By Thando Gwatyu, a Rotary Youth Exchange student from South Africa to Germany
Recently, I finished my third month in Germany, and it’s already changing my life. The process has not always been easy, but I’ve made quite a few discoveries about German culture and tradition, some of which is very different from the life I’m used to.
My first host family, the Roos, were simply amazing. Both parents are architects and they have a 16-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son. The parents were eager to show me many things about their country and culture. On just my second week, they took me on a ski vacation and I celebrated my birthday on snow for the first time ever. They bought me soccer clothes and a team ID, meaning I am now an official member of the village soccer club. They went out of their way to buy me a full uniform with my family name on the jersey, which made me feel really good. My photo is even on the soccer club website. (I have no goals yet, only assists.)
They took me to visit the site of the former Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, and it was an incredibly sad experience for me. After that, we stopped at Warburg, where Martin Luther translated the Bible into German for the first time. We also visited many museums and art galleries, and I tried my best to soak up as much of their culture as I could.
Another family was only able to host me for a week, but it ended up being an amazing experience, as they took me to an island in the North Sea. It was my first time ever seeing an island. Only 40 people live on this island, and they said I was the first black person to ever visit their island. That made me feel special and important.
The first few months were not always rosy. Language is a considerable barrier and it was very hard to communicate. When they asked me to give a presentation about my life at a Rotary conference, I’m not going to lie, I was very nervous. I was told I could do the presentation in English, but I wanted to be authentic and easy to understand so I secretly wrote my speech in German. When I started speaking in German, I could see the smiles on each and every face in that room. At the end of my speech, so many people took my hand to congratulate me for my bravery. And just this past week, I bid my first host family farewell and wrote out a thank-you note in German without the help of Google Translate!
I’m with a new host family now and they are everything you could ask for in a host. It’s only been a short time so far, but I know I’m going to enjoy my time here. The siblings are helpful, patient, and very easy to approach. The parents are very funny, and care way too much. So I really have settled in and everything seems perfect.
What makes me feel really good are not so much the places I visit but the fact that many families are willing to do this for me. I will be attending a few more camps this summer and am really looking forward to the Euro tour because I know it will be a highlight of my exchange.
Rotary has had a huge influence on helping me pursue my goals and aspirations, as I hope to eventually study law and maybe become president of my country one day. If I do, I will have Rotary in part to thank. I don’t have the words to describe how grateful I am. I can comfortably say this is the exchange I dreamed about.