One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
I’m ready to take off with my group of African students who have never taken the plane before, and in fact, most of whom have never been outside Johannesburg.
All I can see are colourful outfits, ladies with beautiful, african-patterned dresses, wearing yellow and red turbans, heavy make ups, and high heels. Lots of kids -more than I’m travelling with- and proud, elegantly dressed fathers and grandparents, with tears of joy in their eyes. It is probably one of the biggest family events of all times: their son or daughter gets to see the world, and the cherry on the cake is that the whole project comes for free! The loudspeaker won’t stop, they are constantly announcing flights departing to and arriving from all over the world. Suddenly, a sharp, but beautiful voice hits my ears singing the Shosholoza. Everybody joins in, one by one, until the whole airport, like a concert hall, listen in silence. Shosholza, the ONE song that African people sing regardless of the nature of the event they find themselves at. They sing it during moments of sadness and joy, and they sing it loudly and beautifully. The mining song that became the symbol of togetherness of the rainbow nation, split apart for so long by politics, hate, rivalry and racism. The song of hope and victory. Goose bumps run through my body as I listen to this beautiful improvised choir singing from the top of their lungs. Who cares about airport announcements? Who cares about all the passengers gathering around us? And who cares about the faces of the cabin crew looking at us concerned?
Three days later, in a peaceful and quiet village in France, I wake up with the not-so-good feeling that I definetly did something wrong while getting the kids ready for the trip. I thought I had prepared everything carefully, but little did I know that they simply could not be taught the culture shock that awaited them in a completely new environment. It felt like we were not in a different country and a different continent, but on a different planet. As a result, I spent a lot of time explaining about habits and manners, „savoir vivre”, family life in France, courtesy and politeness as best as I could; and most of the time, I found myself desperetly inventing new definitions to help them better approach the situations they had to face daily for three weeks, but for which they didn’t always have the right words, let alone the behaviour patterns. I also convinced them to buy at least one book each with the pocket money provided by the doting sponsors of this project and handed over to each of the students upon arrival. I found the time to visit a bookshop with them where we spent at least an hour and I was happy to see that my lessons started to sink in. Over time, they became more careful with their spontaneous reactions and tried to select their words more cautiously and observe the unwritten rules of the French lifestyle, which, I have to admit, are not always obvious even for Westeners.
Mini-lessons continued every day I had the occasion to spend some time „tête-à-tête” with them. Eventually, they started to have enough of my cultural do’s and don’ts. „You have to finish your food, even if it’s something you have never tried before. Ask permission to leave the table if you finished eating. Do not criticize anybody openly. Always show interest and enthusiasm for activities the family suggest you. Do not spend too much time on the phone with your family.” And the list went on and on. Plus, the practical side: I had to make sure that they don’t spend their pocket money too fast, and kept an eye on their allowances. Surprisingly, there was no need for a strict control, as I didn’t notice any item unnecessary purchased. What a relief, I thought, since there were so many other things to take care of for three weeks.
I cannot deny that our arrival at Johannesburg International Airport was not as glorious as our departure, and this was due to the extreme exhaustion that slowly settled in our group, including myself and manifested in occasional irritability and intolerance towards each other. I was at my wit’s end when all of the kids started to wander around inside the airport terminal instead of heading through the green corridor and out to the waiting area where impatient relatives were so eager to welcome them. My group of kids disappeared and I could only hope that their curiousity to see their families was bigger then their desire for windowshopping at one of the busiest airports in the world. Not wanting to spoil the last minutes of our trip, tight-lipped, I said nothing but tried to get out of the airport as soon as possible.
Indeed, the Shosholoza song could be heard from far. A mass of people arriving from all directions, literally threw themselves on the kids, kissing and hugging them as if they hadn’t seen them for decades. All I could see was big hands, all of them looking for the ONE pair of smaller hands they had been longing to finally hold and never let go anytime soon. I was happy to remain finally in the bacground, having to do only the small talk with the parents, who took turns to thank me for the unforgettable trip. As the emotions started to wind down, I retreated in a corner to observe the happy crowd from afar. And then, one by one, I saw those little hands, slipping money in the parents’ pockets. The kids’ disappearance earlier suddenly made sense and I aknowledged with a big smile that some cultural differences are hard to overcome. I just regretted one thing. They didn’t exactly got the best exchange rate at the airport when they changed their euros back in south african currency.