When we first arrived at Johannesburg airport, the fact that we had arrived in a whole other country did not hit me immediately. I feel as if that is because I have traveled out of the United States many times before, but the longer we stood in the airport waiting for people to exchange U.S. dollars to rand, the realization that I was in South Africa, a place I have never envisioned myself going and never thought that an opportunity like this study abroad trip would ever appear. I’m not sure if it was the various languages they speak here that caught my attention or the fact that people were looking at us that reminded me that we were foreigners.
In Johannesburg, we were privileged with a fantastic hotel that we stayed in for a couple of nights while we traveled to our excursion destinations. Unlike common misconceptions, we definitely were not staying in little shacks with dirt floors and tin roofs. Johannesburg also wasn’t like the desert, dry and isolated. In fact, the city is where Mandela Square is and it rained quite a bit during our time there.
Despite the rain, the group powered on and we went on several different academic excursions. My favorite probably being Constitution Hill where a significant amount of people were imprisoned during the Apartheid period. Our group was led by a tour guide through the women’s prison, where women were extremely mistreated, and Number Four, where Black men were imprisoned. In fact, significant anti-Apartheid leaders were even locked up here, such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo
From Johannesburg, we traveled to Cape Town, another part of South Africa where we moved in for the remainder of our stay. Everyone got to meet Cecil, our amazing bus driver., as well as many SHAWCO coordinators that couldn’t have been more welcoming to us.
When we arrived in Cape Town, we hit the ground running, going to our first academic excursion to Langa township so that we could get a feel for a more rural view of South Africa, which would be a different point of view than Johannesburg. I really appreciated going to this township instead of going to a tourist area or a museum, because we kind of got to see how people go about their day in this township, but at the same time I almost like we were spying on the lives of the people who live here. I had to remind myself that I’m sure the people living here were used to seeing Americans walking around with Mike, our tour guide, because he went on a certain route, went to certain vendors, and so on.
Along with studying at the University of Cape Town and doing academic excursions, the group and I are also working with sixth graders at Manenberg Primary School. The three subjects we are focusing on are maths, English, and social studies. I think SHAWCO is the coolest learning program because the kids we are working with are choosing to stay after school to further their education. I think out of everything about this study abroad trip, I was the most nervous about the service learning section. Each Grand Valley student was assigned two learners (sixth graders) to help with each subject. I was terrified the kids wouldn’t like me, but they were so excited to see all of us the second we stepped off that SHAWCO van the very first day. It’s crazy that it is only the second week, and I love all of these kids. I know it’s going to be so hard to leave them.
Time has been flying by and I love it here. I love my peers, the friends I’ve made here, and the new things that I learn everyday. The currency is still a bit tricky, and I still freak out when I see prices that are in the hundreds, so my currency converter app is definitely my best friend right now.