Letter Home from South Africa

A Letter Home from students on the IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care Spring 2014 Track 1 program:

As a group, we did and learned so much in South Africa that it’s hard to believe our time here is almost over. We’ve learned about South African history, taken classes at incredible facilities, experienced interesting site visits and weekend trips, explored with case studies in a new area, and gotten to live in homestays in Islington village – all the while trying exciting new foods!

In our short time here, a major theme we’ve encountered is the crucial role of history in making South Africa what it is today. Our first day in Johannesburg we dove into guest lectures and site visits right away (no time to rest after our two 12-hour flights). We explored the legacies of colonialism, Apartheid, development, and transnational movements in South Africa, and we’ve been constantly prompted to recognize the connections between these past influences and current realities. For example, Apartheid’s segregation of races included the segregation of healthcare, with health services divided by race until 1994. Education was likewise segregated – White children received five times the resources allocated to Black children, and 15 separate departments of education were in place – one per Bantustan (black homeland). With the end of the Apartheid regime, the state struggled to integrate these fragmented and unequal systems into a consolidated and reformed one, with the unfortunate result that the legacy of Apartheid inequality is still very present in healthcare and education today. Not only did we learn about these inequalities from readings and lectures, but we also had opportunities to speak with primary sources, visiting schools and hospitals to see their real-life manifestations.

The facilities where we stayed and took classes at also taught us a lot. The Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre, where we stayed in Johannesburg, is a Christian organization that brought together and educated people during the Apartheid era and was part of the resistance movement. Every morning we were here, brave souls would wake up at 5:30am and meet our country coordinator Jan at the bottom of the hill for a sunrise run, while others enjoyed their time sleeping in. The Centre overlooked rolling hills and had beautiful sunrises and sunsets, which was a change from the bustling Buenos Aires. While at Wilgespruit, we had multiple guest lecturers and site visits, each giving us an introduction to and context for what we would be seeing and learning the next 4 weeks. The chef, Merlyn, spoiled us with three delicious meals a day – some, like spaghetti and meat sauce, made us nostalgic for home; while others, like chicken curry, reminded us of India! We also had the opportunity to try some new restaurants in Johannesburg on our multitude of mall visits, with a favorite being “Chicken Licken.” At the end of our time there, we found it hard to say goodbye to the quiet and calm atmosphere but were excited to continue our travels in Bushbuckridge. We were pleasantly surprised upon arriving to the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC) where our classes would take place.  On the drive in, we entered a whole new world – we saw zebras, giraffes, countless impala, and even Cape buffalo.  This was our reality for the next 3 weeks – safari on the way to school!  SAWC was home to students studying to become rangers, anti-poachers, and conservationists in Kruger National Park. During our free time there, we enjoyed some wifi, swimming in the pool, and seeing giraffes, zebras, warthogs, and impalas while running on the 1.5 mile dirt track. We even got to see the rangers in training dressed in all green, chanting songs as they ran from class to class. We were definitely fortunate to take classes in such great facilities with so much to offer.

Another important aspect of our experiential learning was the site visits. They have helped us get a feel for the community and better understand some of the fascinating history of the country. On our first weekend in South Africa, we visited the Apartheid Museum – there was so much to see and learn that we could have spent an entire day there. We spent another of our days in Soweto (South Western Township), a township that black South Africans were relocated to during the Apartheid era. This trip included a visit to an organization called SKY (Soweto-Kliptown Youth) where we were guided through the close-knit community, which puts on song and dance performances for visitors. These performances send out a strong message of self-empowerment, confidence, and the value of education. This site visit was an emotional and moving experience for many of us, and it led to meaningful conversations and understanding that will be brought back home to the States. We also visited The Aurum Institute and Hlokomela, which are two NGOs that deal primarily with HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. The Hlokomela visit included a tour of their herb garden, where they cultivate and sell fresh herbs to the community to help finance their operations. It was an incredibly beautiful and peaceful place! Other site visits in Bushbuckridge include Tintswalo Hospital and a public health clinic, which have given us a better understanding of healthcare facilities and access in the community.

