Ignacio Vilches
Agricultural Engineer
Director Africa Dream

The Origin 

My volunteer work started on January 2011 and ended with my return in February 2012 and I have been bound to the foundation since that moment. I have trained new volunteers, participated in competitive fundraising for new projects and in interviews to spread our work in mass media.    

The restlessness for helping has been with me due to a family formation, something that became stronger during my university phase, while working in the CCAA in my faculty, during summer and winter jobs, missions and by performing my job as a firefighter. 

The concern of going as a volunteer to Africa came after, when I was working in the Ministry of Agriculture. During this time, I received an email where they were looking for an agronomist to manage a community project in South Africa. The project made so much sense to me because it meant giving my experience and knowledge to the service of the community that needed it, and, at the same time, it was an opportunity to test myself and to come out of my comfort zone.  

All of it raised the question as to where I was going to arrive —including culture, language, believes — but at the same time, the challenge as a life experience was unmeasurable, therefore my initial doubts vanished once I accepted taking part in the project. I was going to be there during the second year of the project that the foundation started, with the support of our counterpart in South Africa, a Salesian Sisters mission — Catholic order — responsible for the Holy Rosary School. 

Without a doubt I must say that in this important process I had full support from my family and friends.  

Volunteer work 

The Project was taking place in the Xitlhelani village, in the province of Limpopo in South Africa. It is near the northern border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, right next to one of the biggest parks in Africa: Kruger Park. This place is known for being a very rural zone, far away from the big metropolitan cities in the country — Johannesburg is 7 hours away from this place by car — where two local ethnic groups live together: the Tsonga tribe and the Venda tribe, as well as refugees from neighboring countries that are looking for opportunities. These refugees are escaping the dictatorship in Zimbabwe and from the civil war that took place in Mozambique between 1977 and 1992 — with more than 5 million displaced people. Basically, there are no “white people” in this area.   

The Project had 3 big lines of work. The heart of the project was a community project. It consisted of resume the work with women, housewives, usually widowed or separated, that were in charge of a vastly extensive family group — in these groups there were always a lot of kids, and it was also normal to find elderly people —. The origin of these women was the Tsonga tribe, Venda tribe, Mozambican and Zimbabweans. The Salesians would lend the land and we would give them corn seeds — this is the base of the diet in sub-Saharan Africa — and peanut. We also supported them with tractor hours to prepare the soil. Along with that we helped them during the entire process, and they received training in the Agricultural Ministry support office.  

The second line of work was as support in the school, as a teacher for kids between 4th and 7th grade in their science class. In this situation, basically all classes would be made in an experimental garden where the vegetables, herbs and fruits were cultivated, under the concept of permaculture (sustainable agriculture with the environment). The idea was to show different kinds of crops that could develop in the climate of the zone — savannah with fresh and dry winters, and warm and rainy summers — with mechanized irrigation — the water is a very scarce resource in this continent — and sustainable in the environment.   

Lastly but not less important, the work done with the kids in the village and the refugee camp. This job consisted in giving value to teamwork, improvement and integration through sport. This was done twice a week with kids from 7 to 13 years old. 

The Experience 

It wasn’t easy at first, since there was certain rivalry and discrimination from the kids in the village toward the kids belonging to the refugee camp in Rhulani.   

With the help of another volunteer, called Natalia, we would bring the kids from the camp closer by truck, after school hours, and we would use the facilities that the school, managed by the Salesian sisters, would provide for us. The result of these activities was amazing. In average, it was more than 20 kids that participated each week, creating strong friendship bonds. Later, Natalia replicated this modality with the girls in the refugee camp.     

Looking at it from afar, what would be the main thing that I learned from this experience? 

Without a doubt the happiness, the affection and the generosity from the people that I met along my stay. It is something that cannot be repaid, especially in those moments when I felt the distance from my family and friends. The development of respect and tolerance was just as important. This was significant so that I could face a world that was so very different from the one I was used to, and it was also the foundation to create bonds with the community that took me in.  

Another thing that I learned from this experience was how the support from the team in Chile was important, so that I could develop my work in this remote place, and moreover, give my family security that things were being done right and in a very serious manner. 

Undeniably my vision of the world changed after my experience in Africa. One realizes that life is much simpler than what we believe and besides, the meaning of being a community and having respect for one another has been getting lost.   

A message for future volunteers

My advice to you is to take full advantage of this experience, one that is unique and unforgettable. There is so much that we can contribute to the community to which we arrive and much to receive as a volunteer. The friends that you make stay forever, so much so that after 3 years, I went back to Africa with my wife and the affection from the people was still the same