This might be a long post. I apologize in advance.
Wilgenhof Manskoshuis (Wilgenhof Men’s Residence, for the non-Afrikaans folk). My new home. To be honest, I was a bit daunted at first. I had only been in Stellenbosch (a town outside of Cape Town with a very rich history, where SU and Wilgenhof are situated) once before in my life. My opinion of Stellenbosch – and all its male residences, not just Wilgenhof – was that they were filled with these ultra-macho, rugby-playing, beer-drinking, rich, daddy’s boys. Also, I was bullied into believing that this place is super racist; that anyone who isn’t white is just a lesser person. So when I pulled into the parking lot of Wilgenhof Manskoshuis, with all my belongings stuffed into a suitcase and a few bags, ready to start a new journey, I was scared shitless.
One thing that is clear now that wasn’t then, is the culture of residence life in Stellenbosch. Beyond the culture that is the whole “student life” experience, there exists another, subtle culture, one that only students in res will understand. And – I understand more of this now than I did on my first day here, but am still far from fully grasping it – in Wilgenhof there exists an even deeper, more secret culture of residence life. Perhaps it has to do with the physical architecture of the place that sets it apart from the rest of campus (Google it), or the fact that it’s the oldest residence in Stellenbosch. Whatever the reason, there is a different vibe… a different energy… one that I was not at all accustomed to.
Anyway, back to my first day.
Accompanied by my mom and two aunts I pull into the parking lot outside Wilgenhof. Immediately three or four well-dressed guys flock to the car, offering smiles and “hello“s and “let me help you with that“s. They didn’t even let me carry my headphones; they carried all my baggage for me. There’s classical music playing over the speakers (those of you who have actually been to Wilgenhof might find that a bit strange) and everyone looks smart in their shirts and ties with their shorts and plakkies (flip-flops). I notice that I – as a short, non-white guy – am in the minority. I immediately feel self-conscious.
Okay, I need to interject here and just point out that race isn’t a big issue for me. I don’t feel self-conscious when surrounded by people of a different race, I don’t feel inferior or superior to anyone else based on race. It’s just that, on the ride to Stellenbosch, my mom and aunts kept pointing out that I was going to be surrounded by “whites“, and that I was going to have to get accustomed to “their lifestyle.” I said I wasn’t racist, not that my family weren’t.
On that first day I met so many guys that I never knew would grow to become a part of my everyday life. I am facing going home in June for the post-exam holidays, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like to wake up and know that I won’t see my roommate on the other side of the room, or my friends as soon as I open my door. That first night in Wilgenhof all of us first years, about 70 of us, went out to one of the bars in the area (for the Stellies students, it was De Lapa), and we got shit-faced. C’mon, what better ice breaker is there than vodka and tequila? If you find one, let me know.
At SU there’s a welcoming period during the first week, in which there are these weird social activities that all the first years from all the residences partake in. Wilgenhof doesn’t really participate in these. We do have social activities, but most of our time is aimed at forming a bond of brotherhood between the guys in res before class starts. And this is where the culture of residence life comes in.
If someone not from SU came to visit me in Wilgenhof, I can assure you none of our little… eccentricities… would go unnoticed. There are certain things you can’t do, certain things you can’t say, certain times you can’t make a noise, certain words we use to describe a certain thing. “You guys are so weird,” would be the general comment from a visitor, with maybe a soft chuckle and a sip from their drink – which they happened to have gotten at our pub. Then this person would proceed to ask about the origins of certain traditions, or what we do on certain days (like the odd Tuesday night, when anyone not from Wilgenhof has to be out at a particular time) and I would respond in the usual manner: either skillfully dodging the question, or just shrugging and saying, “It’s a Willows thing; I can’t tell you.”
See what I mean by residence culture? I guarantee you that anyone from Willows, or anyone who has ever visited Willows, can identify with this scenario. I know associating the word “culture” with any other word often has negative connotations (you know what I’m talking about), but I’m not in any way saying that this res culture is a bad thing; quite the contrary, actually.
Okay, obviously what I’m saying is not a universal truth handed down by a supreme being to a chosen desert-dweller in the Middle-East centuries ago, so it’s only my opinion. Feel free to disagree.
Being in this res has made me uncomfortable. Being in Stellenbosch has made me uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable in the first place is what makes one grow. I’m still discovering new things about myself every day, and that’s the cool thing: I have my whole life to learn about myself (unless, of course, I die unexpectedly).
Really discovering Wilgenhof
There was this one occasion early in the year when a group of us Willows guys decided to go and watch Deadpool. In the theater, this girl walks up to us and asks, “Are you guys from Willows?” After we answered in the affirmative, her eyes widened and she took a tiny step back. “Julle is fokken weird; soos ‘n cult,” she said, laughing (translation: you guys are fucking weird; like a cult). We laughed it off then, a bit taken aback, but nothing serious. But now I can kind of see what she meant (that wasn’t the first or the last time I had heard the “you guys are a cult” either).
Because of the secrecy that envelops this place like a thick mist on a cold Winter’s day, I can understand why people have an issue with Wilgenhof. Some like the mystery, while others consider us elitist, pretentious assholes.
There are people who see only this side of Wilgenhof:
And they don’t see this (resting after serenading some of the female residences with our beautiful singing):
Or this (to be honest, I got black-out drunk that day):
They also don’t see the countless nights a few of us guys sit at the dinner table, or chill in the kwôd, talking. Not just fun, innocent banter; I mean real talking. Discussing issues that some people pay dearly for, some even with their lives. Rape culture, religion, our economy, racism… all are discussed, by the same guys who can get stupidly wasted and drunk dial their ex because some voice in their head tells them it’s a good idea. There’s a balance to everything; a wrong and a right, a good and a bad, and sometimes the distinction between the two isn’t clear. What I’ve come to learn, though, is that sometimes that distinction doesn’t need to be clear; we need to sift through everything, all our experiences and thoughts and conversations and arguments, and look for the good and the bad and the truth and the lies. You are not the conglomerate of someone else’s opinions. Think for yourself.