Goodbye, Farewell, until We Meet Again

We said tearful goodbyes to our partners at SHAWCO and Manenberg Primary this week. While it was hard to say goodbye, we know that this on-going partnership between GVSU and Manenberg Primary will continue on into the future. We look forward to returning!

We also enjoyed a nice farewell lunch by the ocean yesterday. We will definitely miss South Africa.

We are excited to see loved ones at home and thank all of you for your support in making this an excellent study abroad trip!


Leaving South Africa by Stephanie Leugoud

It has been over a month since we arrived in South Africa and it has flown by – it feels like just yesterday I was dropped off at the airport in Grand Rapids, meeting up with the group at the Delta check-in gate, all excited to start our journey to South Africa. At that time, most of us were just acquaintences, having only met at the pre-departure group meetings, and now we have all bonded in a special way because of all the things that we’ve been through as a group here in South Africa. From class lectures to excursions to service learning in Manenberg, we are all together having the same experiences and learning from them and each other.

Now we are well into our final week and it has really become real, at least to me, that we are leaving soon and we are going to have to say goodbye to Cape Town, which has started to feel like home, and to all the wonderful people we have met along the way that we will never forget. Until now, I didn’t feel like we were every going to leave and I was making myself comfortable here, but as we start to talk about it more, and all the things we have left to do yet before we leave, it is starting to hit me. I’m realizing just how much I’m going to miss being here and seeing the same friendly faces everyday. We have all changed a lot from being here and I think we each have something unique to share about our experience with everyone back home.

As our last week ends, I am feeling many emotions: sad, anxious, overwhelmed, nervous, excited, and happy… and I think others in the group would agree with some of these feelings. I am sad because this trip is coming to an end and has gone by SO fast. I am anxious to go back home and see all my friends and family and tell them everything I haven’t been able to communicate through e-mail. I am overwhelmed and nervous because we still have a lot to do yet this week (including our final exam!) I am excited and happy as well because I have enjoyed this experience so much as I never thought I would have an opportunity like this. Getting to know the group better has encouraged me to grow as a person and I have really made some true friends from it. I can’t wait to share with everyone my personal growth and achievements throughout this journey.

Another thing we have talked about that we’re worried about is reverse culture shock when we get back home. We have gotten so used to things here that being back home might be difficult at first. For example, I know the time difference will effect us; 6 hours is quite a big difference and that will take some getting used to. Also, the fact that we can do things by ourselves without constantly having to be in a group at home will be weird. I think we have gotten so used to doing everything together that it will be strange to do things without someone. Having spent so much time together as a group, we have a lot of the same experiences but we’ve also had unique experiences of our own.

With that being said, I’m wondering what everyone at home is most excited to hear about and what they have been most anxious to ask us about our trip? I can’t wait to find out and I know we are all super excited to talk about everything!

Parallels by Casey Overway

When I thought about service learning in South Africa, I was only concerned about my abilities as a tutor and whether I was capable of teaching a learner. I never thought the service learning experience would be filled with bumps and pot holes and divots all trying to interfere with my learners and I’s success, but this is exactly what happened.

From day one we were thrown a curve ball – we’d be getting two extra learners. Immediately I volunteered to work with two and foresaw no problem with this. Unfortunately, as it turns out, both my learners leave early every day for madrassa, which is religious school. I’d never even heard about madrassa before so it had never occurred to me that this would be an issue – strike 1 for Casey because I was religiously ignorant. I thought to myself, “Yes, this sucks. I will be unable to have much if any one-on-one time with Badr and Shaquille, but we can work through that!”

Then, Shaquille wasn’t showing up and Badr and I got very little one-on-one time together after group lessons. When Shaquille came again he informed me that he had been sick. Again, something I never anticipated as being a problem, especially because I was never one to miss academic situations, so I assumed everyday my learners would be present and eager to learn – Strike 2 for Casey was forgetting life happens and you can’t assume things.

Slowly but surely I started to realize that these boys had lives. Lives I knew nothing about. I had no idea what their day-to-day lives were like, what they were going through – I knew nothing. Then I realized I can’t be upset for having two learners who had to leave early each and every day. Instead I had to come every day ready to take the little time we had and utilize it the best we could.

Around this time, all my macro-life questions from back home came back and hit me full-force. Where am I going to graduate school? What am I going to do about this extra class I have to take but can’t afford? How am I going to get everything done when I get home? All these big, future-oriented questions that send me into a 21-year-old crisis about needing a plan for my life. And then I realized you can’t plan everything. You can’t have control all the time. You need to just be and let life take you where you need to go.

