Say Yes, to go on a community service exchange programme
SayXchange Alumnus Inspires 2014 Participants
Date: 7 August 2014
Ladies and gentlemen
Fellow SayXchange participants
My name is Junior Sikhwivhilu.
Last year this time I was part of the SayXchange programme. To be precise, this day last year, I had already been in Malawi for 11 days. On 28 July 2013 the plane took off at OR Tambo, bound for Malawi. On that flight was me and four fellow South African colleagues. Apart from the over -filled bags, we were accompanied by our fears and anxiety of the unknown.
"Traveling broadens the mind more than reading," says a very popular Turkish proverb. It is true- as long as one embraces experiences with an open mind. Traveling is seeing new countries, meeting new people, experiencing new things, learning a different side of life and more. It is, in short, the adventurous outdoor class trip to different cultures, different languages, different political climates and different histories.
Remembering the 28th still gives me goose bumps, because we almost missed our flight on that exciting day. We arrived at the airport on time, but we were not the only ones on time as many other travellers had the same idea. I assumed a kind of leadership role for my group as I have travelled extensively across the world during my days as a professional athlete, but I was not prepared for this kind of leadership. Getting to the end of the check- in line, I had all my colleagues’ passports in hand. Excitement hit as I handed the passports to the guy who would assist with the online check- in. As he typed our details into the system, the worst happened: The gates closed! What!!!! Gates closed? No, never! He tried again and it was so. We then got preferential treatment from the airport staff. We were pushed through all the lines of people who then seemed as thieves trying to steal our joy. After several attempts and different SAA staff members’ attempts of overriding the system, the check-in happened and relief came until one of the SAA staff asked when last we had been to the gym. I asked why the question and he said: Because now, we have to run with him through the airport to go through the immigration gates and to the plane itself which had already been boarded. To cut a long story short, we ran through and got special immigration assistance in an office; ran to our plane; and as the group consisted of three males and two females, we carried the ladies’ hand luggage and did the tiresome marathon to the plane. We found that South African airways-branded craft majestically waiting for its last late passengers (of course which was).
The flight to Malawi was great. We arrived to be picked up by our new coordinator in Malawi. The months of waiting had finally materialised and we were there. My first thought of Malawi was it was a hot country. We travelled to a restaurant and waited for our host parents. I won’t lie. I recited a lot of prayers in my head, “Please let my parents be rich and cool.” That was the first sign of my fear of change. When my parent arrived to fetch me it, I saw a well -dressed man (whom, I learnt, was dressed well, not to impress us, but because he was a pastor of a church in Area 13). He took me and one of the participants to our new home where we learnt we were brothers to two younger sisters. After a careful walk through the house, all seemed great and my spirit was eased at the concept of Exchange.
As the saying goes, “The wise man's home is the universe." Malawi was the new part of the universe I was to explore and call home. Mmmm, interesting! You see, before I left South Africa, I had set out a Mission and a Vision. My experience in travelling and meeting different people both as an athlete and a human rights advocate had created in the desire to experience what it really felt like to be an migrant or a person from a foreign country so my mission was to learn what being a foreigner felt like in Malawi; what Malawian youths have in common with us; and were we could foster a spirit of unity and exchange; and of course to integrate into the Malawian society and learn the language.
Chichewa is the official Language of Malawi. In 2013, the population was 16,407,000 and the currency is called the Kwacha. While in Malawi, I worked with Maikhanda, a family-planning organisation and Youth consultative forum. I have been involved in volunteerism for over 7years of my life. In fact, I started when I was 16, but I had never done it in a foreign country. The SayXchange Programme is very good as it doesn’t take away the “responsibility” aspect of volunteerism. Each morning, I would wake up and report for work as I would here in SA. The organisation would give me responsibility, such as visiting the different hospitals and communicating with the different stakeholders and the focal person; and learning more about the organisation’s responsibilities and methodology of tackling issues pertaining to women, children and youth. I got to engage and motivate some youth structures. This was pivotal in fostering the relationship between me and the youths. I got the opportunity to share my experience in advocacy and human rights advocacy.
Whilst in Malawi, we were privileged to attend the Youth Parliament of Malawi where we had the privilege to sit in the chambers with the youth. One of my highlights was the opportunity I had to meet the AU chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Zuma; Former President, Joyce Banda of Malawi and President Armando Guebuza of Mozambique.
I would like take this moment to speak to you from the perspective of a former SayXchange fellow and participant. SayXchange is definitely one of the best programmes I have ever been a part of. It has built in me qualities of courage, tolerance, emotional intelligence and transformational leadership. One of the qualities I admire about this programme is that I was never spoon fed. In fact, I believe some of the glitches we had in our programme are probably some of our success stories. One has to have a desire to learn and to break out of their comfort zone. Six months of living with a family that is not mine; the different environment; food, language and political climate is no easy task.
No matter where we are, stereotypes will always exist. Why? Often times, we judge and perceive things without even investigating. The mass media and mainstream information, contributes to how we see things. Today, as you sit here, you may think you’re either going to a dangerous country or a country that has poverty in masses, but this is not so. Whilst I believe that it is not a problem that you may have an inaccurate perception of your country of exchange, this will allow you the opportunity to learn and grow. It is also very important that we remember the human element of our exchange. You will meet people when you go to your country mothers, fathers, sisters and friends, not poverty or suffering. Yes, that element may exist where you’re going, but the people are not those elements. Be like a child and learn as much as you can. Be like a child and make as many friends. Be like a child and show respect for those you meet.
During our year, we made Bento sweat, not because we were unruly but because we wanted the best for ourselves and the groups to come. In this case, you guys are the new group and for me, this also feels like a moment where I get to pass the torch to you. If I really had a torch in my hand, it would have the words, “Have fun” printed on it.
I wish you all the best and may you have a wonderful experience. Meet new people and friends. You’re starting a something new, but something big and with a lot of hope and greatness. I speak on behalf of the rest of the SayXchange alumni when I wish you all the best.