District Six

It’s 1950. You and your family are all living together in a neighborhood that is full of diversity. Your neighbors watch your back and you watch your neighbors’ back. Music is crated and food is shared. On February 11th, 1966, this reality was changed when 60,000 people were kicked out of their homes due to the Group Areas Act. This act was passed in 1950, which designated people into different racial categories (White, Black, Honorary White, Chinese Asian, Other Asian, Cape Malay, Cape Colored, Colored, Other Colored, and Bantu). On February 11th, 1966, District Six was declared a White only area. Families were split up and displaced, just because the government decided that different races should not live together.

The District Six Museum, which is just down the street from where the district actually was, is a museum full of pictures and individual stories. On the floor of the museum, there is a map that was drawn by previous residents of the district, they each signed thes space they lived in. I found the personal nature of the museum to be a great way of remembering the people that lived there and their lives. There are suitcases around the museum displaying the small amount of belongings that people were allowed to take with them when they were removed from their homes. People took things that meant something to them, such as pictures, jewelry, and tea cups. The people living in District Six were only able to take one small suitcase with their belongings, and had to leave behind everything else.

Not only were they kicked out of their homes, but they also lost almost all of their belongings. This forced them to start over with nothing. The government’s intention to make the district a White only area was not accomplished. Although all of these people were removed, the entire area was demolished and made into nothing. It was just bare land.

We had a lovely museum guide named Ruth. Ruth, along with many of the guides, actually used to live in the district. From the museum, Ruth took us across Canterbury Street into District Six. She showed us where the old Jewish hub was before the Group Areas Act was enacted. Once the people living in the Jewish hub learned what the government was going to do, they sold all of the property. Ruth also took us past a college building that had been recently burned and destroyed during a Fees Must Fall protest by students. The students were protesting for lower education costs because it is still a very unattainable thing for university students here in South Africa. The area is full of so much history and present day activity which shows the importance of the area.

Ruth also told us a little bit of her life and her family connection to District Six. She actually grew up in the district with her mom, dad, and 10 siblings. When the government came on February 11, 1966 to remove her family from the home, her mother refused to leave because no other place would feel like home. Her family was one of the last ones in the district before they eventually had to leave. There is much more to her story, but it s not my place to tell it. Everyone should go to the District Six Museum to learn and hear personal stories about how the Group Areas Act affected families.



Robben Island

A choppy 35 minute boat ride will get you to Robben Island, which resides in Table Bay, approximately 12km from Cape Town. For centuries, Robben Island was used as an asylum, leper colony, prison, and sanatorium. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that it was used as a prison, specifically for political prisoners for the Apartheid government. Some political prisoners imprisoned on Robben Island  include Robert Sobulkwe, Steve Biko, Moses Dlamini, and Nelson Mandela, the most famous of those imprisoned here.

As we arrived on Robben Island, we took a bus tour that included sites of the maximum security prison, solitary prison, and the church. I was taken aback to learn that many couples come to the island to get married. Personally, I found this quite odd for people to share and express their love on an island that so many people suffered on.

The bus tour also drove by the limestone quarry where the prisoners were to work 5 days a week for 8 hours a day. Long term, the work in the limestone quarry damaged the prisoners’ eyes and lungs. A cave was located near the quarry that served as both a place for the prisoners to relieve themselves and eat their lunch. The prisoners, however, agreed upon having the cave serve only as a place to eat lunch and educate one another. Upon seeing the limestone quarry, it is hard for one to not notice the small pile of rocks near the quarry. This pile was made on my birthday, February 11, 1995. Mandela and other ex-prisoners came back to revisit the island. Mandela then began creating a pile of stones. The others began following his actions. Mandela then states that this is how quickly it takes to create a monument. The pile of stones built by the prisoners is called Monumemt of Rememberance.

We then began our tour on foot, our tour guide, a former prisoner of Robben Island. Later, during the tour, he told us his story. In 1979, he was 19 years old and a member of the congress of students fighting against education where he protested peacefully. When he was 24 years old, he was arrested and in detention for 6 months. He told the group he was tortured, both physically and mentally while in detention. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison and was released in 1991. He then returned to work at Robben Island in 2005.

