WRITTEN BY MICHAEL OMO-BARÉ
What’s it like to visit a remote part of South Africa and volunteer at a monkey rehabilitation centre? What are your duties whilst there? What are the comedies and the struggles? See Michael’s inspiring story and find out about an excellent organisation you could help…
In 2009/10, I was given the opportunity to go to South Africa and volunteer at a Monkey Rehabilitation Centre. I’d recently just left foster care and was living with my sister, as she’d won kinship care of me the previous year. I was settling into my new school well, making friends, dating girls, auditioning for plays, etc. However, what I really began to look for was a way to give back to the world that had given me a second chance.
Instigating rather than Participating
I soon realised that being aged 16 was advantageous; I have my whole life ahead of me to pursue opportunities that bring joy to myself and others.
I received a letter inviting me to take part in a leadership training course that could potentially shortlist me for a trip South Africa. I hastily replied with excitement and, in the following weeks, found myself attending regular training. Every few weeks, I would meet with a group of about 25 people of all ages to cover a range of physical and mental development skills. Over time, they transformed me into a much more logical, empathetic and confident young person. I began approaching life with a bit more vigour!
Preparation for South Africa
As the weeks turned to months and the winter of 2009 set in, I received the good news that I would be going to South Africa in April 2010! I was ecstatic! It was hard to believe that I would soon be standing in Africa in a t-shirt and shorts, holding baby monkeys! I continued attending the last of the leadership meetings until I received my certificate. I then began the equally long and intensive preparation meetings for Africa. They covered:
- What we would accomplish there
- Behaviour policies
- Native foods (including bugs!)
- Team development
- Team building exercises
- Meeting inspiring people
- Learning how to become good ambassadors for our community
It became clear that this was going to be more than just a trip; this was going to be a whole reboot to the way I live and perceive life!
Lee McDaid – SELSA is born
After working at the Lewisham Leaving Care Services for a number of years, Lee McDaid created SELSA (South East London to South Africa) two years prior to our group forming. Lee is a beautiful, positive, ambitious woman who has set up this oppourtunity for Lewisham care leavers to travel to deep parts of South Africa (Limpopo) on a regular basis. To my knowledge, four groups have gone thus far. What I love about Lee is her ability to overcome the impossible and enrich every life she touches. She is quite literally an angel on Earth!
The Journey to South Africa
April 2009 finally arrived! The butterflies and giddiness began to set in.
On my final night in England, I had a curry with a few friends. I then went home and waited until 2am before traveling to Lewisham. Our flight was delayed so it was a long wait as we check-listed our things, weighed bags, and waded through the tons of information that Lee was giving to both us and our parents / carers.
We finally set off to Heathrow and shuffled our way through bag checks and duty-free until I found myself sitting in a Virgin Atlantic airplane. It was my first time flying but I was calm. I was actually more concerned about the beginning of my flu symptoms! Five hours into the flight, I’m slouched in a window seat watching Avatar on the 7-inch screen, feeling sorry for myself. It was a man flu I’d been struck with and I was miserable beyond measure. I knew I had another seven hours left so I tried, in vain, to sleep.
With less than an hour remaining before our descent into Johannesburg, I was not a happy bunny! Trying not to vent my frustrations on anyone, I looked out the window and noticed that it was pitch black. There were the occasional flimsy clusters of light here and there, then some motorway lights. Other than that, it was darkness. I found it quite moving that there where so many people down there without light; such a basic necessity!
We finally landed. Dragging our bags like zombies, we exited into the dense, muggy heat. My clothes began to cling to every part of my body. I was officially a complete image of grumpy discomfort! We drove to a nearby hotel and stayed the night. None of the group could sleep until they’d christened the pool and James, another young person on the trip, did a fabulous job of falling in seconds after being warned not to.
Traveling to the Riverside Centre
The next morning, we began the eight hour drive to Limpopo. The drive was alright but I continued to feel sorry for myself as we sped through the South African countryside and twisted our way up mountains. It was here where I caught my first glimpse of a wild silverback gorilla!
We stopped in a more built up town to have the best pancakes I’ve ever tasted. We then continued up higher and further away from civilisation. The sun started to set as we carried on. I began to notice how hot it was – even at night! We attempted to alleviate our discomforts with chat, games and songs until, finally, we arrived! I thought it was hot in the car! Five minutes out in the open and I looked and felt like I was in a sauna!
