over nourishment is a horrible quandary to be in.

We have recently had a drop from world charities (Unicef, the World Food Program, Nurture) of food, clothing (winter is coming) and supplies, so next week I am looking forward to seeing the children get their winter clothes delivered. Its dropped to 35+ degrees here at the moment and its considered ‘cold’  so many of them are already wearing jumpers and  donated woolly hats and gloves…I struggle to understand this. In this country we have to dress very conservatively. We have to wear clothing that covers our thighs and our shoulders when in public and I’m finding long shorts and t shirts unbearably hot to wear – to the point of feeling like passing out on a daily basis – hats and scarves would be torture. But they know a different climate to me.

The schools are also getting their medical drops from the Red Cross this month. This involves medical volunteers coming to the schools and dishing out injections, pills and syrups for the children to take ‘home’ and use over the next few months. This is an interesting way of dealing with the distribution as the children immediately swig gulps from the bottles of syrup and shove handfuls of the sweeties (pills) in their mouths as soon as they get their hands on them. But who can control that with these children? Do any of them have a bright enough, well enough guardians to help control this? Or even somewhere safe to store the supplies? I reckon not…It’s such a shame, but I don’t know what the answer would be…this is new to me and I’m no humanitarian expert.

On the subject of medical issues, some of the other volunteers have got ringworm so this is our new paranoia. We have already exhausted all conversations about the risks of AIDS (which is virtually nil – so long as you follow some common sense rules) and people have now relaxed about getting in a swimming pool with an infected child on sports days, or sharing water bottles with them (which I still will not do though because there are also a lot of mouth ulcers around). Head lice are one of the lesser evils, but all the kids have shaved or closely cropped hair so they rarely get them anyway. Besides, I think the filth here will ensure none of us get nits as they only like clean hair.

Along with ringworm, many volunteers are getting bacterial infections in open mosquito wounds through the dirty water and filth outside of the lodge. But nothing that the pharmacy can’t help with.

Unfortunately filth and bugs is a given out here. There are dogs running around all over the place, monkeys everywhere stealing and rifling through belongings, severe cases of cockroaches in the kitchen (our washbags and wrapped up in towel folds), snakes – basically all manner of horrid insects. I have never known anything like it – buts it’s a sure fire way to get over your fear of them when you are faced with them quite literally every minute. You get used to flies resting all over you and no longer have the energy to slap mozzies away or carefully remove spiders from your bed. I think I have seriously toughened myself up, being here. As for deadly insects? My experience of scorpions was sitting on the ground at the ‘bus stop’ outside of my school and really being astounded at the beauty of an insect that was sat alongside me…it was a baby scorpion. I’m appalled at how long it took me to realise I was centimetres away from a deathly animal. It wasn’t like in films…I didn’t think I was naïve…but I nearly touched that beauty. It was black…small and stunning. NOT what I had learned a scorpion looked like…

Unfortunately infections and illness are quite high between the volunteers due to the contrasting standards of living, not just our naivety to the local ‘wildlife’. I must say, living here is quite wearing. I have been sleeping in a 4 man tent for the last couple four weeks and will be in it for the rest of my stay. Although camping might not sound great for that long a time, it’s actually much better that the bricks and mortar shared rooms as at least we have ventilation through the mosquito nets during the immense heat of the nights. I’m also sick of not being able to keep clothes clean, tired of wearing my flip flops everywhere, in the shower, in the toilet etc, fed up of outdoor bathrooms with the many bugs sharing my space, I am tired of having a bad back from thin mattresses, sleeping on the floor or leaning over to do my washing, tired of poor food (although my waist line is loving it), and really struggling with no private space or time for myself….basically all the things our Swazi children put up with on a daily basis (or our soldiers in Afghanistan – I feel for you!) Doesn’t that sound pathetic? I don’t know how lucky I am… but my goodness I will be grateful to be home and have the home comforts back.

Anyway, it’s time for me to go. The weather is bad so I had better let someone else have their turn on this PC before the storms. I have had many unexpected emails since I have been here – thank you so much for writing.its lovely to hear from you all!!

Take care and much love,

Gems xxxxxx

It’s nearly over and I’m not ready:

It’s nearly over and I’m not ready:

Hey everybody,

It’s me again….ready to continue the story of my travels.

