I’m excited for the Winter 2019 study abroad program! The planning for this program is in full force and the program is completely re-vamped from the first two years. This video was made from pictures I took on the 2017 and 2018 programs.
Category Archives: South Africa
Cheap tickets can be quite the adventure. I’m taking the long way down to South Africa this time, but the point is that I’m headed back. This trip is an amuse bouche for my longer stay.
This year has felt a little like a dream, but one where I’m conscious writing the lines and designing the plot. I’ve become a bit cautious writing my ideas in my journals because it feels a bit like witchcraft. Me writing down my ideas and dreams, the ink flowing off the page into my life.
Ten years out from one of the most consequential years of my life, it’s hard not to take notice. So many times this year I have been taken aback at how my life has changed over the past ten years.
Ten years ago I was desperate for meaning as each month seemed to break another piece of me off. Life was changing me…
“I am proud of the woman I am today, because I went through one hell of a time becoming her.”
I’m not going to recount all of the details of that year because I can’t fully. The year left marks, impressions, but its cloudy and I cannot see it clearly anymore. Nor, do I want to. I came through, so I didn’t have to be there anymore.
I about to head to the airport…My bags are packed. Items on my “To do” lists are crossed off. The playlists created. Time to take a deep breath and see what the second half of 2018 will do.
A few days ago I read a blog post called The weird questions I get asked about Africa. The post was written by a young Ghanian who (rightfully so) was at a boiling point for ignorant questions about the continent. She’s developed a little trick when talking to people about Ghana or Africa more generally. After tiring of explaining from the start she is from a country in West Africa named Ghana etc. She now has a tactic of
“when someone asks where I am from, i just say Africa. Whilst some people are content with it, others who appear to be learned will then ask which country in Africa, then i smile and know, i can actually have a conversation with this one, cause basically who wants to keep explaining themselves over things which are easy to come across on the internet when you really what to know”.
Who wants to be a constant Wikipedia page for people?
Back in January I ran into more Americans my first weekend in Johannesburg than I ever have before. I’m sure that’ll keep happening because AfroPunk now has a festival in South Africa. But I kept getting asked about “traditions” and in my head I’m thinking, “Um, people are just living their lives. Not everything you see is ‘an old ethnic tradition'”. For me it was a good reminder before I met my students that I need to be mindful of the exoctification of Africa. Its the difference of traveling and helping my students mindfully learn about South Africa, from a place of identification and closeness. I think its a delicate balance because in order to do that students need to be uncomfortable, but not so uncomfortable that they shut down.
One of the many pieces I have my students read is “Can a Trip Ever Be ‘Authentic'”, that examines this idea of how global-localization has changed the very idea of what it means to be in a place. But this is the new and authentic reality people everywhere are struggling with and against. So often I’ve found that people’s idea of “authentic” is actually finding experiences that match their preconceived notions of a place. This past year I tried to push against that notion each time my students mentioned that visiting a township was ‘real South Africa’. The next program I’m designing has more space for me to facilitate those conversations throughout their time within the country. I want to try and disrupt their ideas of who and what South Africa is and keeping them engaged throughout the entire program.
I want students to understand, even if it is only in matters of degrees, that South Africa is every bit as complicated and complex as the United States, Virginia, or even their university. As Taiye Selasi argued in her fantastic TED talk [click here] you may say that you are from the United States of America, but does anyone really have a relationship with the United States, all 50 of them? Our experiences are local, specific, and more complicated than we remember.
I would love to hear from other study abroad instructors how how to keep students engaged in these difficult “in between” spaces. Any thoughts, writing prompts? or suggested readings would be greatly appreciated!
In Just over two weeks I’m headed back to South Africa and Botswana. I’m going to be in Johannesburg for just over a week and I’m spending six days in Gaborone, Botswana for a conference. I’m excited to go, but wanted to go as a single-bag traveler this time, just a backpack and my a purse. Traveling light will make transitioning between four different accommodations in 2.5 weeks much easier.
