“We’re going to spend next year in Africa.”

This simple statement drew exasperated sighs, unbelieving looks and skeptical nods of the head from family friends and colleagues: “Of course you are – be sure to write!”

But it was true. I was granted a sabbatical leave by the University of St. Thomas for the academic year 2001-02 and my wife, Susan, and I wanted it to be a lifelong memory for us and our three teen-age children. My interests in intercultural communication, comparative media, and politics acted as a foundation for planning a year abroad in a country that met our criteria: English had to be a prominent language, it would offer a dramatic cultural experience, I could find appropriate research and teaching opportunities, and we could afford to live on our reduced income. (A sabbatical leave is supported by a half salary for me and no salary from Susan’s job as a critical care nurse.)

We scanned the world and found the best match for our criteria in the former British colony of the Republic of South Africa, where the University of Natal in Durban supports a graduate program in Cultural and Media Studies. We had a place to go, a program with which I could associate, and a B&B booked for the first 10 days after our arrival.

We would figure it all out once we got there. Maybe we were a little crazy.

After a flurry of activity at home – getting passports, visas and shots, renting out our house, finding parking for our cars and securing a pet sitter for our dog – we landed in Durban in August and simply stared at our new world.

Africa. I found myself seeing not the differences between the U.S.A. and S.A., but rather the similarities. We stayed in a wonderful house on a tree-lined street, shopped at the mall, ate at an Italian restaurant, and watched “Will and Grace” on television.

But as we became more accustomed to our surroundings, the differences became crystallized for us: the street merchants at every corner selling, of all things, plastic hangers, black garbage bags and handmade brooms (how many brooms does one need, anyway?); the squatter camps along the road with their tin and cardboard shacks; the white Africans driving their cars and the black Africans walking on the shoulder of the six-lane highways; and the sounds of Zulu and Hindi and Afrikaans in the marketplace. This was certainly going to be a year of discovery.

We rented a house in suburban Westville, situated at the top of a hill, with a pool, large balconies and a lush garden that made us feel we lived in a tree house. Unfortunately, we had to completely furnish this place ourselves – a refrigerator and stove, beds, cups, pans, television, chairs and everything large and small – and then sell it all again before we left.

But our search for furnishings allowed us to explore Durban. We went to a sprawling flea market in downtown Durban, where we had our first encounter with being the only white faces among the black and brown skin of buyers and sellers and … nothing happened. We were not noticed at all except as potential customers. Auctions, second-hand shops, classified ads and factory outlets led us to Indian neighborhoods, middle-class Muslim homes and to a clutch of street-side entrepreneurs from whom we purchased several woven grass mats and received a hearty friendship as a bonus.

This mother and daughter team introduced themselves as Catherina and Anna, but we had learned that black Africans often had a “white” name as well as their own family names. There was considerable tittering when we asked for their Zulu names and attempted to pronounce Tandegele and Sibongele, and the name of their male friend, Umgabulelwa. They told us of going down to the river, picking the tall grass, carrying it home on their heads and weaving their mats by fire light. The “rugs” set the tone for our house – an eclectic style, but very natural and very African.

One of the most important issues we faced was schools for the kids. Brendan was a senior, Emily a sophomore and Sean was going into seventh grade. The Westville schools accommodated us with kindness and enthusiasm.

Emily’s first day was an especially auspicious time to be the new American in school – she started on September 12! The news of the tragedy on 9/11 was immediate – we watched with the rest of the world live on CNN – and it raised in us a sense of patriotism that was a bit surprising. But people in South Africa reacted with the same horror and angst as most Americans. We would be offered reflections of regret in shops when people heard our “cute American accents” and our newfound friends called with condolences.

But as the weeks wore on, the voices of the Muslim community were evident in newspaper articles and media appearances essentially arguing that “you reap what you sow.” Though feeling deeply for America’s loss, we tried to listen to these voices and understand the perspectives they offered. We may not have liked what they said, but we learned from having heard them.

All three children eased into their school life, finding that uniforms made for easy choices in the morning, that their “mates” were as curious about us as we were about them, and that humor and goodwill crosses many cultural barriers.

