ESSAY BY GLEN RETIEF
Three-thirty pm in Limpopo province in northern South Africa, just a few miles south of the Zimbabwean border. It’s early winter here, the middle of May, but like García Marquez’s mythical Macondo, these scorched mopani-and-baobab lowlands—and the people who live in them—know nothing of natural ice. Outside, the red dust of Matiyani village scalds human feet; makes children run, laughing, for the shade of thatch overhangs. On the granite hillocks, goats and cattle pant for water.
Right now, I’m reading on a comfortable bed in a large, traditionally styled, mud-and-thatched house belonging to Cedric and Nettie De La Harpe, a white South African couple granted land here, a few years ago, in this traditional Tsonga-speaking community. Their company, Taste of Africa, has a mission of “empowering our poverty-stricken communities through exposure to the global world." This "global world" is where my husband, Peterson, and I come in. A South African expatriate creative writing professor, today I'm co-leading fifteen of my students at Susquehanna University on a study abroad trip, part of a program called Global Opportunities, which aims to upend all students' cultural assumptions and allow them to reflect, through travel writing, on why they see themselves the way they do.
Over the past eight days, we've eaten grilled cow’s cheeks in a miners’ hostel in Alexandra township. We’ve paid our respects to a blanket-clad Sotho chief. We’ve learned Shangani dances by lamplight, with the smells of giraffe barbecue wafting over from the nearby fires; used moonlit sisal bushes for toilets; and gone hunting with pack dogs in the coastal scrublands of Kwazulu-Natal.
Matiyani is our next-to-final stop, and the only reason I’m enjoying a moment of quiet rest is that today is a culminating immersion of sorts. In groups of threes and fours, students are spending a full two days with their local host families. The goal is to absorb the unfiltered atmosphere of African village life, from cooking to cow-milking to impromptu social gatherings. Tonight we have a reflection session and a celebratory dinner, but the only reason students are supposed to visit us during the day is if they need help.
Now, lying on the bed, though, I hear voices and footsteps. Peterson is talking to disembodied American voices. Something must be wrong: I think tourist tummy, fire ant attacks, or worse, the mysterious hot-and-cold sweats than can be an early sign of either tick bite fever or malaria. I hear the kitchen door opening, and people coming inside, so I get up and head into the kitchen-cum-living-room, where Peterson is making tea for seven or so red-faced, exhausted-looking female students sprawled over the lounge furniture.
"What's going on?" As I ask this question, the thought does cross my mind that the outside still does seem remarkably noisy. Footsteps and giggles waft through the walls. A skinny African lad peeks through the closed burglar grate across the living room doorway, and smiles and waves. I wave back: an automatic reaction from spending time in these villages, where the dire despair of poverty seems greatly leavened by what South Africans call ubuntu—conviviality; community.
“You wouldn’t believe what just happened!” says Jade, a light-skinned Dominican student from Long Island.
“What a workout,” pants Steph, a short, vivacious brunette from rural Pennsylvania.
Their story tumbles out, even as the outside racket builds and two, four, then seven or so kids poke their heads against the entrance grate, some of them thrusting forward open palms for money—annoyed, I shake my head and shout Voertsek, scram!
What I learn from our students is that around noon, at the homestead where Jenna, Liz, Sarah, and Abby are staying, an impromptu party began. A phone connected to battery-powered speakers; neighbors dropping by. Our students swung around the young children; played hide and seek with them. Then, as the crowd grew, local kids demanded to show the four Americans some Tsonga dance moves. To be good sports, they played along, generating, of course, much laughter and merriment. Then the Tsonga kids began to imitate US vocal pitches and accents by pinching their noses, a game that had already been getting on the Americans’ nerves from the previous day.
“At first it all just seemed in good fun,” says Liz, sitting in the living-room. “We understand—we’re exotic. But the joke went on too long, and then at some point it wasn’t good-natured anymore. It began to seem aggressive.”