A couple of years ago, when I traveled to this same conference and then took time to explore Namibia and visit friends in Johannesburg, I went through several backpacks before I settled on a backpack from Tortuga. I really liked that pack and was able to carry enough in it to look professional at my conference and comfortable through the Namib desert. However, there were several drawbacks of that bag. First, it was a little too tall. If I was six feet tall the bag would have been perfectly proportioned, but as it was it was awkward for me to carry. Second, it didn’t have any weather proofing on it. So, I needed to scout out a new bag. I went back to Tortuga and went all in on a bundle they had, which I promptly returned.
Next, I went down the YouTube rabbit hole of professional bag reviewers. (Who knew that was a thing). Then I went to a meeting where someone had a new Eagle Creek bag. And I thought, I should check out the products on their web site. So, I watched videos, looked up reviews on Amazon, and watched videos on how they designed their various bags. After much research and obsessing, I decided on the Gear Hauler. As soon as I unboxed the bag, I was excited to use it. Thankfully, I had a week-long trip just a couple of days away to give the bag a test run.
Here is an inventory of all that I was able to pack in my bag:
- Five pairs of workout leggings
- Five workout tops
- Two pairs of somewhat bulky shoes
- Five dresses
- Collapsible water bottle
- Socks, underwear, and hose for five days
- Sports bra
- Daily wear bra
- Toiletries: conditioner, hair oil, deodorant, etc.
The bag was not overly heavy and I could have fit more! I cannot wait to use this bag for international travel. It will easily fit my laptop, adapters, and small notebooks. I’m planning on doing single-bag travel when I lead my next study abroad program too and this bag is perfect.
“Going back to the villiage”
Johannesburg is famously easy to navigate this time of year because people have traveled home for the extended holidays. The Northern Virginia and D.C. metro areas experience this as well because so many people have moved there for work but are not from that area. One of the Instgram accounts I follow posted a picture from Accra showing a taxi rank from before the holidays and during the holidays with a dramatic difference between the two photos. While this story is known and the proverb is widely accepted, there are other people who travel back to their country in this same spirit.
The first person I met was on the flight from D.C. to Atlanta. We didn’t speak at first because he was busy texting before we took off. I figured He just wasn’t chatty and believe it or not I do try not to chat with people who aren’t interested in chatting. But then he saw me sorting through my boarding passes and showed me his phone where he’d typed out his question for me asking me if I was going to Johannesburg. I pulled my phone out and we had a little chat. He told me that he was going back to South Africa for his brother’s birthday. His brother is turning 50 and wanted to go back to South Africa, where they were born to celebrate. He told me they left South Africa in 1989, but he didn’t elaborate from there and I didn’t ask. When we boarded the plane in Atalanta I was sitting close to his brother and the rest of his family. I think all of the men in the family were deaf. I eventually caught his brother’s attention and wished him a happy birthday before we de-planed. I saw his brother from the back of the plane letting him know how I knew!
My seat mates from Atlanta to Johannesburg was a South African couple who had left the country in 1988 because they were classified as Indian during the Apartheid government and did not have full opportunities and freedom. They have dual citizenship as Canadians and South Africans and have been traveling back to South Africa since they left. They still have family here and now that they are both retired they can escape the unfogiving Canadian winter by traveling here during January and Febuary, which they told me they do every year. Toward the end of our flight we started a conversation about South Africa and why we were all going. They were facinated that I was bringing students from the United States to study social movements in South Africa. Our conversation wound around various topics from Robert Kennedy’s 1966 visit to South Africa to Cyril Ramaphosa and the complications (baggage) that come with him, and his respect for Thabo Mbeki and regret that he was pushed out of the presidency by Zuma. He told me that he still has hope for South Africa, but that he doesn’t expect South Africa will reach its potential for 30 or more years.
These brief encounters gave me a different framing for travel at this time of year and for the type of travel my students are about to embark upon.
In the late 60s, early 70s Walter Mischel, a Stanford psychologist and researcher, conducted the famous marshmallow tests with children. These experiments sought to understand children’s abilities to delay gratification [Click here for Wikipedia article]. The resulting articles that came out of the experiments claimed that children who could delay gratification would be more successful in life because they could delay gratification and understand long-term gratification or reward over short-term gains of a smaller reward. Mischel followed up with these pre-school students and found that the ones who delayed gratification fared better in life. Hence, this study has been taken up by people who want to fight against a lack of willpower, temptation and promote the latest psudo-psychology craze grit [click here for TED talk on Grit](Urist, 2014).
