Never Work With Children and Animals They Say

14 August, 2023

By Marie Smith

I keep saying I am on a gap year. So what does a 52 year old do on a gap year? They go volunteering with a friend of course :)

Many companies run these volunteering programmes. Choosing where, what, how long, which organisation to go with is just the start. We had opted for just two weeks. Cost, work and holiday entitlements really prevented much more. And volunteering mainly falls into three categories. Working with animals or people (children mostly). Or building. How to decide? Then we found Daktari Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage, near Kruger, South Africa. Bingo! A chance of all three.

Anyone remember Daktari the 60s TV fiction series? Dr Tracy and his daughter protecting animals from poachers and officials in Africa? With Clarence the cross-eyed lion? The couple who run Daktari confess to adopting the name because they loved the series. There is no cross-eyed lion, but they do have Martin the Cheetah with no canine teeth, and Dongo the lame wild dog, both who can no longer hunt for themselves. There's Mr & Mrs Strauss the Ostrich. Molly the bush pig. Jackal, a genet, a beautiful caracal. Endless meerkats, intended for release. Mongoose, bush babies, dassies, birds of prey. All need feeding, cleaning, watering (AKA stabling) and enclosure maintenance - conveniently one half of the volunteering project. Temperatures reach the 20s by 8am. It's hot and grubby work. "Don't bring your best clothes" they said. Good advice. Though I welcomed my evening shower and the chance to feel fresh clean cotton shirts against my skin. Even if no hair dryers/straighteners meant permanently crazy curly hair!

Then each Monday morning eight children arrive for residential schooling. They are 12-14 years old but their educational levels are much lower. They come from classes of 60-80 pupils. Only those really driven to learn and right at the front of class stand much chance. I had the opportunity to accompany the outreach manager to a village school to do an Eco Club lesson. An experience which truly made me appreciate why giving these kids just five days away from distractions, and almost one to one, is so valuable. This is no holiday. The day begins at 7:10am. Action packed until bed at 8:30pm. Breakfast, lunch, tea, half hour in the pool after lunch and a game or educational film after dinner gives their brains a wee rest. In the week we will teach them about the environment and renewables, animal knowledge and the importance of protecting their wildlife, preparing for a career and how they can help make their country a better place. Each evening they take part in social discussions on topics such as safe sex and substance abuse. They are also required to do stabling with the volunteers twice a day. Being in close proximity to and occasionally handling the wildlife. It is a full programme even for us adults. So they have to work hard to gain something from their week.

Meanwhile, volunteers come and go each week. An ever changing team takes time to adjust. Volunteers from USA, Belgium, France, Japan, UK. A mother and daughter from Sweden. Aged 22 to 52. Each with their own drivers for being there. Gap years, internships, some hoping for a hook into a new career. Some simply adventure. If you love meeting new people and the ingredients personalities bring then this kind of experience does that. I met some truly wonderful volunteers and I miss them.

But the real reward comes from seeing the children develop. The little hand that slips into yours on the daily walk, wanting a chat. Or the day four girls came back after class to say "thank you ma'am we really enjoyed today". I have no teaching experience. Pretty special don't you think? Or the day they all asked "are you coming in the pool with us today, please"? I hadn't been in all week due to a finger injury. To hell with the finger, I have seven more. Then Mademabe who cannot swim trusts me to help her float.

And so they find their voice. The project calls them 'children'. But we forget these are teenagers, soon to be young adults. On Monday you spot the bold one, the cheeky one, the painfully shy one. As the week progresses you see them grow. On Friday, before they leave, they have to read out the promises they have made in front of the whole group. Promises which show they have taken in more knowledge than you imagined possible. Promises that show they want to make a change. In that moment you realise just how far they have come. There is nothing quite so moving as watching that painfully shy young person take a deep breath and speak in front of this small crowd. It's incredibly powerful. That is why I will always hold this experience very close to my heart.

If you get a chance to do something even remotely similar, do it. It was well out of my comfort zone but I have taken incredible memories and I wouldn't swap those for anything.

Like Thor the cheeky Marmoset stealing a look down my T-shirt. Yes! Really!

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