The YFU ‘Cultural Exchange’: Experiencing Life in a Rural Community

By Clara, YFU Exchange Student from Germany

In March, 22 of us went on a “Cultural Exchange” to experience the rural life in South Africa. We stayed in an area called Malelane, close to the borders to Swaziland and to Mozambique. We were split into six groups staying at different schools and I was placed in a village called Kamhlushwa. My host family was very nice and made me feel welcome immediately. I had a host mother, father, two sisters (18 and 12) and two brothers (21 and 2 months).

Cultural Differences

The first big difference I experienced was at church: The service was four hours long and people were crying, screaming and falling down on to the floor. The prophet (the pastor) then grabbed the people and shouted: “In the name of Jesus let the demons leave you”. It is believed that some people have evil spirits in them and the prophet can take them away. There was also a lot of singing and dancing and I liked that part a lot!

Second big difference: School. We had classes from 6am until 4pm. Even on Saturdays. The teachers tended to come and go as they please but the school work was the same as in my school in Middelburg. Interacting with the other learners was also very different: I always thought Spanish people were loud but that is like comparing a mouse to an elephant! There is no comparison! 

Because I am white everybody wanted to take pictures with me (even following me to the bathroom) and I got a proposals from boys from the age of 5 up to men of the age of 70. In the first week they were only writing test and in the second week we realised that we couldn’t handle the classes (they were in Siswati), so we spent most of our time in the library.

The daily life was also very different. My family didn’t have running water, so we always had to fetch water from outside. To bath we used a bucket which we also used as a toilet. I struggled a lot bathing in a few cups of water. So I decided to get my hair braided so that you couldn’t see that I didn’t wash my hair for two weeks. That was the plan but it looked horrible, still.

Food, family and daily life

For breakfast we always had bread and meat/eggs which was fried in a lot of oil. At school the learners got free food from the kitchen, and for some it was their only meal of the day. But the teachers were so nice to us that they always prepared a lot of extra food for us. And at home for dinner we always had pap (the maize porridge) and chicken. Here, everybody eats with their hands, which is actually a lot easier than eating with a knife and fork!

In most families, the daughters are in charge of the household: Cooking, cleaning, washing clothes etc. I was too lazy to wash my clothes so I thought because I was dirty anyway my dirty clothes wouldn’t make that much of a difference! Please don’t judge me!

A nice experience was that we could walk outside and it was safe, which is something I could never ever do in Middelburg. But it did take a while for me to get used people following me and talking to me whenever I went somewhere. For some people I was the first white person they had ever seen in in the village.

Exploring Kruger Park and Swaziland

The teachers also took us to the Kruger National Park one day, which was really really nice. We saw some elephants, rhinos, buffalos, giraffes, zebras, crocodiles, hippos, antilopes… But my personal highlight were the monkeys that were trying to steal all of our food!

On our last day, the teachers drove us to Swaziland: We just went in and out to get the stamps in our passports and a few pictures (we couldn’t stay there longer because our host siblings didn’t have passports so they were waiting outside). I really wanted to get something from Swaziland so I just bought some  toothpaste!

Those two weeks were really interesting. It really made me understand what I value and what not. I am so glad I went on that exchange and I do not regret the experience at all. But I was also happy when we were finally back in the bus and on our way back to ”our” lives.

It was an experience that I will never forget. I am grateful for the opportunity that we had and so thankful for the host family welcoming me and the teachers who took care of us at school!

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