Wish We Were There

Take this job and shove it...across borders and time zones to a foreign land

As Hachey puts it, “The competitors for people who graduate from universities in Alberta are not across town or in the neighbouring provinces. They are literally around the world.”

Few places on the planet are beyond the reach of Google. But Woenthin (or Woyenthin), a small community in northeast South Africa, is apparently so inconsequential that even Google struggles to find it.

The village is a legacy of apartheid. It was born in 1968 when a group of people were forcibly removed from their homes and dumped there. For three months in 2005, however, Alison Steward and six other Canadians, six Mozambiquans and six South Africans lived in Woenthin as part of an exchange program co-ordinated by Canada World Youth. The NGO arranges exchanges between Canadians and people from overseas; they spend three months in each other’s countries.

One afternoon in Woenthin, Steward stood under the searing sun in a graveyard on the outskirts of the village. She contemplated the graves: many were adorned with plates or cutlery. Though it was her second stint in South Africa, she’d never seen this tradition before. One of her friends, a native South African, explained. The practice had a practical purpose (take a deceased loved one’s favourite mug out of the house and you’re not reminded of them every day at breakfast) and a symbolic side (they can drink out of that mug in the afterlife). Moreover, he told her, putting tobacco down on the grave opens up a channel you can use to speak with your relatives.

“You know,” Steward said that afternoon in the cemetery, “If I told my friends in Canada that I was talking to my dead grandmother, they would think I was crazy.” Her friend looked at her with a sorrowful expression. “That’s too bad,” he said. And she saw that in his eyes, his culture was infinitely richer. Steward points out that he’s not superstitious; he was a 23-year-old, soccer-playing hipster who ran his parents’ public phone business.

Alison Steward thought she’d go away for one year. It turned into seven. Whoops.

“That wasn’t the kind of conversation you have with someone when you’re only in a place for two weeks,” she says. “It’s why I don’t like travelling in the sense of passing through places. Sometimes when I hear people talking about their travel experiences, it strikes me that they’re consuming an experience, not creating one. And the only way you can really create one is by staying put.”

Like Mark Seniuk, Steward didn’t plan to build an international career. She was completing a communications degree at the University of Calgary when she volunteered for a Canada World Youth (CWY) exchange to Quebec and Indonesia. Years later, she had begun a second degree in nursing when she decided to take time off to work for CWY as a project leader. Impressed by her understanding of development and youth issues, as well as her ability to handle crises and change, CWY hired Steward on a series of renewable contracts. “I thought I would just take a year off,” she says, referring to her first couple of exchanges as life-changing. “That turned into seven. Whoops.”

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