Five months of study in Port Elizabeth until mid-June, followed by another 3-4 weeks of travelling through South Africa before backpacking through Namibia and later via Botswana to the Victoria Falls. Last stop Tanzania, then back to Germany - return flight date? Open. This or something similar was the plan for the probably most exciting trip of my life, when I boarded the plane to the other end of the world on January 23, 2020 and until then only knew Corona as a Mexican beer brand. Now, at the beginning of July and still in South Africa, I am actually still right on schedule. Actually.
South Africa. A country with beautiful nature parks, a biodiversity that I only knew from films, an openness and friendliness of the people that we miss in many places in Germany and at the same time a social inequality between rich and poor that could not be greater. A country with paradisiacal beaches, an incredibly exciting, diverse culture with 11 (!) national languages and at the same time one of the highest crime rates worldwide. South Africa? Is that where you want to go? Yes!
It is the middle of March. With the surfboards stretched out on the roof of our "Rusty Lady", we are on our way as a group of 10 on the Garden Route. Final stop: Cape Town. The first tests and intermediate exams at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) had been written, Term 1 of 2 in the South African semester model had been completed and the free holiday week was just around the corner. The anticipation for the trip was huge but still a bit clouded. The first few COVID-19 positively tested cases in the country have recently been reported, and even before the road trip begins, the first international students are informed that an earlier return home is planned. Traveling was (still) allowed, but it suddenly became clear that this could be the last trip. Every day there is new information about how Corona paralyzes the whole world and now, with a delay, does not stop at Africa. Shortly before Stellenbosch the bad news: 21-day lockdown in the whole country, start in three days. Great. Cape Town canceled, but luckily with some wine-tasting experience only four of us went back to Port Elizabeth, just in time before the provincial borders between Western and Eastern Cape were closed. Now, in early July, more than 100 days of lockdown have passed.
In one of the strictest curfews in the world, public life in South Africa was completely shut down. Except for systemically important professions, work was stopped and everyone had to stay at home. Unlike in Germany, under Lockdown Level 5 one was not allowed to move freely outside - only going to the supermarket or to the doctor was allowed. There is a lot of confusion about what is happening right now, how to proceed and one asks oneself: Why now of all times? Every few days a new "Landesleute-Brief" of the German Foreign Office comes with information about return flights (in one of the letters we even managed to be mentioned). Not much was missing, then I would write this report just from Germany. Good Friday then the decision. All remaining students registered on the crisis prevention list of the Foreign Office received the message about a place in a return flight. Was that it?
From initially more than 80 German students at the NMU in Port Elizabeth, there are only seven of us left. We decided not to take the opportunity of a return flight from the German Foreign Office and to finish the semester here in South Africa. Accommodated with many other locals in the student dormitory, the semester now continues via online learning.
Although the university announced at the beginning of the lockdown that the semester would be finished in any case, it was not clear for a long time how exactly. The original one week of holidays turned into five. Away from the German standard, in which a laptop is part of the basic equipment for studying, it is not guaranteed in South Africa that every student has access to running water in their own home. Nevertheless, the NMU was and is anxious not to leave anyone behind. After all, two "pathways" have been developed to complete the current semester. While the majority of the students decided to continue the semester online with Pathway 1, the smaller remainder of the students at Pathway 2 will first be provided with printed learning materials and later be supervised by individual lectures in small groups on campus. The university promptly provided over 1,000 laptops, and 3,500 more were recently distributed to give as many as possible access to online learning. By providing 30 GB of data volume per month to all of the 28,000 students, you really get the feeling that the university cares about you and wants to offer everyone the best possible conditions. By negotiating (and gladly postponing) exam and paper deadlines with the professors and lecturers in whatsapp groups, you might think that the students can have a say. Of course, digital lectures on teams or zoom have broken new ground, which is handled differently from professor to professor.
The decision not to break off the semester abroad early, to stay here and hope that things might not get too bad was not the easiest one. Especially with the ulterior motive that the peak of the crisis is still to come. But at the latest since 01 June, I am sure that it was the right decision. After 66 days of strict curfew, to wax the surfboard for the first time again at sunrise to throw myself into the waves in the Indian Ocean 100 m away is one of the many goose-pimples moments that will stay in my memory for a long time. The anticipation in the long queues in front of the reopening (liquor) shops could be felt by everyone. A piece far back to normality. Now, after restaurants open again for catering and finally the university shop reopens, the todo point of the NMU-Hood can be checked off!
To see monkeys stealing food out of your hand on the university campus, to cycle back to the dormitory under palm trees with a view of the sea, or to prove once again your lack of singing talent at Barney's Karaoke Tuesday - how would the semester have continued without Corona?
Now, at the beginning of July and still in South Africa, I am more than happy to still be here. Without the lockdown, I probably would never have known how to become a South African brewmaster myself by preparing pineapple beer, how a traditionally cooked African pig's head tastes or that the gym on the sixth floor is not only good for the sea view. I wouldn't want to miss the much closer contact to locals since the beginning of Corona. Many, meanwhile close friendships and a much closer relationship to African lifestyles and views of the world have developed in the last weeks and months. We have also been able to exchange culinary experiences with the South Africans. African food (spoiler: mostly meat) vs. Swabian cheese noodles. As so often, everything always sounds a bit worse than it really is.
How long the current semester lasts depends on each individual module - for my all construction-related subjects the end of the semester is predicted towards the end of July/beginning of August. The already higher workload compared to a semester at the HFT was not exactly simplified by the corona cut. The majority is happy when the online semester is over and longs for regular university operations again. And indeed: Since the beginning of June, since the country has been in Lockdown Level 3, 33% of all students are gradually being recalled to campus, mainly Pathway 2 learners and final year students.
Due to the winter time, the days are currently much shorter than at the beginning of the semester, but this can be overlooked with mild winter temperatures of up to 25 degrees in Port Elizabeth. Between homework & tests for the NMU and early subjects at the HFT, the Corona everyday life now allows for small day trips again. Besides meditating I discovered surfing as a new hobby for me, which keeps me fit for the start of the new district league season for the TSV 3 of my home club.
In spite of all the euphoria: In view of the still strongly increasing number of positive corona cases, the country is facing difficult weeks and months. The recently re-imposed night-time curfew and the renewed ban on alcohol sales are the government's response to the announced peak of the pandemic. All further relaxation has been maintained, mainly for economic reasons. It will probably be a long time before things return to normal in South Africa.
The original plan of the trip will not work out like this, that's for sure. However, nothing is stopping me from still collecting incredibly valuable memories and experiencing unique moments. The time I spent abroad will shape me for the rest of my life. Despite or maybe even because of Corona. Wherever my return flight will take me from: At the end of the day a big piece of gratitude will fly back to Germany.