The crowd grew to perhaps a hundred neighbors, forming a vast circle around the pale-skinned girls in their peculiarly casual summer shorts and armless T-shirts. Cheers and claps—the students couldn’t tell whether delighted or mocking—as the four Americans jiggled up everything from Miley Cyrus grooves to Shangani harvest dances. And a renewed barrage of accent imitations.
“We tried to say no, we weren't enjoying ourselves anymore, but they wouldn’t let us stop. They were awful.” Steph explains: “We just get a vibe they don’t really like us, and they’re bullying us.” When the four ran across to where more of our students were staying, people followed them and dragged a now-expanded troupe of performers back to the original party venue, until, at last, Peterson walked by and evacuated the seven of them back to our bungalow.
"But it seems we actually brought half the village back with us," Peterson says, gesturing to the kitchen doorway, through which I can see still more people milling and talking. He shrugs, smiles a little: the situation seems as incomprehensible to him as it is to the students.
Compassion and Kindness 101: when a whole group of your students unanimously insists they have been treated badly, listen to them. Yet now, in the face of this evidently sincere anguish, I’m surprised at how irritable and unsympathetic I'm feeling towards these students, towards Peterson for identifying with their distress, and towards Americans in general—my adopted compatriots. Within a US cultural framework, this situation seems to evoke scenarios from emotional safety presentations. For me as a South African, though, my current associations are different.
Right now, for example, I’m thinking of the old colonial comic books I read as a child. Tintin in the jungle, doing who-knows-what to upset hundreds of natives, and then shrugging in passive helplessness at their unintelligible reaction: a shrug repeated hundreds of times in my early years, as my white friends and family shook their heads in bewilderment at the peculiar ways of “the blacks.” Or the “inscrutable intentions” in Heart of Darkness, a literary mystery that infuriated Chinua Achebe so much, he penned that classic portrait of coherent African reasoning and motivation, Things Fall Apart.
Or, to be perfectly honest—this isn’t a thought that shapes itself into words, in the moment, but later I will recognize its unconscious power—the vast crime of apartheid itself, perpetrated by white South Africans when we allowed themselves, specifically, to get spooked by the vision of black people, in large numbers, bullying us. I may not completely realize it yet, but this is the button my students’ fears are pushing—the story of my home country’s near-destruction—massacres, murders, brutality—by white terror.
Then, too, to be fair, the notion that these students could have been facing active anti-American persecution does strike me as far-fetched. Villages like these have their fair share of panhandling, manipulation, and obnoxiousness. But the ethos of hospitality, especially to homestay visitors, is almost always overwhelming. So right now, I’m also reacting a bit like an American professor might, if told about a group of newly-arrived students from remote Zhizhiqu province in China, who conclude their Roanoke, Virginia, host families hate them for China’s stealing manufacturing jobs from the US, and who express fears the Virginians may be plotting to kill them at night, like with the civil rights activists in Mississippi Burning. In short, youthful inexperience can lead to some off-kilter interpretations of risk in both directions—sometimes minimizing the danger, other times exaggerating it.
As a teacher, what are my priorities? For them to feel safe, but also to learn about culture. To gain the skill of asserting themselves, so they can build solid, mutually respectful cross-cultural friendships.
“And the students were just saying”—now Peterson’s tone is gentle as he breaks me the news—“they were nervous about confiding their struggles in you, because they were scared you’d judge them as culturally unskilled.”
This last revelation hits me like a punch. I’ve overdone it—taken the students beyond their coping skills. My judgementalism has stood in the way of my being a mentor. I’m a failure, a loser—what South Africans would call a moegoe, pronounced with a guttural throat-clearing. These thoughts and emotions jostle and argue in my head. Meanwhile, the outside hubbub seems to be increasing, too—something’s clearly going on.
“It's OK," I say then. “Everything will be alright.” I point outside: “I think I'm just going to check on that."
And to my astonishment, outside perhaps three hundred people are sitting in a vast circle on the dung floor patio alongside Cedric’s house. Blankets and plastic chairs have miraculously materialized. A dozen kids are running around on the perimeter of the gathering and spying on the inside of the house, but the vast majority are simply sitting here, in solemn silence, as if awaiting a Carnegie Hall performance. Cedric and Nettie’s two goats watch from the direction of the fenced-off vegetable garden.
