When we think of the continent of Africa, we may imagine frail people with minimal resources and little food. But what about the blossoming democratic nation of South Africa? Does it hold true to the stereotypical ideal we have of that part of the world? The answer is surprisingly, yes and no. What I mean by that is they are still in a state of despair when it comes to resources and high-quality food, but in a very different way than other African countries.
I took a trip out to Mitchell’s Plain, South Africa (a suburb in the outskirts of Cape Town) this summer where I spent over three weeks working as a volunteer. The primary purpose of my stay was to work with elementary age children to facilitate PE classes and teach them about physical fitness. These classes were just like those taught in the United States (US) but on a much larger scale.
In South Africa (SA), PE classes do not get funded. The only opportunity for this type of activity is through the work of volunteers who come out from all over the world to donate their time. There are several amazing organizations in local areas that organize volunteers and utilize the parks and recreation centers, providing after school sports programs including soccer, rugby, table tennis and other things of that nature. Unfortunately, these organizations are continually fighting an uphill battle receiving only minimal funds, primarily from donations.
Right off the bat, these kids start a lifestyle-path of minimal physical activity paired with low-quality food which may eventually contribute to health-related problems such as obesity. I have to admit- when I got there I was taken aback by the prevalence of obesity that I witnessed. Eventually something clicked in my brain and I started thinking about the childhood obesity in the US. I found that areas such as the South and Midwest have rampant obesity rates paired directly with shockingly high levels of poverty. I asked myself; why do these regions have such high obesity rates? It seems to be because they live in urban nutrition-deserts and have only minimal financial resources.
In these areas people are often unable shop at the nearest Whole Foods market or similar, due to limitations of both budget and transportation. Instead they shop at neighborhood convenience stores where they tend to select affordable yet highly-processed, calorie-dense, and nutritionally inadequate items. After all, the easily acquired bag of Cheetos at the corner store can be had for about $0.79. Well, guess what, this same problem afflicts the wonderful folks of South Africa too. They have access to food, but not to the healthy foods that growing children need.
This post is not meant to say hey everyone, drop what you are doing, stop focusing on the problem here at home and lets go rescue South Africa from their high obesity rates, because let’s be honest, we have plenty to do in regards to fixing the obesity problem here in the US. Rather, I just wanted to share the experience I had while over there in hopes that some folks may consider devoting a bit of time and resources in their lives to make it over there and try to help, even if in just a small way, like spending a couple of weeks trying to teach nutrition classes at recreation centers or working with a South Africa’s local organizations to create and distribute nutrition-education pamphlets. This is something I plan to do through a partnership with the local organization I volunteered with out there.
As for my time in South Africa, it was one of the most rewarding and life enriching experiences I have ever had. I genuinely feel that everyone should write down a travel bucket list and make sure that they pursue crossing every place off the list within their lifetime. SA was one of the top destinations on my list so being afforded the chance to go there and work to make a difference, made it a perfect experience. I made some amazing friends and connections with both the local organization I volunteered with as well as the kids I worked with. Being that I am built like a bodybuilder weighing in at about 250lbs and covered in tattoos, the kids all loved me. They immediately nicknamed me the Big Show who is a very large WWE professional wrestler and I loved it. My time over there was not only spent volunteering. On the weekends, I was able to travel around to do some pretty amazing things. That list includes walking side by side with two adult lions, riding elephants, putting my feet in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans at the same time at the bottom tip of the African continent and meeting some of the nicest and most friendly people I have ever met in my life. I cannot begin to fully explain what an amazing trip this was and I cannot wait to go back at some point in the next few years to continue what I started on this trip!
Just a little food for thought,
World Health Organization. www.who.int. 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/nmh/countries/zaf_en.pdf?ua=1
World Health Organization. www.who.int. 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/nmh/countries/usa_en.pdf?ua=1