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A Cultural Immersion

Sejal Shah, Public Health and Development in South Africa, Spring 2014

An African Elephant in Kruger National Park

For the past two weeks, we have been busy traveling around South Africa. We spent time in Johannesburg, Kruger National Park and Hamakuya. At Johannesburg, we visited several historical museums, such as the Apartheid Museum, Liliesleaf Farm, and Nelson Mandela’s House. At Kruger, which is a huge game reserve, we saw the big five animals on the first day: the lion, African elephant, leopard, Cape buffalo and rhinoceros. The natural beauty of the different terrains, as well as the majestic beauty of the animals, were breathtaking. However, the best part of the journey came with Hamakuya where we were split into groups to partake in home stays in the rural villages of South Africa.

I stayed in a village called Dotha with four other students from my program. Our host mother, Rachel, and her mother-in-law welcomed us. We greeted our host family with the traditional Tshivenda (the local language) greeting, which consists of the girls laying on the floor with their hands to the side of their face saying “Aah.” The one boy in our group knelt on one knee and greeted the family by saying “Nda.” Our host family is quite extensive with the grandmother, mother, father, three daughters, son and daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren living there. We could not have asked for a more welcoming and caring family to stay with for the three days and two nights in Dotha. The village’s children also welcomed us and spent the whole weekend playing with us and accompanying us everywhere we went. Since most of the villagers only spoke Tshivenda, we had a translator, Glenda, to help us communicate with the community.

Terri, Christine, myself, Emily, Braeden and our host mother wearing traditional clothes in front of our hut.

Our family, who is relatively wealthy, has three huts and a small house. One of the huts is used for cooking while the other two are for sleeping. On the property, there are several chickens, cows, goats and dogs roaming around. The family also owns a large garden which is not typical of families in the village. The garden consists of several vegetables including spinach, cabbage and sugar cane. Our group and all the children were given several sugar canes to chew on for our walk back to the village. That was the first time I ate sugar cane, and it was definitely a sweet experience! Another new experience occurred the second day in Dotha. Our host mother dressed us all in traditional clothing so that we would look presentable for church. Then, with our translator and one of the younger daughters, we walked for an hour and a half to a Born Again church. We spent three hours in church, experiencing the emotional part of the repentance and the high spirited part of the sermons. The church welcomed us, having us on stage dancing while the pastor and other members of the church greeted us.

We had a great time eating sugar cane, playing soccer with the kids and dressing up in traditional clothes. Yet these amazing times didn’t hide the hardships of everyday life in the rural village. Since the water taps in the area are all broken, the women of the village have to walk at least 15 minutes to fetch “clean” water and carry it back to their huts on their heads. I say “clean” because some villagers get water from the river where cattle and children wade in. Others gather water from springs that may contain a high E.coli content. Other activities, such as grocery shopping, children going to school, and men going to work also provide obstacles. With the virtually nonexistent transportation system, the commute to almost anywhere could take hours. Children must leave for school before dawn arrives, and many fathers leave for work in the coal mines at 3am every morning.

The cooking hut and outdoor fire pit where all the cooking is done.

When we said a hesitant goodbye to our family, the mother and grandmother said they will miss us and be bored without our company. The monotonous daily life of women in the village is something I could not deal with. Thus, I am amazed by the strength of the women in the village and their acceptance of their place in their society. Nonetheless, sorrow set in when I said goodbye to our warm host family and the peaceful lifestyle of Dotha. Although the people in these villages don’t have much in terms of money, services and material goods, they are always in high spirits and willing to provide a helping hand when needed.

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