From taking their smoke break huddled in a shed alongside a dubious family of goats, to speaking the words “Luthando, put down the snake!”, working as volunteers at a rural South African NGO has meant many unexpected experiences for Project Trust volunteers Alice Bastin-Taylor and Eilidh Fraser. This week we sadly have to say goodbye, but reflect on so many unusual moments and special memories with the “PT Girls”.
Their stories of misadventure and muddling along often have the office in stitches, picturing the pair apologetically wriggling between gogos to hunt under a taxi seat for a lost R10 note or imagining their reaction when a mischievous learner flings a kamikaze cockroach across the classroom.
Both young women came to South Africa as recent school leavers with Project Trust, a Scottish organisation that places up to 300 volunteers at partner organisations around the world each year.
This is an opportunity they grabbed spontaneously at the end of high school. Their yearlong placement began in September following training sessions in their home country, and shortly after returning home they will each begin university.
Although coming in they had little idea what to expect, an open attitude and ability to laugh at themselves made adjusting to life in a small Eastern Cape village an adventure. “Here I am and I don’t think we regret it, we love it,” Eilidh said. In a final tea, the lament was simply “We don’t want to go.”
As part of the Maskhane team, their responsibilities have included being classroom assistants to the Axium teachers as well as doing bi-weekly school observations and occasionally taking a lesson or two. Alice focuses on maths while Eilidh concentrates on English.
While cognisant that there is a massive range of standards within the South African education system, it has been eye-opening to work in some of our country’s most under-resourced schools.
“The first week that we were here we went to one of the schools down the road and there were 45 kids in the classroom but only 5 desks, with holes in the floors and I just though ‘Oh my god, nobody’s lying’,” Eilidh admitted, saying that although they had been prepared it was still a shock to encounter the reality.
Both young women described the language barrier as being among their biggest challenges, saying they felt more motivated to learn isiXhosa each time they battled to assist a learner because it was tough to establish understanding in English.
They also sometimes struggled with feeling under-qualified to contribute in the classroom, but tried to help where they could by offering extra one-on-one support and resources to learners.
“I’ve been in both situations myself, where I’ve sat in a math class and had no idea what is going on, and I’ve also been in a position where it’s too easy for me, so I can kind of sympathise with the students wherever they are at,” Alice said, saying that the different levels of learning in classrooms with large numbers presents a further difficulty, but relatable opportunity to tutor individually.
Despite the challenges, time with the children in schools remains the absolute highlight of the week for both volunteers. “There are days when I am laughing constantly in English,” Eilidh smiled, saying how funny it has been seeing themselves become teachers that try to be “cool,” always wanting to entertain their learners and keep things fun.
Beyond time in school, they are often the go-to-girls for a wide range of daily to-dos: drawing crayon props for the Masakhane play, covering 120 textbooks in plastic, spreading peanut butter on bread, or making fake bombs for the spy-themed boot-camp week.
Once home, Alice plans to study Economics in Essex and Eilidh will be reading for Sociology in Edinburgh. Although their subjects aren’t directly related to education, there are a lot of life skills they feel they’ll take with them.
Probably more than anything, though, will be memories of the laughter with learners. “There is something every day,” Alice said, while Eilidh added, “You really never know what to expect and that’s the best part of it.”