Submitted by:  Erin Williams

Erin took the opportunity of going to South Africa on a six-week student exchange program arranged through her school in Auckland, Pinehurst College, and an exchange partner school in Gauteng, facilitated by Sven Zimmermann (a member of #ImStaying).  She was so moved by the experience, that she was eager to share her experience with members of #ImStaying.

Erin’s story is shared as a collection of responses to some guiding questions.

What was it that appealed to you, about participating in the exchange?

I really wanted the chance to step into a new life for a while and I had always wanted to visit South Africa.  Living in New Zealand, I am quite isolated from the rest of the world.  Although I have previously lived in both the UK and the Caribbean, the idea of Africa has always sounded so foreign to me.  The exchange was a chance to explore a place I could only imagine, as well as meet some new people and step out of my comfort zone a little.

Did you have any expectations or assumptions, before going to South Africa?

When I first applied, I knew next to nothing about South Africa.  Throughout the entire process, there were a number of concerns expressed by both the school and parents.  The four of us selected were thoroughly prepared for the worst, warned of every situation that could go wrong.

Were any of your assumptions or expectations realised or true?

The people around me were cautious and knew how to avoid dangerous situations.  I was taught so much about being streetwise and although I never felt scared or worried, I was surprised at just how careful you have to be in South Africa.  My exchange partner was just as surprised when she came to New Zealand, shocked that I could walk home alone after dark.  The exchange allowed both of us to explore vastly different worlds.

When you got there, how were you treated by local people, in everyday situations?

The minute I arrived I was made to feel at home.  Everyone I met was so friendly.  I loved saying hello to people – all the hugging!  I have never experienced a culture where instead of just a “hello”, it’s a “hello”, a hug, a cheery smile – it was so much more welcoming.  I loved that part of the culture so much.  The people there were so openhearted, they were really nice and I never had a bad experience with anyone.

Did you feel there was anything about the landscape or the people, or your experiences there, that you felt were unique?

The country itself was beautiful.  I was lucky enough to explore so many places, including the Kruger National Park.  The wildlife is one of my favourite memories, it was so different from the rest of the world.  The talent in the market places was incredible!  The artists were amazing, creating wonderful carvings and sculptures with the simplest of materials.  My suitcase was full of wooden figurines and paintings.  The vibrancy of everything was so uplifting; a magnificent part of the culture that I absolutely think is unique to Africa.

What was it like, living with a South African family?

I loved it.  They became a huge part of my life and became my family for almost six weeks.  There were a few cultural differences that I learned to appreciate, as did my exchange student partner who came to New Zealand.  It is strange becoming part of a new family, getting to know them so well and then just leaving.  I miss my South African family so much, especially my exchange partner.  We spent almost 12 weeks together exploring both South Africa and New Zealand.  She became like a sister to me.  I think having a host family is the best way to fully immerse yourself in the culture of the country.  I didn’t feel like just a tourist, I became part of a family.

How do you feel you were enriched, or changed, as a person, by going on the exchange?

Those five short weeks changed me so much.  Aside from adopting the accent for a while, I grew massively in confidence and picked up the friendly nature of the South Africans.  Meeting so many new people in such a short time vastly improved my social skills and I could not be more grateful to South Africa for helping me become myself.

Would you encourage other students (or people in general) to visit South Africa?

That is an absolute, definite YES!  South Africa is the perfect place to explore a culture unlike any other, meet the friendliest people you will ever meet, buy some incredible souvenirs, and see some wonderful wildlife.  I would ABSOLUTELY recommend visiting South Africa, especially as an exchange student.  When I returned home, I was so homesick for South Africa.  I missed everything – the people I met, the places I saw, the vibrancy, the life, the colour.  I still miss it all and look forward to going back one day.

When you think back on your trip, which experience/s come to mind most tangibly?

My first thought is always the people I met, the crazy adventures I had with them, and just how much I miss them.  One of my favourite memories is from my second day in South Africa.  I had just met my exchange sister’s closest friends and we went to Sandton City for some shopping.  We had an amazing time but the best part was sprinting around the mall at the end (wearing very high heels!) trying to find someone’s mum – our ride home – whose phone had died.  The mall is massive and we were searching everywhere.  We even tried to get the security guards to announce our location over the PA system.  We were tight on time too, hence the sprinting around, but I had the best time.

Is there any one-liner or message you would like to share with the more than one million South Africans who may read your story?

Be proud of your country.  South Africa has so much to offer and I fear that it has been sorely misjudged by so many people.  The kindness and vibrancy that I experienced are above and beyond any other place that I have visited.  I hope many more people get the opportunity to see for themselves just how amazing South Africa is.

Edited by: Alison Zimmermann

For more positive and uplifting stories visit us at #ImStaying