Hello, thank you very much for that warm welcome. Full disclaimer, I’ve been moving this past week and these past three days have been horrible. I’ve had three removalists cancel on us several times, so if I go arse-up, you know why. Although it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been arse up in a room full of queers so, here we are.
Hello everyone, my name is Kevin Yow Yeh, a Wakka Wakka and South Sea Islander man, born and raised on the stolen lands of the Butchulla people in Hervey Bay here in Queensland’s south east. I’ve been living down here in Minjjn/Meanjin for the past 18yrs. My partner, Bob Smith, is a Kamilaroi man and he’s in the audience tonight. And together we’ve got two boys, one just about to finish grade 6 and one just about to finish grade 7…so you can imagine the internet search history in our house… is really interesting…and like our boys are tech savvy as most young people are, I’m like ‘why don’t you delete your search history’? I’m like saying to their father, ‘at some point I’ll just have to tell them right?’ I feel awkward for them, I have to do it all the time for your father – delete. And look we can say anything about the boys, cos they’re not here tonight so we’ll just keep running them down. No jokes, we love them dearly, don’t send child safety.
In 2015 I graduated from my social work degree and having spent four years committed to full time study, I was more than ready to do some travel and spread my wings… and my cheeks but mostly my wings. But mostly my wings. But as a poor uni student, I was obviously limited to where I could afford to travel, so I knew if I wanted some serious overseas adventures, I’d have to get creative.
It was here, while creating a wish list of places to go that I remembered an old friend of mine, an old uni friend, once traveled overseas to volunteer. I thought this is great – travel, fees paid and contributing to meaningful work… absolutely, sounds right up my alley.
So I started googling and came across The Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange Program, its website drowning in green and gold, often synonymous with Australian sporting teams. I kept clicking away and I found that the Australian Rugby Union team was heavily sponsored in supporting this volunteer program. Now outside of perving on some football players, I’m not overly enthused by the sport, but I kept looking and before I knew it, I was applying for an 8 week volunteering stint in South Africa building sustainable vegetable gardens.
Before I knew it, I was off to Naarm/Melbourne where I met eight other deadly Blackfullas for a three day induction for our time abroad. One of whom would become one of my dearest and closest friends, and I was actually just talking to her this morning about this. And she’s like ‘Don’t fuck it up.’ I was like ‘Aw, alright Ru Paul.’ See anywhere else, that part wouldn’t have landed… of course with the queers.
After a few weeks from our induction we were off, well kinda off from Sydney. I almost missed my flight to South Africa because I thought I’d be a hero and go out the night before. So my friends had to take, literally, take my luggage to the international airport in Sydney, and I had friends from the night before drop me off about ten minutes before the gates were closing. I quickly rush in, and got changed in the international airport, but I was on the plane. South Africa here I come!
Now, I’ve gotta be honest, I didn’t know the first thing about building a vegetable garden, sustainably or otherwise, but I was just happy that I wasn’t learning about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the socials determinists of well….anything. So I was open to it all. And look, just so we’re clear, I’d never worn steel capped boots before in my life so you can imagine when I’m posting these pictures on my Facebook. My family loved me and supported me a lot didn’t they? No, there was none of that at all. ‘Kevin what are you doing over there?’ ‘How did you get that gig?’ I’m like, ‘well, I got tricked with my mouth, um I mean I’m a good talker.’
So here I was in Africa, with my big self and my big steel capped boots about to use tools that I’d never known the name for, and about to embark on this adventure to build sustainable vegetable gardens. This is gonna be interesting, I thought. And it was. It didn’t take long to learn the ropes, within a week the local school community, and the broader community, were very welcoming, and very happy to take us under their wing and teach us the fundamentals of how to build a vegetable garden. So me and the other Blackfullas who were, how do we say, green on the tools? Who am I kidding, we were Kermit green, like I didn’t know what a hoe was. I mean, I’ve known some hoes, I didn’t know what a hoe was.
