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Olivia Kegg: Care Work Project in South Africa

"It's amazing how many people will express outright jealousy when you tell them that you are taking a two month sabbatical (career break) to work in a children's orphanage in South Africa, and yet not consider it something that they could do themselves! 

Even the HR woman – whilst signing all the documentation to stop the regular flow of my monthly pension payments – babbled profusely about how she herself had been wanting to do it for years but had never had the nerve. This seems to be the common theme; tied up with mortgages, relationships, gym memberships, and mostly fear of the unknown, people seem un-keen to pursue what they deem to be a teenage ‘flight of fancy’ not yet expired in their nine-to-five lives. 

It makes you wonder then, just who are the people making up the growing phenomena of these ‘adult gappers’? Well I guess they must be people like me; straight out of university with enough of a financial hangover to make a grown bank managers palms sweaty, fallen into employment with no clear idea of where I was going, or even wanting to go, and a lack of ambition so distinct that I would have turned up to work in my pyjamas if I could. It was only when I reached a quiet period at work and hit unrecognisable levels of boredom and frustration that I eventually split at the seams. 

It took weeks to summon the courage to tell my boss – possibly unheeded worry when she simply shrugged her shoulders and agreed that she couldn’t really see any reason why not. The nightmare only became real when I was faced with armfuls of paperwork with unwittingly signed signatures of myself, declaring that I would like my pension halted, that I was no longer eligible for health insurance or any other work related benefit – even that I would have to pay to have my gym membership stopped – nobody tells you to expect that! Worse of all, signing a form to agree that if the company chose to then they were no longer dutiful to offer me a job on my return – and detailing all the means in which they would tell me that my job had been made redundant. 

Realising that I couldn’t lose face now, I contacted Changing Worlds as a friend of mine, James Burton, runs this. Sure enough, they found me a placement at a children’s home, just on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. They already had a group doing sports and schools work out there, and within two days I was on the plane with a sick feeling in my stomach built on a paranoia of the imminent danger of Johannesburg airport (completely unfounded as it turned out). The children’s home lay in between a waste dump and an old airfield in Port Elizabeth, and resembled something more akin to an old rifle shooting hut than a children’s orphanage. The home had been started by Christian missionaries, which is often the case in South Africa’s religious landscape. 

Religion here seems to dictate life, and I was shocked by the politics it created, the harsh atmosphere. Boys and Girls were not allowed to mix together, the staff were there out of a duty bound guilt and fear of eternal damnation and love for the children seemed to come from the ‘old school’ of being seen and not heard. I had obviously been spoilt in my gentler Western upbringing.

Still, the children were as all children are – loving, giving, beautiful and complete rascals. These were children between the ages of 3 and 16 who had been born into families already stretched to their financial capacity, to parents who were drug users, or HIV patients too ill to look after them, and they were certainly not without their fair share of problems. Having been poked and prodded by social services and various interfering bodies, they wanted nothing to do with me at first. I had assumed that being starved of attention would mean that they would crave it but they cleverly adopted an approach of complete emotional self sufficiency. 

It took awhile to build their interest, and their trust, but we quickly progressed to a stage when they started talking about their childhoods. Many were desperately homesick after being forcibly removed from their parents, and many still had to come to terms that they were simply ‘unwanted’. 

Their days were a harsh routine of morning cleaning and prayers, followed by school. On return from school, a basic lunch of quorn meal and sugary cup of coffee would keep the children wired for homework and more cleaning in the afternoon. The home couldn’t afford any activities so instead the children were allowed to play in the barren half acre of ‘garden’ outside the home. With boys and girls separated by a wire fence and with toys, play very commonly became a routine of lying in bed on an afternoon. In an attempt to give the children some freedom, we decided to create a dance show and charge a paying audience (mainly the other volunteers) to raise funds to allow for a day out. 

The children revelled in having a regular routine, and surprised me with their love of music and the change in atmosphere it created. My dancing never failed to amuse them and after much blood, sweat and tears (and help from a visiting dance teacher) we almost managed to produce something half presentable. A day on the beach (even in freezing cold rain and wind) was a great outlet for the children and will give me treasured memories for a long time to come. 

