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My Four Families in South Africa

    By Sanna Strand. February 25, 2015 - 11:41 pm

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When I left Sweden to go to South Africa I couldn’t decide if I was more nervous than excited, or the other way around. I was excited for the new and different experiences that I knew I was going to have, but I was nervous because I went on this adventure on my own, and I didn’t really know what to expect. The part that worried me the most was that I was going to live with four different host families over a period of three and a half months. Never before had I lived with strangers, in their home, as a part of the family.

I had only been in South Africa for little over a week when we moved in with our first host family. Before we left the hostel to go to our new home, and our new mothers, everyone in the class got a letter written by their host mom. It shortly introduced the family that we would live with for the next three weeks. I am not sure if that letter made me more nervous or calmed me down, but I still have the letter, and I will keep it forever.

As we were driving to Langa, which is the township in Cape Town in which we would live, we started talking about how surreal it was that we were supposed to move in with this family that we had never met before.

The moment we had nervously been waiting for was finally here. When the first person in the class was dropped off, her mama came out to meet her and gave her a big hug. It kind of calmed the rest of us down a bit, but gee, was I still nervous! As we got closer and closer to my house I got more and more nervous, what had I gotten myself into? Was it too late to turn back? I can’t remember a situation or a moment when I have ever been so nervous!

When I got out of the minibus outside my new home I calmed down a little bit, at least on the outside. On the inside I was still freaking out. Tabisa, who works for the program, followed me to the door, but when my mama opened, she left pretty much immediately. I tried to say hello and introduce myself in the Xhosa language, but it is hard to use a language when you have only had one class, and you are really nervous. But my mama was really nice, and we spent the rest of the day talking and getting to know each other.

The rest of the three weeks went by very fast, too fast. I spent time with my mama, and playing with my new seven year old sister and her friends, our neighbors.

When it was time to move in with the second host family I was a lot more calm, and I think it was the same for everyone in my class. We had a better idea of what to expect, even though it was in a new place and with a new family.

This time we were moving in with families in Tshabo, a small rural village in the Eastern Cape, which is a province in South Africa.

We were supposed to be two students for every host family, but because there were twenty-three of us, one student had to be on their own, and that turned out to be me. I was completely fine with this, even excited for it. After all, I had just spent three weeks on my own with another family, and this homestay was just one week long.

My family consisted of mom, dad, two older sisters, and one of the sister’s eight year old daughter. On the weekend the son came home for a visit, and for one day his ten month old son was there. During most of my stay with this family, a five year old cousin also stayed with us, and towards the end, a six year old niece came for a visit. Our stay in the village took place during a school holiday, so it was nice to see more of the family than I would have otherwise been able.

It is interesting how connections work. In many ways I felt that I got closer to this family in one week, than I did to my first family in three weeks. I think that part of this was also that the entire experience with this family was so different. This time I lived in a rural village where the houses didn’t have running water, there were no paved roads, and my family was one of few that actually had a car. To live in an environment so different from what I am used to, I believe, contributed to how close I got to my family.

For the third homestay I experienced some pretty great contrasts. We went from living in this small rural village, to moving in to the nice houses of Stellenbosch, a little outside Cape Town.

Moving in with this family was a big difference after living in Tshabo for a week. This time I was living with a mom, a dad, a seventeen year old sister, and a fourteen year old brother. This time I was also living with a host family together with a girl from my class. One of the main differences with this host family compared to the previous families, other than the big and very nice house, was that while I had called my previous host moms “mama”, I had no idea what to call my host mom this time.

While it among the Xhosa people is accepted, and even expected of you, to call all older women mama, it didn’t feel as culturally accepted to call this Afrikaner woman “mom”. We managed to get through the week, however, without having to call anyone “mom” or “dad”.

When it was time to move in with my fourth, and last, host family, I was barely even nervous to meet them. Once again I was living with a girl from my class, and we had found out quite a lot about the families before we went to meet them.

We knew that the family consisted of mom and dad, two daughters and a son, and five children, the daughters had two and three children each. I was so excited about living in a house with this many children! The kids were all between the ages of eight months to nine years old, and I had a feeling that there would not be a lot of quite time in this house. It turned out that I was right about this, but it was absolutely amazing! I love kids, and I had no problem being surrounded by them practically all waking-hours of the day.

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Before I went to South Africa I was really nervous about the homestays and living in the homes of strangers, but looking back, it was the best part of my study abroad experience! How can you better experience the local culture and customs than by living with local people? I am still amazed by the love and kindness these people showed us. Many of them does not have a lot and they do by no means live a life of abundance, but they still open their homes to foreign students twice a year just to show us how they live and teach us about their culture. When I talked to my host families about why they started hosting they said that they enjoyed meeting new people from around the world, and that they learn from us as well. I am just so amazed by what these people do to make us have the best experience and to learn as much as possible. Without these people my study abroad experience would be something completely different. 

I had come to South Africa alone. When I left I had four new families, many, many new friends, and memories for life. I know that when I go back to South Africa, and it is “when” not “if”, I can go see my host families and they will welcome me with open arms. 

Photos courtesy of Sanna Strand.