Tales from Abroad – Laura Isdahl

Last spring, instead of the flat prairie farmland of St. Peter, I was surrounded by mountains and a chilly ocean with swarms of penguins zooming by. I studied abroad in South Africa as part of a program called, “Multiculturalism and Human Rights.”

There were twenty-two students in all, and we journeyed all across South Africa. We were based in Cape Town, but took excursions to Johannesburg, Stellenbosch and a tiny town on the Eastern Cape, called Tshabo, on the side reaching the Indian Ocean. We lived in Tshabo for only one week, but it was one of my favorites throughout the entire semester.

Can’t blame Laura for missing the place. How difficult would it be to leave a site like this?

Tshabo had houses dotting along rolling green hills, with cows and goats grazing wherever they pleased. Some yards had round pens for animals made of sticks stacked up and woven together.

The night our two vans pulled up, a cluster of fifteen children ran alongside our bus, cheering. The women, who were to be our host mamas, waved and clapped and sang as we drove up the path.

I was in the seat nearest the door, and when I exited the van, there was a pause, then a mama came rushing up and pulled me into her arms. She opened the floodgates, as after that each mama came up for a hug and waited for each student to get out of the car and into her arms. I almost cried because my heart felt so full.

The entire village knew we were there, so we were able to walk around by ourselves through people’s yards, and even in a hole in a fence at one point to get to another Gustie (and my roommate!) Rachel Hain’s yard.

Living in Tshabo felt a lot like camping, and my eleven summers camping for a week in the Boundary Waters made this experience easier, and even a strange comfort for me. I felt a comfort in strapping on my headlamp and marching into the yard to brush my teeth at night. It felt like something I knew how to do and enjoyed, despite the inconvenience.

I shared a room with my friend Hannah, from our program. We had a water tap in the yard, no kitchen sink, and an outhouse in the yard. I took a bath twice in the week, despite the 100+ degree weather.

There were animals everywhere, and Hannah and I made it our goal to take selfies with each one. There were litters of piglets and puppies, and even a tortoise names Terrence. There were plenty of chickens — two even managed to waddle into our house when the door was open, letting in the wind as best as possible. Our Mama was not home and our sisi, Yanga, was taking a bath in the other room, so Hannah and I concluded we were strong and brave enough to deal with the situation.

Our home had two doors — one leading to the kitchen and the other to the living room. I stood by the living room door, holding open the kitchen entrance as Hannah tried to herd the chickens out the kitchen door. Both the chickens panicked, and one came squawking and flapping over to me and I squealed as it scurried by. The other hopped onto the kitchen counter and made a breakaway for the closed window, tumbled into a bunch of trays and leftover containers, and raced out the kitchen door, but not before losing control of its bowels. Hannah and I looked at each other: mission accomplished, I guess. It was just one moment of newness in Tshabo.

Mama Nosiza spoke minimal English, but when we left, we hugged at least ten times, only a week after meeting. She was incredibly expressive and laughed at pretty much everything we said. We share a love for giggling, and that helped us form a bond that makes me miss her a lot. Not only is Mama expressive and affectionate, but she is a complete and utter superwoman.

One night, our group decided to buy supplies for s’mores. The problem was, no one had set up a fire in the light and a mass of people were scrambling to create one in the dark with almost no wood, no kindling, and not even a match. No worries, though. Mama came over, assessed the situation and walked back to her yard. She came back with tons of wood, a metal plate to set it on, matches, kindling and the ticket — just a little bit of gasoline. She pushed everyone out of the way, set up the fire, dumped a little gas on, lit a match and boom. Fire. Then with hardly any effort, she broke a massive branch for logs and stuck them under the already burning fire. Everyone clapped and chanted, “Mama, Mama, Mama.”

It was hard to leave Tshabo. I found a sense of peace in Tshabo I have never before experienced. There is such quiet. A few mornings, I sat out on our front steps and looked across the hills, listening to the chickens squawking and the occasional plea for a good belly rub from our dog, Danger. We watched the sunset as a group and I stood in awe of the beauty that is this little village on the edge of the world.

I don’t know if I’ll ever live in a place like that again, but Tshabo’s simplicity and unconditional love are things I will carry with me moving forward.