Sometime during the end of my sophomore year in college I decided to spend the following fall semester abroad. On a whim, I decided South Africa would be my destination. I applied and was accepted to the Organization of Tropical Studies program on African Ecology and Conservation Biology. The program took an integrative approach to exploring ecological issues in concert with human issues. As my fellow researchers and I traveled from one region of South Africa to another, our fieldwork focused on learning about the ecosystems surrounding us and the cultures we were immersed in. We were introduced to a host of black ethnic cultures, white cultures of primarily British and Dutch decent, and 11 official languages that collaboratively form the rich national ethos of South Africa.
Part of the program involved a homestay in which we lived with families in the rural village of HaMakuya. Situated north of Kruger National Park, bordering Zimbabwe, HaMakuya was part of the ex-homeland of the Venda people during the apartheid era, a period from 1948 to 1994 of legal racial segregation under the National Party of South Africa. As a result of apartheid, HaMakuya suffered extreme levels of underdevelopment.
My homestay mother taught me how to do daily chores and prepare Venda food, like mopani worms and a porridge called pap. When I joined my homestay family for the Zionist Christian Church service, we piled into a tiny, five-by-five-meter mud room to dance around a central pole. The room became increasingly dusty as the pastor read aloud from a Bible translated into TshiVenda, the local language. One of my most lasting memories of that first week in HaMakuya—and one of the main reasons I wanted to return—is of an experience I had during a celebration one night. I was invited to join in a traditional dance where one person is thrown down a row of interlocked arms. I fell into the dancers’ arms as we sang “Shosholoza,” a call-and-response style song originating from oppressed industrial migrant workers. Later, the song transformed into a symbol of the future democratic South Africa when it was used as the national sporting anthem in 1994. I looked at the stars above me and a lasting trust and relationship of reciprocity took root that night.
After my spring semester back in the States, I returned to HaMakuya the next June to conduct independent ethnobotany research. This time I was excited to be going alone and able to devote more time and energy into establishing relationships with people in HaMakuya. During those three months, I established close friendships with many people in the community and furthered my understanding of its complicated sociopolitical aspects. I also tutored individuals who were eager to practice their English conversation skills and review assignments from their 12th-grade English literature class. Many students seized the opportunity to receive extra help in English. I spent my weekends working for hours with many enthusiastic individuals—some of whom walked an hour to the camp and an hour back just because they’d heard I would assist with schoolwork. Three girls in particular joined me every weekend to go over course work and practice speaking English. At that point, I began considering the possibility of returning to the community after my research program was over to initiate a project aimed at improving English-speaking skills in HaMakuya.
Find more posts about: South Africa