The tour guide led us through the different prisons and provided insight about each one. While in the maximum security prison were were able to see the beds and spaces the prisoners were provided. As he shared his experiences at Robben Island, I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic. Not just for him, but toward all of the political prisoners who had been imprisoned and tortured and hurt because of their anti-Apartheid beliefs. I find it hard to believe that this happened less than 30 years ago.

During this tour, I saw so many cameras out that made me very uncomfortable. We were in the presence of a former Robben Island prisoner who suffered within these walls and there we were as tourists, snapping an infinite amount of photos with our cell phones. To me, it just seemed disrespectful.

Many were imprisoned on the island and treated terribly: hit, punched, beat, deprived of food, deprived of relieving themselves, and humiliated, yet Robben Island is somehow able to stand for something good. Richard Marback, author of The Rhetorical Space of Robben Island writes, “on the one hand, the island could become a monument to the brutality and inhumanity of the Apartheid. On the other hand, it could become a monument to the spirt and tenacity of the anti-Apartheid struggle.” This terrible past helps create the positive symbol it represents today. Thus, the island could not be a symbol of resistance without being perceived as a symbol of repression. Robben Island’s history, though terrible, remains a symbol of resistance and hope today.


Cultural SHAWCO

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.



Week Two in Cape Town

It is week two of our Cape Town study abroad trip and I have already learned so much. We had a really awesome lecture yesterday given by Nandi Vanqa-Mgimija where she talked about women and reproductive labor. She informed us of the “triple burden” women face in life and their unpaid domestic work that they are expected to do. Nandi made solid connections to their oppression and the economic position of women in South Africa. Having different people come to give lectures is going to give us a lot of different perspectives on the issues that face South Africa today, and this is definitely one of my favorite parts about this study abroad trip so far. But my number one favorite thing we have done is working with the kids. It has only been three days of working with them and we have already been thrown quite a few curve balls. I personally have never had to write a lesson plan and prepare for a whole three hour’s worth of activities, so it’s been a little bit of a struggle. I have found that I expect to get much more done in a less an than we can actually accomplish. I definitely need to take a step back and really figure out what is a reasonable amount of information to work on in one day. Although some of the kids seemed to struggle, they were all super excited to learn. It is the cutest thing when kids are eager to raise their hands and are actually disappointed when they do not get to go up to the board to write out their answers to their math question.

I think that tutoring all of the learners will be a personal growth experience for everyone and I will be better working with kids in the end. Yesterday I needed to keep coming up with new things to do with my learners because they were not talking at all. They definitely have never talked to each other before, so we kept sitting in awkward silence. So I just started asking them different questions to try to find things we all had in common in order to make them feel more comfortable. By the end of the day, they were talking a little bit more, but it is for sure going to take some time and work. I’m excited to see what the rest of the time we have with the learners is going to bring us. It is also kind of fun because some of us are learning with the kids. So far we have been doing maths and English. A lot of us have forgotten how to do all of the things that we learned to do in elementary and middle school. Yesterday we were doing language composition and a few times, I had to check back with another GV student to make sure I was doing everything right, because I had not done the stuff in so long. I think making us kind of learn along with them was making them a little more comfortable because my learners began to be less afraid of making a mistake. Overall, this study abroad trip, mixed with service learning, has been a great experience so far, and I can’t wait to see what else this journey brings us.


Langa Township: Culture, Connections, and Community

The township of Langa, located in Cape Town, South Africa, with its distinct culture, friendly people, and amazing artwork has so far been my number one excursion that we’ve had. Looking back on my first day within South Africa to the day of our excursion, I feel as thought he walk-about excursion really made me feel as though I wasn’t just a tourist, eve if it was only for a short while. Touring the township with our guide, Mike, I was given the chance to experience first-hand what the people of Langa were like and to view their stories up close, outsof of an impersonal tour bus. Walking around and visiting some of the homes, as well as noticing the close proximity to which those of various statues of wealth lived together, I understood even more the deep rooted impact that the Apartheid system had over not just this community, but others as well throughout the country of South Africa. Touring the neighborhood, I was informed of how many of Langa may still choose to live in one of the poorest areas, even though they may make enough to be considered middle-class. Viewing expensive cars parked in the driveways of homes within such areas, and having been explained to the type of work the owner does, and what they do for the community, revealed to me how this community is much like the communities back home in Detroit, Michigan, and how even though someone may go away to school or may get a top position at some company, they still are humble enough to think of where they come from and to go so far as to actively take part in their community and give back to those who will come after them.

