*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men (and women!) and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
In July 2016, I walked into a stranger’s home, was hugged, given a Setswana name, and immediately welcomed into their family. This family lives in rural South Africa and has provided a home away from home for me and created a familial bond that I have never felt outside of my real family.
My host mama is brilliant, a hard-working nurse who lives alone most of the time, tending to her garden, cooking some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, and constantly upgrading her home. She speaks beautiful English, took in her sister’s child after she passed away, and ensured that all her children went to university in order to secure a bright future. She knows of a world outside the village, is often up to date on news before I even am aware, and firmly believes that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.
I have two little host siblings who I adore, Botshelo and Onkgopotse. These two children, about to begin grades 1 and 2 respectively, give me the biggest hugs and smiles after being away for months at a time, ask me to read books and play soccer with them, and eagerly call for me as if I was really one of their own, “Sesi Reya, o kae?”
Add in Granny, who dances everywhere she goes and my host aunts who work incredibly hard and I can always find cooking a steaming vat of pap or scrubbing piles of messy kids’ clothing, and you begin to get a picture of my family.
Perhaps it’s because I have the privilege of traveling or maybe because I devour books at a ridiculous pace (111 since the start of service!), but my perception of the world is that it is a complex place full of differing customs, languages, and traditions and that each of those cultures is valid and worth understanding (and definitely not just because some U.S. American just said so).
Over the course of my service I have met hundreds of South Africans, been welcomed into three families, and learned from the children I’m supposed to be teaching. These people continue to welcome me into their lives, trust me with their kids, and provide me with love and strength. They seek to understand my country and my roots better, asking about traditional dances and marriage rituals, wondering about everything from the cost of bread in the U.S. to the role religion plays in schools and government to our proclivity for a sport ‘incorrectly’ dubbed football.
As I share and ask questions of my own, I can’t help thinking about all the seemingly well-meaning people back home who inquire about my trip to Africa, as if it weren’t 54 uniquely rich countries, or who automatically assume that everything I see must be devastating poverty. There’s good (well not good but understandable) reason for this, U.S. schools focus very little on geography beyond Western Europe, and colonial narratives widely spread throughout the states fail to elaborate on minority cultures in our own society let alone distinguishing the places people were forced out of, immigrated from, or continue to happily call home.
I hope to impress upon you that the little corner of South Africa that I call home has welcomed me in with open arms. They didn’t need the burden of a white looking girl who hates washing her laundry by hand and who often needs entire meetings repeated in English for her benefit. But they embrace me anyway, they acknowledge my broken Setswana and appreciate it for what it is, seek to understand my strange gymming habits, and graciously provide me with water when I inevitably manage to run out.
As a volunteer and a representative of my country, it hurts to see Host Country Nationals (HCNs) inquiring about derogatory remark. It’s exhausting and anxiety-inducing to navigate appropriate responses to their confusion and visible frustration. It’s heart breaking to know that these people who have unquestioningly invited me into not only their country, but their homes wonder if they might be extended the same courtesy in return.
Ke a le rata, lelapa la ka. Ke a go rata, Afrika Borwa.