After a long day, volunteers can unwind by the boma fire. Pictures: All supplied by Tshemba Foundation
After a long day, volunteers can unwind by the boma fire. Pictures: All supplied by Tshemba Foundation

Make a difference by becoming a volunteer

By Vuyo Mkhize Time of article published Oct 17, 2017

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The sun is sinking behind the dry long bushveld trees and shrubs, closing off the day as it competes with the sound of rattling branches in evoking the feeling of serenity in me.

“It’s magnificent” — the sky that is, I think to myself, standing on the porch of chalet nine watching the arresting cascade of the colours orange, yellow and a light blue.

I take a selfie — as one must when graced with such perfect lighting. I want to capture this rare moment , where nature meets my own spiritual awakening and where I can just “be”.

I imagine the doctors who will be living at this newly built Tshemba Volunteer Centre returning from a gruelling day’s work at Tintswalo District Hospital, tired from the day’s task of attending to rows and rows of patients — basking in the glory of this sunset.

I can already imagine their faces - content and relaxed.

“There is something spiritual about standing outside here and being in the bush, it feels like home,” says Godrey Phillips, co-founder of the foundation, as we chat in the spacious communal kitchen.

Located in the Moditlo Private Game Reserve, the purpose-built luxury volunteer centre near Hoedspruit will be the home of a new form of tourism geared at getting experienced medical professionals to offer and impart their skills and service to the community’s hospital, and a clinic in the surrounding area.

But there’s a dual benefit, in that the professionals will be based in a state-of-the-art communal centre, with a pick of nine individual chalets that can accommodate up to 18 people, and a front row seat to unfenced wildlife and nature.

A boma fire is lit as we regroup around it after getting refreshed following a day’s drive from Joburg.

Dr Carl Fatti sits pensively on the custom made concrete bench that encircles the fire. The 70-year-old retired doctor is a few days on the job offering his skill as an ophthalmologist at the hospital and already has a few insights to share.

He and his wife Anna - a retired teacher — have taken the leap and commitment to being part of the programme for a year.

“I love this place it’s a really great programme they’ve done and it means a lot for the community,” he says.

After an 8-hour day at the hospital, Dr Fatti unwinds with his glass of whisky, and entertains my 101 questions on why he would still want to work after having spent decades being a doctor in a number of different hospitals, provinces and countries.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to work again and to teach, which I really enjoy. Then, to come back after work to relax here makes it even better,” he says.

The next day, a guided tour of Tintswalo hospital by the foundation’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor John Gear, brings the reality of the hospital’s need for volunteer staff into focus.

“We really need more doctors,” Sister Mogane at the female medical ward says, visibly exasperated from the week’s workload.

“Yesterday, we had five admissions before 1pm. With no doctors it’s hard work,” she said, looking at the 33-bed ward that was nearly full to capacity with ill women tucked in green comforters.

At the hospital’s maternity ward, the picture is much the same. Maroon comforter-covered beds offer rest to new mothers nursing their babies.

“We have 10, maybe 11 admissions a day for normal birth, and three for elective c-sections.

“We have two doctors working with c-section cases and on a day like today, I’m along and there are still students to be taught,” midwife Norma Mzimba says.

But for all the ills the hospital has to endure - which are common in many public facilities - there are massive wins.

Physiologist Shelly Zwane, who works at the hospital’s rehabilitation unit, says with a slow smile, “I’ve seen patients come in with no hope of recovery, re-learn how to do things for themselves, like bathe and wash dishes.

“I’ve seen patients with head injuries who are at the end, re-orientated on time and place. Yes we are short-staffed and really need people to assist we really appreciate people coming in to help.”

The hospital is a hive of activity, with walking and incapacitated patients streaming the hallways to receive treatment.

Gear, who has a long history working at and with the hospital dating back to 1979, cautions that volunteer-ism is a “cutting edge sword with good and bad edges”.

“Volunteers joining the programme are likely to be taken aback at the lack of equipment, the crowded wards and Out Patient Department and the range of clinical challenges that confront them.

“However, we are on hand to guide and support volunteers whenever needed. Be passionate, be caring and you will make a difference. Each small individual contribution will help us collectively to build a better, more caring system.

“It is hoped that the sense of reward and satisfaction will make your volunteering experience thoroughly worthwhile and hopefully lead to follow-up visits in the future,” Gear adds.

The foundation’s co-founder, Neil Tabatznik, explained his rationale for wanting to combine a consummate bush veld experience, with providing practical medical solutions for the Mpumalanga and Limpopo community.

“The inequality of healthcare between the urban and rural areas is so extreme that it was just not possible to turn a blind eye to it when I first witnessed it during a visit to the area,” he said.

“It was heartbreakingly clear to me that the disparity of treatment means that the difference between living and dying is based solely on where an individual lives. To me, this is utterly unconscionable”.

Phillips, who is based at the centre, added that being on the ground in the area, he was constantly reminded about the value of volunteering in the community in general.

“There is a palpable skills shortage and people are so appreciative of others who are prepared to give up their time to enhance what they have. This is a very special place with great needs. I have no doubt that everyone who volunteers with Tshemba will leave with an enriched experience. I know I feel like that everyday.”

Sharing Dr Fatti’s sentiment, was Dr Kathleen Meyer, a UK-based doctor who spent 12 weeks volunteering through the programme.

“From the moment I arrived at Tintswalo Hospital, I was overwhelmed by the tremendous need of the local community - making it both a very challenging and extremely rewarding place to work,” she said, adding, “After a busy day, returning home to the Volunteer Centre makes the stress of the day fade away

“Everyone at Tshemba is incredibly accommodating, making my stay wonderful.”

Medical practitioners can find out more and make contact by visiting the Tshemba Foundation website at or by emailing Tshemba’s Medical Recruitment Officer Barbara McGorian at [email protected]

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