Just like me, Shaquille and Badr had to balance family life, academics, and religious practices. Who was I to hold it against them when we are all human struggling through the same things in similar and different ways? While I don’t know what and how Shaquille and Badr balance in their lives and I don’t need to, I know the three of us have grown in what seems to be leaps and bounds. Where we once had a lack of confidence in our skills and abilities, we’ve become stronger. Do we still stumble and make mistakes? Absolutely – we are growing and changing. But at the end of the day, nothing makes me feel more proud than seeing the look of understanding in their eyes, the right answer on their papers, and them standing up and the board writing and explaining answers.

Together we stumble and together we grow. We are humans all trying to make it through and balance life and if we keep that in mind a lot can change. Just remember: just be, you are enough, and you can figure it out.

Casey teaching her English lesson at Manenberg Primary

Looking to the Past to Transform the Future by Casey Overway

This entry was inspired by a WGS 358 lecture on Truth and Reconciliation. Our lecturer, Glenda Wildschutt, was on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Since arriving in South Africa I have had an inkling in the back of my mind that always said the same thing – South Africa is similar to the U.S. and our histories resemble one another. The longer I’m here the more evidence I acquire that supports this inkling. In the U.S. we don’t call racial segregation Apartheid. Some even believe we no longer have segregation based on ra ce, that it just doesn’t exist, but I assure you it does. While segregation may not be enforced in the U.S. today like it was in the past, it still exists in education, employment, and even in housing. Michigan itself is the number one most segregated state in the United States; which is not something to be proud of but this brings to light how real racial segregation in the U.S. is today.

Similarly, racial segregation still exists in post-Apartheid South Africa. However, what separates South Africa from the U.S. is the ways in which South Africa moved past Apartheid to try to transform the future, even if that transformation is ongoing. It’s important to remember this year only marks 20 years of democracy for South Africa and they have the most progressive Constitution in the world and are light years ahead of the U.S. in terms of equality and paper rights, and the U.S. has been a democracy for 240ish years. South Africa is unique, not because they utilized a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), because countries such as Argentina and Chile have also used TRCs, but rather it was the way South Africa used their TRC.

TRCs around the world, as mentioned in an article by Graybill (1998) titled “Pursuit of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa,” have “ignored the victims and made it possible for the truth to remain largely hidden,” South Africa’s TRC wanted to avoid these pitfalls. In order to do this, three committees were created – the committee on human rights violations which heard the stories of victims who experienced gross human rights violations (murder, abduction, torture, severe ill treatment); the committee on amnesty which heard acts associated with political objectives; and the committee on reparations and rehabilitation which decided how victims were to be compensated.

The premise of the TRC was that “uncovering the truth about the past leads to reconciliation” and that “in order to forgive, one has to know what and whom one is forgiving, hence remembering the past is vital.” While this approach is “imperfect and subject to criticism, the work of the TRC marks an important stage in South Africa’s process of attempting to understand its past to make possible reconciliation and reconstruction of this once deeply divided society. The TRC did this not by jettisoning justice, but rather by offering restorative justice as opposed to retributive justice, in which reintegrating the perpetrators into society is as important as healing the victim’s wounds.”

There’s no doubt that there was anger which is understandable because “amnesty is going to cause people a lot of heartbreak,” but because the TRC was a public affair, it allowed people to hear the truth and attempt to move on and forgive.

The TRC was based on full disclosure where each case had to meet criteria, was investigated, and each case was researched and cross-examined to test the validity of the sotry. At the end of the 3 and a half years, 28,000 people had come before the TRC, of these 5,000 met the amnesty criteria and approximately 3,500 were granted amnesty. The process of creating the TRC was quite introspective and continuously looked inward knowing they didn’t want to go back to the past.

Yes, South Africa has many issues to work through but they are a very proud country with high hopes of making it better than it was and they are set on not repeating the past. Ii’d like to challenge those who point fingers at other people, nations, states, etc. as being worse off than the U.S. to look critically at the U.S. because we have many of the same problems and while the grass may look greener, we have a long ways to go and when you point one finger away from you, you have three fingers pointing back at you. So, please think critically about our past, present, and future and before you go to help another country who is “worse off,” just remember, the U.S. has a long ways to go.

A Journey in Social Justice: From Alternative Breaks to South Africa by Claira Freeman

I’ve done a lot of service learning during my time at GVSU, and with that service learning has come a lot of reflection on what it means to be a volunteer, participate in service learning and wanting to be active in social justice. They all relate to each other, but it can be quite a journey to realize this.

My journey started with Alternative Breaks (AB) and ended up at a full realization in South Africa. Alternative Breaks is a service learning organization on campus that sends out regional and national trips during school breaks to volunteer at sites dedicated to various environmental and social issues. I started out as a volunteer, who is usually someone who wants to help a community but does not educate themselves about the work they are doing. They fail to look into things like what population they are serving or what the communities they are serving are like. I found myself at this stage during my first AB trip in Baltimore working with affordable housing. I knew I wanted to do work in the community, but did not bother to learn anything about what affordable housing was or what it looked like in inner-city Baltimore. Having gone through that experience and moving from being “just a volunteer” to learning to concern myself more with the community I am serving and being apart of it for the time I was there, I moved into service learning.