So there we were about to build these sustainable vegetable gardens, what we quickly learned through that process, was that the relationships we build with the local community was as important as the vegetable gardens themselves. After sharing our history, of how both peoples had been oppressed by the apartheid regime, our friendship and our working relationship become much more special than that of just a regular volunteer. We had a shared history, and a shared understanding, not only of our struggle, but of our survival and our resistance.
So once we were able to work with the local community and get to know them on a personal level, it was an incredible experience that I’ll never forget.
Weekends were spent exploring our local surroundings. We only stayed about ten to fifteen minutes from Kruger National Park, and Kruger National Park is one of the biggest national parks in Africa. And on our very first trip, on our very first game drive, it’s kind of like a safari but sort of just self-directed. And, we saw the big five on our very first trip, which is apparently really hard to do, and almost impossible. So the big five, are the five most dangerous animals in Africa, and we were able to see them on our first trip. Now, I think it was the lion, the leopard, the rhino, the hippo and the elephant and most of those are really easy to see cos they’re as big as a fucking house but-but-but the leopard was hard. And we were able to see that on our first trip.
Other weekends, we went trekking through lush bushland, past fresh water creeks and waterfalls. In fact, we actually walked through the same spot where Channel 10’s ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ is filmed. It’s random right? I was like ‘What the fuck? What’s going on here?’ But we were there, we were just cruising around, chilling and talking about random, remember how I told you this volunteer program was sponsored by the Australian rugby union team? Well, out of the blue, in the middle of nowhere, one day in walks David Pocock, who used to play for the Australian rugby union team and he’s now a politician in Canberra. Has big legs? Does anyone… yeah, yeah now you remember him.
So random, like we’re in the middle of nowhere in Africa, and in walks David Pocock with this film crew about to do some filming. So that was random, and we got to meet him and look to be completely honest, I didn’t know who David was before that trip. But I remembered those thighs when he left. Yeah, and my partner is in here tonight, and I love you lots.
With our time quickly coming to an end, a couple of the volunteers thought we’d spend what little money we had left and we went on a hot air balloon ride, high in the African sky. We were cruising around and what we’d see next can only be described as un-fucking-believable. And we’re cruising around in this hot air balloon in Africa and all of a sudden we see two giraffes fighting. And it was in that very moment, that I realised I didn’t know how the fuck giraffes fought. Do any of you know how giraffes fight? No, well I found out that morning, well they fight by hurling, yes hurling, their necks at each other. And the pilot, I learnt that day that someone who drives a hot air balloon is a pilot, the pilot was like ‘this is incredible guys, I’ve been doing this job for ten years and I’ve never seen this before in my life.’ I was like ‘wow, this is incredible, awesome.’ Photos and now I’m here telling the yarn. And about not even five minutes later, we, the pilot proved up a river and then, you can’t make this stuff up, we saw there was this big old tree and it was half in the river, half on the land. And the tree, the branches were really shaking, and we’re like ‘something’s down there, what’s that?’ And then out of nowhere, like a hippo comes to the surface of the river and then we literally followed this hippo as it cruised upstream. It was like, I’m like ‘fuck this is like Aladdin and I feel like Aladdin. A whole new world!’ It was incredible.
And just like that our eight weeks had come and gone. The vegetable gardens were fully built, 36 vegetable gardens in fact. Everything grown in those vegetable gardens would go into the local school tuck shop program. As we know, it’s very hard to concentrate if you’ve got an empty belly. So the vegetables and the fruit from those vegetable gardens went directly straight into the school. Anything extra was then sold by the school to the local community to generate revenue for the school. But also, it was selling cheap produce to the locals as well so it was win, win and win.
As I reflect back on my time in South Africa, all of it; almost missing the plane, seeing David Pocock, seeing those giraffes, seeing the big five (I didn’t know what they were before I got there), was an absolute incredible experience in my life. And I look back on my time volunteering over there as one of the proudest moments of my life. Talking Blak on SBS ended up doing a story on it, and one of the biggest that I took from that is that one of the people I met, on that trip, is one of my closest friends. I don’t know why I’m crying, I’m not telling her that I almost cried talking about her, but it was the most exceptional experience in my life and I would really encourage anyone who’s thought about volunteering to do exactly that.
Thank you very much.