Robin Breedeveld – Living in Africa

Foreign student, Robin Breedeveld, tells us why she chose to volunteer at Diabetes South Africa and about her adventures in SA so far.

Robin Breedeveld (22) stays in Rondebosch, Cape Town and is currently studying at the University of Cape Town (UCT). S

Studying in SA

Originally from the Netherlands, I completed my bachelor’s degree but moved to Cape Town South Africa to complete a master’s degree in international development studies with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa.

For this reason I figured that UCT would be the best place to continue my studies, and I moved to Cape Town in February 2022. Cape Town is an amazing versatile city to live in and I’m learning a lot about myself and the world by living abroad. I currently live very close to the university. I like to walk so I try to walk to university, although it’s uphill and my blood glucose always steeply drops after that walk.


My diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes happened when I was six years old. I remember being incredibly thirsty, and this wouldn’t go away despite all the glasses of water I drank. My parents would put me to bed but I would sneak out of my bed and tiptoe to the tap to drink more, and tiptoe again to the toilet. At first, my parents got mad because they thought I stubbornly wouldn’t go to sleep, but very soon they realised I should see the GP.

After a glucose test, we discovered I had Type 1 diabetes. I started my diabetic journey with injections on a very strict diet. Not necessarily low carb at all, but my doctor had a schedule of how many carbs I should eat every day and exactly how much insulin I should inject for that. I used both long-acting and short-acting insulin.

Insulin pump

The doctors in the Netherlands wanted to get me on the insulin pump for a while, but I refused because I didn’t like the idea of having something permanently attached to my body. But once I turned 12 and puberty hit, my hormones spiked my blood glucose through the roof and the doctors said I had no choice anymore but going on the insulin pump.

That turned out to be one of the best turning points in my life. I no longer suffered from the tender bruises that I had on my legs from injecting, and I was able to pretty much eat anything as long as I correct it with the pump (although pizza and Asian noodles always seem to stay a problem).

Alongside the pump, I was still finger-pricking. Once I turned 19, I was able to get the FreeStyle Libre sensor. This has been so helpful in reducing my feelings of diabetes burnout because it reduces the amount of actions of having to finger-prick so much. It also really helps with exercising and improving my awareness of what my blood glucose levels are doing overall.

Diabetes youth camps

From when I got diagnosed, my parents sent me to diabetes youth camps in the Netherlands. For an entire week, I would be surrounded by other kids with diabetes, even group leaders with diabetes, and there were so many fun activities.

This was a great, eye-opening and empowering experience for me, because I realised that I wasn’t the only child in the world with diabetes. From that first camp experience onwards, I ended up going every year until I turned 12. I made some really good friends at those camps, and still keep in contact with some.

DSA volunteer

I always wanted to go back to one of these camps in my twenties. My friend (who I met at a camp)  and I had the ambition to go together as team leaders one day. Unfortunately, we never got to do that together as she abruptly passed away at 19.

When I moved to South Africa, I decided that both for myself, and in honour of my friend, I would get involved in diabetes youth camps in Cape Town. I googled and came across Diabetes South Africa (DSA) and started volunteering.

It has been a really rewarding experience and I’m so happy I became involved. It was so nice being a group leader at Camp Diabetable that took place recently, and to see the effect it has on kids with diabetes, just like it had on me when I was younger. I aim to stay involved with DSA until I leave Cape Town. The DSA team has also started feeling as my own little family here in South Africa.

The ups and downs

Diabetes has never really affected my work or education. Of course, a bad day of blood glucose levels or a sleepless night because of lows can affect your deadlines, but I have generally found that teachers at UCT and back at home are very understanding. In my experience, they are quite lenient in providing deadline extensions if I need them, although that is rarely the case. I also just try to be kind to myself when that happens, despite how frustrating it may be.

An active life

I love being active; I’ve been playing rugby since I was 15 years old and I also really love hiking. With diabetes, this isn’t always easy. One of my horror stories is that I went on a not very known hike on Table Mountain with a friend and we were completely lost. We couldn’t find the trail anywhere. Initially the hike was supposed to take max five hours, but it ended up taking us nine. And of course, I only took food and drinks for five hours and I ran out of energy bars and juice while we were still climbing up. I even ate all the energy bars from my friends who I was hiking with.

Luckily, my blood glucose level was stable at that moment, but I was afraid of what would happen if it were to drop. I decided to take my pump off completely and just hope for the best. Once we got to the top, we were also unlucky because the restaurant and cable car were far from where we were and we still didn’t see any people on the trail. We decided we would go down slowly and if my blood glucose dropped, we would have to call the Table Mountain emergency line.

Eventually, we saw a couple walk in the distance and we screamed for help. Luckily, they had so much food and sugar on them. We decided to accompany them all the way down and that is how everything turned out well in the end. So, my tip would be, as a person with diabetes, please take food and drinks for three days on any hike, even if it’s only supposed to take two hours.


When it comes to rugby, I try to always start training with a blood glucose level of 8 – 12, and in the middle of training I inject a little bit of insulin so that I don’t skyrocket afterwards. This works quite well for me.

Sometimes, rugby coaches don’t really understand my diabetes which can be frustrating. They might not understand that if I’m low, I can’t go back on the field immediately after a sip of juice. They do not understand that I need a solid 15 minutes to feel slightly better.

A few weeks ago, I went on a rugby tournament to Kimberley. After having had a bus ride of 12 hours, only having eaten breakfast and arriving in Kimberley in the evening, the coach spontaneously decided to do an hour training before dinner in 30 degrees. I tried to communicate that this really doesn’t work for me and can cause problematic blood glucose levels, especially after not eaten anything since breakfast, but the coaches failed to understand and didn’t accommodate my needs. It was really frustrating but I’m never afraid to stand up for myself, so that is what I did. In this instance, I recommend young people with diabetes to stand up for themselves, and if people aren’t interested to hear about your situation, you must choose for yourself and make them understand, whether they want to or not. I think diabetes has taught me this skill and has taught me to sometimes be fierce, if really necessary.

Visible pump and sensor

I never feel the need to hide my diabetes from people. I always wear my pump visibly on my trousers, and the sensor is also quite often visible. It has actually resulted in the nicest encounters with other people with diabetes. Once I was walking on the street, and as a guy passed me, he stopped, took his pump out and shouted, “Buddies!

Last month I went to Rocking the Daisies, a music festival, and a girl came up to me because she saw my sensor. She showed me hers, and we ended up giving each other tips on which alcoholic drinks are best for our blood glucose.

Of course, sometimes non-diabetics ask me funny questions like if I’m recording them (sometimes they think my pump is an old MP3 player), but I’ve never gotten negative comments. Even if I did, I don’t think I would care.

Living my life like anyone else

Diabetes has never stopped me from doing what I want to do. Age 19, I went solo backpacking through Kenya and Tanzania then went back to live in Kenya for three months at age 21, and went wild camping and hiking through the Swiss mountains. I didn’t experience major struggles related to my diabetes doing this, I just made sure I had enough food, pump consumables and insulin with me and a bag to keep my insulin cold.

My diabetes has also not stopped me from pursuing my dream of studying and living abroad. Of course, it always remains an extra challenge. You always have to make sure you have the right stuff with you to make sure you don’t get into tricky situations like what happened to me on Table Mountain.

When I arrived in South Africa I was also really confused with how the medical system works here, because in the Netherlands it works completely differently. It took me months to figure it out, but it has never been a reason to hold me back. I encourage every person living with diabetes to just do the badass things they want to do and to not be afraid! All it requires is a little extra planning.

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