By Sofie Todts

When I was told I could go to Cape Town for an internship of four months, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. And what an adventure it has been…

Luckily, I wasn’t alone on this journey. In the first weeks of the CASO-programme, we had plenty of time to get to know all the other students who were participating. How wonderful it was, to meet the students from South Africa, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Finland.

How I experienced the context of social work in Cape Town

Nora, Leonie, Mabel and I were assigned to WP 2.1. The Patient Partner Programme. Together with three of the patient partners, we came up with a plan to raise stroke awareness in Langa through art. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get to the executing phase. In Belgium, one of our best known literary sentences is “Tussen droom en daad staan wetten in de weg, en praktische bezwaren.” Which roughly translates into: “Between dream and act are hindering laws, and practical challenges”. Although Willem Elsschot used it to describe a far less innocent situation, this quote came to mind.

The practical challenges we faced weren’t easy to deal with. How do you ensure that people in vulnerable situations are properly appreciated for their work when you have no means? How do you work on sustainability of your project when you can’t go into the area half the time because of safety issues? How can you build a relationship with the neighbourhood if you can’t go in? How do we earn the trust of a community when the colour of our skin and our European identity comes with so much history and baggage that we can’t shake off?  

Being a foreign social worker in this very complex environment gave me more than once the feeling I was incompetent. It took me a while to realise that I was too critical towards myself. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn, but being a social worker in South Africa is also ‘just’ extremely hard and difficult. I realised how privileged I am not only in terms of money, but as a professional as well. As a social worker in Belgium, I’m privileged with great structures and connections between various organisations which makes my work a lot easier. There’s always room for improvement, but still. It breaks my heart that in Belgium, our two biggest political parties are determined to tear those structures apart.
It certainly expanded my views on how important the context is on defining the identity of a social worker, and yet we’re all after the same rainbow’s end.   

This wasn’t the end of our professional endeavours. In 2.1., we got to be part of not one, but two Health Promotion blocks with the medical students of UCT. During these blocks I’ve learned a lot about Primary Health Care and working in a multidisciplinary team as an Art and Culture mediation student (which is a specialisation of social work). It wasn’t always easy to find my way in what my role could be in such a team, but I’m very happy I got the chance to figure it out.

To end those blocks, we got to share our experiences and recommendations for future interdisciplinary Health Promotion-teams with a focus group of UCT-academics. It was really nice to give something back to the people we’ve learned so much from. Even during this meeting I’ve learned a lot more on the difficulties of working multidisciplinary.

Working multidisciplinary and interculturally has taught me more than I could ever write down in a blog, but I can share one example. I noticed that when people in Belgium give feedback, it’s always focused on what needs to be improved. It can be given in the nicest way, but the essence is always “what wasn’t good enough now and has to be better next time”. Here in South Africa, I noticed feedback was given about what was good. No strings attached, no “this was good, but…” It was unconditional positive feedback. I never felt that there was no need for improvement, but I did feel more equipped, more secure to work on that improvement. Now, I know what my strengths are and how I can use them to work on other things. I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to feel the impact of this attitude and it definitely changed my attitude as well.

Enjoying our time here

When you’re doing your internship abroad, you want to do more than only work, of course. We’ve had beautiful road trips to George, Cederberg, Stellenbosch, Boulder’s Beach… where we’ve seen elephants, baboons, penguins, and so many birds! (Yes, I became a bird watcher in South Africa). I’ve seen the milky way, and we did A LOT of wine tastings.

Sounds magical, right? It really was. Especially coming from a city where there are only pigeons and you can see absolutely no stars because of light pollution. Especially because I got to share it with so many wonderful people.

And still, even this hasn’t always been easy. Homesickness struck me on day 2 and never really went away. Being so far away from my closest friends and family for such a long time made me often feel lonely. Even though I was in very good company. But even this gave me a deeper understanding of what kind of social worker I want to be in the future. I chose to do this, and I know it’s temporary. I know that on the 11th of June, I’ll see my family again. In the future, I’ll probably be working with people who aren’t as fortunate. They never had a choice but to leave their homes, and don’t know when, even if, they’ll see their families again. As health care providers, we need to be far more sensitive to that than we are right now. Our policies need to be far more sensitive to that.

Would I do it again?

As you can read, my experience hasn’t always been puppies and sunshine. There were times I wanted to quit. I’ve cried more than I want to admit. Now that I look back on it;
Was it all worth it?
Did I learn more than I ever could on an internship in Belgium?
Did the best of times trump the worst of times?
Would I do it all again?


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