By Dustin Roberts
Right now I’m sitting in my room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, sweating with the fan blowing on me. I just checked the weather back in Lexington, and it’s freezing with a forecast for snow. While I mull over the seasonal difference, the amount of time I’ve been here, and how much I’ve changed, home has never felt so far away.
At the end of July, as I prepared to leave Kentucky for South Africa, every imaginable emotion was going through me. I was excited, sad, nervous, frustrated, and I felt clueless and almost regretful. This was my fi rst time leaving home for longer than two weeks. The journey to South Africa took two days. Altogether, it took me 40 hours to get from Lexington to Port Elizabeth.
Needless to say I was exhausted when I arrived. I was met by my host family at the airport and taken to their house in Summerstrand. It is a beautiful place, but when I first arrived I was a bit disappointed. It’s located on the beachfront, the houses and apartments are enormous and well kept, and it’s a big tourist attraction neighborhood. It feels like any beach town back in the States. I came this far from home to be challenged and forced to adapt to a new culture. My first thought was, “Where is the challenge?”
I spent a couple of days resting and adjusting to the time difference before I went to Victoria Park Grey Primary, the school I was assigned. It was only a 10 or 15 minute drive, but I realized that in this city that’s all the time you need to travel to an entirely different world. In this city the life and sights are varied. The rich beach life of Summerstrand was quickly behind me. The mansions turned to falling down houses and apartment complexes, and abandoned buildings. Shiny cars turned to white vans packed with 15 or more people, cyclists, and pedestrians. We dodged goats and cattle in the roads and had to go around a cart loaded with scrap wood and metal being pulled by two donkeys.
When I arrived at Victoria Park Grey, the whole setting seemed surreal. The school was built more than 150 years ago, and the dusty, unfinished, and beaten wooden fl oors showed their age. I remember seeing the giant wooden doors with handles, locks, and keys that were reminiscent of the Victorian era, and the thought of Hogwarts entered my mind. I entered those doors and was introduced to my class. Students all instantly stood up and greeted me with a uniform, “Good Morning, Mr. Roberts!” They remained standing until I said good morning as well. They all then plopped down in their wobbling desks, which looked as though they were brought in more than 100 years ago and had remained unmoved since. This was also the first time I heard people speaking isiXhosa, which is one of the southern African languages that utilize clicking sounds and was the fi rst language of 99% of the students in my class.
During my first few days at the school I knew it was going to be challenging–clearly the hardest transition I’ve ever made in my life. The routine was different, as were the organization, the behavior, and the teaching style. Behavior management was extremely different. I was surrounded by a language I had never before heard. It took me more than two weeks to learn the names of my students, because of the pronunciation, and even longer for those names that contained ‘clicks’. My students would break out in laughter every time I tried to pronounce someone’s name.
As the months passed, I got a better sense of the life my students lived. I could share endless stories about the tales they’ve told me, the newspaper articles I’ve seen, and the stories I’ve read in their English writings. One incident gave me a glimpse into their culture and its variation from my own. I was teaching a lesson on health in Social Sciences one day, and the topic was HIV and tuberculosis. We were talking about the symptoms, getting tested, and medical treatments. Someone brought up the topic of sangomas. At this point I had heard of sangomas and knew what they were, but I didn’t realize that my students bought into them.
A sangoma is what we would call a witch doctor. They live mostly in the surrounding villages and townships, serving as doctors to the residents, but not “doctors” in the sense that most westerners envision. They chant, throw chicken bones, prescribe unheard of remedies, and use what many westerners would consider to be unorthodox methods. Just to paint a picture of what I mean: One of their methods for “curing” HIV is to bless the patient, who must then have unprotected sex with a virgin.
Some of my students were adamant about their belief in sangoma healing. They couldn’t believe that I had no faith in sangomas in general, let alone that they could cure HIV or tuberculosis. Some of them actually became furious. I found myself at a crossroads. In South Africa, HIV and tuberculosis are very prevalent. I felt a duty to protect them and convince them that a sangoma could not do such things, but at the same time I wanted to show respect for their culture. In the end I tried to meet them in the middle by saying, “Maybe there are some things a sangoma can cure, but why would you take a chance with something as serious as HIV or tuberculosis, when we know that a doctor can help?”
I believe that somewhere inside us all is an instinctive belief that we will overcome any challenges we face. I still can’t shake this emotional struggle, which gives me a sense of duty. It’s a deep sense of belonging and a feeling that I can–and should–make a difference. I believe that home is wherever you feel you belong, and maybe that’s why this feels like home to me. Being placed with a host family not only forced me to separate myself from other Americans, it gave me many more opportunities to make friends with the local people. I have relationships here that are as close as any I have back in the States. That has given me the chance not only to explore the city in more depth, but to become more culturally involved. I’ve been to nearly every corner of this city, though rarely as a tourist.
I’ve traveled to farms, to the central markets, to a birthday party in the KwaZakhele Township, to villages in the Karoo, to the best secret fishing spot, and to countless outof-the-way restaurants and bars. I fully opened myself and took every opportunity to discover the world around me, and it’s made all the difference. As I’m writing this article, it’s been over four months since I arrived, and I only have three weeks left. It’s hard to explain how that feels. I’m leaving home all over again, and that sense of regret is creeping back.
I’ve had challenges here, and they have been tough. I’ve had those moments that I’m sure every teacher has had, when we ask ourselves if we’ve made the right career choice. But what is the experience without struggles? I grew to love the challenges and realized that the feeling of success only increases with the challenge.