Pandemic tales: Making an educational life in a Stellenbosch University residence during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Joy Petersen (picture provided)

The announcement of the hard lockdown in South Africa resulted in a mass exodus of students and staff from the Stellenbosch University campus, except for the university residence heads.

The announcement of the hard lockdown in South Africa resulted in a mass exodus of students and staff from the Stellenbosch University campus, except for the university residence heads. These staff members, including me, live on the university premises and are responsible for the smooth running of the student residence community, building community and creating a sense of belonging, and the delivery of myriad student leadership and development opportunities. We stayed with a handful of students in each residence. These students decided to stay on in residence during the pandemic, supported by the university.

These students decided to stay on in residence during the pandemic, supported by the university.

In retrospect, this story is really the practical application of the residential education (the outside-of-class intentional learning experiences for all students) philosophy at Stellenbosch University: listen, live and learn – adjusted for pandemic times, including, for example, how I started to listen deeply with my eyes and learn deeply with my heart, resulting in a deeper living in each moment – hence this very vivid account of our experiences and personal unfolding together. I share this story as our story – all of us who stayed behind – the story of how we made a life and home with our students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I share this story as our story – all of us who stayed behind – the story of how we made a life and home with our students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic tales (of being, belonging and becoming)

What will you tell your children’s children when they sit at your feet and beg for a story about the pandemic? Mine would probably go something like this: I was cloistered and ensconced in a university residence close to the forests of Jonkershoek. There were ten of us. We came from places far and wide in southern Africa – Zimbabwe, Limpopo, Gauteng and all the way down to the Cape Flats. Did I say we came? No, I think we were sent. Our grandparents’ parents prayed and prayed for this – this thought stuns even me as I think back.

It is two days before lockdown, and we are meeting downstairs in the oopsitkamers. The wingback chairs – upholstered in beautiful hues of blue – are arranged in a circle. The faces I see in front of me look weary and fatigued – three (aspiring) biochemists; an earth, animal and plant scientist; a chemical engineer; a psychologist and a social worker. They have remained steadfast in their decision to stay.

I am distraught. What will we do? We hardly know each other. What if, God forbid, something happens to them or their parents? I don’t know whether I can do this – provide emotional care, support, warmth, a sense of togetherness, a home. Is that what they want, or do they want to be left alone?

I am distraught. What will we do? We hardly know each other. What if, God forbid, something happens to them or their parents? I don’t know whether I can do this – provide emotional care, support, warmth, a sense of togetherness, a home. Is that what they want, or do they want to be left alone? As I am about to utter my fears, the unexpected happens: the last lines of Yeats’s poem start to reverberate in my head: “I ... have only my dreams;/ I have spread my dreams under your feet;/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” The fog in my mind lifts, and, as I look into the faces, our eyes lock and they tell me: I am on the precipice of my dream; I have just started my dream; I am my grandmother’s mother’s dream. In that moment, my fears become inconsequential. I hold their gaze, and we enter into a silent agreement to ride this pandemic wave and protect each other’s (now) fragile dreams.

And just so, after I reassure the girls that their decision to stay was most brave and courageous, our facades drop, we breathe a sigh of relief and we get down to the business of being. Almost in unison, we agree that this might be the rest, the respite we need from our daily hustle and inner wrestles!

In no time, the girls fall into a rhythm of study, eating, sleeping and movies – this pattern repeats itself. We have regular coffee check-ins and eat supper together every other night. This turns out to be the highlight of the pandemic for me. I cook, and they feed my soul! Over casseroles, pastas, wraps and burgers, the girls invite me into their world. We traverse the Limpopo via their backyards, where they lie under marula trees, eating the citrus-like fruit they bear – where the avocadoes are bountiful and mangoes are the sweetest and juiciest. I listen to stories of them growing up and reciting the ancestral lineage at large family gatherings – coached and coaxed by their dads to do so with pride and gusto. They share their embarrassment at parents who brag to friends and family about their daughter’s achievements, and they refer to their younger siblings with gentle endearment.

This practice of eating together does something for us – it transforms our anxiety to appreciation and then affection. So much so that Jade offers to prepare one of her mom’s special dishes.

This practice of eating together does something for us – it transforms our anxiety to appreciation and then affection. So much so that Jade offers to prepare one of her mom’s special dishes. I show her around the kitchen, indicating where she can find utensils and some of the ingredients she will need. She gets all Nigella-like in the kitchen! I take pictures she can send to her family to show that the cooking lessons at home have worked in our favour. The smell of her mother’s spices permeates the house. Ah, bean curry – joy food!

Food is the soother, a healer and connector.

Food is the soother, a healer and connector. My attempt at samp and beans soup delights, and I am praised as if I have brought a gift from home. We include pap and chakalaka as a side dish to our main meals. I become the lockdown scone expert, and we enjoy these together – warm, with cream and jam. We make Easter Sunday special with a feast that stretches into the late afternoon – cake, doughnuts and Easter eggs. Sanelisiwe’s 21st birthday is celebrated with caramel birthday cake, candles, a braai, music, dancing and singing.

