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Tripping on trips

By Tessa Dowling

Xhosa language immersion in Eastern Cape villages

African language students at the University of Cape town (UCT) get to experience Xhosa cultureand village life first hand – as well as learning the language.

The postgraduate trip – Aphi amabele akho? (Where are your breasts?)

The first time I went to live in a Xhosa village to do post-graduate research, I was given the only bed in the hut. The children of the household would creep in with me, and Iwould try and record what they said and work out linguistic patterns from their lively, chatty discourse. I remember the smell of smoke, and the way they giggled when my floppy tongue produced flaccid, half-hearted clicks. I remember the wind smacking the door and the mournful sounds of the cattle and the deep greetings of old men and sturdy women shouted across hills, across other villages, itseemed to me. I was happy.

The second time, I was given aroom behind a suburburban house in Mqanduli. I bathed in a bucket in an ornate tub with gold taps that had not yet been connected to the plumbing. My Xhosa was still not great, but the more visitors I had, the better it became. I remember the local teacher askingme: “Zingaphi izithandwa zakho?” (How many lovers doyou have?) and an old woman telling me the bridge of mynose reminded her of someone, and a beautiful young girlcomforting me when I broke down in tears at the frustration of my linguistic incompetence: “Ungatyhafi sana.” (Don’t give up, babe.)

The first time I heard the word‘amabele’ (breasts) being used outside a classroom was when the chief demanded to see mine, to prove my womanhood. “Aphi amabele akho?”(Where are your breasts?) I was wearing dungarees at the time, so I don’t blame him. Breasts, the bridge of the nose, lovers, smoke, despair – all the new words, the new phrases went into little black books, which later I found in an old Edgars packet, along with with an ex-boyfriend’s letters. I obviously cherished them.

The laid-back student trip – Nithengisa intsangu? (Do you sell dope?)

With degrees and better, more idiomatic Xhosa under my belt, I started lecturing in the Department of African Languages at the University of Cape Town. Right away, I could see that mystudents wanted the same experiences – to talk Xhosa, to cry and laugh and joke in Xhosa – not in the classroom after agrammar class, but in a predominantly Xhosa environment with Xhosa speakers. I would encourage them to make Xhosa friends, to visit townships, to listen to Xhosa radio – but always, always, there came this plea: “Take us to live in a village! We want to be with people who don’t speak English at all.”

So, being young and brave (and easily manipulated by students), I took myfirst group to Port St Johns. We stayed in the local municipal huts and I planned daily trips into the villages for students just to hang around and chat to people and do a little research. It was a good time, but not organised enough – students would chill onthe beach, making huge phallic symbols in the sand (the bovine beach animals looked on with hooded eyes, unaroused) and spent much of their time bartering cigarettes for weed. It was 1986, and we were all young and defiant about almost everything. For all its chaos, students who went on that trip are still some of my closest friends – and what is most impressive, they can still speak a little Xhosa. I am like:  “Shu, hey man… something must have like… you know… connected!”

The good student trip – Singaninceda? (Can we help you?)

The next trip was an exclusive one for only the best, most motivated students, to a small village called Ncembu – high in the mountains beyond Tsolo. I did not want another ‘beach boys holiday’. Students behaved, helped their host families with daily chores and wrote up their village experience as part of a project.

They also familiarised themselves with a rhythm of life and a culture that was alien to them – and this, I realised, is the most important part of the language field trip. We can never, in a classroom, bring to life the essence of traditional Xhosa life – the cattle, the kraal, the neighbourliness, the elders, the rituals, the mutual respect that holds communities together. And that way of life, that ryhthm, is mediated through language – a rich, idiomatic language that seems bleached of meaning when delivered in a
university lecture theatre.

We need ‘ukuhlala ezilalini’ (to live in the villages). I remember too, that even though these were motivated, diligent students, they still played pranks on me – and one day pretended that the the UCT combi had hurtled over a hill, leaving us transportless and destined to live out the rest of our lives in this remote place. I actually believed them, and was secretly looking forward to a bucolic life immersed in the language and culture of the Xhosa. We finally got home though, and those students are now all respected professionals – some of whom even teach Xhosa competently and with great success.