It hasn’t been all work – on the weekends, we have been able to travel to a wide variety of prominent places in South Africa. Our first weekend here, we ventured to the city of Johannesburg to explore. We saw the main parts of the city from a bus, and then visited a mall that hosts an artisan market every Sunday. We all had a great time shopping for souvenirs, talking to some local artists, and enjoying the free time. The next weekend, we took a small tour of the outskirts of the city. We stopped at the First National Bank Stadium, which was built for the 2010 World Cup, and held the opening and closing ceremonies for the tournament. We learned more about the effects the World Cup had on the local population and how many people were disappointed at how little economic opportunity it actually brought to the city. During our time in Islington Village, we had the opportunity to spend Saturdays together on some great trips. We visited the Moholoholo Wildlife Rehab Center, where we were greeted by a giraffe in the parking lot! We learned a lot about different kinds of vultures, and we even got to feed some of them. We also got to pet a honey badger and see lions, leopards, and cheetahs, among other animals while learning about wildlife management in the area. Our last Saturday excursion was a safari in Kruger National Park, which we had all been looking forward to since we first saw all of the animals at the wildlife college. We drove about two hours into Kruger Park, up near the border of Mozambique, and the drive ended up being its own safari ride! We saw a lion and lioness, giraffes, zebras, elephants, and impala. Once at the safari site, we split into two groups to ride out in the jeep with our guide and saw more of the animals listed above plus wildebeest, hippos, and Cape buffalo. After the safari, we had a wonderful braai prepared by Jan and Thema and headed back happy and with full stomachs.

On those amazing weekend trips, it was sometimes easy to forget about our classes – but our case studies for Research Methods class were an important part of our time. Our research explorations proved to be different in Islington than they had been in India and Argentina, as each group had the opportunity to structure their research on their own. Many groups chose to utilize new methods we had learned, such as photo-voice and graphic methods like drawing and neighborhood mapping, and these methods helped involve the community children in our investigations of nutrition, traditional healing, and more. We also studied the critical water situation in Islington and tried to learn about alcoholism in the village – a sensitive subject. Overall, groups were challenged by how to make our research reciprocal and give something back to the community that had welcomed us with open arms (and answered all of our questions without complaint!)

Apart from allowing us to do research, the community also welcomed us as new neighbors as we moved into our homestays. For many of us, the homestay component of this trip has been an essential part of our experience. Living in homestays has given us invaluable insight into the daily lives of the Islington community members. Our families have treated us with endless generosity and provided us with delicious food, fantastic dinner conversations, and unique experiences. One memorable anecdote involves a family who bought a chicken from their neighbors, then killed, cleaned, and cooked it for dinner with the help of the students. This experience was great opportunity for the students to understand the entire cooking process from farm to table. Other students have been able to experience traditional dances, three-hour-long church services on Sundays, and many more transformative aspects that have given our travels a sense of intimacy and life-long connection. Another great part of our homestay experience has been Sunday afternoons, when all 31 of us and our homestay siblings would meet up at the soccer field and spend hours dancing, playing soccer, and running around together.  Our time here also afforded us the opportunity to indulge in some of South Africa’s most popular foods. A typical meal in our homestays would consist of meat (beef or chicken), a vegetable stew or salad, baked beans, rice, and an infamous corn-based porridge called “pap.” Some of us have also been taking a walk on the wild side, trying local favorites like biltong (dried meat), ostrich skewers, and impala sausage! South African cuisine has undoubtedly been one of the highlights of our time here.

As we prepare to leave South Africa, we’ve realized how much these experiences meant to us – both in terms of learning and personal growth. All parts of the program here have made our time valuable and meaningful, and we’re deeply thankful to everyone who was a part of our experience in South Africa!

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