We met the legendary Bob and Lynne Venter whom Lee had told us about, along with their son Matthew. We were given a quick tour of a few of the enclosures. We were then led down to the sleeping quarters a 15-minute walk away, which I hated! I’m not the biggest fan of spiders, so to walk in pitch darkness with nothing but a few head lamps to dimly illuminate the path, and then see large webs reflected in the light…well, it made my skin crawl. It’s probably my worst memory from the trip!
The Riverside Rehabilitation Centre is a place where injured or vulnerable monkeys are taken; they are then treated and sheltered accordingly. They’re regularly bathed, fed, observed, and stimulated until Bob and his team can release a troop back into the wild where they can hopefully live unharmed. However, some monkeys may never be fit to leave, so they stay at the centre and live a good quality of life until natural death.
We woke the next day, had breakfast, and further introductions. We met our cook and the other volunteers who were congregating from all around the world. We later had time to chill and explore the site; I approached one of the enclosures, eager to interact with a Vervet monkey in daylight. I then proceeded to make a fool of myself as I danced around attempting gorilla noises. Nothing. I learned that I had to first earn the trust of these animals before they’d pay any attention to me. Over the next few days, we completed various tasks and learning opportunities:
- Cleaning enclosures – my favourite (!)
- Preparing food for the animals
- Bathing monkeys
- Building enclosures
- Learning the basics about Vervets
- Overseeing surgery
- Bug collecting!
- And much more!
One afternoon Bob held an environmental education session to discuss the realities that these primates face every day when living in South Africa. He explained that the majority of people in South Africa see these creatures as vermin or a problem. Here’s a startling fact sourced from the Riverside website, which, in my opinion, is unacceptable:
‘A Vervet monkey may cause a bit of damage by helping itself to food in a garden in Mussina (a small town in the Limpopo), yet the public has the right to eradicate an entire troop in Cape Town (Western Cape Province) 2000 kilometres away where no damage has occurred.’
We all left the meeting moved by what Bob had explained. I noticed a distinct change in attitude the next day as we carried out the 7am cleaning tasks. It was clear we’d grown a fondness for these little guys and, even as the baby Vervets leapt on us and transferred their mucky material into our clothes and hair, we gritted our teeth and carried on looking after them with love and care.
I think the group will agree with me when I say that cleaning, feeding and generally just being around the baby Vervets was, by far, the best bit of our trip. We came to the realisation that, being foster children ourselves, we’re not so different from them. These monkeys have lost their parents to poachers and farmers, or horrendous traps set to catch or maim them. This centre is their salvation, much like my sister has been mine. A greater bond began to grow as we all fell in love with them!
Every group has its ups and downs. In that way, ours was like any other. Illness and tiredness seemed to be the root of most frustrations, so it was understandable to be a little ratty with one another. Sometimes things got out of hand and, although the staff dealt which these situations quickly and effectively, tension still hung in the air. Odean was the joker of our group, never serious and always smiling, which helped to relieve tension.
All was forgiven the next day as we made our way to the local village to see first-hand the level of poverty that spreads across the country. It was also a chance to get a bit of culture. We danced in traditional wear, ground maize, learned some of the village’s songs and secrets. They even hand-crafted some jewellery for us!
The best bit of the trip was giving a few of the boys from the village some Tic Tacs and see their faces shrivel up to the sour taste of orange and lime! I also loved seeing the construction of the first brick-built house in the village. It was hopefully going to be one of many.
The next day, we drove to a local elephant sanctuary where dreams became true for some as we interacted with these huge animals. We learned amazing facts about them and were then able to ride atop these slow, majestic mammoths through the dense wilderness. Phillip and his crew had their eyes peeled, scouring the environment for any danger. We had to halt at one point when a snake was located in the trees. It was safely removed and we continued on. I quickly realised that I was a long way from home!
I was ill on the day of the bush walk, but the others who went learned the skill of tracking animals and even got to try shooting a real gun! It sounded very fun and I hope to try it during my next visit in September 2013.
Making the Local News
Thanks to Lee, myself and a few others appeared in the South African news. We shared our stories, then they took a bit of footage of us interacting with the baby Vervets. Within days, our stories began to circulate around the country via television and radio. It was a warm feeling to know that we were a very small minority participating in a wonderful cause that might help to educate and inspire others.
Local Shopping Mall
We were taken to the local shopping mall near the end of the first week. We were all excited to spend our Rand (South Africa’s currency) and explore. When we arrived, we buddied up and then roamed a small part of the mall. Whilst browsing, we noticed that we were literally the only foreigners in the mall; everyone else was local.
The trip began to draw to an end and one of the last days we had an authentic braai which is basically a BBQ. We cooked with traditional potjie pots (pronounced Poi-kee) and created a very tasty and filling pasta stew. We exchanged goodbyes, gifts and certificates, then trekked back to our beds.
