Letter Home from South Africa

A Letter Home from the Fall 2014 Health & Community Program:

Dear Friends and Family,

Molweni! Since we last wrote to you, we have spent almost 5 weeks living in and learning about South Africa.  Though it is difficult to describe all that we have learned and experienced in this beautiful country, we’ve managed to put together a brief overview of the IHP Health and Community program in South Africa. Very soon, we will be able to speak with many of you in person and describe this in much greater detail.


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It is important to begin by sharing a little about the history in South Africa, especially apartheid, and how that shapes what we have been experiencing. For those unfamiliar with apartheid, it was a system of racial segregation implemented by the National Party government in 1948, enforcing the rule of the minority white Afrikaner population and curtailing rights of the majority of the population, which was comprised of black, colored and Indian migrants. Apartheid sparked significant internal resistance and violence throughout the country, which was often met with further repression and violence by state actors and organizations. With internal pressure as well as embargos from the international community, the apartheid government could not continue its oppressive rule over the majority nonwhite population. Apartheid ended with the 1994 democratic elections leading to the first President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

While apartheid policies are no longer in place, they have created a legacy of social and economic discrimination that has seeped into issues of health, which have been apparent through our experiences.

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Some of the questions we are faced with here are: Why is it that black people in South Africa have the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and TB? Why is it that the usage of public versus private health sectors falls on racial lines? Should there be affirmative action, or how should we rectify historical injustices? As we have been learning from our anthropology and public health classes, the reasons for health disparities and health outcomes are less biological and more shaped by social, economic, political and cultural determinants, which are in turn, shaped by historical processes. Although the story is similar in the United States, the injustices of apartheid are more recent in South Africa, making its impact much clearer and more visible. Examining the history of South Africa has also allowed us to critically rethink our perceptions of the intersection between race and health in our own communities and societies.

Locations and Homestays

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Given that South Africa is such a diverse country, we split our time here between two places: Zwelethemba and Bo Kaap. First, we went to Zwelethemba, a historically black township about two hours away from Cape Town. The township was developed during apartheid when black and other non-white people living in the nearby town of Worcester were forced to move out through the Group Areas Act. After apartheid, the new South African government promised the people formal housing and have been slowing working towards that goal; however, there are still many people in Zwelethemba living in shacks with poor sanitation and infrastructure, waiting for the government’s promise to be fulfilled.

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Despite this, we were treated warmly by our families, most of which are non-nuclear and headed by grandmothers in the family, and we immediately felt the strong sense of community. We got to know the stories of our families intimately, got to learn a little Xhosa, the local tongue-click language, “braai-ed” (had barbeque cookouts), and often played with children in the streets.

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While in Zwelethemba, some of us also had the opportunity to attend an African National Congress (ANC) rally in memory of a Zwelethemba native, Thobile Mtwazi, who was part of the security detail for major ANC leaders like Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani. The keynote speaker at the rally was South Africa’s current Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, whom we got to meet and shake hands with.  Our time in Zwelethemba was incredible, and ten days was surely not long enough for us.

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The second half of our time in South Africa was spent in Bo Kaap, which is the Malay Quarter of Cape Town. Cape Town is a gorgeous city, named the number one travel destination by the New York Times, and for good reason. On one side of the city, sits the beautiful V&A Waterfront, while the other side, mountains create a picturesque backdrop to the community.  Bo Kaap, in particular, is a largely Muslim neighborhood situated in a central location in Cape Town, and full of brightly colored, one-story homes.

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We all stayed in Muslim households and most of our families were of Cape Malay descent, termed “coloured” during apartheid. We had a great time getting to know our homestays, experiencing Malay cuisine and Muslim traditions, and exploring all that Cape Town has to offer during our free time. A lot of us were able to hike up Table Mountain and Lion’s Head to get a gorgeous view of the city; visit Robben Island, a prison that housed political prisoners like Nelson Mandela during apartheid; go on wine tours in Stellenbosch; and visit Cape Point, the most Southwest point of Africa.

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In South Africa, our learning is intimately tied to what we experience every day, whether it is during class, at our homestays, or exploring South Africa. Most of us are used to sitting in classrooms back in our home universities, listening to a professor lecture about anthropology or public health. With IHP, we learn both inside and outside the classroom through visiting NGOs and communities impacted by the health issues and systems we are studying.

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For example, in our public health class we have learned that South Africa still suffers the highest burden of HIV and tuberculosis in the world. Then we step outside the classroom and see how this manifests in the communities we live in, the people we talk to, and the NGOs working here. For example, we listened to members of the Zwelethemba community on an HIV panel tell us about their personal experiences with the disease; we also visited the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative at the University of Cape Town and learned about their work in conducting clinical trials for a tuberculosis vaccine.

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While in Zwelethemba, we had the opportunity to meet with and learn from a local herbalist and a Sangoma, or a traditional African healer. These healers are treating members of the community through traditional healing and practices for a wide range of ailments including diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV, and TB. These experiences have allowed us to understand how traditional medicine fits into the local landscape of healing.

Finally, we had many guest lecturers and panels to give us the local perspective of how, for example, apartheid has affected family life, or what democracy looks like in South Africa versus the United States. With IHP, we are always on the move, always observing and listening to what is around us. This has been both a challenging and rewarding change to our typical academic experience.


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Before we headed to Brazil, we had the privilege of spending a week in South Africa for vacation (yes, we were very lucky!). We have learned by now, that South Africa is a large and diverse country with so many sites to see. One group of six students made a long trek up to Kruger National Park near Johannesburg, where they camped out on safari, enjoyed the natural beauty, and attempted to spot all of the “Big Five” animals that were traditionally considered the hardest to hunt (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo).

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Another group of students took the Garden Tour, a six day trip through some of the most famous natural sites and vineyards in the country, where they did some canoeing, hiking, caving-crawling, and animal-watching at Addo Elephant National Park. Finally, the last third spent their break in Cape Town proper, venturing out on day trips to Cape Point and snorkeling with seals!

Overall, South Africa has been a wonderful host to our learning experiences, so wonderful, in fact, that many of us have even looked into pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Cape Town. We all feel so lucky to have been a part of the wonderful communities South Africa has to offer, even if just for a short time. If there is one thing for certain, it is that we will never forget what we have learned here in this amazing learning community in South Africa – from our host families to guest lectures to tour guides and everything in between.

Until Next Time,

IHP Health and Community Fall 2014



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