I spent the majority of this summer living in a township called Lekazi in the Mpumalanga region of South Africa, whilst working as a Project Coordinator for Tenteleni. It was an incredible experience, but also a pretty steep learning curve – so here are some of the things I learned throughout the eleven weeks I spent there!
1. Watch out for water shortages.
When you’re about to wash your hands, don’t soap up before you’ve checked whether or not the water is on… The water where we were staying went off for the bulk of the middle of the day, so it was always good to try running the tap before putting soap on your hands, or you’d find yourself in a bit of a sticky situation!
2. People have great hair.
But a lot of the time, it’s not actually their hair.At first I kept getting really confused when people kept laughing at me for complimenting them on their ‘do so enthusiastically, but then when I saw people with completely different hairstyles two weeks later I eventually cottoned on. After that I was just jealous that I couldn’t do it (though the daughter of my homestay host tried to persuade me I’d look great with a weave, I wasn’t convinced).
3. Driving is scary.
The hard shoulder isn’t the hard shoulder. In South Africa, it’s more like an extra lane for slow drivers (or indeed drivers who drive at the speed limit). If you spot a car in your rearview mirror coming towards you at an alarming pace, move over to the left to let them overtake! Or else you might get beeped at and rude hand gestures in the mirror. A lot of the roads also don’t seem to have been sensibly designed for cars. There are lots of driveways at 45 degree angles and that was something I never got used to… the bumper of my poor car suffered a lot through those eleven weeks.
4. Road names aren’t a thing.
Directions seemed always to be given in terms of ‘turn right after the speed bump, and left before the big old tree’, or ‘make a short left at the bottle shop’. I genuinely couldn’t name the road we lived on for three months, I just knew how to get there. There isn’t much need for road names and addresses when there’s no postman going around delivering letters – everyone has a PO box!
5. Handshakes are like a code that you have to crack.
In England, greeting people is a pretty straightforward deal: arm outstretched, hands shaken, that’s the end of it. But not in South Africa. It’s like every handshake is a secret that you haven’t yet learnt, but you have to pick it up on the fly. Which made every new meeting a fairly stressful situation.
6. Accents can be problematic.
Even though English is widely spoken, the South African accent has infused into words to the extent that quite a lot of the time, my pretty bog-standard Cambridge accent was received in great confusion. This especially happened when we were explaining who we were to people in the community. “Tenteleni” is a SiSwati word, meaning do it yourself. The charity is named after a primary school in Lekazi. Yet it still often took us about 8 attempts to get the message across. Frustrating, time-consuming, and hilarious.
7. All watches are set to African Time.
And this is something I very much got used to. By the end of project we got to the stage where it really threw us when people actually turned up at the time that we had asked them to be there. I personally really enjoyed the vagueness of saying ‘I’ll be there at 12” and arriving anywhere up to an hour after that.
8. English is taught from an early age, but not necessarily grasped.
Some adults had a better understanding of grammar than I do. The kids, not so much. A lot of them didn’t yet seem to have realised that ‘How are you?’ is a question, and had a tendency to ask it and then answer it themselves, so we’d often drive past and they would shout ‘howareyouimfine’ at us with glee. Very confusing. And amusing.