A history of Khaya: where did it all start?

I always knew I would not stay in the Netherlands, the country where I grew up and lived quite happily for many years. My mind was somewhere else from a young age. As a child I could happily spend hours going through the big atlas we had at home - looking over maps and countries and dreaming of all the places I would go to.

And so it happened that a week after my 18th birthday, I found myself with a one-way ticket flying off into new adventures. For some reason the kibbutz in Israel appealed, free and easy living as long as you wanted to work hard - and working hard is something I was taught from a young age in a family of 6 children, with limited financial means.

The kibbutz work changed into construction work, cleaner, dishwasher, cement mixer or any kind of job I could get my hands on to pay for a bed on a roof of the backpackers hostel in Haifa and basic meals. I lived from day to day and was happiest doing so. Six months passed, and after returning to Holland I quickly packed my bags again and went back to Israel with my best friend to stay for another 6 months of free-styling life - and we were pretty good at it, I must say!

But the future and studying remained on my mind. I chose to study Social Work in Amsterdam for the next 4 years, with the attraction of having a 10-month internship abroad. Far-off places and tropical dreams still lingered, and Suriname (an ex-Dutch colony in South America) was the perfect fit for me.

I loved the relatively simple life of being an intern at the Medisch Opvoedkundig Buro (Medical Pedagogic Buro), the coach of a ladies’ basketball team, and the organiser of weekend tours for fellow international interns also residing in the town of Paramaribo. I saw the opportunity to organise weekend trips into the Amazon, and make some extra cash as a student.

One of the things I personally experienced while in Suriname, was how little information there was at the university in the Netherlands about the local organisation and living situation. There was little support for us international students and we were left to arrange our own accommodation, transport and weekend activities. Fine for some - but not everyone managed when things did not work as planned, resulting in only 5 finishing their year in Suriname from the 15 that went together.

Soon after my return from Suriname, I pitched my idea to the university -  for my graduation thesis, I would research all internship possibilities in Suriname and create a template for placements for interns for the following year. I would also create a training manual and preparation day with other students to improve their chances of successfully going abroad. I would have done basically anything to go back to Suriname for 6 weeks in my final year! Not long before going, I teamed up with a fellow student who would later become my wife for 14 years and the mother of my children.  

My ex-wife is from South Africa, a country that was not on my radar at the time -  but it immediately appealed to me as a new destination to explore. After several short holidays during which I would explore South Africa by car or taxi, while my wife and 2 children (we became parents young) enjoyed the long family visits to her family in Johannesburg, the idea grew - let’s move to South Africa and start afresh! The beauty of the country, the space, outdoor living and quality of life outweighed the risks of safety so many people had warned us about – which, in reality, are very different to what the media tells us.

Moving to the other side of the globe and starting a new life meant there was a lot to be organised. By planning far ahead, we took 16 months from deciding to move, to the actual move. We packed up, sold our cars, resigned from our jobs as Social Workers, gave away stuff no longer needed, and figured out how we could survive for one year in South Africa and find a way to create an income. It was a big step - some would think it was foolish to give up our comfortable life with a house, 2 cars and security; others would admire our courage to take the big step without any jobs lined up. I think we just felt excited about the big adventure about to begin. 

Tickets were booked and boxes were packed - it was time to start thinking about what form of income we could create in our new country, and how were we going to sustain ourselves with 2 small children. I remember it clearly – it was the 23rd of May 2004, and I was taking a bath with a beer in hand and a cigar in the other (yes, it was one of those baths, and luckily I no longer smoke!). I felt a light bulb going on in my head! How about providing a service to international students going to South Africa?

We both had personally experienced the challenges of being an intern abroad, and how a little support at times would be very welcome for a new arrival in a strange country. So the idea was born - a student placement company, providing a support system on the ground to welcome students upon arrival, assist them with a room, help them with a good and affordable rental car, organise fun outings and provide an emergency platform if things did not work out as hoped for. Pretty much my field of expertise, I thought!

