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Volunteering in South Africa

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Volunteering in South Africa

Theesan Vedan studied at the University of The Western Cape in January 2013. He has since taken up a position as a Military Dentist for the South African Defence.

Theesan is dedicated in pursuing a career in dental education and has a keen interest in writing, be it dental related or not. This article discusses volunteerism in his home country of South Africa.

I have witnessed an increased drive in the number of young dentists choosing to volunteer in South Africa, whether this is done on a short term period (e.g. over their summer/winter breaks) or on  a longer term (e.g. some choose to spend a year as a volunteer)

So what are the benefits of volunteering in South Africa?

• Be the change
You are invigorated with youthfulness:  you want to change the world, one tooth at a time. Why not spend this energy helping to better the lives of others? Financial hand-outs shrink in comparison to what can be achieved with the gift of one’s unique set of skills to these underprivileged communities.
• Better your skills
South Africa is faced with its own unique health and dental problems. Expose yourself to interesting cases that you perhaps might not see in your current environment. Hone in on skills of the practitioners who practise in these areas, as they have specially adapted skills to cope with the problems. It is better than reading about it in a textbook.

• Take a working holiday

Everybody needs a break. You have perhaps been studying for a lengthy period. Why not take a so-called gap month or year to reflect and refocus your career? Sometimes a change of scenery is needed and remember that once you start practising, you might not have an opportunity to leave your employment for a long period of time.


Organisations to look out for in South Africa

1) The Phelophepha Train of Hope- This is a unique way of seeing the country and volunteering. The train travels around the country serving underprivileged communities. There is no cost attached to working aboard the train and new teams of volunteers are recruited every two weeks. The dental volunteers are supervised by a qualified dentist and are comprised of mostly senior dental students.
2) Mercy Ships- Similar to the Train of Hope, Mercy Ships travel to coastal towns delivering much needed services. The ship however, also visits neighbouring countries such as Namibia and Mozambique. There is a small fee attached to this programme that covers basic living expenses (about £60 per month).
3) Dental Universities- The University of Western Cape is the largest facility in Africa and boasts many satellite clinics. The University is situated in the beautiful city of Cape Town. South Africa has four dental schools namely, Limpopo, University of Pretoria, Wits and The University of The Western Cape. So why not contact one of these universities for more details.
A combination of the abovementioned programmes may be a good option, and leads to maximum exposure to different faculties. Just remember not to completely romanticise volunteer work. There are often long days, hundreds of patients, unique dental problems, equipment and material shortages, and the ever presence of a language barrier. It is a rewarding endeavour, but one has to mentally prepare oneself for the hardships that are associated with such programmes. 
However, before packing your bags and forceps and making the trip to South Africa, please remember that you need a ‘Volunteer visa’ from the Department of Home Affairs. Applications can be made at your nearest South African Embassy. To find your local Embassy or for more information please visit
Good Luck!
Theesan Vedan

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