By Magda, host mother and YFU volunteer from Pretoria
There is a newsletter I receive every week about all kinds of exciting stuff that happens in and around Joburg. Although I rarely go to any of the places they write about I still enjoy reading about the shows and markets. And although my children are grown ups I still enjoy reading of all the holiday programs different places have for kids during the holiday season.
In this week’s newsletter* the editor mentioned that she suffers from “Fernweh” (A German word that means “a longing for far-off places, farsickness, or a desire to travel”) and I realized I suffered from that my whole life. I’m in my early fifties now and even as a primary school girl I had this longing for faraway places and corresponded with pen pals in France and Mauritius.
I soon realized I fell in love with and married the wrong person if I ever had dreams of travelling. Although we have a comfortable life, comfortable does not include money for overseas travel (even going to Cape Town is a rare treat).
Anyway guess what I did then – I brought the world to my home and started hosting my first high school exchange student in 2008. For the past 6 years our house became a little bit German, Austrian, French and Finnish.
Preparing for the student’s arrival
We prepare for every new student as if we will be travelling to his/her country. We read about their countries, study their cultures and learn some easy phrases in their languages before they come and when they arrive we eat their chocolates (German and Austrian) and their Salmiakki (Finnish) and freak out about the little trinkets they brought as gifts.
Then the fun part starts, we introduce them to our culture, our language, our friends and our religion and enjoy experiencing it through their eyes. We enrolled them in our local high school, helped them with the language struggles, supported them when the home sickness got too much and the best of all we fell in love with them.
They stay for between 10 and 11 months and just when they are fluent in both Afrikaans and English, when they have a whole bunch of friends at school and the teachers forget that they are actually exchange students, when the Pastor at church greet them by their first names and we think they have been with us their whole lives, they have to go home again.
The hardest part is saying good bye
In the middle of winter they leave us, just in time for summer holidays in Europe and winter really settles in our home and in our hearts.
For a few days we don’t open his/her bedroom door and sit with our cell phones in our hands waiting to hear from them and when the messages start coming telling “mum” and “dad” that they miss us and that they wish they were still in South Africa, we start to relax knowing that this is a relationship that will last a lifetime.
Last year 2 of our first students visited us and one of them came again this year for my daughter’s wedding. With the exception of one or 2 of them they still call us mum and dad, they made contact with each other back in Europe and even visited each other, they became brothers and sisters through us, the older ones contacting the new one every year and making him/her feel welcome in our extended family.
My “Fernweh” changed into missing the children that passed through our house but also into a warm feeling that we could make a difference in their lives.
From Host Family to Volunteer
I started volunteering for this non-profit organization in 2009 and every year when we try to place the more than 30 students that come, I feel sad that so many of our families do not even want to discuss the possibility. I wonder what happened to our famous South African hospitality. We changed into a culture that is too busy, too private, too scared and unfortunately in some cases too poor to open our homes to the world.
They do not ask a lot, just a bed, food and a family that will love them. The organization pays their school fees and they have pocket money for their school uniform, books and everything else they need.
Are there other families like mine? People that also have “Fernweh” and want to do something about it?
It is never too late!