I had an incredible experience–thanks to the UVA Center for Global Health–studying alcohol-related sexual risk and intimate partner violence in Limpopo, South Africa this summer. Limpopo is home to the University of Venda, a rural-based university that UVA has collaborated with for years. Dr. Karen Ingersoll–from University of Virginia–and Dr. Angelina Maphula–from the University of Venda–led our team of ten students. Eight of us came from the United States, and two of our team members–Raymond and Tovho–attended the University of Venda.
I spent each day paired up with one of our South African students in the rural village of Ha-Mangilasi, where we would walk door-to-door and ask people between the ages of eighteen and forty-four if they wanted to participate in our study. Observing Raymond and Tovho greet and interact with people gave me an authentic view of Venda’s traditions and customs. For example, before entering a person’s front gate or fence, they would yell the traditional greeting–”aa” for a woman, or “ndaa” for a man. If no one responded from inside, they would scream it a little louder, and then usually we would just walk in, with Raymond or Tovho repeating “aa”/”ndaa” until someone came out to greet us. Before anything else happened, the homeowner would pull together several plastic chairs so we could all sit down and talk. Tovho told me that was because it is seen as disrespectful in Venda culture to have a conversation while standing.
If someone agreed to participate in our study after we explained the consent form, we sat with them for about forty minutes and administered one or two surveys on our phones. The surveys asked personal questions about things like alcohol consumption, sexual behaviors, and experiences with abuse. Despite the intimate nature of the questions, people were very open. Many participants expressed gratitude, thanking us for opening up conversation about topics that they perceived to be important, and sometimes even offering us fruit from their trees as a token of their thanks. One woman picked me and Tovho eight basketball-sized grapefruits at the end of her interview. Two sisters even invited us back to eat a traditional dinner at their home.
The village we worked in daily–and Limpopo in general–felt very unfamiliar to me, but there were so many times when I was welcomed with open arms, which made me feel at home. For example, one family in Ha-Mangilasi invited us to park our car in their yard every day. When we returned to pick up the car at the end of each day, the grandmother brought out chairs for us to sit down and told Raymond and Tovho stories in Tshivenda–the local language–that they would translate to English for me. The woman’s husband tried to converse with me in Tshivenda each day, telling me how to respond and expecting me to come back each time able to communicate a little bit better. “We learned English and Afrikaans,” he told me, “Now it’s your turn.” He walked me to one of their fruit trees and picked nine or ten clementines for me to take home. They told me I need to come back someday to live with them so I can learn Tshivenda.
This was an amazing experience because I was able to develop true relationships with Raymond and Tovho, the South African students on our team, as well as many of the people I met while working in the village. I felt more welcomed into their culture than I ever could have anticipated, which I am so grateful for.