New, but not Completely Unfamiliar

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By Niisoja Torto, Duke University ’20

Niisoja recently returned from our Summer 2017 Global Health Issues in South Africa program and is serving as an OTS Alumni Ambassador for the 2017-2018 school year.

In her TEDTalk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks to the danger of a single story, asserting, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Reflecting now on my homestay experience in Sanari village, Limpopo province, South Africa, I cannot help but attest to the validitiy of Adichie’s remark. Coming to South Africa and approaching my homestay, I unknowingly believed into a single story—a single story that polarizes my life and the lives of the people with whom I was soon to live. During the three days of my homestay, I expected to live a life completely different from the one I was used to living. After all, I was coming from a different region of the world, speaking a different language, looking at the world through the lens of a perceivably different culture. In reality, however, my expectation of encountering difference could not have been more uncharacteristic of my time with my incredible homestay family in Sanari.

Day two of my homestay experience was particularly striking in this regard. At around 7:30 am, my group, our incredible translator, Glenda, and I awoke from a well-needed 10 hours of sleep after an enjoyable but tiring day of play with children from all over the community the day before. To be honest, ‘tiring’ is an understatement; in fact, I had never felt more justified wielding the phrase, “I wish I had half the energy you have.” Soon after waking up, we devoured my all-time favorite meal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with tea. That afternoon, we did some chores, bonded with our host family, and walked around the community, talking to community members at their homes and at a local market for our research project on rural livelihoods in Sanari. Our relatively slow day was truly refreshing and worthwhile. However, when I heard that a nearby home was having a birthday party that night, I jumped at the opportunity to close the already great day with some dancing. That night, we ate delicious pap (maize meal)—a meal that reminded me of food from my own culture—and danced the night away under a clear night sky. What surprises me most reflecting now on day two is that, in reality, this day’s events were not far-removed from what I would have done (or would have liked to have done) back home.

While many experiences that I had during the homestay were new to me, such as eating from a communal bowl, these experiences were remarkably not completely unfamiliar. It is interesting to note that, despite the language barrier we experienced with many of the residents of Sanari village, it was as if we could still speak some same language—a language characterized by happiness, love, fun, and many smiles. This realization initially surprised me; but why should it have? That is the danger of a single story: a story that often predicates itself on the perceived differences between people rather than on their abundant similarities. While I was challenged both physically and mentally during the homestay, I was more comfortable than I had been in a while. This reality, I think, speaks volumes to an almost inexplicable shared human experience—an experience that transcends language, background, and borders…an experience that made my homestay the great experience it was.

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