I have been confronted with the recurring question of “Who volunteers?” Most of the time the question is discussed because of the understanding that when we have an idea of what kind of person volunteers, we would be able to best direct our recruitment efforts. This all makes sense, but I sometimes wonder if, by trying to create a category, we limit ourselves from approaching certain people.
One of the biggest phenomena about the notion of volunteerism is not so much who volunteers but why people volunteer. We live in a selfie-era where people are almost obsessed with self-promotion and self-gratification, and where everybody want more and bigger things for themselves. Selfless behaviour is rare to find.
When I met Aunty Anna I was rudely confronted with my own selfishness and lack of gratitude. It wasn’t anything she said; maybe it was her smile and the humble sincerity she received me with.
Aunty Anna is about 60 years old and one of the Usiko Stellenbosch project’s most committed volunteers. For many years she worked as a cleaner at their office in Jamestown and later also became the cook at the Usiko Wilderness Camps. It was during one of these camps when her life changed for the better.
Usiko is a local NGO which aspires to mitigate youth risk behaviour through providing rites-of-passage, mentoring and wilderness camps, amongst other psycho-social programmes.
“Hulle kantore, ek het daar eers net skoongemaak. Toe het ek daar gesien wat hulle doen met die kinders. Ek het so bietjie ingevra, toe gesê ek wil nogals aansluit, want my lewe gaan ook oor die jong mense, ou mense, mense wat nie vir hulle self kan baklei nie, of iets kan doen nie. Hulle het toe gesê ja, maar toe dink ek nee, die mense het elke dag papiere, hulle lees, ek sal nie daar kan dink nie, ek kan nie van die papiere af lees nie. Maar toe het ek begin help met die kampe in die kombuis.”
“I have always been interested in the programmes offered by Usiko and I have a passion for working with vulnerable groups and especially the youth. However, I observed the volunteers and noted that the programmes they use are mostly on paper, and I cannot read or write.”
Regardless of her not being able to read and write, the desire to participate grew stronger. Aunty Anna gathered all her courage and finally asked the organisers if she could participate in the programmes, albeit, there had always been an open invitation for her to join the programme discussions.
“Die jong mense, hulle kan lees, maar hulle het baie min riglyne van ‘n groot person.”
“I later realised that although the young people could read and write, they needed guidance from an older person.”
As she came to know the teenagers at the programme, she was confronted with her own struggles.
“Ek het so baie pyn, ek het so baie seer. Ek steek dit weg. Ek sê vir die Here, ek kan dit nie meer hou nie. Ek is hier in Usiko, en as ek met die kinders is, dan is daar net sulke klompe stukkende kinders. Maar ek sit met my stukkende’gyt, hoe kan ek nou die kinders help? Die kinders gaan net nou dink, ‘Nee, die Aunty sit met dieselfde seere wat ek sit, maar sy wil vir my help.’ Ek sê daai dag vir die Here [op ŉ wilderness solo], Hy moet my help uit die donker gat uit.”
“I was bitter, and deeply hurt. I wanted to be of help to the children at Usiko, but how could I help them if I was not willing to deal with the pain I was carrying in my heart. That day [on the Wilderness Solo], I asked the Lord to help me deal with my own inner struggles.”
When I met Aunty Anna, it was the 19th anniversary of the death of her son. He had been murdered, left outside in a field, covered with cardboard.
Aunty Anna, grew up in Robertson and later with her two daughters and husband moved to Paarl, where her two sons were born. She and her husband were farmworkers and due to better wage options moved to Stellenbosch. The murder of their sixteen year old son, however, left them devastated.
“Die aand by die wilderness kamp, toe ons om die vuur sit, toe gebeur daar iets met my, ek dank die Here dat hy daai pyn en bitterheid kom wegvat het. Ek kon nie gepraat het soos ek nou praat nie, droeg… droë oë, joh! Maar dit het alles daar gebeur op daai kamp. Die jaar by Usiko het ek regtig begin oopmaak.”
“I was never able to talk about his death with dry eyes like I am today. Something happened during that wilderness camp with Usiko. This year I started to open up and found healing.”
