For 19 years, Bob and Hilda Lehman have been suburban ambassadors for South Africa and the Mother City, hosting overseas families in their Monte Vista home.
The couple, who have been married for 60 years, joined Friendship Force International (FFI) in 1997 after seeing an advert in a local newspaper.
They paid a joining fee of R500 along with annual R500 subscription, which hasn’t changed over the years they have been members.
Since 1997, the couple have hosted 26 families from all over the world.
Hilda, who is originally from Belgium and still has family there, says she joined FFI because she loves travelling and learning about other people’s heritage, culture and lifestyle.
Bob says visiting other countries and living in other people’s homes and eating their food, is the best part of his experience with FFI.
“We get to have friends from all over the world,” says Hilda.
“You learn to actually feel and see how people live their lives, and exactly what they do.”
A non-profit organisation, FFI was founded in 1977 by Wayne Smith on the principle that each person can make a contribution to global goodwill.
Hilda says home hospitality is at the heart of each exchange, allowing people of different countries and cultures to connect at a personal level.
Travelling with FFI, at your own expense, is a different way to see the world, “up close and personal,” says Hilda.
The organisation’s head office is in Atlanta, America, and there are 356 clubs around the world. Visits to other countries usually last between five and seven days.
The group is open to people from all races, religions and backgrounds and there are about 35 Capetonians in the club.
The Lehmans’ guests have mostly been couples and a few singles and they are usually part of a larger FFI tour group of between 20 and 25 people. Since the couple have been part of the Cape Town club, it has visited America, Canada, Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Vietnam and Russia.
In May, the group will visit Azerbaijan and Georgia. In October, Cape Town club members will host guests from Bavaria in Germany.
There have been many humorous moments along the way.
“We had lots of fun with the Germans and Colombians who spoke no English at all, but nothing that sign language couldn’t solve,” giggles Hilda.
Apart from visiting other countries with FFI, the couple also travels by themselves.
They have been to Turkey, France, Romania, Ukraine, Holland, Belgium and Germany.
They plan to travel next year again, but they have not yet decided where.
The Lehmans are usually introduced to their guests by email before they arrive in Cape Town, so they can get some idea of each others likes and dislikes. The club tries to match couples with similar personalities and interests.
“I keep in contact with all the couples we have hosted. We speak quite often, especially at times like birthdays, Christmas and Easter. We either email each other or call each other. Sometimes it’s just to share a joke, but we keep in touch and we love it,” says Hilda.
Over the years, they have met people from all walks of life, including doctors, firefighters and teachers, and no matter the cultural differences or language barriers, says Hilda, they can all identify with each others gripes about taxes and local government.
The Lehmans treat their visitors to a typical South African curry and braai and ferry them to places of interest, such as Robben Island and Table Mountain.
“With having them as guests actually living in our homes, they can see the way we live and how we do things, as well as how diverse we are,” says Hilda.
* The Lehmans recently received an email from a couple from Richmond, in America, whom they hosted earlier this year: “Hi Hilda and Bob, we are still telling everyone what a wonderful time we had in Cape Town and how fantastic you two are. I have set my table with the wonderful place mats you gave me, for a St Patrick’s Day dinner and received many super comments from all.
“Thinking of you often and miss you all the time. Love Barbara Craig.”
* For details about FFI, visit www.friendshipforce.org or email email@example.com