While Langa township and Detroit may not be entirely the same, I was still excited to be able to draw some comparisons between the two. Being across the Atlantic and within an entirely different continent, country, anc culture, I felt as though many connections were made that lay in the township that just weren’t experienced previously as was the case in Johannesburg while visiting Soweto and learning about the town behind the glass of a tour bus. While Langa confronted major concerns such as crime, and education of the younger generation, the structure known as the Guga S’Thebe Cultural Centre made sure that there was a safe space for youth and others of various ages to gather after school and learn about the arts in order to stay out of trouble. It was here that I got to witness many various forms of art such as locally made pottery, glass art, sand art, paintings, and small items such as different types of jewelery. Not only did the art created speak to me as I enjoy all forms of art, but the spaces in which such things were housed in did so as well. The architecture and design of the Cultural Centre stood out to me the moment I strolled off the bus as the outside and entrance were covered in beautiful glass works. Not only that, but the Centre als had a beautiful, large, tiled piece that was constructed to be a part of the theatre where many performances often took place. I was reminded of the beautiful Detroit Institute of the Arts and was in awe at the various collections and creative spaces of the Cultural Centre.

From a casual and informative walk about the township, to the visitation and explanation of homes of the people lived there, and the exploration of the Cultural Centre, my dad ended with a grand finale in the home of Mike. Once here, his father, now as the “Ace of Fun” prepared a welcoming home-cooked South African meal and afterwards taught myself and the group how to play a song together using the instruments of the in-home band, in addition to some Langa dance moves.

From these kind gestures and a beautiful, adventurous day in Langa township, I felt as though I received a warm welcome into Cape Town. A welcome that reminded me of Community Bay in my hometown, where everyone got to know each other, listen to some good music, and try some delicious traditional dishes. Despite the system of oppression that hung over both communities heads, and the dangers that many of the communities may face each day for simply trying to exist, I feel as though both have managed to flourish in their own unique ways. Even though I was not fully a part of the Langa township community, it reminded myself and countless others in our group of their own experiences with their homes and communities. In conclusion, I find that this excursion really caused me to deeply refectory on my hometown and the traits that remain constant, even when one is across the world.



Protesting What’s Right

College students are involved in so many ways at higher education institutions from joining Greek organizations, receiving jobs on campus, and even being student activists. Before attending this South Africa study abroad program with the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department, I thought and assumed that student activism did not begin until students enter into the college setting or some type of higher education institution. I believed that my point and views were valid because students that are being educated at a higher education institution are learning at a more intimate and deeper level, which will cause them to create or peak an interest in a certain “cause” or social justice issue. This academic or social encounter will lead them to become a student activist on and off the college or university campus.

Based on the information I found in the Apartheid Museum, student activism in South Africa starts earlier for students while they are in high school. While in the museum, we viewed information showing high school students in South Africa being exposed to the Black Conciousness Movement. Black Conciousness is being able to understand and engage Black struggles with racism and discrimination. The theory of Black Conciousness was uplifted and held by the Black Panthers in the United States in the 1970’s. The South African high school students from Soweto were influenced by Black Conciousness and many other leaders and theories that helped them organize a peaceful march and protest against their education system, the Bantu Education System. There were multiple things that led to the peaceful march and protest, but the students were pushed over the edge when a new law required Afrikaans (a white language) to be used to teach maths, social sciences, and biology.

On June 16, 1976, 20,000 Soweto students and other students in the area proceeded to march to a near-by stadium to gather together and listen to their student activists and leaders give speeches. During this peaceful protests, the students were invaded and interrupted by the local police, who ended up shooing about 300 children and others in the community. In the article that was assigned to us, information about more reasons why these students protested and what lead to this tragic event were featured. The article talked about how, “for several weeks already, school children at a number of schools had been staying from classes to protest the imposition of Afrikaans as the language and instructions in school.”