Brendan had an inadvertent meeting of his head and a desk one day in art class, leaving a small pool of blood on the floor as he was taken to the nurse’s room. When he returned he found his chums had made a chalk outline of his body around the bloodstain, making him a bit of a legend in school that day!

Emily, like all of the children in South Africa, had to take lessons in Afrikaans, a remnant of the apartheid era when Afrikaners ran the government and set educational policy. Her teacher playfully referred to her as “my immigrant child” and taught her bits and pieces of the language. But the high school students, fed a steady stream of American popular culture, wanted to know how many students in the United States bring guns to school, what are their drugs of choice, and assuming everyone has one, what kind of cars the children own. Clarifying misconceptions helps the process of global understanding on both sides of this cultural exchange.

And Sean became quite the little South African, leaving behind his football, hockey and baseball equipment and learning to play cricket, rugby and squash. It took a while for us to understand cricket, a strange game where a “bowler” would run toward the batter and release the ball in a windmill fashion, while the batter used an odd-shaped bat to hit the ball in any direction on the 360-degree field. We tried to determine the rules, only to be confused when a pitched ball could elicit huge cheers from the crowd for no apparent reason.

But we talked with other parents at the matches – usually during the teatime break when the players would help serve tea and treats to the spectators! – and we eventually understood the ground rules and cheered on cue when Sean did something good (as best we could determine anyway!).

As our year progressed we became locals, knowing directions to every part of town, eating in restaurants that did not cater to tourists, and ferreting out African music in concert halls, school auditoriums and funky bars. The phenomenon of being the “only white folks” lost its mystery, and our explorations allowed for the intersection of peoples and cultures we had hoped for when we initially dreamed up this travel extravaganza.

Many Sundays, for example, we attended Mass at our local parish in Westville with the same liturgical rituals in Africa that we encountered atSt. Rose of Lima in Roseville. But one day we went to the 11 a.m. service, a Mass said in Zulu. We couldn’t understand any of the words, though the structure of the service was clearly the Catholic Mass. But the music! There wasn’t a hymnal in sight, but when the small choir began to sing, the whole church picked it up – in four-part harmony no less. It was stirring.

As the Mass went on and people continued to arrive (“African time” and all), they would move to the end of an already full pew and everyone would push over. There was plenty of room toward the back, but close living here makes for a different sense of interpersonal space. Then we went to communion. As we slowly made our way toward the altar we discovered a plain wooden coffin in the middle of the main isle.

This was Sunday Mass and a funeral all in one. The deceased was an older woman named Antonio, who appeared to be much loved by her community, and when Mass ended, the funeral portion started with singing and crying and praying and clapping that told us that we were definitely in Africa.

Cultural engagement topped our priority list, but we still wanted to experience the Africa of “Tarzan” and “The Lion King” – we wanted to see theanimals!

Our first experiences with African animals actually took place at our home. Now the reality of living in South Africa is that security precautions must always be taken. It’s not that we felt in danger all the time but the divide between the haves and the have-nots is enormous and dramatic. Carjackings, theft and rape occur all too often. So all of the homes have bars on the windows (decorative, of course), large metal mesh gates across open doors, remote-controlled access and razor wire atop perimeter walls and fences. It was allpretty overwhelming at first but we got used to it.

Susan was home alone one morning while I drove the children to school (no buses here; just controlled chaos every morning and afternoon as everyone in town transports their children) when she heard banging noises in the kitchen and went to investigate. She was being robbed all right – of her BANANAS. Two monkeys were in the kitchen making off with a clutch of fresh bananas! Susan shooed them out, so they squeezed through the gate and had the audacity to sit on top of the garden wall and eat their contraband. There were about 15 in the troop, including a couple of babies clutching their mother’s tummies as they swung through our trees.

Soon there was more loud pounding as they threw themselves against the door trying to get in for more. “I was under attack by a band of monkeys!” she told me. “We’re definitely not in Minnesota anymore!”