Service learning is categorized by being educated about your issue while you do your service. This extra element creates relationships through the work you do and the knowledge you gain along with it. This contrasts the idea behind volunteering or “just showing up.” This past year I continued my AB experience and became a Site Leader, taking people to North Carolina to work with a Head Start program in an under-privileged community.

My Site Leader experience finalized my service learning phase. As a Site Leader my job was to educate participants on our issue and site as well as forge a working relationship with the Head Start program. Being in charge of these two aspects perfectly brought together the main ideas behind service learning for me. I now had new knowledge of a different community that I could bring back to Grand RApids as well as contacts for future trips. These are things you get from the engagement of service learning verses just being a volunteer.

These previous experiences with sorting out the different types of and phases of community engagement have been taken even further here in South Africa. Being in another country has put a different spin on many things. Moving past just being educated about the community I am serving in, tutoring in Manenberg has taught me that I need to be more vigilant about applying the things I learn in South Africa to my community in Grand Rapids.

Being apart of SHAWCO’s programs and seeing the work they do here makes me think of similar communities in Grand Rapids. We also have children who need tutoring and come from low socio-economic status households. I should be able to apply SHAWCO’s strategies, such as a tutoring program, to my own community’s challenges. Just showing up to, reading about, or telling people about the communities you work with is a good start, but unless you take your relationships and knowledge back to your own community in a concrete way, you are right back where you started without them.

Without my AB experience I don’t think I could have taken my next step here in South Africa, which is moving into a social justice mindset. A mindset in which I take the things I have learned from service learning and concretely apply strategies to my own community to help bring about change. Now, it’s not just a relationship made, it’s how are you going to use that relationship? Social justice is what you do with the combination of your time in service, community, and education. Whether it is an awareness campaign, writing your congress person, volunteering locally, or dedicating your life to a cause, it doesn’t matter. What matters is taking action armed with these combinations, and my combinations are coming together here in South Africa.

So, where do you see yourself in terms of volutneering, service learning, and social justice? Or, what personal stories do you have about a successful social jsutice/volunteering/service learning moment? We look forward to hearing from you!

Learners presenting their poster at Manenberg Primary

Race Conscious by Esther Philip

I am Indian American. It took me 22 years just to realize the fact that I am actually American. I’ve been questioned ever since I can remember if I was even born in America. You would think my extremely American accent would give it away. But I understand because I am not white. I am a minority that doesn’t belong. However, I am hated in India for being American so I also don’t feel like I belong there either. My whole life I had to please two extremely different cultures, which has been difficult. At the same time, it has made me realize the advantages and disadvantages of each culture. Living two cultures in itself has broadened my views and understanding of races.

When I landed in South Africa, I instantly noticed the diversity. I was shocked to see so many Indians. Of course, there are a good amount of white people, but I finally was a part of the majority. It honestly was very exciting to me and intriguing to see how my fellow white peers felt about being part of the minority. Some of them have expressed how they have definitely become more aware of their skin color and more conscious of trying to fit in. Their feelings are very familiar to me.

South Africa defines race in a different way then in America. In America, anyone who is light skinned is considered white and everything else is considered a person of color but their race is dependent on what country their family is from. In South Africa, the primary categories are black, coloured, and white. Colourds are considered mixed people here, so one can already see that difference. However, what makes race in South Africa complex is that historically during Apartheid, religion was also used to construct racial categories. For example, a Hindu Indian and a Christian Indian would be categorized as different races. It is quite interesting to see how race is defined differently around the world but still plays a huge part in power structures.

Since there is no clear definition of race around the world, it should not be a factor in power or oppression. We need to start with the youngest to teach the next generation not to see differences based on skin color because they are our only hope for this complex issue of “hierarchical races” to go extinct. Now I don’t identify only as an Indian or only as American, but as a global citizen. Being in South Africa has made me realize that race is socially constructed. We are all in this together as global citizens. Therefore, all of our struggles intersect and we must support one another by breaking down racial boundaries.

This is a poem I wrote on this study abroad trip that shows my positionality:

I am race conscious.
Race never leaves my mind.
I judge based on race.
But I am not a racist.

I am race conscious.
My skin color is what I first see in the mirror.
Sometimes I want my color to be invisible.
Therefore, I want white privilege but I hate white privilege.
But I am not a racist.

I am race conscious.
I make jokes about the stereotypes that come with my color.
At first it was to show my pride in the stereotypes.
But now I realize I am feeding into the perpetuation of them.
But I am not a racist.

I am race conscious.
I am not color blind.
I contextualize everything based on race.
But I am not a racist.