The organised student trip – Masiye eCata! (Let’s go to Cata!)

The trips would continue, sporadically, as my nerves and workload would permit, until I left the university in 1997. Now, 14 years later, I am back at UCT, teaching Xhosa to students who seem even younger now that I have hobbled into my sixth decade – I say ‘hobbled’ because there is a lovely Xhosa birthday greeting that goes: “Khula ungakhokhobi!” (Grow old, but not hobbled!) Luckily for the students, a few years before returning to UCT, I had visited a beautiful village called Cata, near Keiskammahoek, where I had facilitated some workshops with interested locals on how to teach Xhosa. The village of Cata has many development projects, primarily run by the Border Rural Committee, and every year volunteers from around the world come and stay awhile – and learn Xhosa as they work.

Because Cata had already established a network of people trained to run ‘homestay’ establishments and to teach Xhosa, I thought it was the ideal place to take my students. So when that familiar old plea came – “Take us to a village” – I requested funding from UCT’s Vice-Chancellor’s Fund and was generously awarded enough money to take students to Cata for a two-week stay. Again, that first trip reminded me that being with students requires patience, planning, serenity and a good deal of tolerance.

They forget there is no plumbing. They get runny tummies. They get lost, they get itchy, they get bitchy. But it was a brilliant time, and I felt delighted that real learning, real interaction was taking place. I was hugely impressed with the way students wrestled with their own language learning, demanding to be taught tenses and structures that they needed immediately – suddenly they realised the importance of grammar!

The students’ alone trip – Hambani nodwa! (Go alone!)

The second trip to Cata (2011) was organised entirely by two senior students, Kira Schlesinger and Sivenesi Subramoney. These capable young women planned daily activities for the group (19 students) to ensure maximum language learning. Students had to find people and places in the village (they used photographs from the previous trip to ask people where they were), they completed a Xhosa version of the popular television show The Amazing Race, and they conducted daily interviews with their homestay mothers.

They also hiked in the beautiful mountains, went to church, made friends in the local shebeen, worked in the fields and played with the the village children. I am not sure if they expressed (in breathless Xhosa) huge wonderment at the starry, starry sky, unpolluted by electric lights, but I am sure they felt – as only the children of our hippy generation can feel – ‘stoked’ about living the village life, in the language they have chosen to study… a language that expresses things so differently from English it sometimes makes you gasp.

For example, people do not die in Xhosa, you are ‘died for’ on their behalf – ‘ndibhujelwe ngumama’ (I have been died for by my mother) – it is I who experience the grief and the loss and the death of a dearly beloved relative – and not the dearly departed,
who is indeed not dead, but alive as an ancestor. You can see why, on their return, many of these students just wanted to go back. To quote a brilliant third-year student, Alexa Scher: “It was a life-changing experience.”

Ikamva (the future)

I am sure these trips will continue and that students will always have life-changing experiences – using their Xhosa in its home province, the Eastern Cape. And if they come back even slightly more aware, slightly more perceptive, more humble, less arrogant about the importance of English, I will be happy. And if they come back clicking more, talking more Xhosa, more naturally, more readily, of course I will be ecstatic and I will genuinely be able to say “Ndiyazidla ngani!” (I am proud of you – or literally: I eat myself because of you.)

For information about Cata homestay visits, go to or Tessa Dowling is Adjunct Professor, African Languages section, School of Languages and Literatures, at the University of Cape Town.


Category: School Travel, Winter 2011

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Comments (2)

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  1. tyilelwa gcilitshana says:

    It is good to hear that by visiting and spending time with our families you accomplish what you came for .It is not only you who benefit but also our brothers and sisters especially the young children. The time you spend with them makes a huge difference in their lives (nabo bayafunda kuni)they also learn from you.

    You create moments that will never be forgotten,not only by your host mothers but also by all the villagers. Siyabulela ngokuphakamisa kwenu ulwimi lwesiXhosa!nangamso

    From one of Cata host mothers

  2. Gail Kirchmann says:

    What an inspirational reflection on years of incredible commitment to education in all senses of the word!

    I have talked for for too long about taking my teenagers to homestay Cata – the time for talking (in English!) is over – siya eCata!

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