The drive to the volunteer house took nearly three hours. We left Durban and drove North, quickly leaving behind the industrial area, chimneys, warehouses, steel and concrete into a green, open landscape.
Fortunately I was not the only volunteer being transported. At the airport I had met a young woman called Gemma who had arrived shortly after me. The company was nice and it was a relief to know I wouldn’t be the only new face.
Gemma was tall, with curly hair and a cheerful disposition alongside great sensitivity and compassion. Ideal skills for a nurse in training.
The area to which we were heading was known as Duku Duku, which means ‘Dark Forest’, as we drew closer, it became clearer as to why.
In contrast to the vast openness of the land further South towards Durban, here trees pressed in from either side of the road. We were able to see only a few trees deep on either side before the sprawling mass of branches high above blocked out the sun.
Despite my sleep deprived state, I was in awe of the beauty of the place. It was easy to imagine another set of eyes gazing back at me from the dark shadows of the forest as we passed, or every now and then seeing an unusual shape within the trees and straining to glance back, just in case.
We passed, after a time, the Zulu villages of Khula and Ezwenelisha; they were sprawling settlements built along dirt roads with houses made of painted breezeblocks, wood or mud and sticks.
There had obviously been an effort at some stage to tarmac the roads in the villages to make access easier but, with the tarmac laid directly onto the sand and soil, it had long since broken apart and crumbled, leaving pockmarked trails and gaping craters just waiting to swallow a car.
‘The poverty was palpable’
The poverty was palpable even from the car, and though in some places there were flashes of hope, the state support was not always the benign force it appeared to be.
The South African government was undertaking a development project, building new homes for the Zulu villagers. The government houses were easy to spot. They were painted yellow with a brown stripe which circled the building about a foot from the ground.
They were small, only three rooms inside a building which would fit comfortably into the living room of my flat. But with their solid walls and a corrugated iron roof, it was a step up from wooden crates which let the wind, rain and cold through.
These government houses however were built on plots which used to be the site of three or more homes. Two out of the three former residents were moved on.
Not even the wealthiest Zulu properties in the villages had running water. Being connected to electricity is the best that can be hoped for, but even that was sporadic and prone to failure.
Eventually we crossed a bridge into the town of St Lucia. Wedged on a mile-wide strip of land between the mouth of the estuary of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the Indian Ocean. Minutes later, turned off one of the side streets and arrived at the volunteer house.
The property was accessed through a large, heavy, sliding metal gate. The house itself was a single storey brick building with water containers, living, eating and kitchen space at one end and the bedrooms accessed by walking around the side of the building. The sliding doors into each dormitory bedroom overlooked the garden, which was largely given over to a braai (bbq pit) and a swimming pool which, for the duration of my time in Africa was a rather radioactive shade of green.
Through the bedrooms on the far side of the house from the garden, ran a long corridor that stretched the length of the plot connecting the bedrooms and bathrooms.
‘A blessing and a relief’
I was the only guy working there for the duration of my stay so I had a bedroom to myself. This was, I must admit, both a blessing and a relief.
After so long sitting down both on planes and in cars, I was aching to stretch my legs, so I went for a walk. Before leaving the house, I was informed not to stay out after dark. Apparently some of the 1,300 hippos that live in the estuary roamed the streets to graze after nightfall.
The heavy metal gate suddenly made sense, designed to keep the hippos that grazed the verge at night out.
I was also told that if I went to the beach, I shouldn’t go in the water as there were Great White Sharks. It would be best to get away before sunset too as there were leopards living in the trees.
Some company was called for, so I borrowed the house dog. A small, female, slightly arthritic black and white Jack Russell cross called Vlekkie (Afrikaans for Spotty).
I figured that, in case there were a hippo or leopard, she might be able to alert me to it’s presence. Or if the worst should happen, provide a suitable snack-size decoy…
As it turned out, Vlekkie was the ideal companion as she didn’t realise she was only a foot long.
We discovered this during the night several days into my stay when we were woken by her ferocious barking in the garden. Upon further investigation into why she was clearly spoiling for a fight, we spotted the hippos at the gate. The effect of her barking on the hippos was minimal, though it’s comedy value was significant and she was swiftly moved inside.
The walk to the beach took 20 minutes. Stepping out of the volunteer house, the first thing I noted was how quiet it was. There was no traffic noise, only the odd chatter of a few velvet monkeys in the trees. The road wound its way through a small forest. Trees pressed on either side and I did start to wonder whether some creature might emerge. I was grateful to have Vlekkie with me.
