Living with a host family for six months in a foreign country has forced me to reflect on what that term actually means: family. The lifestyle, the relationships, the interactions are all very different from what I am used to and what I have known growing up in Africa; it has challenged some of my preconceptions as well as reinforced my belief in the importance of these bonds, however alien to me their manifestation here may be.
Before I came on this programme many of the stories, blogs and presentations I had seen emphasised how much volunteers had enjoyed living with a local family and how close they had become with their temporary parents and siblings; even to the point of continuing to talk online and arranging return journeys. Whilst I was not without some trepidation, given how little Spanish I could speak, I too was looking forward to the unique opportunity to really experience the culture through a familial prism, as well as potentially make some life-long friends. And sure enough it was difficult and awkward and continued to be so for longer than I had hoped; the language barrier and the genuine stress of long periods of time in an unfamiliar space with people you cannot communicate with anywhere near as well as you’d like.
But over time the awkwardness and hassle faded or moments of uneasy silence became more and more infrequent. Watching football with my host father, helping my mother roast and peel peppers and enjoying the easy humour when the family laughed at my continually burning myself, helping my younger brother with his art homework – all very minor and routine but not only did I begin to feel like a contributory member of the household and not a silent stranger who used up more than his share of the shower water but I also began to feel that sense of belonging and acceptance. It had no doubt always been there; the family are wonderfully welcoming and generous, but I needed this time to get over my own hesitance and lean into the challenge as the rewards turned my living situation from something I tolerated to one of appreciation and genuine pleasure.
This is not the first time I have experienced this sort of phenomenon of organically constructing a familial connection. Before, however, the dynamic involved everyone being in the same situation; be it when I went to university, lived with housemates or joined the army and spent a year training with and relying on the same platoon of thirty other men. This time around I was an outsider; for the most part alone and it was incumbent upon me to find a way to communicate, to build relationships and fit into someone else’s rhythm and manner of living.
I come from an extremely close, loving family and appreciate and need the sense of belonging that comes with it; the support, the camaraderie and the knowledge that there are people willing to do more than is required by mere friendship. And whilst friendship and family are clearly far from mutually exclusive one does not need to like or even love a person to be family; one only needs to know that person is bound to you in a fashion which changing times and fortunes cannot alter. There is truly far more to family than blood and it is a wonderful thing to know that despite being an African boy living in London I now have new relatives in rural El Salvador.
Written by ICS Team Leader Matt Long