If you’ve grown up in South Africa and gone to school there, my guess is you will know (and love) the Spud book series by John van de Ruit:

Spud the Movie [click for more]
If you are not South African and new to the country, I highly recommend you get these books. If you aren’t much of a reader, opt for the movie with John Cleese instead – a rare instance where the movie is as good or even better than the book. (It’s a universal rule: It can never be bad with John Cleese in it.)

Why do I recommend these books? First off, because they are funny. Sort of like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and movie, except more nuanced. But beyond entertaining, they are also educational. In a cultural way.

To fully understand South Africa, you have to understand the boarding school experience. To this day, many South African kids, right after celebrating their 13th birthday, leave their homes to live and learn at one of the country’s fine boarding schools – many of them with a 100+  year old tradition. If you have a few minutes, Google Michaelhouse or Hilton. I can tell you that you’ll come away thinking “Wow, I’d love to be a teenager again and be sent to one of these esteemed learning institutions.”

Except it’s not all fun and glory. Nothing, at age 13, is fun and glory – it’s all about pimples, insecurity, and heartbreak. The Spud trilogy tells it all beautifully, viewed through the eyes of the teenager John “Spud” Milton who receives a scholarship to one of South Africa’s prestigious boarding schools. From the beginning, it’s clear that he doesn’t fit in, but nevertheless he makes friends and has typical boarding-school adventures with them, finding an unlikely ally in his English teacher (played in the movie, of course, by John Cleese). Laced with typical South African/ English self-deprecating humor (the kind some Americans struggle with – oh the days when we had a president with a sense of humor!), the story of Spud and his coming-of-age in KwaZulu-Natal will not disappoint, I promise you that. It’s not unlike the stories we expats like to write about our misadventures, except in this case the protagonist doesn’t have to move abroad for his share of culture shock.

Michaelhouse. The header of their website says it all.


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