After living in Johannesburg for six weeks, I can confidently say that the memories and lasting sense of culture were well worth 48 hours of round-trip travel and a month and a half away from home. Arriving in Johannesburg and being met by my host family, the Bremners, I was immediately thrown into the fascinating cultural chaos that is South Africa.
After a day to recuperate at my new home, school began immediately for me at St Stithian’s College (Stithian being a Saint I’m positively sure Johannesburg pulled out of thin air) where I was greeted by a thousand-strong student body of blazer-clad students in the freezing (literally) morning air. With this many students, even in my sixth week I found myself having to introduce myself as “the new exchange student from America” at a school that otherwise felt surprisingly similar to Athenian. The dress code was strict, and Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans may have been language options, but the similarity in curriculums and most classes was uncanny. After school, I often found myself watching a rugby game or a cricket match at home with my host family. On the weekends, I occasionally found myself at one of Saint’s rugby or cricket games where the crowd was encouraged to sing and yell in broken half Zulu-half English at the opposing team in what they call a “war cry.”
One weekend I was lucky enough to visit Cape Town with my host family. I was shown a wonderful city that I found quite different than Johannesburg. Cape Town is more international than the culturally-confined Johannesburg, as well as more scenic. Cape Town was built from the ocean’s edge up into the mountains that Johannesburg sits on top of–700 miles away and 4,000 feet above Cape Town’s ocean front promenade. And while Cape Town was built into the natural valleys and hills of the Cape, Johannesburg was thrown on top of the ever-so-flat Highveld, the miles and miles of grassland above Cape Town (think Nebraska but with ostriches). That fleeting change of scenery made the walks on the oceanfront promenade and the hikes up the Cape’s vast mountains even more special. My host family also took me on a short boat trip to Robben Island, the prison that was used to house political inmates throughout the historical period of apartheid, where an Afrikaaner party used a political majority to hold down and segregate the country’s Black population.
Another week I was treated to a four-day stay in the Kruger Park, a seven-hour drive from Johannesburg. On game drives, I saw animals such as giraffes, leopards and elephants. At night, we routinely had to chase hyenas away from our barbecues. Here, I was also introduced to the African foods pap, which I was pleased to learn I could eat with my hands, and biltong (think beef jerky but worse), which most people in Johannesburg treat more patriotically than their flag. Every day we woke up early and went on a game drive before returning to our zero-emissions house to retreat from the afternoon’s blazing heat.
In between these two fantastic vacations, I found myself waking up daily at 5 am, tiredly looking forward to attending my classes for the day. I hung out with two Jordanian exchange students and small group of Saint’s boys I befriended. While I took slightly fewer classes than the regular Saint’s student (the school graciously allowed me to customize my schedule), I always looked forward to attending my several South African and world history classes. There I learned more about apartheid, the Rwandan genocide, and African history and politics than I ever could have hoped to learn in the United States.
In between classes, the connections I made with my fellow exchange students and students at Saints were transformative. The conversations we had over the best two-dollar coffee I’d ever had will always stick with me. I’m still in contact with some of these students today. While I was initially apprehensive when signing up for the exchange program, this experience is one I would gladly repeat.