I am race conscious.
I don’t want to be marginalized as the “other” or as the “minority”
I want my race to be respected as much as yours.
But I am not a racist.

Aquila: Animals Touring Animals by Sarah Wolfe

This past weekend, we arrived at Aquila in the afternoon, just in time for a huge buffet, including gourmet cheese, a variety of salads and vegetables, chicken, fish, two mystery desserts and a full tub of custard. During lunch, Zak asked Glenn and I if we could think of any animals that gorged themselves. After listing off a few animals that eat disproportionate amounts of food in disproportionate amounts of time, we all knew where the conversation was headed; over the next 24 hours we would be eating 3 high quality buffets and the odds were high that we would leave each meal absolutely stuffed from “gorging” ourselves.

Following lunch we were divided into five groups of two and one group of three. Challie and Claira, Stephanie and Esther, Zak and Anthony, Jessica and Casey, Glenn and I, and the three muskateers: Margie, Kanyn, and Maddie. Each group had a cabin to themselves. The cabins were amazing. Each one was equipped with ultra-soft bedding, a blanket heater, a fire stove, a huge bath tub and a shower literally under the stars. We were given a couple hours to get comfortable and to put on a couple extra layers of clothing before the evening game ride.

The game drive felt a little bit like being in a Jurassic Park movie. Each of the animals seemed so huge and distinctly foreign compared to looking at pictures of them on Google or seeing them in tight and compact zoos. It is not every day that an American gets to see springboks, wildebeests, elephants, hippos, rhinosaureses, lions, ostriches, and zebras all in one 4 mile drive. Let along is it every day that in that same car ride an American is able to witness an elephant fight, lions mating, a wildebeest answering mother nature’s call, a hippo taking a mud bath and be chased by three stampeding rhinoceroses. To say the least, the drive was beautiful, educational, and unique.

During our drive we learned how to sex various animals, that hippos killed more people in the world than any other animal and that both rhinoceroses and hippos could run up to 24 miles per hour. Also, our tour guide talked briefly about rhino poaching. While looking at the rhinoserouses, he identified the alpha female who is now 27 years old. Two-thirds of her front horn was missing due to a fight that occurred about 3 years ago with a male rhinoceros. According to him, only a few days after the fight, on August 20th, 2011, poachers came to the reserve killing two of Aquila’s rhinos. Rhinoceros horns are made of keratin which sells for approximately $65,000 U.S. dollars per kilogram. Had the poachers not have been interrupted, they would have likely succeeded in cutting the horns off of all 6 rhinos including the alpha female that we saw. Had her horn have not already been broken, she likely would have been one of their first targets, for prior to the fight her horn had been a beautiful length compared to some of the other rhinos. Nevertheless, she was fortunate to have been spared from the attack.

After finishing the evening safari, we came to find buffalo in the way of the gate (photo below). As a result we had to use the alternate gate. One might infer that this sort of obstacle occurs often in a game reserve. Soon after getting out of the safari van, we went inside to devour our second superb buffet. This time the menu was quite similar to lunch but with a few added delicacies: crab cake, cow tongue, and a third delicious mystery dessert. My personal favorite dish was the crab cakes, which dipped in a sweet and spicy sauce were absolutely divine. Following dinner, we went back to our cabins and enjoyed what easily could have been the best night’s sleep of our lives; that is, the night’s sleep would have been in we had not had to wake-up at 6 am for our sunrise safari. Nevertheless, I don’t think any of us would complain. Waking up early has been a force of habit on this trip.

The second safari was mostly the same as the first except with giraffes, cheetahs and leopards added to the experience. I personally found the giraffes the most interesting. Our tour guide explained that they could only keep young giraffes in the reserve due to a lack of trees. Once the giraffes grow too tall for the low-grass vegetation they try to move up into the tall rocky hills. As a result, sometimes they will fall and go into shock paralyzing them. For giraffes this is a serious threat, for should their head be too low for too long, blood can build up in their head leading to coma and/or their head exploding. Unfortunately, he explained, this was how they had lost two of Aquila’s giraffes prior. Further, he explained that that was why giraffes sleep with their heads still up. Maintaining their heads elevation relative to their body is absolutely crucial to their survival at all times of the day.

After finishing the morning safari, we packed up, ate breakfast and checked out of our rooms. Following this we were given a couple of hours to do as we please. I chose to spend the majority of that time with the neighborhood peaock. The beautiful bird seemed to be just as cold as us and was trying to bury itself in Aquila’s garden.

Aquila was truly an amazing experience and as a result I urge people to ask themselves these questions: When you see an animal in a cage at a zoo, do you feel like you are engaging in something even remotely authentic? Would this animal be happier somewhere else such as the wild? And finally, why is it that these animals are scarcely found in the wild now, thus providing a need for zoos?

Buffalo blocking the gate

Elephants on the Game Drive

Sunset in Aquila