Young, black, South African – and studying in Russia

2014-03-23 06:00

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When Lebone Kganyago (19) swopped Polokwane, Limpopo, for Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, she was in for a culture shock.

But the language barrier, the different food and the frigid weather – currently, the temperature is below freezing every night – are all worth it because Lebone can study for far less than it would cost at a South African university.

Her father Anthony paid R59 000 for this year’s tuition, accommodation, books and medical aid.

The average cost of tuition and accommodation in Russia ranges from $2 500 to $5 555 (R27 000 to R60 000) a year.

At some South African universities, that’s the cost of tuition alone.

Lebone is studying international relations at Nizhny Novgorod University.

She’s one of about 100 South Africans recruited this year by Racus, a St Petersburg-based organisation that places foreign students at Russia’s 600 state-owned universities.

It’s taken some getting used to, she says.

“You get stared at as there are very few blacks in Russia, but racism isn’t an issue. You’ll wonder why a person isn’t smiling and is minding his business, but that’s the way it is. I’ve learnt that a woman isn’t allowed to put her hands in her pockets and a man doesn’t shake a woman’s hand.

“When you’re invited to someone’s home, you must bring something to eat. That’s not what I’m used to. Russians are feminists?...?they don’t mind what a woman is wearing, and they’re opinionated and never shy to give compliments.”

She’s made friends with another South African who has helped her find her way around. Lebone studies in English but is also learning Russian.

Mhlengi Mhlongo (22), from Osizweni near Newcastle, has adjusted easily to life in Russia.

Mhlongo is studying medicine at Tambov State University, which costs him R52?000 a year.

“We study in English and there are interpreters when a lecturer is not fluent in English. Most Russians don’t speak English so it’s important to learn the language.

“Russians are good people and welcoming. I remember when I arrived at the airport in Moscow, everyone was willing to help me even though I was the only black guy there,” he says.

He’s one of many African students at the university and says he’s not lonely at all.

Racus’ deputy director-general, Maria Kiriehenko, said there were more than 200 000 foreign students studying in Russia, 30 000 of whom were African.

“We’ve been working in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Swaziland and Malawi for a while now. South Africa is the last African country we’ve begun working with and we’re receiving many inquiries and applications through the embassy,” said Kiriehenko.

Most foreign students were interested in medicine, engineering and economics, she said.

“This is international dialogue between countries without politics. Russia promotes its education and also benefits from ideas that foreign students bring from all over the world. It is an exchange of experiences.”

Russia and South Africa signed a bilateral agreement last year so that each country recognises some of the other’s qualifications.

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