Published on 25th October 2012
VSA’s last volunteers in Africa finished their assignments in June, but the legacy of our work there continues.
When Anne Perera, VSA’s last volunteer in Tanzania, left the country in June this year a taxi arrived at her house to take her to Kilimanjaro Airport. Inside the taxi was Musa Naroro, VSA’s former field officer in Arusha, who was there to make sure that Anne made it safely to the airport.
As the many volunteers who worked with Musa know, it was a typically generous gesture.
"Musa was a wonderful support to me right until the last minute,” says Anne who spent two years working as a food and nutrition adviser based at SIDO (Small Industries Development Organisation), which trains local would-be entrepreneurs to manage small food processing businesses. “I was so grateful for everything he did.”
It was also an example of the generosity extended to VSA volunteers not just in Tanzania, but in the five other countries VSA has worked in since it set up its Africa programme in 1986.
“I really loved the people,” says Camille Kirtlan who spent six years with VSA in the South African city of East London, first as a volunteer and later as South Africa country programme manager. “They’re just so accepting of who you are, and so non-judgemental. It’s who you are on the inside that counts, not who you are on the outside.”
For Camille, one person in particular helped shape her experience of South Africa. She first met Thoko Mlonyeni when she arrived in East London to start her assignment with the Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture in 2000.
“Thoko came to meet me at the airport,” says Camille. “From the word go she pretty much treated me as part of her family.”
In 2004 Camille helped Thoko set up Imvomvo, an NGO that offers community-based sports programmes to people in Mdantsane, a large township just out of East London. Since then Imvomvo has diversified to include an elderly citizen gardening programme and an early childhood centre developed with the help of VSA volunteer Judy Moore.
“Thoko helped open up lots of doors and opportunities for VSA, particularly in the townships. I think every volunteer who went to East London in the last 10 years got to know Thoko; she really was the right person at the right time.”
VSA began its Africa programme in Zimbabwe in 1986, after the New Zealand government opened a High Commission in Harare – New Zealand’s first diplomatic post on the continent. The programme quickly expanded to nearby Botswana and Tanzania, and in 1993 the first volunteers went on assignment to South Africa, based mainly in the Eastern Cape which is one of the poorest regions in the country. Volunteers have also worked in Namibia and Zambia.
“Our first South Africa volunteers went to do voter education before the 1994 election,” recalls VSA’s volunteer recruitment manager Carolyn Mark. “People were lining up around the block so they could vote for the first time – it was a really sobering lesson in how important democracy is.”
VSA’s work in Africa has focused largely on health, education, and agriculture. The xxx volunteers who have worked there have included fish farmers, cheese-makers, bee-keepers, palliative care specialists, midwives, teachers and even rugby experts.
“The Africa programme has been a great opportunity for New Zealanders to work in a part of the world that really captures the imagination,” says Carolyn. “We’ve sent some great volunteers there over the years, and created a real connection with East London in South Africa and with Arusha in Tanzania.”
That connection, and the tangible legacy it has created, is illustrated by the achievements of VSA’s last volunteers in Africa. Anne Perera is proud to have helped set up the set up the Tanzania Institute of Food and Science Technology (TIFST), a professional body for people involved in food processing and distribution. Alison Bowis, who with her husband John was the last volunteer in South Africa, wrote a literacy booklet for beginner readers that has now been distributed to almost 6000 primary schools in the Eastern Cape.
And while VSA has stopped working in Africa for now, Carolyn says the VSA Council is very aware of how great the needs there still are.
“We spent a lot of time building up goodwill in Tanzania and South Africa, and I know the Council is keen to find ways of maintaining our connection with Africa.”
This article was originally published in VISTA magazine, October 2012.
Read more about how VSA volunteers are working to strengthen education in the wider Pacific and Asia.