It shouldn’t come as too great a surprise that touring a place and living in a place are two completely different entities. Touring South Africa, you get to pet lion cubs on your very first day in country, feed giraffes, and watch ostriches snap at each other.
Living in South Africa, especially among my new community, is to face the struggles of poverty, the remnants of Apartheid, and to laugh and celebrate with my host family over the small things. Touring South Africa is to taste all the new foods, living in South Africa is learning to cook them. Touring South Africa, while amazing and breathtaking, is limited in ways that don’t allow for the rough housing I do with my little host brothers or the time I spend in the kitchen with my Auntie or walking into town and practicing my (very limited) Zulu. Touring, while allowing for broad exploration, struggles to achieve the deep relationships, the roots you can establish by living in a community.
Vryheid, my new town, is a small city surrounded by farm land. During Apartheid, the city was exclusively white with a black township just east of the city limits, which means that race and race relations, while peaceful, as far as I can tell, are constant reminders of the past. The country side here reminds me more of the Scottish highlands or the northern Alaskan tundra than it does the Savannah. Stark, but not barren, with low growing vegetation and few trees. The ever present, insistent wind whips through wispy grass mown short by the herds of cattle that roam everywhere. Somedays I feel as though I’ve stumbled across the Midwest of South Africa, with dairy farms and fields stretching out for hours in every direction, outlined with the vestiges of untamed wilderness, and only interrupted by sparse, isolated, rural communities, some simple places of refuge, some dominated by missionary built churches. As we drive, my host father points out which churches are still only attended by white or by black congregants. “Blacks are not allowed there,” he points, shaking his head sadly, and soon we are immersed in a deeply theological discussion about race, a reminder that this idyllic landscape, so far removed from civilization, is certainly not free of the corruptions of humanity. But, in spite of it’s tainted history, Vryheid is a bustling area, a large town on the border of becoming a small city. Almost every day, I walk the 15 minutes into town to explore and get better acquainted with my new home. There is always someone to greet, someone to chat with on the way.
I live in an ever busy house – my host father, the local dean, my host mother, a local grade school teacher, my grandmother (Gogo, in Zulu), my Auntie, my Uncle, my adopted brother who is my age, and three younger brothers – Mazwi (5), Maqwahe (2), and Alwande (1). Every single one has been incredibly welcoming, allowing me the time I needed to find my feet, while gently laughing at my stumbling attempts to live like a South African. “You must try everything, but do not feel bad by saying you do not like it,” encourages my Umama (mother) in the kitchen, but I find her advice applicable every where I go. “But why?” is the constant question from Mazwi, who is learning English at school but insists he doesn’t understand me (especially when he knows he’s in trouble), forcing me to explain all that I can before he erupts in a fit of giggles at my funny behavior. Alwande, the youngest, smiles so huge it melts your heart every time you pick him up and has made it a habit to crawl into my lap every time he’s tired, which then results in a totally enamored Rachel cradling a snoring toddler. And Maqhawe, the stubborn one, makes me work for every smile and giggle, but we’re slowly warming up to each other.
The food that Auntie and Umama make every night is comforting, lots of rice and pap (a kind of cornmeal that can be similar in consistency to cream of wheat), supporting thick sauces and various kinds of meat. Walking around town, the very popular South African pasty pies are easily found, as well as just about every kind of food you can imagine, although I’ve been told that it’s prudent to stay away from Eastern Asian cuisine and stick to the Indian if I’m feeling international.
And it’s cold! Not cold by AK standards, but chilly. We’re just emerging from “winter” into spring here, and most days it isn’t much warmer than high 60s. The few warm layers I brought with me (because even moving to Africa, the Alaskan in me just couldn’t leave behind polar fleece) have earned their spot in my suitcase again and again. Living with a host family has been an incredible experience and has comforted me as I struggle to find my place here. While I don’t yet know where I can help in the community, dirty dishes and energetic little boys are international phenomena and I’ve found it easy enough to help with both (these boys are total suckers for peekaboo and anything with wheels), although Auntie still tells me I’m not allowed to do the dishes. “You are a guest!” she insists, so instead, I finish them while she’s out of the house, earning me a small huff and a big smile when she gets home. “Dear,” she calls me, “what will I do with you?” The day that Auntie lets me do the dishes will be the day that I know I am forever a part of this family. So for now, I just sneak my chores and smile at my brilliance, entertained by my own sneakiness, not unlike my new little brothers.
Until then, walking around town and constantly meeting new people keeps me busy enough. Soon, I’m going to be visiting local rural churches more often, attending confirmation classes here in town, and shadowing Umama at school. While I might not have a routine yet, I’m beginning to wonder if I ever really want one.