Mary and I agreed that Bob, Lynne and everyone had done so much for us, that it only felt right to work on the last day. Rather than waking up at the very desirable time of 8am, we got up at 6am to prepare breakfast for the monkeys.
The time came to leave and tears flooded my eyes as I hugged Bob and Lynne goodbye. I promised them I’d be back. As we drove away, silence and sadness filled two minivans as we began our journey home.
On our journey, an awful accident took place on a precarious road that winds up a mountain. The minivan in front was making its way up when a very large truck swerved round the bend, causing Matthew to slam on the breaks to avoid a head-on collision, sending him into the side of another truck instead.
It was all over in a flash. Thankfully nobody was hurt but it was a very close call! As we waited for a replacement van, we consoled the others who had been shaken to the core. Eventually we continued our journey.
As part of our return journey, we visited an orphanage. After stretching our legs, we were given a tour of the main buildings. We then visited a few of the children living there and were amazed to discover them to be some of the happiest and friendliest kids we’ve ever met, despite having so little!
The living arrangements were pretty standard, about four children to a room, 24 children to a house, and overseen by one 24-hour worker who loves these kids like her own. Knowing the racial divides in the country, it was an absolute joy to see how this white woman so wholly embraced each and every black child there.
The kids said they were pleased to live there; some had come from nearby townships and had received no education prior to their arrival. It was humbling to know that the only things these kids wanted were beds to sleep on, food to eat, education, and the companionship of each other.
Driving away from the orphanage, Lee received a rather strange phone call. Apparently, a volcano in Iceland had erupted and the volcanic ash cloud was making flight impossible. It dawned on us that we could be stuck here for a long time! The group were spilt down the line. Some really missed home and others relished the idea of an extended holiday.
I was on the fence. Although the sound of a few extra days in sunny South Africa sounded appealing, I had important exams when I got back and I was worried I might miss them. When I saw the place we would be staying, I hastily ate my thoughts. The place was amazing! We had sliding doors that looked out onto a pool, and then beyond to an animal resort heaving with beautiful Ostriches. I could happily see myself here for as long as we needed!
Whilst stranded we were lucky enough to go to a wildlife park and I got to play with baby lion cubs!
Not only did we meet and play with the lion cubs, but we also got to meet and feed the giraffes.
We were then taken to Soweto, South Africa’s largest township. It was remarkable how big the place was! To see the sheer magnitude of poverty was unsettling. We passed Nelson Mandela’s house and I was startled to see that he was literally surrounded by shanty huts as far as the eye can see. We also visited a school that had been funded by numerous organisations. It was one of the very few in Soweto, meaning thousands went without education. To end the visit, a few of the teachers there preformed a traditional boot dance which went down a treat with us and the children.
We finally made our way back home by the end of April. The packed flight was worse on the way back; the hours dribbled by. We landed in Heathrow at about 3am and were all very glad to be back on British soil. I travelled home in quiet contemplation to Lewisham where my sister was waiting for me and then crashed in exhaustion.
I woke at about 7:30 am the next morning and started to get ready for school; I had an Art exam. I was so happy to be back home with my new perspective on the world that the tiredness didn’t even bother me! Living back in England, I truly began to appreciate the basic foundations of my life: the roof over my head, the clothes on my back, the things I ate and drank, the money I had to spend, and the people in my life.
I realised that I’d been living my life without appreciating it fully. I was empowered with the knowledge that the actions I make now shape my future. There is no point focusing on the things I can’t change; those things that are in the past and I must invest in the present and look to the future.
Support for Riverside
It’s a sad thought that Bob and Lynne receive more primates than they can release, meaning the problem is only getting worse with each passing year and the cost to maintain the centre is rising. I plan to return in September 2013 with my girlfriend to offer a helping hand. If there’s anyone who’d like to help sponsor us or help the centre, please get in touch.
I’d like to thank Lee and my sister. Without them, I’d still be a lost soul twiddling my thumbs in Surrey somewhere. One person can make a difference in the lives of others!
ALSO SHARED BY MICHAEL
- Read about Michael’s trip to Volunteer to Teach Orphans in India
- See the inspiring video of life as a volunteer at Riverside
- Written by: Michael Omo-Baré
- Compiled, formatted and edited by: Krista Beauvais
- Experience Date: April 2010
- Contact Michael on his Get Wild Team Page on Facebook
- Website 1 for Riverside if you’re interested in supporting or volunteering
- Website 2 for Riverside if you’re interested in supporting or volunteering
- Photos: all photos are courtesy of Michael Omo-Baré