Maria Kerkhoff shares her experiences with us in several episodes. Maria, who formerly taught at Mount Cheam Christian School in Chilliwack, British Columbia, is now a teacher at John Tallach High School in Ingwenya.
Three years ago, when I sent an application letter to work for the Free Presbyterian Mission in Zimbabwe, I did not even know that the Ingwenya Mission existed, but I hoped they had a teaching job on offer. After a lot of e-mailing back and forth and some conversations, I was offered a job at John Tallach High School, Ingwenya Mission.
In order to learn more about the country and the mission post before going there, I read books about the men of past generations—Radasi, Tallach and Fraser—and their work in founding the various mission posts. I discovered that the Ingwenya Mission was actually founded over a hundred years ago, long before the existence of Mbuma station!
On 14 September 2018, I landed in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, after a long voyage from Vancouver, Canada. I was welcomed by Miss Norma McLean, Deputy School Director, who also became my neighbour in the semi-detached house we shared. What now feels like being perfectly at home was at that stage still strange and unknown. In the middle of the dry season, everything was dusty and brown, and the purple jacaranda trees were just starting to flourish. While rereading one of my first letters back to my family, I am amazed by the fact that so many things have become so normal and ordinary for me now.
22 September 2018
Only when we experience another culture do we grasp what our own cultural norms and values are. Now I am faced with the choice of which cultural norms and values I must accept, adapt or give up entirely.
Since last Friday, when I arrived in Zimbabwe, I have been overwhelmed by first impressions, as it is so impressive to arrive in a new place and just observe everything around you. I am sure I am now at the stage where you only perceive the differences. That was also the case in 2012, when I came to the Netherlands to teach for a year. It was like playing ‘Spot the Differences’ in real life. At this moment, everything is new and exciting to me, although all these new impressions are tiring as well. So I am longing for the time when everything will feel normal and I will have energy to spare for taking up the things that matter.
Regarding the cultural differences, there are many which are comparatively trivial, like driving on the left side of the road—though this particular detail may gain importance when I start driving myself! The landscape is also different.
There are also amusing differences, like the cattle wandering past the door of my classroom.
Or differences that are simply interesting, like the sunset that occurs promptly at 6 pm on a sweltering summer’s day!
And there are beautiful differences, like the blossoming jacaranda trees.
The difference I like most is the way pupils (and in fact everybody) sing. It sounds so beautiful. Although they don’t use sheet music or an instrument, it nevertheless sounds harmonious. When the pupils come together for evening devotions, I can hear them through my windows at a distance, singing psalms, which sounds so wonderful that I cannot but pause my activities to listen to them.
However, there are some differences which are harder to cope with. I find it hard to understand and pronounce words, and especially names, in the local language. I hope this will improve. At least the half of the pupils’ names I pronounce incorrectly, which causes them mirth. The hardest name is Mqhelisokuhle — without a single silent letter (not even the ‘h’!). The ‘q’ in Ndebele has a clicking sound rather than a ‘kw’ sound. When I have mastered this name, I should surely be able to pronounce most of the others.
As time went by, I became better acquainted with the pupils and learned to distinguish the classes better. In the first weeks after my arrival, there were moments when I was very confused about which pupils I had to teach next, and in which classroom. One time, I asked a group whether they were Class 1D, whom I had to teach next. “No, ma’am, we are Class 1B. We just had your lesson, ma’am.” I could make no distinction between them at all! I was pretty ashamed, especially as I ought to have recognised the faces of 1B — after all, as their form teacher, I have to read aloud their names every morning for registration!
Fortunately, in the course of time everything became more routine. I familiarised myself with the pupils, my colleagues and the school rules, so that life at Ingwenya Mission soon became so familiar that I can call it my provisional home.