I cannot believe how far and wide my mails are getting – I hope you are finding them interesting…if not, there is a delete button. Hide from a dark reality as long as you like…but it won’t stop it existing.

Once again I have received some lovely emails from many of you that have read mine and it’s been great to read about ‘home’ and how everyone is doing. I just want to apologise again for not replying directly to them all, but I hope you understand that communication here is not like back in England and I genuinely appreciate every single one I get.

I am now in my 7th week here in Swaziland. I’m starting to get very emotional now at the thought of leaving. Every day the children make me proud, or sad, or just happy to be around them and looking into their little faces and knowing I may not see them again is heart wrenching. It’s difficult too as I don’t have many other volunteers here I can share that feeling with. I am one of 3 ‘long-termers’ who have actually been attending the same NCP (Neighbourhood Care Point a.k.a School) for my entire trip. The All Out Africa Foundation (the charity through whom the volunteering is organised) had previous issues with the children becoming attached to the volunteer teachers who were only staying for a short while so in order to ease the stress on the children, they make the short-termers visit different schools everyday so there is no continuity to break. Those of us who stay more than a month get given our own schools so that we have the time to really teach and grow the children, therefore the emotional attachment for the other volunteers themselves isn’t quite as strong.

So I can remember my children well, and they can remember me, I have taken individual photos of them all of them having fun in class and printed them all out. My classroom walls are now covered with their little faces. I took ‘official’ portrait style photos of each of them individually too and tomorrow we are having a hand painting day so below each of their photos they can have their handprint. I also did extra copies so they have a photo of themselves to take ‘home’ with them. This has caused great excitement as they have never seen a photo of themselves, much less owned one. So much excitement in fact that they apparently went home yesterday and told their guardians and fellow villagers that they have photos on their classroom wall and today, we had a constant flow of grown-ups and older children filtering through the classroom to see the photo collages. It was amazing. I didn’t realise what an impact they would have. I can’t wait to see the little ones faces when they realise they can actually HAVE the pictures and take them away with them. I feel like I’m giving them a pot of gold…I had no idea how special this would be for them. I’m humbled.

Other things we have done together is learn not to draw on the walls of the classroom. I managed to do this by daily pinning old newspapers on the wall and directing their creativity to these sheets and not the walls. They now realise that the walls aren’t for drawing on, but the newspaper is fine. Some days I don’t put any up, and they’re now as good as gold and the walls remain untouched. I take this as real progress!

I have also learned that in order to get their full attention for the morning, is to do every task with a novelty. Make kids balloon hats first thing in the morning and they will be as good as gold all day. Also when they do something well, they like it if you give them a high five (any form of physical contact is craved). Lack of co-ordination sometimes means their hand slapping lands on another child’s head, but we are getting there slowly.

As well as building a rapport with the children, us ‘teachers’ are really settled in the villages. Every morning I get up at 7 and leave the lodge by 8 to get my 2 buses to school. The buses are called Kombi’s and are minivans with 15 makeshift seats. (On a bad day you can cram 25 people on them and it’s 100 times worse than the summer rush hour on London underground)

You can hail these Kombis by the side of the road and you simply hop on. I have never seen another white person on them but everyone recognises you instantly as a teacher and people couldn’t be more friendly, it not at all intimidating. They even wait for you to run down the road after them if you’re running a little late as they always know to expect you. (This bus ride is where most of the marriage proposals occur.)

I get dropped off right outside my school where the children wait by the roadside for my arrival. It’s an amazing welcome – my appearance has never been so welcomed in my entire life. When I finish school I sit by the roadside and wait for the return bus. Or at least I used to sit, until I noticed the abundance of scorpions who also sit at my makeshift bus stop.

The second bus I take, called ‘The President’ that actually delivers me to my hillside school runs very irregularly on the route home, but if you wait patiently by the road you can hitch a lift standing in the back of a pick-up truck from locals who know why you are there and are grateful for your help to the kids. Sounds terrifying – but we are treated very well here and this is deemed to be a very normal method of travelling during daylight hours. After dark, we know us white people need to stay ‘home’ because safety levels do have the potential to change. Also, I have made enough friends in the village and regular travellers to have my face known and looked out for. Quite often the pastor of the village will get his rickety old car out to give me a lift part of the way if he sees me waiting too long. We are seen as a gift from God so they cannot do enough for us. (An alternative lift home on the rare day is the All Out minibus. Being on this bus is brilliant. As we pull up to the schools, everyone knows who we are, the music gets turned loud and the children start dancing. It’s a sight to see.)

