Our Stories

Living a Semester on "African Time"

In July I embarked on the 48-hour trip to Grahamstown, South Africa. As I sat on the plane, I felt as though I should cry. I had no idea what to cry about, but everyone had asked me, "Aren't you scared?" I suppose fear is a natural reaction when leaving everything you have ever known to go to a place you have only read about in books. But I wasn't scared so much as anxious and excited to be on my way. Besides, I did not know what to be afraid of. With nothing but a Rough Guide book and a little knowledge about South African politics, I sat on the plane, excited and ready for action.

As soon as I stepped off the plane, I knew there was nothing to fear. It was dawn, and the sun above the ocean was full and red. There is no way to explain the sun in Africa; it is something one has to experience. The air was humid and smelled of ocean. On the ride from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown, I saw parrots and monkeys, and upon arrival at Rhodes University, I was greeted by genuinely friendly people and the sweetest cat I had ever met (there are cats and dogs everywhere around campus and South Africa in general). The cat followed me to my room and took a nap with me for the rest of the day. Everywhere I looked, I felt as though I was in a living postcard.

Before I left, people had warned me about the isolation and culture shock one experiences abroad. I figured this would happen to me, however; I did not figure it would be so quick. As soon as I shut the door to my room, I realized I didn't know another person on the entire continent of Africa. I had two days before orientation began, with no Internet and no cell phone. I phoned home on my calling card, but even that only lasted about 20 minutes. I felt trapped. What was I doing in South Africa?

Lucky for me, I had the friendliest cat in the world to nap with. And that night I was fortunate enough to bump into a few of the other study abroad kids. We all had similar goals and reasons for being in South Africa. The bond was nearly instantaneous and, since that night, I have not felt isolated or alone. Though I now have South African, Zimbabwean and Namibian friends, the study abroad students are my "home base."

Culture shock, however, is another story. There are little things that you miss about home. For example, the combination of peanut butter and chocolate simply does not happen in South Africa; people find it revolting. The Internet can only be found in the computer lab and unless you go at three in the morning, you will wait for a computer. It's so slow and the bandwidth so low that even checking Facebook will slow down the entire process. YouTube is completely out of the question. People walk and drive on the left side of the street. Everything moves slower; the entire concept of time is negotiable. When you say "now" in "African time," it means any time between 5 and 30 minutes.

But eventually you realize that peanut butter and chocolate is kind of gross, that the Internet is mostly a way to waste time (particularly YouTube), and that taking life slower is healthy.

Though I did not cry on the plane trip here, I will cry on the return flight. Leaving South Africa will be one of the hardest things I ever do. I am now only halfway through my journey, but the experiences I have had so far have been unforgettable.

Story and photos by psychology student Acacia McGuire'09, who recently completed a Study Abroad semester in South Africa.