International exchange programmes are life-changing. Andrina Sommer, a Swiss 15 year-old girl went to Johannesburg on an exchange for a year with YFU Suisse, a well-respected youth exchange organiser…
“When are you coming back home?” Was the first question my host family asked me when I called them a few weeks back. Crazy how I have found a home miles away from my own home within a year. Unbelievable how life can change within a year. Amazing how rewarding life can be.
At the beginning, nothing seemed to be working out quite the way I had expected it to.
The first time it actually dawned on me what I had signed up for, was when I arrived, all alone, as this innocent 15 year-old girl, at this huge airport on the other side of the world – Johannesburg. I remember reading on some billboard: ‘They call it Africa. We call it home.’ However, ‘being home’ was the last thing I felt during my first few months in South Africa. I had a cultural shock – and this is putting it mildly. But ultimately I stayed there for exactly one year.
I did not understand so many things: the poverty, which seemed to be everywhere I looked; the different traditions; the language; the ‘why’ you do things the way you do; and in all of this, I was trying to figure out who I was.
The latter was the hardest of them all – you go from thinking that you know who you are, to actually not knowing yourself at all, before you do develop into this ‘new you’. But this somewhat very tough yet extremely rewarding process was only possible because I tried to be a good observer who looked more closely than usual, who listened more attentively, who asked questions about everything that was new and different, and because I had people around me who helped me understand and appreciate what was around me.
I live with my parents and my older sister in a very(!) small Swiss town. To my mother I am extremely close – every morning she sent me a “Good morning. Have a great day my love. I miss you” – text while I was on exchange. I probably replied every third time. The same with my friends: I was not the best replier on earth but we skyped occasionally and this is how we kept up with each others’ lives.
School was peculiar. I was an exchange student and thus like some exotic animal from a zoo. Nonetheless, I enjoyed going there. I liked the school uniform, which made my daily life much easier: getting up, brushing my teeth, tying up my hair, putting on my stockings, the skirt, the shirt, my jersey and tie and lastly, the most uncomfortable and indeed, ugliest shoes on earth.
The biggest difference I noticed between my life here and the one I led in South Africa was the vitality of my new friends there and their faith in God – I adore the way they lead their lives. They know how to treasure every smallest thing each day has to offer with joy and love.
I realised the latter best after staying for two weeks in a township near Nelspruit. This ‘Cultural Exchange’ organised by YFU as part of the overall programme was supposed to show us exchange students another side of South Africa and it did: Never had I expected to encounter so much warmth and kindness in such a place. In the township I learned to value those things we do take for granted, such as flushing toilets, showers (cold or warm), a roof over your head that does not leak, and even a car or a bus that takes you to and from school safely. Trust me when I say, walking for two hours to and from school is not such a cool thing as it may seem. But forgetting about these ‘luxuries’ for one minute, I would like to get back to what I mentioned above – the things that amazed me most were the people’s generous hearts – we could all learn a thing or two from them.
I am most grateful to my host family. They made things easy for me and helped me integrate even though it seemed ‘evident’ that I would not to fit into their family at all. The fact that I was a girl; that I could not speak a single word of Afrikaans; that I was not a Muslim or that my skin colour was lighter than theirs, did not matter at all. They made me feel at ease – they made me feel ‘at home’.
I always wanted to have brothers – I cannot understand anymore why I actually did, but now I have three of them: Budroodeen, Moneeb and Ies’Raa’Fiel. They are wild, loud and crazy little monsters but I would not swap them for all the money in the world. Neither would I want to share my newly found host parents, my ‘Mami’ and my ‘Dedda’ (Fatima and Ebrahiem). What they passed on to me was invaluable: it felt like they were raising me again, teaching me how to walk, how to speak and how to be ‘me’, without ever disapproving of me. I was always just right the way I was. One of the most important lessons I learned from my ‘Mama Africa’ was that I can be whatever I want, as long as I believe in myself. Moreover, she did not just teach me how to have faith in myself but also how to put my trust in God.
The last words I heard from my ‘Mama Africa’ before there was just some line noise left on the phone, were: ‘We love you and we miss you.’
Believe you me; I dearly miss them, too.