Volunteering in South Africa: Brianna Monaghan’s Story


This spring, we asked the 55,000 travelers subscribed to our mailing list for their stories about volunteering, teaching, interning, and studying abroad. We were overwhelmed with the amazing responses: people of all ages and backgrounds from all over the world told us about their globetrotting adventures – why they traveled, how they helped communities in need, what they learned, and so much more. We’re excited to bring you some of the most inspiring stories in this new series!

Earlier this year, Brianna Monaghan traveled with a group of 50 student volunteers through Volunteer Eco Students Abroad (VESA) in South Africa. During her trip, she helped to construct houses for families as well as farming units for single mothers, and she taught English lessons to children in a daycare facility. She also had the opportunity to visit and volunteer in a wildlife center, and travel to Swaziland and Mozambique. Here is our interview with her!

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What made you choose this trip?

The trip to South Africa sounded like an amazing experience to have, and sounded like one where I would make more of a difference.

What are some ways you planned for your travels?

VESA, the organisation I went with, told us how much it would cost to travel, and I asked how much some extra activities and meals might be. I also looked at the currency exchange to get an idea of difference and see if I needed to bring more money or less.

VESA gave us a packing list, which was helpful – because I’ve traveled to a developing country before, I sort of already knew what to pack. They also provided a schedule so we didn’t need to worry about that. I had to find my own flights, and I looked those up quite early to see how much it will cost roughly and made sure that I would have the money by the time I booked them.

Because I have traveled before, I already had my backpack to take. I know quite a few people on this trip went to Kathmandu and other places like that too, and compared different packs, clothes, and shoes, and bought what was necessary.

We were working with children, so I made sure to post on Facebook that if my friends had any clothes they didn’t want, I would take them and give them to the children because they really don’t have much over there. I got a heap of responses and I got so much stuff to give them – they were so happy.

What are some things you did on your trip to South Africa?

The purpose of the trip was to help out in a poor village. So we went to a crèche where they had pre-school children; most lived there as they didn’t have any family. We played with them, drew with them, helped feed them and got the chance to read and dance with them. We also went to the school and helped them with their English and just interacted with the children and gave them some presents.

We also got to do construction, where we were basically building an orphanage. We moved the bricks needed for the bathrooms, dug holes to place the septic tanks, and made cement by hand. We painted bedrooms and cleaned their windows. It was hard work.

We also did conservation work, where we went to the Emdoneni Lodge and cut up a fallen tree and made a little shelter out of it in a serval’s pen. We got to pet the cheetahs and I fed a serval as well. We also went to the crocodile centre, where we had to go into the pen with nine crocs and collect their eggs. We would have some people holding up a steel gate so that if a crocodile does come up, they will go to the gate and not get close to us – it was scary but very exciting. We collected the eggs to incubate because in the wild a croc will lay on average 40 eggs a season and only 10% of those eggs will survive – so we collect them and incubate them so that they have a better chance of survival.

After volunteering, we got the chance to see the sights in South Africa. We went to a cultural village to learn about their traditions, and we also saw a sangoma, who is in a way a fortune teller. Now I don’t fully believe in this type of thing, but it is an amazing experience: as soon as I saw her, my heart started racing and I’m not even sure why. I would ask questions and she answered what she saw in my future. A few of my friends were so overwhelmed they cried – but they cried out of happiness.

We then went to Swaziland, which was absolutely amazing. I went horse riding, and it was great although if you’re not the best with horses like me, then you wouldn’t like the riding part. The hiking up to Execution Rock was worth the nerves; the view was beautiful.

After Swaziland, we traveled to Tofo and Bilene, Mozambique. They were both so pretty. Beautiful markets and Tofo has a market bar where all the locals go. Bilene is where you can watch turtles swimming in the ocean, literally on the coast of Mozambique. The best part was when we went to a sunset bar. They had cocktails in a coconut, it had beautiful views, and everyone had a great time!

Mozambique was truly amazing – very stunning.

What’s something unexpected that happened during your travels?

In South Africa, we stayed in St. Lucia, which was beautiful but it was more of a tourist destination. It wasn’t crowded, but I guess it was more built up than I expected in Africa. I did feel very safe though. Our backpackers served us Western food, which I was disappointed about, as I wanted to try the local food.

It was also surprising to hear that if we walked back to the hostel from the shops at night, then we needed to be careful of the hippos and the monkeys that wander the streets.

What’s something interesting you learned or a new skill you gained because of your travels?

I now know how to make cement without a cement mixer.

And learning the culture and Zulu phrases was very interesting. I only know hello, how are you and thank you.

What was your favorite part of this trip?

Favorite part was being in the croc pen collecting the eggs – it was a very surreal experience.

What is your best advice for travelers embarking on a similar trip?

For one, you will be in Africa: so don’t expect luxurious accommodation or showers and toilets that always work.

When traveling to South Africa, remember they have a different culture, so be respectful. That includes the way you dress: be conservative and don’t wear things that show your body off a lot.

And finally, enjoy your time. You are in an amazing place and you will never forget it – so have a blast and live it to the fullest.

Africa has a very special place in my heart now; it was the best thing I have ever done.

Would you travel on this adventure again? Are you planning other trips anytime soon?

Yes, I would!

I am planning on going to Greece next year and hopefully South America in a couple of years as well. They won’t be volunteer trips, but I haven’t fully decided yet, so we will see.

Ready to Travel?

Would you like to learn more about traveling to South Africa? Check out these resources for more inspiration – and click here to learn about volunteering with VESA!

Volunteer Programs and Projects in South Africa

Volunteer with Elephants: Thailand | South Africa | Cambodia

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