The first volunteer

Erziehungskunst | Rasmus Precht, you returned to Germany from Haiti a few months ago. What did you do there?

Rasmus Precht | UN Habitat sent me to Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010. I was responsible for community planning in the slums where the UN was supporting the salvage of rubble to be used as building material for reconstruction. The last two years in Haiti I then managed projects in Les Cayes for the redevelopment of public municipal spaces, coastal defences and slum clearance. The greatest challenge in Haiti, which is often classed as a failed state, lay in not losing the belief in possible progress for all the difficulties.

EK | What gave you the idea as a 19-year-old to go abroad as a volunteer through the Friends?

RP | I spent my first five years of school at the Albert Schweitzer School in Hamburg. My class teacher gave us a vivid picture of Albert Schweitzer’s life’s work – for example how he founded and ran a hospital in what is Gabon today and gave up his comfortable life in Europe to do so. That impressed me greatly and made me curious about Africa. As an upper school pupil in the Hamburg Wandsbek Rudolf Steiner School I was particularly interested in the political and social transformation processes which were at that time associated with the extraordinary personality of Nelson Mandela. That is why it seemed more interesting to me to go abroad as a volunteer rather than undertake the ordinary alternatives to military service. The Hermanus Camphill school near Cape Town offered this opportunity. And the Friends of Waldorf Education were willing to initiate a pilot project.

EK | How did the people around you react?

RP | My parents supported this project from the beginning. In order to pay for the insurance necessary for such a deployment abroad, I set up a funding group of people who made donations into a special account set up by the Friends. In return I undertook to report regularly – at that time still by airmail – about my experiences. These people supported me for the whole of my two-year stay and I also felt supported by this group during the difficult periods.

EK | What did you experience at the first place you worked?

RP | I worked in the Hermanus Camphill school as a carer and teacher. There I had to learn to completely connect with the Camphill philosophy of total commitment to the children. It was a new experience for me to be “on duty” from waking up in the morning to going to sleep at night and only to have one day off a week and also having to work in the school holidays. The encounter with an autistic boy was one of my best experiences. When I noticed his extraordinary musical talent we played a lot of music together.

This was also the time when Mandela was elected the first democratic president of the country. I wanted to go and see the “new South Africa”. I went on a practice placement with the New World Foundation community development organisation in a township near Cape Town, where I became friendly with the young people there. This eventually led to a performance of the music, dance and theatre group from the township at the Camphill farm.

EK | Where else did you work?

RP | I moved to the Meadowsweet Farm School in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. I taught English, biology and sport in the middle and upper school of this facility for the children of black farm workers. In the afternoons I ran a theatre group and contributed to raising further donations for school and community development. I enjoyed this work so much that I extended my voluntary service from the then obligatory one-and-a-half years to almost two-and-a-half years.

EK | What were the challenges?

RP | On Meadowsweet Farm the spring which supplied the people on the farm and the school with water was drying up because of the long drought. We volunteers found a permanent solution together with the farm manager: the neighbouring farmer agreed that we could renovate an old water tank on his farm so that it could be permanently filled with water from the borehole. We also laid water pipes to the residential houses and the school.

There were two experiences from my time as a volunteer which had a particularly lasting impact on me: the deliberately lower-quality Bantu education system and the conditions in which the black African population lived under the apartheid system both in the country and the towns. The education system for blacks in the South African apartheid state was deliberately set up so that black people would only learn what would make them useful as a compliant and cheap labour force with minimum education for the exploitative and suppressive system led by whites. Generations of people were thereby denied the opportunity to develop their potential in education and training and to live a life in human dignity. The huge townships planned for blacks and coloureds were built well away from the organically grown inner cities leading to many social problems produced by such ghettoisation. Worse still were the conditions in the grim slums which sprang up in the last years of apartheid in every kind of free space and which often had no infrastructure or municipal services at all, such a schools, electricity, water and sewerage.

EK | How did these experiences influence your further biographical development?

RP | Wishing to do something to contribute to improving equal opportunities for young people in Africa, I and another volunteer from Meadowsweet Farm School set up the “Lucky Mazibuko Grant Fund” after our return to Germany. The Fund, which is located with the Friends, has since enabled more than 15 grant holders from South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya to go to school and university.

Volunteering fundamentally strengthened my interest in international affairs. I studied development policy and town planning, specialising in slum redevelopment and (self-help) housing construction. In 2005 I got a job with UN Habitat where I stayed for nine years, the last four in Haiti.

EK | If you were a teacher in the German education system as it is now, what would be your particular concern?

RP | I would try to encourage my pupils to do voluntary service abroad after school. It is the ideal time to leave your own “comfort zone” of home, school and friends for the first time and learn to deal for a time with a completely new environment, with a different culture, language and economic reality. Looking at our own culture from outside gives us a more critical view of it. What beforehand appeared normal suddenly seems a privilege or something you want to change. When you arrive abroad you’re a clean sheet and not yet in any “drawer”. This has the benefit that we can also overcome our own weaknesses and grow as people.

EK | You also travel as an ambassador. What are your experiences so far?

RP | During lectures which I gave in schools in the period immediately after my voluntary service, there seemed to be great interest among pupils to go abroad after school for such experiences. It is important for upper school pupils who are interested in volunteering to be aware that every deployment is absolutely individual and it is up to everyone themselves to make the best possible use of it.

Mathias Maurer asked the questions.