‘I wanted to interact with the Dutch’, says Jane Wanjiru. ‘And I was missing family life.’ So she immmediately signed up when she learned about the possibility of developing contact with a Dutch family. It made her year of study abroad more bearable. ‘It made me feel normal and at home. Certainly after we first literally broke the ice.’
She was happy to hear about the contact program. ‘I also wanted to learn about the Dutch, how families live, how children are brought up, and to have somewhere to go to for practical issues.’ This support differs from that from fellow students, Jane explains. ‘You’re here with the same objective – to study – and you encounter similar problems. But when you make friends, you tend to miss the connection with the Dutch. My class is all international, and at the Bornsesteeg high-rise where I live, there’s little to no interaction with Dutch students.’
The organization linked Jane with a family with two children aged eight and nine. The woman, Mariska Tegelenbosch, first briefly visited Jane in her room at the Bornsesteeg, and invited her for dinner at her house soon afterwards. ‘It was winter’, Jane remembers. ‘As I couldn’t cycle yet and had difficulty finding my way, Mariska collected me and walked me to her home. In the dark, she pointed out the ice on the ditch behind the house, something I’d never seen. She stepped onto it, and after some hesitation, I followed. The ice gave way, and we both sank into the water up to our waists. All we could do was laugh, and it forged a strong bond.’
That it’s the student chaplaincy which organizes the program does not imply that it’s for Christians only, stresses coordinator Gerrit Breeman. ‘It does not matter what faith you have and where you’re from. We support Muslim, Christian and Hindu students, students from Africa, Latin America and Asia, but also from Finland and Slovenia.’ It’s just that the student chaplaincy initiated the program in the late seventies, early eighties, Gerrit explains. ‘One of the international students became very ill and passed away. It turned out that he only had some contact with the student chaplaincy. So they started a program that offered students a place where they could go to.’ It differs year by year, but the program couples yearly up to forty students to a Dutch family. ‘It offers them a brief escape from a tough student’s life. The students work hard, often wondering whether they are ever going to make it.’
The religious conviction of her contact family also never was an issue to Jane. ‘I didn’t even ask.’ For Jane, the family offered an element of support, without any obligations. They occasionally shared supper, went to an indoor skating rink once, and stayed in touch by e-mail. The family also invited her so spend Christmas, New Year and birthdays with them and their relatives – which she liked. ‘I felt no social boundaries.’ In addition, Jane turned to them for practical assistance: from how to use the train schedule to the translation of letters. ‘The fact that I always could go to them was comforting.’ The crisis in Kenya after the presidential elections last December also provided a great deal to discuss.
A very Dutch thing that Jane did was ‘gourmetten’: cooking your own dinner in a very small frying pan, sitting all together at the table. ‘Without this family, I never would have known about it. And I quite liked it.’ Jane couldn’t talk to the children, but as she is a mother herself, she could easily understand them. ‘Children are children, I learned’, says Jane. ‘I recognize situations. I knew that when they were playing in a certain way, it wouldn’t take long before they’d start quarrelling.’ She further noticed that the children had more freedom than she was used to in Kenya. ‘They even could decide what to eat.’
The difference in backgrounds never caused any problems. ‘There was nothing to it’, agrees Mariska Tegelenbosch. She signed up last year as she could imagine that it must be hard to be away from one’s family for such a long time – although she didn’t know what to expect. It became a valuable experience. ‘You could see she was really missing a social life. She liked the contact with our kids, and they liked her too; my daughter often crawled onto her lap. We’ve learned about life in Kenya, and that has also broadened our childrens’ horizon. It’s a pity Jane is leaving now she has graduated, but we’re happy for her that she can return to her own family.’ / Yvonne de Hilster
For more information, as possible contact family or as student: email('bremancs','xs4all.nl');