I am back from my rural experience and living in my quiet room in Cato Manor. Although it feels good to have my own bed, and to have a bath every day, rather than a bucket of hot water every other day, I had the time of my life at my rural homestay in Dokodwini. I, along with two other SIT students, lived with the Mjadu family, which consisted of Baba (grandpa), Gogo (grandma), Mama, and children Spha (14), Andile (7), Nqobile (6), Olwethu (4), Lindo (4), and Hlanhla (2).

The family was absolutely amazing—extremely accommodating and friendly. I grew especially close to Olwethu and Lindo, who called me “Maluma” all week, which means “uncle” in Zulu. Spha, the oldest child, and the parents knew a bit of English, but the rest of the kids didn’t know any at all. They then became wonderful Zulu teachers throughout the week as I asked them over and over again, “Yini le isiZulu?”—meaning “what is this in Zulu?” Running around the yard with the little ones, playing soccer and giving piggy-back rides until dark, became our favorite nightly entertainment.

This is me hanging out with Lindo in sunglasses on the left, and Olwethu on the right.

As for living accommodations, there really isn’t any service delivery other than electricity. Water was gathered via a river or by collecting rain water—and then boiled in a tea pot to make bath water. SIT provided us with bottled water throughout the stay, so I didn’t drink any water that wasn’t boiled first. Since there is no running water, there is an outhouse for going to the bathroom, and another small structure to take your bucket of water to when you need to bathe. Bathing was a bit harder, but ultimately wasn’t much different than here in Cato Manor (which I have described before). As for meals, the family gave us cereal or eggs and toast every day, and had rice and chicken pretty much every night. We ate dinner while watching the same gospel concert DVD that consisted of five songs…every…single…night. The words to the song “I am More Than a Conqueror” will forever be in my head! Although one night when Baba and Gogo were gone at a church conference, the kids put in “The Karate Kid” which seems to be their favorite movie (Andile loves to say “Wax on, wax off”).

Living in the rural homestay was a stark contrast to living in Cato Manor, for reasons that I didn’t expect. In an odd way, living standards are higher than they are in the urban setting of Cato Manor, despite the lack of basic services such as running water. The family was clearly happier: they had more food, more free time, and seemed to enjoy each other’s company more. I think this was a product of the fact that they lived off of subsistence farming. Since they grew most of their own food, they didn’t have to work 10 hours a day to scrape out a living, and actually could afford a more luxurious lifestyle in terms of quantity and quality of food (we were treated to KFC one night!). They relied on themselves, and they seemed happy about this. Having cheerful young kids around I think also changed the dynamic of the household, and made for a lot of fun as a guest.

I think the fact that the Mjadu family was so separated from the rest of society also played a huge role in this happiness that was so apparent. In the urban setting of Cato Manor, there is a distinct Western influence, and everyone is trying to fit a mold that they can’t quite afford. In this effort to keep up with the materialistic lifestyle that is seen as “the norm”, it seems like people in Cato Manor always feel down about what they don’t have—something that I think is very similar to the materialistic life we all live in the U.S. (whether we like to admit it or not). We are always looking at what others have that we wish we could afford. However in the rural setting, Baba and Gogo worked all day on their garden and land to make the essentials happen. And with only three TV channels that delivered local news, they seemed oblivious to the materialistic world outside their household that they were supposed to be keeping up with. I think this was the biggest reason they were so happy—and I think there is some insight there that we can all benefit from.

This is my homestay family’s home, nestled in between hills of sugar cane with the Indian Ocean in the background, just a short walk away.

Even though I spent a ton of time with my rural homestay family, I still had SIT activities during the day throughout the week. These activities were also extremely rewarding, and are worth reflecting on…

Monday and Tuesday of my week in rural were spent with an organization called Pheonix Zululand, which reaches out to prisoners in South Africa to help them reflect on themselves and turn their lives around. On Monday, I met 14 male, juvenile prisoners (they were all about my age), and spent the entire day—as well as Tuesday—doing reflection activities with them, as well as sharing our life stories with each other. It was so humbling to hear their stories, and hear their ambitions in life. Almost all of them were working on a degree in prison, and all had high hopes for when they returned to “the outside.”

All of the individuals I met said repeatedly something to the effect of, “I am so happy that you are here to spend time with us” which made the trip rewarding right away. I became especially close with Bongani, Sifiso, and Mfundo, who all made impressions on me as extremely bright individuals who had a lot to offer the world. Mfundo is working on a degree in education, and says he will write to me when he is out, which I am greatly looking forward to. Since there was a significant language barrier with many of the prisoners, we ended up learning a lot of Zulu throughout our time there. I think depending on the prisoners to teach us Zulu gave them a lot of pride in helping us out, and actually helped build relationships, which was really neat to see.

Tuesday ended with a rousing traditional Zulu song and dance by the prisoners that they performed for us. It might be one of the most awesome things I’ve ever witnessed! The guards—which are notoriously brutal in South Africa—were swept away by the performance and joined in mid song. I got chills. Needless to say, we felt pretty inadequate with our follow-up, closing performance of “Wagon Wheel”.

Thursday I spent my birthday touring a local high school, then playing soccer on the beach with friends and local kids, which was a lot of fun! Friday we were back in the school, but this time to take the school’s netball team and soccer team on in a school-wide competition. The competition was kicked off in a really cool fashion, with every nation represented singing their national anthem. There were obviously performances representing South Africa and the U.S., but also an SIT student from the Philippines and an SIT student from India that sang their national anthems solo to represent their country. It was one of the cooler things I’ve ever been a part of. We held our own in netball, but predictably got clobbered in soccer—I contributed by completely missing the goal on a penalty kick. It was a fun time though, and I think the school enjoyed our company.

Although I was ready for clean clothes and a shower, leaving my homestay family in the rural area was hard on the following Monday morning. We took pictures and said goodbye, and were told we were always welcome back. I hope I can take them up on that offer someday in the future. We then set out for the Hluhluwe Game Reserve, and our accommodations waiting for us at the Isinkwe resort. The game reserve was great—we saw lots of elephants and water buffalo, and some zebras, giraffes, and rhino. The landscape was absolutely beautiful as well. Once back at Isinkwe, we grilled out and celebrated making it through our rural experience. Although it feels good to be back “home” in Cato Manor, my short stint in rural South Africa was an experience I cannot fully describe and will never forget.

Now that I am back, I have a feeling I will be blogging a lot more, so hopefully there is some quality stuff coming in the near future. Zulu lessons came to a close today with our final exam, and we are closing in on our impending ISP proposals! More on that to come…

Until then, sala kahle, and Go Pack Go!

Austin Plier is studying abroad in South Africa with SIT Study Abroad.