Emily Lynch is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Biology, Global Health, and African Studies. She spent her summer in Durban, South Africa participating in a Zulu language intensive cultural immersion program with the FLAS fellowship.
I think a common theme people take from traveling alone is the development of newfound independence. Being in a foreign country by yourself requires you to take initiative in taking care of yourself and getting things done. Understandably, I would have never guessed my biggest lesson learned from my summer abroad would be the exact opposite.
I would claim that I’m a fairly independent person. I like to do things by myself and take care of myself without asking for help. But that independence only takes you so far in a place where you don’t even know on what side of the road cars drive.
I was informed after arriving in South Africa that my program was delayed for an additional 10 days, and I found myself alone with no communication with my host program or family, and no place to stay. [Insert panic here]. Luckily, I found a connection with someone from my home church back in Minnesota and ended up staying with his mother. Rade welcomed me into her home like family and was insistent on doing everything to make me feel comfortable. It was an unusual connection that ended up teaching me an incredibly important lesson that little did I know, would be repeated throughout my summer. One day during our afternoon coffee she said to me, “Now Emily, if there are only two things that I’ve learned in my whole life, it’s that 1) the sun will always come up tomorrow and 2) someone will always help you.” This was the beginning of me learning to accept help from others, something that has been difficult for me to do my entire life.
I got confirmation of my program the night before I was to start, and the next morning walked into the lobby where I was to meet my host family. Before I knew what was happening, I had a little boy hugging and hanging on to my leg. My little brother, Nkonzoenhle, was 5, and didn’t leave my side from that day forward. My mama called him my tail, or “umsila” in Zulu. He was a troublemaker with the sweetest heart. My mama was my biggest advocate and took me under her wing immediately. My baba was quiet with a heart of pure gold. My host sister became my best friend and constant companion. These people went from complete strangers to people I relied on for everything. Getting fed and to class everyday was much more difficult than it sounds. While I loved learning Zulu, my program was less organized than chickens running around with their heads chopped off. Humor among pure chaos was necessary and bonded us in ineffable ways.
Two weeks into my program my baba fell very sick and was isolated in intensive care in the hospital. The days were filled with long rides to the hospital and tears. There was a huge hole without baba at home and the stress of his sickness and the chaos of my program made us all weak. But as Rade taught me, the sun continued to rise and someone was always there to help. All the extended family came from near and far, stepping in to help. My mom contacted our whole circle of family and friends back home in the U.S. to come together in prayer for baba. Day after day, we survived with the support of each other. I took care of Nkonzoe, my sister took care of me, and mama took care of the hospital details for baba. A popular Zulu proverb describes this as Ubuntuism, or “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity,” an accurate description of how I got through each day.
This summer I learned a lot. I learned a small fraction of the vast and beautiful Zulu language and culture; I learned the good, bad, and ugly of being 9,300 miles from home; but most importantly I learned to depend on others. I learned that no matter what, I could still count on a beautiful sunrise every morning over the Atlantic and the kindness of humanity to get me through every day, indescribable life lessons.