Volunteer Eco Students Abroad is an organization that brings together young people to create real and lasting change in indigenous village communities. VESA works on building sustainable infrastructure in the areas of education, sanitation and water supply. In addition to contributing to projects that will benefit the people of the area, VESA also includes adventure activities as part of the experience.
VESA currently has volunteer and adventure programs set up in Africa, Fiji and the Amazon.
I traveled to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa with 35 other Canadians to take part in the very first VESA Africa group. The first thing we did was demolish an old set of crocodile enclosures so new ones could be constructed at the Crocodile Centre. This centre helps relocate crocodiles, breed them and help the ones that get hurt. These enclosures are used to protect the small crocodiles so that they will have a higher chance of survival in the wild. Later, we went to the cheetah rehabilitation centre where we built pens for the African cats.
Our construction projects were to build sustainable gardens and flushing toilets at the orphanage in the village. The ground there was so depleted of nutrients it was little more than sand. By building a shelter for the garden and developing more nutritious soil (layering grass, water, fertilizer and earth), children at the orphanage and within the community will have access to nutritious fresh food. Flushing toilets were developed as a more sanitary alternative to the sheltered holes in the ground that the children used before.
For our education component of the volunteering, our role was to help the children at the orphanage learn simple English words; to play, sing and draw with them; and to teach sanitary practices such as washing their hands and brushing their teeth. We also went to one of the primary schools to teach English and math, and to play with the kids.
On the adventure week, our group went to the Cape Vidal beach to swim in the Indian Ocean. We also went on open- and closed-air safaris, visited the University of Swaziland (currently closed for financial reasons) and had the opportunity to go white water rafting, horse back riding, and much more.
The most thrilling activities from the trip included petting cheetahs and holding baby crocodiles. The most rewarding would have to be the happiness we brought to the children just by being there to hug, hold or play with them.
Although some worried about the crime rates in South Africa prior to the journey, VESA took very good care of their volunteers and safety was not an issue during any part of our time there. In fact, we learned our greatest concern could very well have been the hippos, which are responsible for more fatalities in Africa than any other large animal.
On the last day in Africa, I was much sadder than I ever expected to be leaving 35 people who started out as strangers only two weeks before and who turned out to be some of the most incredible people I have had the pleasure of meeting.
People always ask me if I would do it again if I had the chance and my answer will always be “In a heartbeat.” A lot of people are initially afraid to make decisions to travel like this. However, without risks, you could be missing out on an adventure of a lifetime.
Until next time, South Africa.