So Khaya was born from a humble bathing session. After getting overwhelming support from several universities, especially the Hanze Hogeschool in Groningen, we started to plan for students to arrive in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. To get the real feel we immediately took on an intern of our own - Kaj Bos, who was there from the beginning and assisted with setting up Khaya in South Africa shortly after arriving there in late 2005. He would stay in South Africa for 3 years as part of the Khaya team.

The international students started arriving in that first year and Khaya grew quickly into an organisation providing internship placements, accommodation, rental cars and a variety of weekend outings to all those beautiful places in our new country. Students would come from a variety of studies and would enjoy their stay, combining their studies with travel and new life experiences. We were the ones organising all that and making sure they had what was needed to have a successful internship in South Africa. 

As we steadily grew in Port Elizabeth, we opened a new office in Cape Town in partnership with previous intern Wouter Voois providing even more options for students wanting to come to South Africa. We became the biggest internship placement company for international students in South Africa. We continued to grow, and in early 2010 we were hosting 148 students at a time, had 2 offices, 16 student houses and almost weekly tours and outings with 30-40 people.

Khaya was a success! But something kept bugging me, and I felt this was not what I was supposed to do with my life. As a Social Worker I felt at home in the field of Social Studies - but Industrial Engineering or Commerce were really not my field. I felt I needed to change direction with Khaya - and after working as a regional co-ordinator for volunteer organisation Be More, from the Netherlands, I decided that that was what I wanted to do with Khaya. Through my work with Be More and working with international volunteers for that year, I saw the opportunity to change our services and restructure our company model in a new direction.

I wanted to focus on the needs of local non-profit organisations, to see how we could assist them through the concept of international volunteering. Instead of merely providing individual students with great experiences, I wanted to help build schools, paint crèches, set up sports teams, assist those in need where possible - and volunteering is a way to fund such projects successfully with a win-win situation for all involved. 

We still provided internships, but now it was only at a selected number of non-profit organisations instead of at numerous companies in manufacturing, design or financial planning, like we did before. We could now also provide these experiences for shorter stays and those who were no longer students. We partnered with former competitor 4Exchange Internships in Cape Town to continue placing interns the old way, and slowly phased into our new direction with Khaya - focusing on providing selected projects in Community programmes, Childcare, Education, Sports Development and also Conservation and Wildlife Experiences.

In 2010 our transition began with a new website, www.khayavolunteer.com, which has obviously changed over the years - now the focus was on creating a win-win situation for projects to have extra assistance and financial support, and volunteers or students to have a rewarding personal experience while visiting South Africa. We still ran a successful company, providing an income for a growing team of staff members.

Khaya is no longer that small student placement company for mostly Dutch interns. We have come a long way, and it was certainly not easy - important lessons were learned and improvements continue to be made - but all this started from that one moment enjoying my bath and realising that I had everything I needed to start this new adventure; namely, what I had learned and experienced in the years leading up to this big new move in life. Things fell into place and continue to do so, as we are passionate about what we do and why we do it. We see the changes we have made and continue to make, by assisting those willing to help and by connecting them to those needing their support. 

Today Khaya successfully runs its own non-profit organisation Izizwe Projects, which collaborates with 26 partner projects in South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Malawi to provide volunteer and internship possibilities for the young, old, groups or individuals, families or people on their own. We design school group service learning programmes, help with planning your travels before or after your stay, and plan to expand into new countries in Southern Africa in the next year.

We are going places - but only because we came from humble beginnings , and certainly not without the help of some people that had their way of changing our path - willingly or unwillingly! For that I have some people to thank - Ms. Ter Veen, Kaj Bos, Mr. Zijlstra, Michel Groenestijn, Jeroen and Katelijne from 4Exchange Internships, Wouter Voois, a range of great interns (you know who you are) - but especially my team Igna, Sam, Samantha, Rushin, Janet, Xolani, Ntombekhaya (Port Elizabeth), Charles (Arusha, Tanzania), Francis (Zanzibar, Tanzania), Justin (Malawi) and all others that have been part of Khaya over the years. Without you, the Khaya of today wouldn’t exist!

See you in Africa.

Martijn van der Put




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