Alien trees, native student life


By Louis Boschoff

As I walk homesickly around the Puk campus in the last weeks of my “career” as a student, I look pensively at the variety of alien trees around me. Sycamores, oaks, pines, cypresses and ornamental trees, and ivy creeping up lecture hall walls.

As a Bushveld farm child, I was thoroughly impressed by the evils of alien flora, and the importance of healthy native trees for the ecosystem. Invaders pollute and use up water — native plants protect the soil from erosion and establish habitat for native animals. In this way, one gets a feel for which trees actually belong in our country and which have clearly been imported from far away. It’s this feeling of mine that is left rather confused when I look at the trees on campus. Because the trees look so native to a university, but so alien to Africa.

When I visualize the ideal campus, I can’t help but think of European or North American tree cover. (Granted, there were ancient universities in the Arab and Eastern worlds as well, but the European versions are foremost in modern man’s imagination.) I can’t imagine what a prestigious university looks like with wild lilacs, beech trees and baobabs between the buildings.

There is nothing wrong with the native trees in themselves, but their fit with the largely alien concept of a university is not very harmonious. Africa has not yet made the university so much its own that it forms the images in my subconscious when I call up a prominent research institution in my mind.

To summarize: The alien trees do not fit in South Africa, but the native trees do not fit my idea of ​​a prestigious university campus. If you take Oxford, Yale or Princeton and just transplant it (trees and all) into raw African soil, some aspects of it seem a bit… well, alien.

The same can be said of the ties, jackets and gowns of academics: it’s clearly not designed for Africa’s summer climate, but it’s what we know as academic wear and that’s what we’ll stick with for now. Something about it is native, but something about it is also alien.

Indigenous student life

Apart from walking daily under a roof of alien sycamore leaves in Lover’s Lane for five years, I also spent five years in a campus residence that had a mix of native and alien scents. In contrast to the trees on campus, African dormitory traditions lived out by Afrikaner students have created nothing but a totally indigenous image. If you plant a picture of Afrikaner students on a Rag Farm, or if you place them on a HK, a SÊR group or a gang sports committee, then they are in their element, their habitat, native…

I don’t know exactly what student life looked like at European universities centuries ago, but a large part of what I have come to know as student traditions is authentically Afrikaans. Unlike the campus trees and the academic attire, Afrikaans student life has managed to put on its own jacket that fits well.

However, if you translate the whole story into English in the same way, and ask Zulu, Tswana, Brown and Afrikaner students to live it out with equal zeal, then it again feels a bit like transplanting Princeton with its trees to Pretoria — awkward, alien. To adapt the slogan: That which by African students for African students have created, it is difficult to transfer unchanged to other cultures.

Time and time again I have experienced how a certain hall tradition that took place in Afrikaans for years had to take place in English for the sake of inclusiveness. Then 20 male students arrive, none of whose mother tongue is English. Everyone struggles in their second or third language to do something that is in any case not specific to many people’s culture and the whole tradition feels watered down. Afrikaner students feel as if something has been taken away from them, and all the other cultures feel as if they are being forced to do something they didn’t feel like doing in the first place. Something that used to be native to one culture and alien to another now feels alien to one and more alien to another.

Still, I tell this story well aware of the need there is for student traditions in languages ​​and cultures other than Afrikaans. For example, if I am a Tswana resident of a Potchefstroom residence, it is perfectly fair to expect that my only option for residence traditions should not be Afrikaner traditions. Yet recent history teaches us that it does not work to translate Afrikaans traditions into English and then oblige everyone to participate in them.

As in the case of the ecosystem, it seems that the solution is to plant natively and preserve the native plants that are already there. Otherwise, we will soon end up with nothing but an alien student life where no one feels at home.