Aunty Anna, shared many stories of all the hurtful things she went through, and while she was able to hold back her tears, mine were rolling down my cheek. Simultaneously I was filled with admiration, as I listened to the stories of a woman who now is a heroine and trusted friend for many kids as a result of surviving so many hurts and traumas in her life.
Among all her stories, it was the power of the simple gesture of a hug she gave to one of the girls at Usiko that stuck with me.
Girl: Dis die drukkie wat ek van my ma wil hê.
“This is what I would like from my mother.”
Aunty Anna: “Maar nou, as jy nou huis toe gaan, dan gee jy dit vir haar.”
“When you go home, give your mother a hug.”
Girl: “My ma wil nie.”
“I have tried, she normally pulls away.”
Aunty Ann: “Hoekom, jou ma het nie daai drukkies by haar ma gekry nie, miskien nie en nou is dit dat sy voel, sy soek nie mense na aan haar nie. Iets het met jou ma gebeur wat net sy weet. Dit moet nie maak dat jy nie vir haar drukkies gee nie, maar as sy weier moenie jou forseer nie. As jy haar n drukkie gee, sê ook vir haar wanneer sy wegtrek en afsydig is, maar dis wat jy wil hê. Daar gaan ŉ tyd kom wat sy dit vir jou gaan wil gee.”
“Maybe she never received a hug from her own mother, maybe something happened. Don’t let it stop you from hugging her. Tell her that you want her to hug you but give her the space to respond. Be patient.”
More than the advice she gave, it was her ability to say, “Me too” that had the most impact. Aunty Anna continued and shared with the girl about how she herself did not grow up with her mother and how she also at times longed for a mother’s hug.
Listening to Aunty Anna’s stories was encouraging to say the least. It dawned on me afresh, no matter what your story is, your story matters. It is many times those parts of our lives that we wish were different that cause us to be an inspiration to others. It is not the triumph that makes you great but how you stood strong during those testing times.
Pondering on the question, “Who volunteers?” I suppose it is people like Aunty Anna, who know they have something to give, whatever that something is, and who hope that with the little they have they can still make a difference. Contrary to popular belief that it is only those who are wealthy and who have their ducks in a row, Aunty Anna’s story challenges the perspective of volunteers being the privilege going to help the underprivileged.
Volunteering offers so many benefits for the volunteer, but I genuinely don’t think Aunty Anna ever thought about any benefits or even had the knowledge of these benefits. “What can I get out of it?” never occurred to her.
The good book says, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.” – Luke 6:38
In reaching out to others, Aunty Anna found purpose in her pain. Mostly, she discovered that a hug as a way of communicating might be more effective than being able to read and write. Although she does not have much in the way of material things, she discovered her wealth in her story and the love she has for others.
By volunteering, Aunty Anna, found a second family, people she could trust and a space where she could deal with her own struggles. The Usiko Wilderness Camp not only addressed the issues of the participants but also provided the opportunity for the volunteers to experience the healing process engineered through their solo programmes.
Through volunteering, Aunty Anna also discovered herself and a renewed self-worth.
“Ek is al so lank al in Usiko, maar nog nooit my wilderness naam gehad nie. Die week na daai kamp, toe het ek onder die boom gesit, toe kom dit, toe kry ek my wilderness naam, hier in Jamestown, hier by die boom waar ek sit- Die Mossie. Dit het my gemaak wie ek nou is, ek voel lus vir die lewe. Ek voel ek kan aangaan, ek voel ek kan ander ook help.”
“I have been part of Usiko for so long but I never had a wilderness name. After that transforming moment, when my heart was ripped from bitterness and filled with compassion, I sat under a tree in Jamestown. It come to me, my wilderness name, Die Mossie. It has made me who I am now; I have inspiration to go on- I can also help others.”
Her wilderness name, Die Mossie, translated as ‘the sparrow’, is a reminder of who she is, nondescript but humbly special in His gaze, in the midst of all her struggles she matters, and it is a reminder of the famous gospel song:
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. X2
The day she officially claimed her wilderness name as a Usiko mentor, and was made an elder in the Usiko community was one of the most memorable days of her life. The impact of the Usiko programme spreads far beyond the groups the organisation serves. It impacts an entire community. Aunty Anna’s life changed, she assists in changing the lives of others and together communities such as Jamestown and Cloetesville are being transformed.
– By Bianca Joseph