But the real wild animals are in the game parks, the jewels of South Africa. We went to four parks and saw kudu and giraffe and warthogs and even lions on one occasion. We envisioned driving around with a guide in a multitiered vehicle, calmly watching animals in the distance – sort of a moving zoo. But, when we arrived in the Mkuzi Game Park in Maputoland (aren’t the names fabulous!) we were given a map and told to “drive around and look for animals.” And off we went for hours on end.

We lived by the mantra that you never know what could be around the next corner, and we often came upon a herd of impala, zebra or nyala. A four-foot lizard scurried off the road as we went by and cranes and hawks swooped away as we drove under them.

At one point, we literally came around a corner and were hood ornament to horn with a gigantic rhinoceros that was none too happy to see us. He snorted and eyed us, decided he wasn’t going to be eaten by a maroon Mercedes that day, and ambled off into the woods.

At another park, Hluhluwe (pronounced she-shloo-we), we went on a two-and-a-half-hour boat cruise in a gloomy sprinkle that provided just one crocodile sighting and a few water birds. A little disappointed, we began our way back to camp driving down a dirt lane made narrow by thick brush and fully leafed trees when we “came around a corner” and moving straight toward us was an enormous bull elephant.

Our first reaction – “take a picture!” – was followed by a panicky “now what do we do?” There certainly wasn’t enough room on the road for the both of us and since he was bigger, stronger, faster and much more unpredictable than we, he won. We started backing up, he continued forward, we backed up, and he kept coming – probably for three kilometers. Our little dance gave us the opportunity to get a close look at the big fellow; he had tusks that were as long as I am tall, was a mass of wrinkles, and his ears, a little frayed and torn at the edges, flapped back and forward in what we were later told was a “mock charge.” It looked pretty real to us. This whole episode took about 30 minutes and by the end there was a line of four cars backing up behind us. Eventually he took off across the bushveld, followed by a solitary hyena.

My work at the University of Natal was equally exciting and challenging. I was asked to write and edit a video of an archeological dig in the Tugela Valley, where remnants of native African farming villages from hundreds of years ago are now being used as evidence to rebut apartheid ideology that claimed blacks had migrated to South Africa around the same time that the Dutch (whites) reached Cape Town.

The classes in which I lectured were in stark contrast to St. Thomas in both student population and content. One graduate class had black, white and Indian students from South Africa, joined by students from Lesoto, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Among the students in another class were five gentlemen from Eritrea studying media systems in preparation for their eventual place in the Communication Ministry now that the decades-old civil war in their country has subsided.

In the video production class, topics for documentary projects ranged from female genital mutilation to tribal initiation rituals, a far cry from the experiences ofSt. Thomas undergraduates. I have been a professor for 25 years and have never experienced such a diversity of people, ideas and experiences.

Our year allowed us to engage the people, customs and places of South Africa. We traveled through most of the country, spending the New Year’s holiday in Cape Town, visiting Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island and seeing the point at which the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet at the southernmost tip of the continent. We rode ostriches in Outdshoorn and hiked to the thousand-year-old cave paintings in the Drakensburg Mountains.

But we shared some of the heartaches and challenges of Africa as well. The province in which we lived, KwaZulu Natal, is at the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, and it is estimated that fully a third of the population is infected. The public health care system is at the breaking point. In some wards of public hospitals the census is so overwhelming that patients share not just a room, but a bed as well, with a third patient set up beneath the bed itself. The obituaries in the township newspapers can often run to 10 pages each week, and Susan came upon a paper factory that sold cardboard coffins.

But amid the challenges, there are bright spots: providing clean water to rural villages is ahead of schedule, AIDS drugs are becoming more available, and the university system is undergoing a reconfiguration and renewal. A massive change in government and leadership is being conducted in relative peace and optimism.

Our African sabbatical was a life-altering experience for my children and a humbling but exciting adventure for my wife and me. We have benefited from the people we met, the places we visited and the perspectives to which we were exposed. Perhaps it is a newfound world view that we bring home, the kids to their schools, to the hospital for Susan and to the classroom for me. We will never be the same … thank goodness!

Dr. Kevin Sauter, who has a Ph.D. in speech communication from Pennsylvania State University, is in his 21st year of teaching at St. Thomas.