Beauty and Thoko came to Potomac from South Africa as exchange students three weeks ago, and told Ann Whitely their first impressions. “The girls said our houses are too big,” Whiteley said.
The Whiteleys and other St. Andrew’s families are in the third and final week of hosting exchange students from Winterveldt, a township in upper South Africa where most families have no running water or electricity, and unemployment is high. The Whiteleys all have a changed outlook from Beauty and Thoko.
“In Potomac, people judge others by what they have,” said Whiteley. “These students have the abstract values that I wish more people had in this country. … They don’t have electricity, they don’t have plumbing. … What they do have is determination, dignity and a real sense of community.”
They also have a sense of happiness, said Bryn Whitely, Ann’s daughter. “You can never be sad with them,” said Bryn, a St. Andrew’s freshman. “Beauty calls me her little sister, even though I’m taller than her.”
“They teach us to slow down, calm down, and enjoy what you’re doing,” said Nikki Hauspurger, a St. Andrew’s senior whose family hosted Zakes, one of the South African students.
THE SOUTH AFRICAN students are part of Bokamoso, a program that promotes education and job training for at-risk youth in Winterveldt. Most of them speak nine or 10 languages. While staying in the Potomac area, the exchange students joined people working in fields of interest to them.
The Bokamoso students have a diverse range of interests. Beauty and Thoko are both interested in nursing careers, and went to Manor Care Potomac to observe nurses from Africa at work in the U.S. Jabu would like to study architecture, Lentle is interested in becoming a counselor, Tsotso wants to work in print or broadcast journalism, and Tefo and Zakes are interested in information technology.
Tim Vance, a St. Andrew’s senior, has found that he has a lot in common with Tshepo, a student saying with his family. Together, Tim and Tshepo went to a local recording studio to see how the music is mixed. “It was fun, we were just playing and jamming around,” Tim Vance said. “Even though we’re both from very different backgrounds, we have a lot of the same interests.”
In Winterveldt, said Tshepo, there are many talented musicians, but few people with expertise in producing, recording and mixing the music. “Most of them are not professionals,” Tshepo said. “I want to help them spread their music worldwide.”
IN ADDITION to observing American professionals, the Bokamoso students are on a performance tour. Last week, they performed “Won’t Happen to Me” and “Family Portraits” The Door is Open” in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The performances are a mix of narrative, singing and dancing about the struggles of growing up in a community where one out of every four men is HIV-positive and domestic abuse, drug abuse and poverty are widespread.
Roy Barber, a teacher at St. Andrew’s, co-wrote both plays and worked with Leslie Jacobson, head of George Washington University’s drama department in writing and directing the plays. Both plays Bokamoso performed at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, Jan. 30.
“Just about everything in the play … has come out of the personal experiences of people in this community,” Jacobson said.
While both plays address the hardship of life in Winterveldt, they have a hopeful and upbeat message, plenty of laughs, and traditional dancing and music. Some numbers are accompanied by Barber on piano, and the performances begin and end with a cappella songs by the students. The students in Bokamoso return to Winterveldt next week, and some of the St. Andrew’s juniors and seniors will travel to South Africa this spring, including Nikki Hauspurger, a St. Andrew’s senior.
“I know it’s going to be scary, it’s going to be amazing, and it’s going to be life-changing,” said Hauspurger, who looks forward to reuniting with the friends she has made among the South African students.
The Bokamoso students continue performing at area schools this week, and enjoy new experiences in the U.S. — nearly all of them saw snow for the first time last month. “That was their first impression — we took a lot of snow pictures,” Jennifer Vance said.
Most of the South African exchange students who stayed with St. Andrew’s families over the last three weeks speak between nine and 11 languages. Tsotso, one of the exchange students, is typical of the group in speaking all of the following:
* Northern Sotho
* Southern Sotho