The study even noticed how poor children weren’t able to delay gratification whereas the more well-off children could wait the 20 minutes and receive the additional marshmallows. This section of the study also helped promote some of our most harmful tropes or “poverty myths” about poor people, its their fault. If the poor parents, like poor children, could overcome their need for instant gratification and delay then they could “lift themselves up out of poverty”. These myths, like stereotypes are not harmful because they are untrue, but because they only tell a single story or a partial truth.
It is true that the children in the study did not delay gratification and wait 20 minutes to eat the marshmallow in front of them in order to get the additional marshmallows promised to them by the researchers. The researchers can prove that is exactly what happened. But is it simply a lack of willpower? This wasn’t the only test that showed these results.
“Time and again, poor children have performed significantly worse than their more fortunate counterparts. A 2011 study that looked at low-income children in Chicago noted how poor children struggled to delay gratification. A 2002 study, which examined the physical and psychological stresses that accompany poverty, did too. And so have many others.” (Ferdman, 2016)
The above quote came from a piece on The Wonk Blog which is run by The Washington Post called “The big problem with one of the most popular assumptions about the poor“. This piece examined studies that took children’s heart-rate and other bio-metrics into account as they made decisions about whether or not to take a treat now or wait for a promised increase in the treat later. The study found that children seemed to be making calculated decisions and not acting impulsively. In 2012, researchers at The University of Rochester decided to do a new marshmallow test study. This time the groups were put in reliable and unreliable situations. The reliable group was able to delay gratification and the unreliable group took what was available now because the researchers had proven themselves unreliable.
“The new marshmallow experiment doesn’t discount the old one—willpower still does breed long-term success, as far as we know. But it suggests that when children are in an environment where they trust in a clear long-term gain, they are more likely to pursue it.” (Severns, 2012)
Which brings me back to the picture. I snapped the picture at a store called I was shot in joburg in the Maboneng precinct in Johannesburg. You can read about the current program on their website, but the website doesn’t give you the full story. I got the prologue on a tour during the study abroad trip I led over winter break.
As with any good story, there needs to an exigency for the protagonist to act. In this case it was a DUI the founder received while in the Western Cape. When he went before the judge he asked if he could do the community service back in his hometown of Johannesburg instead of Cape Town. He said he would like to serve the community using his talents as a photographer. The judge agreed to this request and he went back to Johannesburg to teach children in a poor neighborhood photography. He showed up to the school and thought he would be greeted with open arms by grateful children who would flock to this white savior. (This part was told to us by the tour guide with a smile on her face because now he knows how ridiculous his original assumptions were.) However, when he got to the school to teach the children photography they had no interest.
For a couple of reasons, but mainly because they didn’t trust him that he would deliver on what he said he would. So, the effort took time. First, he played soccer with the kids and, eventually, won them over. Then he brought them disposable cameras so they could take pictures in their neighborhood. He spent time with them week after week. Then it was his last week of community service and he told the kids, “Bye!” They said, “Okay! See you next week!”
There wasn’t supposed to be a “next week”. His community service was over. These kids though had opened up to him and trusted him. He realized that he was not going to be another in a long succession of people who let them down. This is where the story on the website picks up [click here to read more].
Now, the company is building an avenue of trust, work, and long-term opportunity for success. If Bernard had only done his community service and not come back to the students after it was no longer required by the courts then he would have re-emphasized the pattern of mistrust and instability for the kids. This helps build the calculation in people to weigh what they’ve been told, what they’ve experienced, and what they need to make a calculation for what’s best for them in each moment. Hopefully, what we can learn from these newer marshmallow test studies is that people whose lives are different from our own have lived experiences that are valid and they make decisions based on their own calculus with a valid logic.
As instructors sometimes it can be difficult to remember how disorienting university life can be to students. First year students have unique challenges that differ greatly from the transfer students, while first generation students have their own challenges throughout college. However, as professors we are quite comfortable in this environment with our own specialty. The corporate speak for what happens too often in these environments is silo thinking, each person operates in their own silo without interacting with other people. So, how can professors get the feeling of a beginner’s mind? Culture shock.
