Story by Christian Potter '18
While this site has its counterpart in D.C., I never expected to see a sizeable Chinatown in Johannesburg; this mere glance out the window on the drive home proved to be my first, well, window, into the ethnic and cultural diversity that marks South Africa’s history and on which it thrives to this day. On the other side of the road was a drop off that overlooked the north side of the city—not the central business district with its high rises, the tallest on the continent, but rather what’s widely regarded as the largest man-made urban forest in the world. I now knew that I wasn’t in just another big city; I was in a place where I would learn and grow from the most novel of experiences. All this before I had even laid my head down for the first time, before I had packed my backpack for my first day of school, before I had even begun, formally, to explore the city.
Johannesburg. Joburg. Jozi. The latter two are used colloquially rather often, so they’re what I adopted. A city of four-and-a-half million people in its metropolitan area, it is the largest city in South Africa. As big a city as it is, I felt warmly welcomed everywhere I went. To say my host family took great care of me would be an understatement. Rheede, my exchange student, made sure that I was prepared for school, that I made many friends, and that I enjoyed myself on the weekends. His mother exemplifies kindness, not to mention she is one of the greatest cooks I’ve ever met, and she never hesitated to bring anything to the dorm at school that I had left at home. Rheede’s father gave me great insight into all things South Africa, from everyday life to political issues, beit at the kitchen table or on our trip to Soweto. Rheede’s older brother Daniel both taught me something new and made me laugh every time we spoke. However, the comfort and hospitality that I received extended well beyond the Erasmus home. Every South African I encountered, even the street vendors, who had a real zest for life, helped make my experience pleasant, everywhere I went.
But, of course, I came to have yet another home in Johannesburg, St. John’s College, and not only because I boarded there, as I alluded to. To be specific, I boarded in Hill House, one of the several boarding houses on campus. My roommate, Nhlanhla, and every student in the house, for that matter, helped integrate me into the Hill community, and in turn, the St. John’s community. They made sure I was awake when I needed to be, helped me navigate the confusing schedule, and introduced me to the skills needed to be a boarder. They even gave me a role in the Hill House play, part of the inter-house play competition (which we won), written and directed by none other than Rheede Erasmus. Hill became a great home base for my life at St. John’s over the course of the next five weeks.
As this was, after all, a student exchange, I spent most of my time at St. John’s in class. Even though I was taking classes during my summer break, I greatly enjoyed them, owing to the phenomenally knowledgeable, qualified, and caring teaching staff at the school. I had the added treats of reading an award-winning South African novel, JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, in English class and studying South Africa after the Cold War in History. I even went to Afrikaans class religiously, although I never had a single clue as to what was going on. Much like St. Albans, St. John’s gave me a lot to participate in outside of the classroom. Other than the inter-house plays, I got to sing in the choir, play on the tennis team, and practice with the debate team. However, some of my fondest memories at school include exchanging hilarious stories with some of the friends I made on “benchie,” our beloved picnic table, and frequently debriefing with John over coffee or South African rooibos tea at Seattle, the school’s coffee shop.
However, school was not the only place that I learned on my trip; some of the greatest insights I gained actually came outside the classroom. One Thursday morning, Rheede, John, John’s exchange student Carl, and I woke up at two-thirty in the morning for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We drove several hours away from Joburg to a game farm, a vast property that has some of South Africa’s most intriguing wildlife, where one would go on a “safari,” owned by a St. John’s teacher and her family. They had recently purchased two new rhinos for their game farm, and our job was to help them in the transportation of those rhinos from the seller’s game farm to theirs. After another drive, the four of us in the bed of a pickup-truck, sheltering ourselves from the morning chill and the dust kicked up from the rural road, we came upon a larger team of people and their helicopter. Soon enough, the helicopter ascended, found its target, and tranquilized a rhino from the air. Our team closed in on it right as it was staggering, and it proceeded to fall with a thud onto its side. Several members of the team took DNA samples from the rhino, and when they were all clear, they lifted the dazed rhino onto its feet and began to walk it, about six men pushing from each side, left, right, left, right. “We didn’t bring you here to stand and watch!” said the St. John’s teacher with whom we had come, so we all found some space along the rhino’s sides, pushing it left, right, left, right, until we arrived at a crate large enough to fit the beast, which would carry it to its new home. But that wasn’t our rhino. We repeated the process several more times, including with the two rhinos that the St. John’s teacher had purchased. On a few occasions, the buyers wanted their rhinos dehorned to deter poachers. This meant breaking out the chainsaw and sawing off the rhinos’ long, majestic horns. A necessary evil in the present day, the image of a rhino losing its horn, being degraded in a sense, was deeply humbling. Before the day was over, we had seen giraffes, wildebeest, sables, antelopes, monkeys, and ostriches; Africa in all its glory.
Beyond that life-changing day, I got to discover two of South Africa’s largest cities. On the weekends, when I wasn’t spectating at St. John’s rugby games, Rheede’s family and I strolled the eccentric street markets of Johannesburg. They also took me to the top of the Carlton Centre, the tallest building not only in Joburg, but in all of Africa. I even got to take a graffiti tour of the city with some St. John’s art students. Cape Town, which I visited with Rheede’s brother Daniel, proved to be totally different. With the waves of the Atlantic on one side and Table Mountain and its “tablecloth” of mist as a backdrop, the city is picturesque from all angles. A boat trip out to Robben Island, the political prison turned museum where Nelson Mandela was detained for years, opened my eyes to South Africa’s troubling recent history. The tour of the prison was conducted by a former political prisoner, who shared his story and showed us Mandela’s cell. A short flight took us back to Joburg, and I realized that my stay was coming to an end.
From the first drive home to the teary goodbyes at Tambo International Airport, I was able to pack a lot of “new” and “different” into six weeks. I got to see how boys learned in another country and learn right alongside them. I was amazed by the beautiful flora and fauna of an American’s dreams. I witnessed the St. John’s First Team Rugby fight their hearts out in a sport that I had previously never seen played. I was immersed in a diverse and vibrant culture and impacted by the recent history of South Africa. I grew close to people whom I can now call my friends and family. I am ever grateful for my student exchange trip to South Africa, and I am a different person for the opportunity I had to grab at some of the amazing experiences that that beautiful country has to offer.