Local student immerses himself in Africa
by Jack Deming
Aug 15, 2014 | 4061 views | 0 0 comments | 46 46 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Botswana village of Otse where Hicks lived for three weeks.
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WHITINGHAM- It’s been nearly two weeks since Jacob Hicks returned to American soil, but he doesn’t need a watch to tell you he’s still on “Africa time.” To Hicks, Africa time doesn’t refer to a time zone or a hemisphere, it refers to a simple ability to relax and reflect, rather than worry, rush, and react.

Hicks came back to his home in Whitingham after spending 36 days in Africa as part of an Experiment in International Social Living program through SIT in Brattleboro. This included traveling through four African countries, and three weeks living in land-locked Botswana. Hicks lived with a host family in Otse, a small village near the South African border, where he performed community service, learned how to speak Setswana, the native language, and was given the nickname “Tato,” which means love. For Hicks, Africa represented the most challenging version of cultural immersion, but it was exactly what he was looking for.

“When I signed up I didn’t know what to expect,” said Hicks. “I interviewed for this program and they said ‘OK, you’re going to Africa,’ and when you think about Africa you think about a lot of different stereotypes: hot, dry, poor, no buildings. I also had something in mind as to what Africa was, but you have to put yourself out there in order to experience and get the most out of a culture that you’re not used to, and when you do that, you realize all these things you never realized before.”

Hicks shared his journey through Botswana with 11 other students from across the United States, stepping off the plane in Gabarone, the capital city, and cramming into a tiny bus called a “cumby” that took them to a lodge on the outskirts of town. The first three days were spent in Gabarone, a part of the journey that was more of a tourist experience than the days to come as the group went to marketplaces, malls, and restaurants in the city, and a few villages near the city.

Hicks spent three hours going from store to store trying to use visual cues to acquire a calling card to call his family back home, and once he did, he found out it was the wrong card. “My first day in the city, I realized how accessible everything is in America,” said Hicks. “They’re a developing third-world country trying to become more westernized, but being in the capital for three days was not as much as a culture shock as it was going to my village.”

Hicks reached Otse on the fourth day and was immediately introduced to a world he will never forget. As he would explain, the word “weird” is not a correct explanation of someone else’s social norms, the word “different” is. The American students were greeted at a village gathering by women making tongue noises, and then were sent off to live with their host families. With his family of four siblings, a roommate, a mother and an uncle, Hicks felt cramped in their one-story brick house, but it was luxury compared to other homes in the village.

To acquire electricity, one has to walk a five-mile round trip to buy a timed amount of electricity. To wash his clothes and bathe, Hicks had to boil water in pots and scrub his socks by hand, a task that he said was more difficult than it sounds, and one that left him with bruised knuckles. On his first night in Otse, Hicks helped his family skin a headless, disfigured lamb and out of etiquette, ate every part including the heart and liver. Following that first night, Hicks spent some time alone debriefing.

“I always had to be alert of my surroundings and be sure I was not upsetting anyone,” said Hicks. “But there was never a day where I woke up and I wasn’t extremely happy. I thought it would be tougher than it was, but I was too busy to miss home most of the time.”

Hicks kept busy by reading, keeping a journal, and learning; he also spent time performing community service. He and his fellow students worked on beautification projects at a local nature conservatory, and built benches outside of the village community center. Benches were a much-needed amenity at this location, where villagers stand outside for hours to access government assistance as well as medical help in a country where 24.8% of the population is infected with HIV.

Hicks and his fellow students traveled to South Africa, as well as north to where the four countries of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Nambia, and Botswana meet. They also took a wildlife tour where the group came a bit too close for comfort to a stampede of elephants. But for Hicks, living in Otse truly captured the essence of the experience he sought, and taught him the lesson of patience. “One of the best ways I’ve ever learned in my life was in Africa taking Setswana lessons,” said Hicks. “I would always ask questions, and finally my teacher said to me ‘You don’t learn when you talk,’ and that’s all she said. So I stopped talking and started observing and learned so much more.”

Returning to the United States and Vermont was a reverse culture shock for Hicks. It was hard to figure out what he wanted to do in those first few days as he transitioned from a world without time restraints to one of deadlines and upcoming school obligations. Senior year begins in a few weeks, and soccer season is about to heat up, but Hicks is taking it in stride as he remembers his host mother telling him to stop worrying about the future. For Hicks, who aims to study psychology in college, this is one of many realizations he has brought back with him to his own village. “It’s hard to explain what Africa has done personally to me,” said Hicks “More people should take advantage of what they have around them. My host brother wanted nothing more than to go to America and wanted nothing more than to go to another country, and he pulled his resources together to try and he couldn’t. There are people all over our country who take learning for granted and take traveling for granted and they don’t really take in how lucky they are to be living where they do.”

Hicks intends to continue his world travels in the future in the Peace Corps, the Teach America program, and by studying abroad.
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