Yesterday, as I made my way down the path that takes me from my office in the Student Centre to my residence in Ruth First, I observed a chaotic scene. Nearly 100 people, predominately middle-aged African women, were either parked or queued up outside of the entrance to my residence. Many women packed their belongings in a clear sturdy bag in which a comforter is packaged, which made their possessions visible.
I quickly made the connection. Earlier on the path, I glanced at a new sign that was hanging over the doors of the canteen. It announced something about a Baptist convention.
As I slithered my way through the group, I became curious to learn from where they traveled. My favorite security guard, Lawrence, was on duty. “Lawrence!” I shouted. “You didn’t warn me about this.” He responded with his typical greeting, “Meneer!” A few weeks ago, I asked my colleague, Sashley, about the meaning of this word. She explained that it is a formal way of saying “sir” in Afrikaans. My requests of using my first name have been ignored. The undertones of a power differential are unsettling to me. “Lawrence, you need to make sure that I don’t hear any Gospel singing in the middle of the night. I need my rest.” “Is it?” he responded with a smile. Sometimes my sarcasm is lost somewhere in the cultural divide, but Lawrence typically picks up my humor.
It was not Gospel singing that kept me up last night. Instead, it was the hallway echoes of African languages. My fan and earplugs could not mask the noise long enough for me to drift away. The more that I concentrated on the melodic voices outside of my door, the less tired I felt. I soon became warm and uncomfortable. It was in this moment that I started reflecting on month one.
When South Africans inquire about my experiences, I consistently mention that the transition has been seamless, especially when compared to my former journeys to Germany and Ukraine. I have contemplated why the acclimation process in South Africa has been easier, and I have concluded that several variables play a role: the language of my host country, my levels of autonomy and maturity, my knowledge and skills, my expectations, the support provided by my hosts, my environment, and my network of acquaintances. I am certain that there are other factors, but these seem to be the most prevalent.
Before departing, I thought about my previous travel experiences and the advice that I would offer to my students as a study abroad advisor. I arrived well-read and informed about the context of South Africa. In the Office of Leadership and Social Responsibility, I am respected for my personal and academic backgrounds, I have been given a high degree of independence, and my colleagues repeatedly illustrate their kindness and generosity. I am a more mature, thoughtful, and patient person. Instead of tramping around a continent in an attempt to see as many places as possible and bragging about the number of stamps in my passport, I have slowed down my pace and slowly soak up my experiences.
I welcome you to join me later this week for part two of my sleepless night, which will highlight my thoughts and expectations for my second month in South Africa.