Another museum called the Hector Peterson Museum and Memorial gave exclusive details of the Soweto high school protest on June 16, 1976. This museum gave information about some of the problems in Bantu Education in 1953, such as white students being worth 964 rand while Black students were only valued at 42 rand. The school facilities were very poor, the educational standards dropped, and there were insulted and unqualified teachers who had harsh and cruel methods of punishment and discipline to gain control of the classroom.

In my personal opinion, this event ended very horribly and tragically, but the Soweto student activists tried to organize and prepare very well by being led by and influenced by Steve Biko, who taught the theory of Black Conciousness, the ANC Youth League, and the first President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. While visiting the Hector Peterson Museum and Memorial, we also visited the home of Nelson Mandela and his ex-wife Winnie Mandela. The home of Mandela really displayed the multiple areas in his life.

There were various awards and acknowledgements for Nelson and Winnie Mandela and their children. With the awards were also pictures of Mandela with his family, which connected to the book by Winnie Mandela called Part of My Soul Went With Him. In this book, she reflected on Mandela as a husband and great father, but also reflected on him being in jail and after he was released from prison. Winnie experience the house being set on fire and having bullet holes in the walls from police trying to murder the Mandela family. Seeing the house made those moments feal very real for me. I could feel Winnie’s emotions and could connect them back to her book. Attending these two museums was very eye opening, amazing, and realistic.


A Walk Through Langa

With a small band playing what they called African pianos and a man who called himself “Ace of Fun” leading the group, Grand Valley students danced arm-in-arm inside of a home-styled restaurant in Langa, South Africa.
Langa is a unique township that illustrates both ends of wealth and privilege- right down the street from each other. Our tour guide and native, Mike, walked us through various parts of the area, allowing the group to feel the pulse of Langa as opposed to merely spectating through a bus window. Able to interact with locals, we got to experience Langa in a raw, honest way. One of the most impactful spaces we explored was Gaga S’Thebe Art Center. A beautiful building with lofted rooms for ballet, sculpting, and endless other crafts stood in front of the recently remodeled outdoor amphitheater for theatrical and musical performances. Young students are heavily encouraged to participate in art or sports to keep them out of trouble. More importantly, areas like the art center stimulate creativity and forms of expression. GV students “ooo”ed and “ahh”ed at beautiful hand painted ceramics and loved supporting local artists such as the one who made this lovely double espresso cup pictured below.
Mike also took our group to the park used for rugby, soccer, and other activities. It is up kept with gray, or recycled water and has a gorgeous green, even during South Africa’s current level three drought. Mike talked of the environmental efforts being made in recent years to preserve water, which I loved hearing.
Continuing our stroll in Langa, Mike mentioned some serious problems the community faces such as crime, HIV/AIDS in teens, unemployment, poverty, and substance abuse or addiction. It was evident while walking through that a lot of Langa is very poor. The South African constitution is considered highly progressive on an international scale. The preamble begins, “We, the people of South Africa, Recognise the injustices of our past,” which highlights the country’s efforts to rebuild and regain post-Apartheid. It is a beautiful document, but the proper implementation is not fully present.
As visible in Langa, the distribution of wealth lies in the minority of South African hands. Mike explained that South Africa’s gender equity requires 40% female employees and the country is currently surpassing that. However, most CEO and other powerful positions are held by white men. Many of the living conditions we saw and lack of access to resources, opportunity, and education that we learned about in Langa do not reflect the optimistic goals of the law of the land. The document also reads, “…improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.” A lot of work needs to be done to implement a value such as this into a place such as Langa.
With that said, the sense of community is tangible. It was more welcoming and inviting than any place we’ve visited yet. Mike made a point to show us a very humble home with a fancy car parked in the driveway. He said, “the man who lives here went off and was very successful, yet will not give up his house. People come back to this place.”
We all left with smiles and yearning to one day return. The town has a variety of social, socio-economic, and person problems that need to be addressed- but so do all places. Its open arms make Langa a city one can never forget.