Fortunately, I made it in one piece and, turning a corner, the road widened and a sandy mound rose ahead. Walking to the top of the mound, the beach the spread out before me.
‘The beach was spectacular’
The beach was spectacular. In the distance you could see the spray and breaking of the waves as humpback whales came briefly to the surface during their migration. The sand was hot, smooth and white and stretched out for miles on either side.
The waves rolled high off the beach, I thought it would have been great for surfers. If not, you know, for the sharks. The warm water of the Indian Ocean washed over the sand and soothed my feet, while Vlekkie seemed to enjoy the sand and the spray.
After half an hour strolling the beach, we went back to the volunteer house to get ready for the day ahead. On returning I met Kat, the third volunteer I would be working with. She was a paramedic, with bright eyes and a face always ready with a smile alongside formidable intelligence and wit. As I settled down for the evening, I thought on how glad I was to be working with her and Gemma.
The task facing the volunteers who go to work in South Africa is like an ocean; the first time you see it, it stretches before you, vast and seemingly endless, but also impossibly deep.
There is roughly a 25% incidence of HIV in the Zulu villages we were working with. Alongside this the endemic issues surrounding availability and delivery of care; education; gender equality; nutrition and grinding poverty are all contributing factors that provide an undercurrent which threatens to pull you deeper or otherwise push you aside to dispassionate resignation.
‘You must either dive in or be swept away’
When faced with this immense, limitless and seemingly unassailable mission, the choice before you is a relatively simple one. You must either dive in or be swept away.
There is little time to consider your options; the afternoon after I arrived, while working on home visits, I was standing in a woman’s home. It was made of wood and the wind was blowing right through it. The whole house was an 8ft by 8ft square, most of which was occupied by the woman’s bed.
She was over 80 with advanced breast cancer and open wounds. My task was to clean out the wounds using iodine and cotton swabs.
‘I started to swim’
I still don’t know how my hands didn’t shake. But as I pulled on my gloves, the waves breaking around me, I started to swim.
During the day, our tasks included home visits to provide medical care, including wound treatment, physio and delivering nutritional food parcels. We took part in support groups. At one I spoke about my HIV. In response, the ladies opened up about theirs, it was a moving, freeing experience for all of us.
The physio sessions were a favourite of mine. We were using rudimentary kit, – stress balls and rubber bands. But we were able to use them to get good results. One patient had been in a motorbike accident several years before and was believed to be paralysed on the left of her body. However after years of therapy, movement was slowly returning.
One stubborn area of paralysis remained in her hand. While she was able to make a fist, she couldn’t relax the muscles to release it and re-open her hand. Our medical co-ordinator, a Zulu woman called Shwele, who, though having had no formal medical training was a fount of knowledge, suggested that she would need to learn the movement to re-open her hand when it relaxed.
Physiotherapy stress balls
While we sat there, pondering how best to facilitate this, my eyes fell upon an item in our kit that might just do the trick. It was one of the stress balls I had brought with me. It was luminous yellow with a wide smiley face peering up at me, daring me to suggest it.
The patient was younger than me and yet already appeared exhausted. I took the ludicrous yellow ball, gave it to her and asked her to make a fist. She did so. We then instructed her to relax her hand and, as she did so, the natural resistance of the stress ball pushed back against her fingers Her hand opened to reveal the stress ball’s smiling face.
I looked up and saw another wide, beaming smile.
The evenings and weekends were our own time and were mostly spent in a local bar. We would speak about our day and then drink, listen to music, play games and laugh. It provided balance against the labours of the day.
At the weekends I went exploring. One weekend, I hired a car and drove about an hour to a game reserve and an elephant sanctuary. I enjoyed game drives, seeing elephants, lions and buffalo in the wild and met a bull elephant called Rambo.
This was all wildly outside my comfort zone. But I ventured it was all going to make for a collection of amazing memories so I jumped in to every opportunity. I threw myself into my tasks and swam in this new sea as far as I could. Slowly I put my nerves aside and in the process proving to myself, slowly but surely what I could do.
‘I may be capable of far more than I had allowed myself to believe’
One evening, as I walked back to the volunteer house keeping an eye out for hippo. I thought to myself that I may be capable of far more than I had allowed myself to believe.
If I, as a HIV+ gay man from the South of England could do this, – could work in Africa, having an amazing adventure, – what else could I do that I had previously denied myself?
What if, in spite of the last 10 years of challenges, the world was still my oyster? How far might I go, what might I do? Something had started and now, one thing was certain, I was not going to be the same. This journey was taking me, unexpectedly, somewhere new.