I had no experience in dealing with some of the issues that arose – children with HIV, kids with violent behaviour, children with severe depression, and I had no answer for them myself. You can simply but detract yourself and focus on giving what you can. I never anticipated it would be so hard to leave these children, and I was naïve in my thoughts that there would be no guilt at walking out. In the end I had to question whether it was better to love and leave or not to love in the first place, and it’s still a question I can’t answer. There will be millions of people like me, trying to fill a gap that may or may not need closing, and I can only hope that the children will benefit from everything that can be offered to them, and use these experiences to open their eyes to the wider world. 

For me, it made me realise that you can’t solve the problems of the world in a day, and an 8 week gap break won’t do it either, but you’re certainly off to a very good start."

If you like the sound of Olivia Keggs's care work project in South Africa then click here.

Return to Care Work in South Africa testimonials page.






  • ''I used this opportunity to gain work experience, and getting a new perspective of a health care service in a Third World country made me realise how much we take for granted in the UK.''
    Magalee Nahas , Medical & Health, Ghana
  • ''It was great fun working alongside the locals and we shared lots of laughs and stories. It also felt great to know we were leaving something behind that the community really needed.''
    Andy Hoyle , Building & Construction, Ghana
  • ''Ghana is a fantastic country and the people are so welcoming and warm, especially the Ghanaian staff. What makes the placement is being part of a team who all have the same viewpoint to help others.''
    Lisa Paige , Building & Construction, Ghana
  • “Great people, great experience and there is some great sport to be played in Ghana. Something I'll never forget.”
    Matt Pheasant , Sports, Ghana
  • “I have had a fantastic time out in Ghana and what they are trying to acheive out there is truly incredible. I hope to able to do something like this again.”
    Dale Bradley , Sports, Ghana
  • “It was fascinating to associate and live with a number of different cultures. The experience of helping other who lived an extensively sheltered and innocent life was invaluable.”
    David Holmes , Sports, India
  • "The most amazing experience i've ever had. From the coaching to the social side, the staff and people were amazing both within the organisation and also within the schools."
    Charlotte Williams , Sports, South Africa
  • "A demanding, thrilling, incredible insight into this beautiful and stunning country and to top it off: an entirely rewarding project that makes you appreciate everything."
    Ross Green , Sports, South Africa
  • "This was the best way to spend my gap year! Sun, sea, sand and sport all whilst coaching amazing kids. This was one of the best experiences I have ever had and I would jump at the chance to do it again."
    Rosie Wells , Sports, St Lucia
  • "My overall experience was fantastic, I enjoyed all aspects of this trip and there is never a dull moment in St Lucia! "
    Sam Evans , Sports, St Lucia
  • "This experience was unforgettable, I have met people that I will stay friends with for many years to come and completely fell in love with Argentina!"
    Jamie Henderson , Languages, Argentina
  • "I was so surprised how quickly I picked up the language! The school was great and really supportive throughout the learning process and it was amazing to practice what I had learnt in real life situations."
    Melissa Cutler , Languages, Argentina
  • Not only did I have tons of fun I've also gained a qualification that means I can continue my travels around the world whilst getting paid to teach English!
    Helen Turner , Teaching, Argentina
  • This was probably the most worthwhile experience I have ever had. The organisation and staff at the school were amazing and really supported me throughout the whole process. I wish I could go back!
    Tom Mitchell , Teaching, Argentina
  • ''It was an ideal opportunity for me to combine travelling with my passion for sport.''
    James Hairsine , Sports, Ghana
  • “This was a fantastic opportunity to gain some experience in sports psychology, which has really helped with the psychology element of my sports studies degree.”
    Anthony Gibson , Sports, Ghana
  • "What a great way to get hands on experience in the field of finance and economics! I feel like I have acquired many skills that will stay with me for years to come!"
    Jenny Allen , Business & Law, Kenya
  • "This was such a sustainable way to support the community in Kenya, and I would love to return to continue helping out."
    Paul Taylor , Business & Law, Kenya
  • "I had such an amazing gap year! this project was challenging but completely worth it."
    Francesca Le Poideven , Business & Law, Kenya
  • "Lake Nakuru National Park is just incredible. The game rangers were so friendly and helpful, going out of their way to make sure I had an amazing time during my placement. I would love to do it all over again!"
    Maria Rossi , Wildlife & Conservation, Kenya

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