Chené Swart

Returning home with an enriched mother tongue

A story told by Chené Swart Pretoria, South Africa

Since 2016, Chené Swart, from South Africa, regularly travels to Flanders and stays with a family in Limburg. She teaches people who want to learn about how working with narratives can enrich their communities at work as well as their local communities. In her work at Steunpunt Vakantieparticipatie she assists in building a network of storyweavers who brings stories and experiences around holidays and hospitality to the fore.

After each visit to the “Northern hemisphere”, Chené tells that she returns enriched in many ways. This happens because you see more, experience more intensely and your heart is moved when you indulge in deep conversations with the locals. Chené returns back home with a deeper connection to her mother tongue and a lot of gratitude for the diversity of South Africa.


“Afrikaans was the language of Apartheid. The language of oppression. But the new democratic South Africa is a country with eleven official languages. We speak English in the public sphere, so as to avoid excluding anyone. Therefore, when I’m working in my country, I work in English. My book is in English. The articles I write are also in English. So when I think about my work, it is in English, my second language. And then I come to Flanders and the local people encourage me to speak Afrikaans."

I feel seen by the Flemish people I meet here. Seen in my language. Chené Swart

"Flemish and Afrikaans are in some instances close but still very different. Flemish people love my language. They say that it is beautiful, sexy even. That they like listening to my words. That they find it interesting how different the language sounds and yet we understand each other.

In Flanders, I experienced my mother tongue in a unique way. I have learned how to become more reflective in thinking and talking about my work in the language I was raised in, the language of my parents. It gives me a depth and insight I will never reach in English. I see my language differently now. Richer. I rediscover and remember words and expressions from long forgotten memories. I think in words and images I seldom use, even at home. Here, my language is seen in all its beauty, free from the heavy load of apartheid it is sometimes associated with at home."

After visiting Flanders, I return home with an enriched mother tongue. Chené Swart

"When I arrive back home and exit Johannesburg airport, I’m always surprised again by the huge diversity of South Africa, which I love so much. The dozens of languages, all the colours, the sound of people laughing. And then I would hear someone singing loudly. Seeing this joy of life and diversity again makes me feel down to the tip of my toes that I’m home. It makes what might have become ordinary, quite extraordinary again.

And then when I arrive home in Pretoria, my husband and two sons look at me weirdly. Because I sound differently. There are new words in my stories. “Just speak normally”, my boys would say. We laugh together. And I laugh because of so much abundance”.

Authored by Griet Bouwen Bilzen