Journey from South Africa to America: From the life of Eleanor Wiblin

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Why would a South African woman come to Provo and work at BYU? South Africa has nice cities, alluring beaches and a pleasant tropical climate. However, in the 1990’s crime and turmoil reached a peak, apartheid divided white and black citizens and South Africa’s economic and political neglect had become so severe that Eleanor Wiblin and her husband, Lindsay, were on the verge of losing their home. They decided to take their family to Provo, where their oldest son was going to school and dancing for the BYU Ballroom Dance Company. Today, Wiblin is the secretary for the BYU Ballroom Dance Division, and her experiences in South Africa have influenced her choice to come to Utah and join the BYU community.

South Africa was not a safe place when Wiblin left.

Eleanor Wiblin (back, center) with her husband and the Govender family. When the Eleanor Wiblin lived in South Africa, her husband was the 1st Branch President of an Indian (Asian) branch and there was a little boy who is now the Bishop of that ward   pictured here (photo courtesy Eleanor Wiblin)
Eleanor Wiblin (back, center) with her husband and the Govender family. When Eleanor Wiblin lived in South Africa, her husband was the 1st branch president of an Indian (Asian) branch. There was a little boy in that branch who is now the bishop (far right) of that ward. (Photo courtesy Eleanor Wiblin)

“There was violence coming closer and closer to our home,” Wiblin said. “There were murders all around us … what is really disturbing is that friends of ours who lived and worked with us have been murdered, and you never want to know someone who has been murdered.”

Wiblin’s experiences have given her a valuable outlook on life, and she has used that insight to benefit the BYU community. Lee Wakefield, Ballroom Dance Division administrator, said he enjoys Wiblin’s unique presence in the workplace.

“Because of her culture she has a unique perspective on a lot of things,” Wakefield said.

The Wiblin family came to Provo to escape the increased danger and political turmoil in South Africa, but life there was much safer for Wiblin as she was growing up.

“I lived on the east coast in Durban, which is a holiday city,” Wiblin said. “We went to the beach often and did a lot of outdoor activities.”

Due to South Africa’s close ties to Great Britain, Wiblin had a westernized, English upbringing. In many ways life in South Africa seemed more British than African for Wiblin.

“My ancestors are all English,” Wiblin said. “Our way of living was very English … all our textbooks were from England … we were taught to speak properly and write properly … and so it was almost like growing up in England.”

As a child, Wiblin usually had a black maid in her home and said it is difficult for most people to understand the relationship between blacks and whites in South Africa.

Wiblin briefly gave a history of South Africa and explained that African tribes colonized the south part of Africa at the same time Europeans colonized South Africa. Because of the colonists’ westernization, they easily gained influence in the area and filled most of the skilled working conditions. Wiblin said this history contributes to the difference in economic class between white and black South Africans.

“This is the thing that is hard for people to understand,” Wiblin said. “We always treated our servants well; we were never unkind and in a lot of the cases, if they weren’t employed as maids, there would be no income into (their) family. It was beneficial to both parties …The black people wanted to come into the city and become westernized, but there wasn’t enough work and they didn’t have the skills for the more skilled jobs. … Because they became westernized they had to change, and if you realize that they were a primitive people, that took a long time to change their way of life and sometimes that’s hard for people who haven’t lived by a primitive people to understand.”

Wiblin’s parents were part of the Church of England but did not go to church much when Wiblin was a child. Despite this, Wiblin felt a desire to go to church, even if she had to take the initiative to go.

“My parents were Church of England raised,” Wiblin said. “They took us to Sunday school occasionally, but I always felt I wanted to go to church … sometimes I would go to church with my friends, and after church I would go and meet my family at the beach.”

Wiblin eventually became interested in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and her desire to go to church was more realized. However, her full conversion did not occur until after she met her LDS husband in a ballroom dance class.

“(Ballet) is still my first love as far as dance is concerned, but not very sociable,” Wiblin said. “My parents decided I needed to meet boys, so they put me in ballroom dance classes … I met my husband in a ballroom dance studio, and I was attracted to him immediately. As I look back now, I think it was the light of the gospel that attracted me … and of course we got engaged and married, and then he baptized me.”

The Wiblinses settled in a peaceful South African suburb and there started a family, but political unrest endangered their safe home life.

“The country’s politics and economics were going down, down, down,” Wiblin said. “My husband decided, ‘If we’re going to be poor, it would be better to be poor in America than to be poor in South Africa.”

Wiblin’s daughter Brenda Barlow was only a teenager when her parents determined that South Africa was not the best place to live. But Barlow did not realize things in South Africa were so bad.

“I as a teenager was sort of oblivious to a lot of what was going on around me,” Barlow said. “I knew (only) about my school and my home environment …You lock everything, you’re in by dark and you don’t go out and … that’s just how life was.”

Eleanor Wiblin with her dance partner just before they left South Africa (photo courtesy Eleanor Wiblin)
Eleanor Wiblin with her dance partner just before they left South Africa. (Photo courtesy Eleanor Wiblin)

The Wiblins family decided to leave South Africa but needed to find a suitable place in America. They decided to join their son, Roger Wiblin, at BYU, where he was going to school and dancing for the ballroom dance team. His attendance at the university can actually be attributed to a chance encounter with a BYU folk dancer who moved to South Africa when Roger Wiblin was about to graduate high school.

“The whole miracle of the thing is that there was a girl who danced on the Folk Dance (team),” Eleanor Wiblin said. “They were having a Christmas party, and they asked Roger and Brenda to dance, ballroom dance. And of course this girl told Roger, who was getting ready to graduate from high school, ‘If you go to BYU, you’ll get on the ballroom dance team,’ and that’s all he needed.”

A year after Roger Wiblin went to BYU, the whole family joined him in Provo, and they are confident that the move was the right choice for the family.

“We live very comfortably, (we) certainly don’t want for much,” Wiblin said. “(It’s) wonderful to see our grandchildren reaping the benefits of coming here.”

Barlow said the move to Utah was a shock at first but was ultimately the right decision.

“It was challenging at first, but we made it work,” Barlow said. “As we got closer, it felt like the right thing to do.”

After finishing her junior and senior years of school at Provo High School, Barlow went to BYU and danced. About two years into Barlow’s education, Wiblin began working for the university. Marci Edgington, a part-time faculty member in the Ballroom Dance Division, has worked with Wiblin and says the students adore her.

“She treats everyone respectfully,” Edgington said. “(The students) love her because she always has a pleasant wish for them.”

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