Luckily, in seconds Cedric’s there, with Thomas, his Tsonga-speaking right-hand man. We soon learn this: last evening there had been a rumor of a village welcome party for the Americans, involving a famous group of dancers. When the performers failed to show up last evening, people assumed the party would be pushed over to today. The villagers thought our students' gyrations a signal that the celebration was imminent.
Cedric and Thomas explain about our schedule and constraints. We cannot have that celebration today—we have other plans.
"So the party's over?" asks an older woman in hand-stained, colorful dungarees.
“Definitely over,” say Cedric, Thomas, and I.
A beat of muttered conversation—then, like an army division striking camp, all three hundred people calmly get up, grab chairs, and blankets, and file past the house and to the front gate. Peace settles back on the compound; cicada shrieks, goat bells, and tree frog chirps. Cedric, Thomas, and I heave a sigh of relief.
Later that evening, Peterson, Cedric, and I try to facilitate conflict resolution meetings between the students and their host families. The students initially resist us—they say talking about these things will be “awkward”—but we insist cultural miscommunication must be ironed out: this is the entire purpose of the course. The host families indeed express their dismay and horror that the Americans were feeling bullied, judged, and rejected. In African culture, it's polite to let your guests eat separately: this wasn’t intended, as some of the US students had assumed, as coldness. The villagers thought our students were enjoying the accent jokes, since it was the young children they played with who began this buffoonery. Ditto for the dancing, and as for the locals who walked away from conversations with the American students—something else the Americans had interpreted as unfriendly—the villagers say they were just shy about their English.
While many students will still have uncomfortable feelings about the dances and accent jokes at the end of our trip, they will also express gratitude for being pushed to work through cultural misunderstandings. “Is this the only study abroad trip that forces students to work so hard?” Steph will later laugh.
That evening, Peterson and I talk about the balance of our team teaching: him, American, close to the students; me, despite half a lifetime in North America, still strongly pulled in the direction of the cultures that shaped me, with all their distorting traumas. We discuss a more manageable final immersion next time round, perhaps in a smaller, calmer village. Later, I will also wonder what would have happened if Cedric and Thomas hadn’t been there to provide backup. I’ve certainly dealt with my fair share of rough South African situations before, especially as a young man: mass demonstrations that turned into fights with police; hiding out from armed militia in Soweto. But can I really say for sure I would have found a translator and parsed through all the misunderstandings? If things had taken a different turn, can I be sure I would have reacted so differently from my own students?
Before bedtime, Peterson and I walk over to Jade, Liz, Sarah, and Abby's house, as we’d promised. "Come on in," the women call, when we knock. A clapping game is in progress, with ten or so young girls from the compound.
"Join us," Jade invites, and we sing the ditty, attempting to clap our neighbor’s hand on the final syllable, before she can snatch it away. I have never made note of Peterson’s excellent reaction skills, but they are in ample evidence tonight, as he whacks Jade on her left knuckle to win the game.
"It worked out,” Liz says, as we get up to walk back home, under the star-sprinkled African night sky—in itself a marvel that never exhausts itself for me. “We learned about cultural flexibility.”
Sarah, or perhaps it’s Abby, adds: “We learned about making blind, ignorant judgments.”
"Exactly,” I say. “Blind’s the word.” I shake my head. Me as much as any of you, I think, recalling my quick condemnation of their anxiety, as a result of my own cultural hang-ups. I want to say something more, something about how much I love and appreciate them, about how valuable this whole muddling-through of the mess of life can be, but all four girls are already turning back to begin a fresh game with their new friends, and the last thing I want to do right now is interrupt their joy.
Glen Retief’s writing has appeared in Puerto del Sol; Fugue; The Massachusetts Review; The Greensboro Review; and VQR. His memoir about growing up in South Africa, The Jack Bank (St. Martin's) is available here.
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