Swaziland is extremely religious. They are strong Christians and Jesus is talked and sung about everywhere you go. He is however only the 2nd most respected figure in Swaziland. The King comes first…..which is infuriating actually. The King is one of the richest people in the whole of Africa – and he does not share his wealth, so people live in extreme poverty and he carries on his perfect life in a big mansion with his numerous wives. He also has an extreme ignorance to AIDS and is, in my opinion, greatly responsible for the mis-education in his country. He ‘believes’ the old wives tails for not catching/curing AIDS and has made pathetic attempts to help his people who respect him so much.

Every year, in the summer, the king has a Reed Dance ceremony where young village girls from all over the country dance for him. (You are deemed to be good wife material if you are flexible and can kick your leg above your head….being a gymnast; I think I will steer clear of this ceremony!) He then selects one as his wife. His recent choice was an eleven year old….She became wife number 13. Between all his wives he has hundreds of children too. It’s no wonder AIDS is spread like wildfire when he sleeps with 13 women, has hundreds of children by them, and exercises no control over whether those kids (or the mothers) have the disease, or the children even go on to procreate between themselves…how do they know they share the same father?

Anyway, I have rambled on enough again for one day and I must dash. I am playing in volunteers vs Swazi under 17’s footie match which I have to go get changed for. We volunteers have already played (and beaten) the All Out Swazi staff so we are hoping to remain undefeated!

Wish me luck for my last day with the children too….it’s going to be super tough I just know it…

Hope all is well at home – sending lots of love,

Gemsy xxxxx

It’s time to leave and my heart is breaking:

It’s time to leave and my heart is breaking:

Hey all,

This is my last and final message from the beautiful Africa…My flight leaves in 6 hours…

I looked forward to this trip for many reasons….but I totally underestimated the effect it would have on me now it finally comes to the crunch of going home.

I genuinely do not think I have cried this much in a very long time, or believed I could love so many strange little children or fellow travellers so much.

The day I said goodbye to my children I think my heart literally broke. I’m sure if you stood near to me you would have heard it. I was crying long before I even arrived at school on the final morning which made the children confused. It’s usually them crying and me holding them, not the other way round. They knew I was leaving but I’m not sure how much they understood. The last morning I walked towards the school, they all came running and screaming towards me down the path, excited to see me and I wanted to bottle up that moment forever. In fact the whole experience I wish I had recorded in better detail. The only thing I have is photos and memories of their little faces and their quirky little behaviours. I’m so scared I will forget some of the details…

On my last day I threw a little leaving party for them with party food and treats, and delivered a bag of my clothes to the teachers and helpers who have nothing to speak of in material possessions either. It was lovely to see how grateful they were for such a simple act.

My last day was a blur really of tears and cuddles. I had a moment with each and every one of the children to say my goodbyes and it was heart wrenching. Saying goodbye to those that are obviously ill and slowly dying in front of our eyes felt so final. Even if I came back out here in 6 months, there aren’t any guarantees that I would be able to see some of their gorgeous little faces again. It’s desperately sad to wonder just what will happen to them when I go…and if they will be looked after by someone, and cared for. And I also wonder if I made their time special too. I always said if I could make one of my children smile for a day, or feel loved for a day, then I would have done my job. I hope I did this for more than one….and I hope they remember that they are special and that I love them.

I’m so upset to even be writing this as it means my trip is over. And every minute I type is a minute I could be sat over the hills in their little classroom again, doing what I’ve done for the past few weeks…. But we are not allowed back once we say goodbye…which I understand, but it’s hard. I’m actually too sad to carry on writing….

I think I need the next few hours to say my goodbyes here and adjust to the fact I’m leaving soon.

It’s been a trip of a lifetime….it definitely changed my life and it’s lovely to have had you all to share it with me from so far away.

So I guess this is it….my time here is done.

I’m ready to come home….. xxxxxx





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