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Women's Empowerment Project in Cape Town
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Women's Empowerment Project in Cape Town

Overall Rating

2/ 10

  • Volunteer Placement

    2

  • Program Administration

    2

  • Living Situation

    1

  • Community Engagement

    3

  • Health & Safety

    10

  • Day to Day Life

    3

My Experience as a 55 year old volunteer for GVI

I spent two weeks in early January this year (2018) volunteering with GVI (Global Vision International) in their Women's Empowerment program based in Gordon's Bay, South Africa. I'm a 55 year old retired teacher from California, keen to work in disadvantaged communities in the developing world. Before signing up with GVI last fall I’d had several telephone conversations with recruitment staff emphasizing my age, my expertise, and my desires. They assured me that there would be two other "older" volunteers during my stint and that I would have only one roommate as close to my age as possible.

My experience with GVI was filled with disappointment, starting right from the first day when I stepped into my accommodation. The townhouse in the gated complex called Journey's End, though upmarket and modern, was unbelievably shabby and had obviously not been cleaned in a long time! Sleeping arrangements was dormitory style bunk beds. My request for what I had been promised – a room shared with only one roommate close to my age – was greeted by an indifferent shrug by the 24 year old manager in training left in charge while the base manager was on vacation. Meals were basic and not always available. An elderly woman, overweight and in very poor physical shape, came in daily (after a month long vacation) to clean and cook the evening meal. Signs of actual cleaning were noticeably absent. I concluded that the bulk of the $1,100 per week cost to participate in the program was spent on salaries for those in high positions.

GVI has a clever set up. Programs in impoverished communities around the world give volunteers the opportunity to interact closely with the locals. A carefully designed routine gives the illusion of doing something useful. In reality, the programs are contrived, and the impact is minimal.

My first week, the first week in January, schools in South Africa were not yet in session, and most people were trickling back to their regular lives after the festive holidays. In the Women's Empowerment program just two to three women showed up at the community center in the nearby township of Nomzamo. So only two of the five GVI workers - 2 volunteers and 3 staff - actually worked that week. Staff members - all aged between 18 and 25 - have committed to a longer term and don't pay to participate. They are given some leadership roles and are provided with free lodging, meals, and transportation.

"Empowering" women in Nomzamo meant teaching basic computer skills. I spent each morning providing one on one tutoring on the fundamentals of Microsoft Office. After maybe 5 sessions, if a woman demonstrated the ability to use Word, Powerpoint, and Excel in a simple test, she received a certificate. And that was it. GVI made no attempt to actually help these women find jobs. There was no follow through. These women, who had been to high school, and spoke reasonable English, received no other preparation for office type jobs. Nor was there any research done to determine employment needs.

GVI volunteers are predominantly between 18 and 25 years old. They don't have the maturity to see the flaws of this organization. These youngsters from North America and Europe are thrilled to be in some exotic locale with ready made friends and opportunities for a full social life. That they believe they are engaged in humanitarian work too makes the whole experience a fulfilling one for them. And that's why organizations like GVI thrive.

After lunch in my first week, a minibus transported me to a library in the suburb of Strand. All GVI volunteers and staff converged here in the afternoon to participate in a summer program. I quickly realized that this was actually a baby sitting program for about 25 kids ranging in age from 2 to 15. Judging by their shabby clothes, uncombed hair, snotty noses, and rough mannerisms, I could tell these kids lived in squalor. Their racial designation in the days of apartheid used to be "Cape Colored" due to their mixed Dutch and indigenous ancestry. Drugs, alcoholism, unemployment and split families have historically plagued this community.

The ratio of "adult" to kid in the Strand library was 1 to 3. A golden opportunity to run a decent, structured academic program to benefit these unfortunate kids. However, it was utter chaos that I witnessed every afternoon during that first week. There was no adult in charge since apart from a 53 year old voliungeer from London and myself, all the other GVI members were under 25 years old. A 19 year old young woman, a local of Cape Colored heritage, had been awarded a scholarship by GVI to helm this summer library program. She clearly had no training and no idea of how to execute this task, which even for me, a retired teacher, would have been challenging. The other GVI staff seemed pretty clueless as well. And so the afternoons were spent attempting craft activities in an atmosphere devoid of discipline and structure, interspersed with outdoor games and songs. Glorified babysitting. GVI provided a safe place and lunch for a group of disadvantaged kids and that's all they cared about. The missed opportunity was what bugged me. GVI could have actually made a long term impact on these kids during the 6 summer weeks. What a shame!

In my second week with GVI, schools were in session for the new year, and my routine changed. Now a line of women waited for us at the Nomzamo Community Center for the Women's Empowerment program. Each enthusiastically  and patiently waiting to have an individualized computer  session. Each carrying the dream of a respectable job. All six of us GVI volunteers and staff worked intensively through the mornings. Yes, we could feel good about providing one on one tutoring to women desperate to escape poverty. But, seriously, how was a week of Microsoft Office exposure going to help them?

At midday we left the community center and went to a preschool (called a crêche) in Nomzamo. Each day we went to a different crêche ostensibly to teach health and hygiene. Amazingly, the crêches, right there in the heart of this shabby township, were bright, spacious, immaculate, with cheerful wall designs and an attractive outdoor spaces. Two to three elegantly attired teachers ran each class of about thirty kids ranging in age from three and five. The kids were well groomed and well disciplined. Why were GVI workers here? During our 45 minutes at each crêche we took the kids outside for light exercises and movement, and then back inside we discussed healthy living like how to brush your teeth. This, to me, was an obviously artificially created "job", since the teachers must surely incorporate such activities with more skill.

