Out of Africa

In July 2011, Mark Wilson travelled to South Africa on a New Generations Exchange. He submitted an article about his experience to the Rotary Today magazine and it hit the front cover in the February 2012 issue.

“…There are parts of our world that, once visited, get into our hearts and minds, leaving a profound experience engraved upon us for years. For me, South Africa has to be one such place.

In the summer of 2011, I travelled over 7,000 miles to Durban on a Rotary New Generations Exchange. Unlike other youth and young professional exchange programmes, I had the flexibility to create the experience that I wanted within the time frame I had set out. My only prerequisite was that I wanted to see, and directly experience, Rotary in action. I wanted to see how Rotarians and extended members of the Rotary family were working together to change lives.

After over 15 hours of travelling, an airline chicken tikka masala for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I touched down in Durban, ready to let South Africa, and its people take and show me life first-hand. I wanted my preconceptions challenged, reaffirmed or disproved. I wanted to be captured by the intrinsic nature and rich culture of the rainbow nation.

If wordage permitted I could fill this magazine with my day-to-day journal entries during my three weeks in South Africa, and still I would only be touching the surface.

My exchange fitted into a window I had during the summer between finishing my Bachelors degree in Education and commencing my Masters degree in Civil Society, NGO, and Non-Profit Studies. I stayed with two of the most hospitable and kind Rotary host families, who treated me like one of their own. There was no formal or structured programme of events for my exchange, as was agreed with my hosts in advance. This, to some, may sound like a recipe for disaster but it was not. It gave me, and my hosts, the flexibility to tailor my experience to my interests. Nonetheless, those who are familiar with Africa will know structured itineraries are not always that effective, and why should they be when, as was in my case, there was so many unexpected opportunities that arose for me to jump at? In fact, looking back, it was the unexpected that had the biggest and greatest impact on my experience.

During my time on exchange, I visited and spent time with numerous Rotary funded and/or supported projects, like those supporting street children and victims of HIV/AIDS and other related diseases. With it being winter, I got involved in the annual blanket distributions to the poor, school feeding programmes, youth engagement and empowerment initiatives. Throughout, what was clear to me was that Rotary was taking on a whole new role here in developing countries and, in some regards, an NGO role in its own right. Their community projects are our international projects. It was a privilege to truly experience first-hand Rotary in action. I could not agree more with the sentiments that Rotarians working locally really do change and improve people’s lives in a way that many large, multi-national charities still fall short of being able to do. A bottom-up approach is the way forward in helping people develop, not top-down.

I had the unique opportunity to spend ten days on the Northern Safari Tour with South African-based Rotary exchange students who represented Brazil, Columbia, India, France, Germany, Australia and many more. Once again, a perfect and unique example of the global reaches of Rotary.

I must, again, thank all those involved in my exchange. Without your help and support, it would not have been possible to have such a great experience. There are too many names to mention but you know who you are – the true kindness of strangers. My exchange was sponsored by the Rotary Club of Canterbury Sunrise, District 1120, and hosted by the Rotary Club of Westville, District 9270.

Read more on Mark’s Blog at http://goo.gl/b0SEd

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