Celeste Helm set off to South Africa in June 2014 with WorldTeach after retiring and moving to Florida. Finding herself getting a bit restless and yearning for fulfilling work, she journeyed to Masiphumelele to work in a local community center. Celeste reflects below on the importance of working towards small victories when you are working in a place where the need is so great.

Small Victories

by Celeste Helm


As a volunteer, there are times when you have to come to terms with the tsunami of need that surrounds you and focus on incremental improvements. Success has to be taken in small steps; some achievements that seem insignificant to a volunteer may be a leap forward to those in need. You can never tell what combination of words and actions may change someone’s life.

Personal interaction with multi-generational poverty can be difficult to experience. Your emotions run high when you understand that every child you see is hungry. School uniforms look crisp and tidy from a distance, but are in fact, too big, too small, torn, frayed and sometimes dirty when you get closer. That every adult is trying to survive the day with basics: adequate food and shelter for themselves and their children. This is the reality for over 40,000 residents living in the township of Masiphumelele in South Africa.

My journey to Masiphumelele came after retirement. At first, I followed the retiree’s well-beaten path to Florida. The notion of sitting by the pool, walking on the beach and part-time volunteer work was appealing, but the lifestyle never engaged me in a fulfilling way. I missed my former international development work and found myself researching online for overseas opportunities. When the WorldTeach web site popped up on my screen, the more I read, the more it seemed the right fit for me. The two-month program offered near Cape Town got my attention and within a few weeks, I was on a plane winging my way to South Africa.

As a retiree, I had one concern: I would be the oldest volunteer in the group by decades. As it turned out, I was inspired by the highly motivated and talented young people serving along with me and they, in turn, respected my career and experiences.

It was winter in South Africa and in the evenings our volunteer group bonded over hot soup and rooibos tea in front of an open fire, philosophising and sharing stories about our families, interests, and travels. Regardless of age and background we were united by our deeply held conviction in the power of helping others against overwhelming odds.

Our first visit to Masiphumelele presented adults and children in bright fabrics walking down the main road, passing corrugated shacks and shipping containers of every size and color. Thin, bony dogs wandered around, foraging for any scrap of food; chickens scurried between passing vehicles; countless small children were running along the streets, seemingly unsupervised. The warm scent of wood smoke filled the air as roadside braai’s roasted sheep’s heads and chicken feet – fast food for the passerby. Throughout the township, there were numerous hair salons and tiny grocery and home goods stores known as Tuck and Spaza shops. We learned that entrepreneurship is a way of life, as outside employment opportunities are still confined mostly to domestic service, gardening, and day labor. Hope and vibrancy juxtaposed with despair and resignation.

The population of Masiphumelele is overwhelmingly Xhosa – the indigenous tribe from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and also the ethnicity of Nelson Mandela. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Xhosa migrated up to the Western Cape near Cape Town looking for work. But rising out of the depths of poverty and integrating into the greater society is complex and confounded by the inadequacies of the township school system and lack of access to skilled jobs. There are many challenges leftover from Apartheid, but education and jobs rise to the top of prioritized social issues.

We walked into the “Wetlands.” The growing population had forced new arrivals beyond the legal limits of Masiphumelele, where they build make shift fragile shacks on unsuitable ground prone to flooding. The Wetlands are divided into zones and each zone of residents is assigned to a long row of outdoor toilets. At the end of each row of toilets is one tap for water. Women must line up each day to fill their large buckets with water for indoor use. It is estimated that there may be up to 50 residents assigned per toilet in each zone. Toilet paper is an unachievable expense.

Given the totality of what we had seen, I felt a momentary wave of hopelessness in the face of an environment so lacking in resources and questioned the ability of one person to make a measurable impact on any level.

For my WorldTeach assignment, I was placed as interim manager for the small community center known to “Masi” residents as the “Pink House.” It was a building painted baby pink with blue trim which made it stand out in the middle of the red brick buildings and metal shacks of the township. The staff and volunteers gave me a warm welcome and were eager to work hard to revitalize the Pink House for the benefit of the community.

I would sit in my small office feeling the pulse of the huge population of Masiphumelele around me: the clicking sounds of the Xhosa language, the taxi vans roaring by, honking to clear their way, barking dogs, laughter, and the sweet scent of wood smoke gave me a comfortable feeling of belonging. I could hear the sing song voices of the children released from the primary school a block away, and some would drop into the Pink House, always looking for food.

We ran a soup kitchen in the morning for HIV/AIDS and TB patients from the nearby Clinic, but we had no means to feed the children. We relied on food donations which we stretched to feed 30 to 50 patients per day. No matter how tempted I was to give food to three or four appealing youngsters, I learned that the next day there would be dozens coming to the Pink House once word got out. I was discreet with my meagre lunch and hid my water bottle in the broken desk drawer.

Every year on 18 July, South Africans celebrate Mandela Day. All citizens are expected to donate time to their cause of choice in honor of Mandela’s birthday. As Mandela Day approached an opportunity presented itself to the Pink House. We had a patch of land, overgrown with weeds and covered with debris that we believed would make a perfect organic vegetable garden. The stumbling block was that there were no resources to make it happen.

When the South African Navy contacted the Pink House and asked what they could do for us on Mandela Day, I seized the moment and requested that they clear our small area of land to prime it for a potential garden. On the appointed day, a large contingent of the Navy showed up and cleared the land of shrubs, overgrowth and trash down to the dirt.

The following week, a small NGO appeared in my office offering to build raised beds and plant seedlings. They were starting a project to train participants on how to garden and were looking for a place to work. Delighted with their offer, I appealed to the local nursery, which provided the wood for raised beds, seeds, seedlings and compost. After networking with other NGO’s, I located an organic garden specialist who shared his expertise on the best way to build the raised beds and how to plant for optimal healthy produce.

Within a few weeks the planting was completed and our small crop of cabbage, carrots, spinach, potatoes and tomatoes began to grow. The result of this unlikely team effort was a flourishing garden.

It was our own Victory Garden.

There were other achievements along the way: a donated drum brought much joy to the children playing at the Pink House; a local parish fixed the kitchen sink and found a donor to give us a large, almost new refrigerator-freezer; the knitting ladies at another parish donated blankets and woollen hats for children, which we distributed to some of the local pre-schools.

Masiphumelele is a place where most people believe hope outweighs despair. As volunteers, we worked to improve and touch someone’s life, one person and one step of progress at a time. When I felt that wave of hopelessness, I would remember that in the Xhosa language, “Masiphumelele” means “Let’s succeed.” And we did succeed with small victories each and every day.