International Writers Magazine:Make a difference
Fire with Fire in South Africa
getting your hands dirty? Fancy feeding a giraffe, handing out
meat parcels to vultures, and then heading off to put out a raging
bushfire on the African plains?
The Global Volunteer Networks South Africa program made
it all happen for Chris Fong, a 23 year old engineer from Atlanta,
Georgia, when in June 2006, he volunteered on a game conservation
reserve for four weeks.
motivations were to get out and explore the world a little bit, and
meet some people from different parts of the world that had different
experiences and viewpoints on things. I had a co-worker of mine who
was down there for a little bit, and he recommended that I check it
His gamble paid off, and Chris was given an experience he wont
He worked on an award-winning game conservation reserve located in the
Gauteng Province, which is home to a dozen or more species of native
African wildlife and over 150 species of birds. Because it is a conservancy,
rather than a reservation, it receives little financial support from
the government, so the help of volunteers is crucial to its success.
Volunteers are required to work hard, and are kept busy five days a
week. They have a wide range of jobs, including feeding the parks animals
such as the giraffe, zebra, and many other animals. Volunteers also
participate in game management, including in-depth game assessment and
anti-poaching practices, bird field studies, and collecting, transporting
and distributing meat donations to the vultures, as well as any general
handiwork around the park, such as fence repair and road maintenance.
Another job on the reserve, and perhaps the most important one, involves
a combination of controlled fire-breaking, and fighting real fires.
Brushfire is a crucial part of South Africas eco-system, as it
helps to rejuvenate the earth by burning dead matter, to prepare for
new growth. But, as the countrys population increases, and the
wildlife becomes less migrant, controlled burning called fire breaking
is now done, in order to make sure the burning process still occurs,
without risk to life.
The South African bush fires can spread very quickly, destroying homes
and taking lives of both animals and humans. Common causes include lightning,
human carelessness and arson, and in fierce wind, fires in South Africa
can move very fast. Lack of resources to fight the fires is a major
problem, as there are no major voluntary firefighting organizations
in South Africa, so fire control done by volunteers is a very important
We actually had a real brushfire when I was there, said
Chris, and I was amazed at how fast the situation developed. We
were just sitting around, hanging out, waiting to go to work, and we
got news that there was an actual brushfire, and so we all just jumped
in the cars, and drove over there, and within five minutes, the fire
burned pretty much as far as you could see.
Volunteers and locals attempt to put out the fires with a combination
of water-filled backpacks, hoses and specially designed fire-beaters.
We got it under control eventually, but it was really an eye-opening
experience to see how fast, and how little time you have to react, and
it gives you an appreciation for why the work we are doing there is
so important. These fires get so out of control in such a big area
never seen anything like that, so it was pretty incredible.
Another of Chriss main jobs was to drive around and drop off the
volunteers and other staff around the park.
On the reserve, really theres no paved roads, just a bunch
of dirt trails, so one of the main things I got to do was drive the
old Land Rover around. I had a lot of fun with that. I dont have
any kind of real off-road driving experience, I guess, but that was
a really fun thing to do, even though the Land Rover did break down
quite a bit.
Volunteering provided Chris with the opportunity to step outside his
comfort zone and experience a new way of life, all the while making
a valuable contribution to South Africas environment. But his
trip was not without its challenges.
The biggest challenge was being so far out of my normal element,
says Chris. When you work with people in the U.S, they have similar
Im an engineer, and I feel very comfortable in
my job every day, so traveling half-way round the world to work with
people Ive never met before, and to do things Ive never
done before, that was the best part of the whole experience. But it
was also the biggest challenge, because it was so different, so new,
that I had to think on my feet while I was there.
Volunteers have weekends to explore South Africa, which can range from
exploring neighboring Kruger National Park to try and spot the big
5 (Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Elephant, Rhino), to doing a wine tour,
hiking in the mountains, or visiting a local beach.
Chris volunteered during South Africas winter, which means sunny,
crisp days averaging at about 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but very cold nights,
dropping to freezing point. Winter provides a much more comfortable
climate for those sensitive to the heat, as compared to an African summer.
I got a kick out of that, laughs Chris, because when
I got back, everyone said wow, I thought youd be a lot more
South Africa is a unique country, as it is home to some of the worlds
most fascinating wildlife, but it also home to huge amounts of unemployment,
poverty and crime, and some of the worst statistics in the world. Even
though Apartheid, a system of racial segregation which discriminated
against non-whites, was overthrown in 1994, South Africa is still suffering
from the effects. According to Global Insight, 20.5 million black South
Africans (56% of total black population) were living in poverty in 2003,
compared with 190,000 white South Africans (4% of total white population).
Also, according to the UN, unemployment has reached 40%. This figure
is expected to rise, as the population increases, and yet the Gross
National Profit (GNP) stays the same.
Chris and the other volunteers visited Soweto, a town next to South
Africas capital, Johannesburg, and were quick to discover that
the country is not one big wildlife safari. Chris was about to undertake
what he could only describe as an emotional rollercoaster.
One minute we were having beers and joking around with the locals
at the popular bar, The Rock. The next minute, we were walking through
a squatters camp, where people live in shacks made of corrugated
steel, scrap wood, and chicken wire, said Chris.
Soweto is an urban area, mainly consisting of black South Africans,
and is one of the poorest areas in Johannesburg. Problems in Soweto
include high unemployment, overcrowding, and poor infrastructure, and
only 20% of the houses can afford to have electricity.
Chris and the other volunteers had brought some supplies for some of
the Soweto people, which they handed out door to door. A small gesture,
but one which would no doubt have been greatly appreciated by the community,
and given the volunteers an insight into life in an African slum.
I was equally struck by the attitude of the people as I was by
their living conditions, Chris said. Nearly everyone we
encountered had a smile on their face and seemed very upbeat about life.
They were all very glad to see us and the kids were especially excited
about the lolly-pops, pens, pencils, and notebooks that we bought for
them. Many hugged us and wanted to pose with us for pictures.
It is all to easy to simply stick to the tourist path in countries like
South Africa, but Chris was able to visit the slums of Soweto, a city
of three million, and really see what life is like for the poorest of
Volunteering overseas is emerging as an exciting and rewarding way to
travel, as volunteers are able to integrate with the communities they
visit, and give back to the landscape and the community. Also, as any
overseas volunteer will tell you, you are guaranteed a life changing
experience, that would never be experienced simply by sticking to the
A highlight for Chris was getting to know the other volunteers, and
really getting to make a difference, not to mention the South African
people. We interfaced with a lot of people from South Africa,
and they were all really friendly, and they seemed like they were really
happy to have us there. We actually felt like we made a contribution.
Chris is keen to advise others to volunteer, and stresses the need to
make sure it happens.
What I did was, I made the decision I wanted to go, and just bought
a plane ticket and did it. The advice Id give is that there are
so many reasons to not do it, that if you let yourself just dwell on
all the negatives, youll never go. I think a lot of
people get too caught up in why they cant do it, said Chris,
and Id say think about why you can, and why you should,
and then just make it happen.
If you are interested in volunteering, visit
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