These poignant encounters make room for deeper dialogues, including conversations around our cultural and societal constructs, like marriage, how children should be reared and how real friendships are discerned. We talk about losing our voices upon entering the forest, being overwhelmed by the magnitude of newness, adjusting ouselves and assimilating ourselves into “how things are done here”. These discussions provide me with the opportunity to broach topics of belonging, and how it is (in my opinion) inherent, a given, and reciprocal – demanding an openness to receive and give. We talk about victimhood, complacency and agency – finding your voice again. My “world experience” viewpoint provokes and shocks; it also evokes new curiosities (I hope). I share my dad’s favourite and often used word of the time, propaganda, and let them in on a life lesson I was taught in an academic literacy class: consider everything you read to be contentious! I could be wrong, but from these talks, I deduce that finding a sense of self is becoming more important than pleasing parents and culture and traditions.

This is not to say that I know how to navigate this pandemic terrain; I explore, feel my way through and largely consult with the owls. Yes, many a day I wander in the courtyard, seeking their wisdom from where they are located high up the towering jacaranda tree. The counsel and enlightenment I seek has to do with making sense of the serendipitous circumstances surrounding our presence here. How did we arrive at this present pandemic moment finding ourselves in fortified accommodation, with a stacked pantry and having access to emotional and material support and assistance? Not to say we are not grateful for it.

But the harsh reality, which is difficult to lose sight of, is the fact that the atrocity of apartheid had its foundational roots here, too; this is where it was engineered!

But the harsh reality, which is difficult to lose sight of, is the fact that the atrocity of apartheid had its foundational roots here, too; this is where it was engineered! It is here where all the scheming happened, from here that the exclusionary practices and structures were promulgated! And let me add “exclusionary” in every sense of the word – based on the colour of your skin. Does this mean we are now included? Is this caring sincere, a definitive and tangible activation of the transformation we have heard about? They say owls can see what is invisible to the naked eye; they can see beyond deceit and masks. I implore them to share their take on this; the retort I receive is sometimes a watchful glare and at other times an endearing glance, the former making me feel like an imposter, the latter like I am the beloved’s most loved child and I am where I belong! Alas!

What the owl is unambiguous about, however, is change, transformation, a death of what used to be and a birthing of what awaits. This change, the owl declares, has been slowly brewing, simmering, with the groundwork put in place by those who came before us, those who put hope into action. The owl continues, “When you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.” The owl gently admonishes me: go and look at the rower; he rows forward, looking back – advising that navigating toward the future will require a continual backward glance, a deeper inquiry into the past.

As for us, I do not know whether we are the same people who entered the regal residence building which became a home amid the pandemic. We arrived without fanfare, quietly, tiptoeing into new lives, into a new world – unseen, unheard and unacknowledged, with very little but our dreams.

As for us, I do not know whether we are the same people who entered the regal residence building which became a home amid the pandemic. We arrived without fanfare, quietly, tiptoeing into new lives, into a new world – unseen, unheard and unacknowledged, with very little but our dreams. We stayed to guard and protect our dreams when they seemed threatened by the pandemic. Our dreams, it now seems, were the easy part, as Sarah Ban Breathnach affirms, “The Power that gifted you the dream knows how to help you make it come true.” In our encounters, these were met by a few dream collaborators who conspired to turn our possibilities into realities.

But it is the unanticipated and inconceivable on this dream quest that sits with us, what Sarah alludes to very potently: “Dreams are gifts of Spirit, meant to alter us.” This new stirring, a divine discontent, is what stays. It feels like a shedding, a parting from who we were before the pandemic, a losing of our old selves.

The car’s hooting brings me out of this reverie, and I chuckle to myself – is that the owl?

I wonder whether the girls knew then that their steadfast decision to stay was an acceptance of the invitation to get lost, to surrender, to let go of certainty and control. As Rebecca Solnit advises with simple elegance, getting lost is a prerequisite to finding yourself.

  • Joy Petersen is at the Centre for Student Communities and residence head, Stellenbosch University

Read more university seminar articles here.

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Eileen Pooe’s Setswana PhD: an interview in three languages

Snellers in die klaskamer – wanneer is ’n veilige ruimte veilig?

Universities as safe spaces: A student’s perspective

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Kommentaar

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    Marcia Lyner-Cleophas

    How nice reading this state of reverie. It's a lens hardly explored during the pandemic. The pandemic in a palpable, poetic, poignant and political way. An enjoyable read.

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    Erica Philander

    What an insightful window seen through the lens of a caring and supportive mentor who lives her truth and manages to create a platform of continuity for life beyond university and this moment in time. Lovingly guiding them on their life’s journey and treating their dreams with care.

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