After lunch the Women's Empowerment team was transported to ACJ Phakade Primary School in Nomzamo township. GVI  runs several programs at this school. The sports and surfing program has had rave reviews over the years. Skilled staff are recruited to run these programs, so I believe they are quite successful. One on one tutoring in math and ready is also offered to needy students. During my days at ACJ I was involved in the Girls' Empowerment program, which took place after school. Sixth grade girls gathered in the library for workshops on friendships and their changing bodies. As it was the first week of school, the program was just in first gear so I didn't get to have the full experience. Though this program showed promise, the young, inexperienced staff tasked with planning and executing filled me with pessimism. Can GVI not recruit an adult to take charge?

My biggest disappointment was residing in the company of ill-mannered, disrespectful youngsters, who didn't clean up after themselves. The majority of the staff and volunteers, not yet fully fledged adults, didn't have the required maturity and commitment to perform the jobs assigned to them. They had been sent by their well-meaning parents to make the world a better place, and they believed they were doing exactly that. But, really, they were more interested in going out drinking and having a wild time. That's what they spent all their time talking about. They showed no intellectual curiosity about the local culture and the country's rich, turbulent history. However, it has to be said that this exposure to impoverished communities can only be beneficial to these individuals in their future lives.

Indeed, the program did give me a unique experience. I penetrated a Xhosa township daily, a world not otherwise accessible to me. I loved being in the company of women who were utterly polite and respectful and grateful. And, best of all, Gordon’s Bay itself is charming harbor town.

  • GVI responded to this review March 16, 2018 at 2:59 AM

    Thank you for your in-depth feedback, we are sorry that you were not fully satisfied with your experience. We are a feedback led organization, and participant input is critical to our development. If you would like to discuss your experience with us further, please email us at feedback@gviworld.com. All the best, The GVI Team.

Overall Rating

10/ 10

  • Volunteer Placement

    10

  • Program Administration

    8

  • Living Situation

    9

  • Community Engagement

    10

  • Health & Safety

    8

  • Day to Day Life

    10

Women' empowerment Cape town

I have gained an immense amount from going on this program. The strength shown by the women of the township is so inspiring and I hope that I have been able to help them in some way by volunteering there.

Overall Rating

10/ 10

  • Volunteer Placement

    10

  • Program Administration

    10

  • Living Situation

    10

  • Community Engagement

    10

  • Health & Safety

    10

  • Day to Day Life

    10

I learnt a lot from the classes

When they women at the community centre came back with feedback that they had used the interview skills that we taught them and they got the job and that was amazing. Some texted that the group had made them regain their confidence and I also felt that I learnt a lot from the classes.

Overall Rating

10/ 10

  • Day to Day Life

    10

  • Health & Safety

    10

  • Community Engagement

    10

  • Living Situation

    10

  • Program Administration

    10

  • Volunteer Placement

    10

I am incredibly fortunate to have had this experience with GVI

I have been very lucky that during my time with GVI I have been able to work with a lot of incredible women. I believe empowering women sometimes is just hearing their story and sharing your experiences with them so they know that there are lots of women from all different backgrounds that come together to make a difference. From some of the special teachers I have made relationships through working in schools with GVI to girls that I have gotten to know in the communities I have worked in, I have had an opportunity to meet some amazing women. While I worked with GVI Cape Town I created a women’s empowerment group through teaching young girls creative photography.

It has always been a dream of mine to teach Fine Art photography. Not at a traditional western standard but to give someone an opportunity to learn something that they may have not been given the opportunity at any other point in their lives. When I arrived at GVI Cape Town the dream became a reality. Within my first couple weeks I was having meetings with out base manager and she made it happen for me.

When I first approached the Grade Seven teachers at ACJ Primary School in the township Nomzamo they were very supportive of the program. One teacher said it would be great for the girls to learn that there are other careers outside of hair dressing in the world. When I first met the girls they were very unsure about what we were going to do but were very eager to learn. On our first day I taught them about the history of photography and why photography is important as a means of art and communication. They understood the importance of when to take a photograph and more importantly how to made a decision about what they are photographing.

Our first time photographing as a group, we went to a local beach. One of the girls admitted to me that she had never seen the ocean in her life. When we got to the beach I discussed with them all the different types of photography, in particular taking portraits. I explained if they take a portrait of a stranger they must ask permission. There was a part of me that was worried about these girls photographing Afrikaans strangers, but to my surprise the strangers were very accepting and supportive. After photographing I asked the girls what it was like to interact with people they have never interacted with and they said they didn’t expect them to be so nice. Having these girls go outside of their comfort zone to be creative was really an incredible thing. To me, that is women’s empowerment.

In the end, the girls took some stunning photographs that I believe tell an incredible story. The photographs from the beach, as well as photographs they took at their school came together to tell a story without them even realizing what they did. The staff at the school was very supportive to the girls telling them to save their money to buy their own cameras as well as praising them for creating such beautiful art. I was very impressed that the teachers and staff saw the photographs that way.

It was interesting working with the women as well as these bright girls. I learned there is a lot in my life that I am fortunate to have and most of all it the fact that I have the ability to do anything that I put my mind to. Though the reality is I may never meet any of these women again, they all impacted me in a special way and I am incredibly fortunate to have had this experience with GVI.

Institution Affiliates:

World Youth Student & Educational Travel Confederation