Sometime during Mid-March I began to feel melancholy and a bit lonely during my stay in South Africa. I couldn’t really declare people as unfriendly or impolite, generally everyone I’d met had been polite. I’ve come to describe the behavior as pleasantly uninviting. Now of course I can’t say I have the bubbliest personality but I’m more more of an extrovert than an Introvert. The first week in May I extended an invitation to classmates and others I’d met for a Soul Food part-KFC (Yes KFC as in Kentucky Fried Chicken)IS NOT REAL FRIED CHICKEN! Of my eleven guests 2 were South African; all the others were from America, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Central Africa. It wasn’t that I hadn’t invited South Africans. I had. They just didn’t except the invitation. As I’ve begun to meet additional people who are not South African and have lived here much longer than I, we’ve discovered the same experience-while we have had pleasant exchanges with South Africans and some of us have had them to our homes, very few of us have been invited home to dinner or over for tea. The South Africans we’ve met have been very polite and may even go out with you for lunch or share a cup of tea, but being invited home hasn’t been an option.
A Warm Welcome
So while I enjoy the solitude and the mental space, the isolation has been a challenge. Antsy I decided to visit the country next door, Namibia. I began planning in March, contacting people I’d met in my travels, including another Rotary Scholar. By the time my plans were finalized, I’d make three stops before returning home. My journey began in May. I spent two days in J’burg with Rotary Scholars and a South African I’d met earlier. My weekend in J’burg was a whirlwind with lots of things left over on my things to do list for my next visit. but I did get to experience night life in J’burg people really party there, visit the Hector Peterson Museum, drive by Mandiba’s home in Soweto and eat dinner at Wandie’s Place which was delicious, so much like Soul Food at home.
Then I sojourned over to Namibia and what a Warm Welcome! The difference in reception is remarkable. The South Africans I’ve met in Kwa-Zulu Natal are pleasant, small talk is friendly “How are you getting along or How are you finding South Africa?” are common queries. Come over for dinner, lets hang out together or set a tea date are not. In Namibia, I stayed in small towns with much fewer amenities for the first week-yet the welcome was genuine, the warmth was real and the conversations were meaningful. I was invited to people’s homes and tagged along to the places and spaces where they socialize.
Week two I was back on the bus for a long ride to Windhoek. Although our times were mixed up my host greeted me with a smile and ushered me to a relative’s flat where I would stay for the week and left me to recover from my overnight travels. By mid-afternoon we were out shopping for food then made our way over to UNAM (University of Namibia) where we met with an SRC (Student Representative Council) representative to confirm a presentation to students for the week. Without hesitation I was booked for Thursday afternoon. On Tuesday I spoke with a Rotarian from Walvis Bay who quickly linked me with Namibian clubs, by the evening I’d been booked for another presentation Thursday at 13:00hrs and by Tuesday evening I’d been booked for another presentation with Matric students at a local college! While in Namibia I did four presentations, three were particularly meaningful because they were with youth. I enjoy working with and motivating youth.
I visited NIED (National Institute of Education Development); I met with other community based program representatives and confirmed a dinner appointment with a former colleague for Wednesday evening with his family. What a Warm Welcome! In Namibia, the welcome is warm, the connection sincere and conversations are full of cultural exchange; my Ambassador duties are being fulfilled. It’s as close to home as I’ve felt since I’ve been here. When you travel far from home, the ability to create a social circle that is genuinely warm and welcoming vs. tolerant makes such a difference. I’m learning it takes a bit longer than expected and to expect the unexpected in South Africa, but nothing beats a Warm Welcome.
I’ve come to accept my social circle in South African probably won’t include many South Africans. When my ambassador duties are over and I am back home wondering about where I’ll find a warm welcome during my next travels, my welcome will be in Namibia, Kenya, Ghana, America and Germany, maybe by the end of my tenure it will also include South Africa. I truly hope it does.