Letter Home from South Africa

A Letter Home from students in the IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care program:

After flying for nearly two days, our group arrived in South Africa. We were greeted by warm afternoon sunshine as we stepped out of the airport and into the cool breeze. The clear and crisp air lifted all of our spirits and we drove off of to Simons Town, where we spent a few days settling in and learning a bit of history to help us make sense of what we would see during our stay here.

Our first lectures introduced us to the two histories of South Africa: that of the colonists, and that of the native tribes that inhabited Southern Africa.  To learn that the commonly known history of this country reflects only some of the many stories of its diverse populations was an important lesson. In a lecture with an anthropologist from University of Cape Town, we learned about the struggle against Apartheid and how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission affected the lives of those in the townships. All of this background would later help us to contextualize our experience staying in Zwelethemba, a township outside of a small town called Worcester.

Prior to leaving for our stay in the township, we also had a Xhosa workshop, where we learned a few basic phrases that we could use to greet the community. Our teacher quoted Nelson Mandela and told us, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” With this in mind, we were determined to pick up at least a few words!

We moved into our homestays in Zwelethemba during the second week of our program and were greeted with the warm embraces of our homestay moms. Our classes were held in the library and our lecturers were often community members, speaking about their lived experience. They spoke on the topics of HIV, motherhood and family structures, and post-Apartheid life in the townships. We learned a great deal about the major public health concerns in this community and other townships. Alcoholism, HIV/AIDS, chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes, and even a culture of violence are all public health issues that the community identified.

Living in the township was a humbling and transformative experience for many of us. Being hosted and cared for by the families there – who had experienced so much struggle, structural violence, and institutionalized racism, also allowed us to see their stories of resilience, love, and care that persisted among friends and neighbors.

Our stay in Zwelethemba ended with a big braai, or barbeque, at sunset. All the families attended and we played music and danced into the night. It was a wonderful way to share our joy and gratitude with the community. A real highlight of the evening was our group’s gumboot dancing performance. Gumboot dancing is a traditional dance that South African miners took part in while working in the gold mines.

After our stay in Zwelethemba, we moved on to Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. We moved in with Muslim families living in the Bo Kaap, a neighborhood also known as the “Cape Malay Quarter.” Most of its residents, however, are not from Malaysia, as we learned in the first week. Rather, family histories trace back to India and Indonesia, when ancestors were brought to South Africa as slaves from voyages along the Spice Route.  Again, we felt lucky to get to stay with and interact with an entirely different population within South Africa and to gain a sense for what life is like.

In Cape Town we learned about community activism and the role it has played in securing proper sanitation infrastructure in the townships. We met with the Social Justice Coalition, an NGO working in Khayelitsha, a township outside of the city, and learned of their Clean and Safe Sanitation campaign, which has led to additional communal toilets for hundreds of families.

We also visited several NGOs in Cape Town, where we had the opportunity to learn about how they work with social service agencies to address issues such as domestic violence and mental health issues. The staff there helped us to understand the nuanced and complex social issues around gender and race in South Africa, as well as the mentality of a new generation that is more willing to address these issues more openly.

The end of our time in Cape Town was marked by the death of Nelson Mandela. As students, we felt fortunate to be present in South Africa on this historical and moving day. We were able to speak about the passing of Tata Madiba, as he is affectionately known here in South Africa, with our homestay families to understand the personal connection many people felt to him. A few of us were fortunate to hear Desmond Tutu lead a service at St. George’s Cathedral the morning after Mandela’s passing, and some of us attended an interfaith memorial service at City Hall, where Mandela gave his first speech after he was freed from Robben Island.

Though it was a sad day in South Africa, it was an important moment for us as students. This program has allowed us to see major world events through the lenses of the local communities that are most affected by these historical moments. Observing and participating in the public memorial and reflection on the life of Mandela has given us great insight into who he was for different people within South Africa. Like all of our experiences on this program, we hope that this impression is something we will be able to bring home with us and share with you.

From South Africa,

IHP Health and Community Fall 2013


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