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What It's Really Like To Be On Exchange

The subway has been switched out with kombis (private vans that make up the transport system)­. The calm sometimes abandon streets of Oslo has been replaced with the busy streets of Harare, always with a vendor nearby. And the cold of the Norwegian autumn has been replaced with the burning sun of Zimbabwe. After three months in Oslo we have begun the second chapter of our journey here in Harare with Katswe Sistahood.

For those of you who don’t know exactly what the Young Women in Leadership Exchange is about, here’s a recap: We are six young women linked together in an exchange for nine months that will take us from Norway to Zimbabwe before we finish in South Africa. The theme for our exchange is Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) as well as feminism, trying in all manners to learn about the various mechanisms that keep women from experiencing the same rights as our male counterparts.

All these fancy words aside, how do we spend our days? The truth is that each day varies to a degree that makes it impossible to call something normal. Some days we have meetings the six of us, updating each other on what’s been going on and planning our event for International Women’s Day. We meet with various organizations and people learning an equal amount about SRHR as well as how they operate within a heavily restricted civil society. Some days we spend in the Katswe office, others with the Katswe staff out in the communities. The other day we went to Epworth on the outer skirts of Harare to join one of these community meeting. Attending were sex workers, people living with HIV, community leaders and youths - all discussing how best to ensure that their rights are being upheld.

Six answers from six women

Every day entails new impressions, challenges and opportunities - so how is it really to be on this exchange? Six different people will give you six different answers so we figured that’s what we’ll give you:

To be on an exchange is like a journey by train. Slow and sensuous therefore the need to adjust and adapt with no pressure to adopt. It is filled with an emotional combo. It's breath taking and satisfying to an anticipating and hungry mind. It has of course it's up and downs, the wow days and 'aha' moments. An exchange offers one the chance to make memories and since life is all about making memories, being on an exchange offers some of the best of these memories. (Donna, Zimbabwe)

To be on an exchange is reality, just like in your "normal life”, the camera is always rolling. It's exciting, exhausting, scary and adventurous, it’s almost like completely switching lives because all of a sudden you literally coexists with strangers 24/7 until you regard them as your friends, it's life changing and inspiring. (Thuli, South Africa)

To be on an exchange like this is to mix your professional and personal life. You will learn how it is to communicate across cultures; you will see how developing programmes actually work on the ground and you will meet people with a completely different reality then yourself. At the same time you will learn so much about yourself and you can’t ask for a better “reality check”. You will get to know the challenges women face in different parts of the world and you will get to challenge your perceptions. It is an all-consuming roller coaster that will make you feel vulnerable and strong at the same time. I’ve learned so much already and I’m only half way through. (Mari, Norway)

Exposed, yes this sounds scary or too open but it’s exactly that. You open your life to other people your work to other people again scary but it’s interesting too. Your intellect is pushed into getting better and as for living with strangers believe me you get used to it. In a week they become not strangers and that sorts itself out. The best part about the exchange is it’s an adventure into self-discovery, you learn your limits push and according to Peter Harris this is the way you grow as a person and I agree. (Millicent, Zimbabwe)

Being in an exchange is like getting in a bus of discovery, to rediscover myself in a different reality with different people, coming from different background. It’s eye opening. It leaves you field with emotional moments of happiness, anger, sadness, confusion and clarity. It is challenging, it becomes part of your everyday life, day and night, but if you take this journey with an open mind you develop as an agent of your life within your society. (Liz, South Africa)

Most people assume that the challenges of being in an exchange are the different cultures, countries, personalities or language but through personal experience enacting the above, what I've found to be more challenging narrows down to my own assumption and perceptions which have in a way become a learning curve. By assumptions, I don't mean what happens on the surface but what people unconsciously take for granted especially in relaying messages. Communication is important in an exchange and equally important is how we communicate. Living with five other people and rotating in spaces that are out of my comfort zone has taught me one certain thing, there is no right or wrong in any aspect when perceptions differ on so many levels. (Azeb, Norway)

A true sense of solidarity

As you can see it’s a pretty intense experience that we all are sure will have a huge impact on our lives. And perhaps it is not a coincidence that the exchange lasts for nine months, who knows what we will give birth to in the end? To say that we will be reborn would perhaps be to stretch it a bit too far, but there is no doubt that we are going to be left with an increased understanding of the different realities women face. And we will be left with a true sense of solidarity to all women, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, gender expression and every other description that makes a woman.

Warm regards from Harare!

For more information about SAIH's exhange programmes through Fredskorpset, click here.

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