For two weeks I taught students a short-term study abroad program in South Africa and the theme of the course was social movements in South Africa. This was my 5th time in South Africa, but my first time teaching and leading a study abroad program. I did not have culture shock while teaching my students. I did have new experiences and of course just visiting the country in this new role was a new experience, but I did not experience culture shock. I knew the money, local customs, and had done almost all of the activities on the itinerary for my students, which is how it should be for the academic leader of a study abroad. It can make it difficult to remember what the feeling of culture shock is like both for the study abroad student and the new university student.
I felt disorienting culture shock my first time in South Africa, which was only a nine day visit. I was trying to absorb every single sight, sound, and smell. I didn’t know the currency and felt unsure with each encounter. But! South Africa was a place I’d wanted to go for a long time and I knew a lot about the country. Before my trip there I read everything I could, watched all of the movies about South Africa on Netflix, and scoured YouTube for South African music. Also, South Africa itself is very British still and you only have to be as uncomfortable as you want to be. You can always retreat into the comfort of familiar food, music, and TV shows. I mean, I even made pimento cheese spread while I was in South Africa. When I traveled to Namibia and Botswana I was slightly disoriented, but not full on culture shock.
Then I traveled to Tanzania.
I left the massive O.R. Tambo International airport in Johannesburg and I flew into the country on lovely South African Airlines. I had not fully researched the country because this was a vacation and not a work trip. I did what most people do for vacation. I looked up things on Trip Advisor, talked to friends who’d been here, or had connections to the country. I had my accommodations booked for my time in Zanzibar but I didn’t have a detailed plan because I only booked 3 full days. I thought I was totally good. I had the taxi booked from the Zanzibar airport to the other side of the island where I was staying. I was totally set.
lol…I was not prepared!
When we landed in Dar es Salaam I could tell the airport was smaller than the one I’d just left, but the size of the airport only scratched the surface. So, with the little research I’d done I didn’t think that I needed a visa for Tanzania upon arrival, but you do. Thankfully, the visa can be obtained upon arrival and you don’t have to go through your embassy. The fee for the visa is $150 in USD. And they want those dollars! So, when I walked into the airport I noticed the wall of customs and immigration forms. “Okay” I thought, “You’ve done this in several countries. No problem.” I was even excited at this point that I had the address for my accommodations. I thought that it was going to be smooth sailing from there.
However, I started to feel overwhelmed as I tried to make sense of the mass of people in front of me. There was no organization to the lines. There was obvious confusion with little care being taken to impose any order on the situation. I stood in one line and a guy came up to me and asked if I had my “yellow card”. No, but I have a letter saying that I don’t need it. He told me that he was just sent from one line to another to get vaccinated. He was coming into the country for business and I thought well, maybe I’ll pass since I’m just here for a few days. Then a man in a military uniform came up to me and asked if I was here for business or pleasure. I told him just three days of vacation. So, he sent me directly to customs. I finally reached my turn for the booth and she went through the process of taking my finger prints. I could barely hear her and she didn’t seem to have any desire or intent to make being understood by me (or anyone else) a priority. We went through this whole process and she asked, “Visa?”
“No”, I replied “I’m just here for only three days.” I tried to de-emphasize my time here as much as possible in that one sentence. It didn’t matter I needed a visa. Like I stated above the visa was $150 in USD. I don’t carry cash at home much less while traveling. So, I asked the lady where to get cash and she told me the ATM. Sounds simple, yes? Again, I was SO confused. By this time I was shuffled over to the visa area and another man in uniform took my passport. I asked him where I could get cash because I did not think that I could go outside. Well, that’s exactly what I needed to do. So…before even getting my passport stamped I went in and out of the immigration area twice and outside of the airport once. I went into the ATM room and there was a big dude hunkered over one of the machines. I walked in and said, “I am so sorry and I hope this doesn’t make you too uncomfortable, but how much money equals $150 USD? I have NO idea!” Without looking up he walked me through what I needed to do. Then I went back inside, asked someone else where to exchange my Tanzanian shillings for USD, and proceeded to complete the transaction.
It was about this point when I thought, “This is how our students feel.”
I know not everyone can travel to a foreign country, but teachers do need to find ways to get outside of their comfort zones and navigate new spaces and systems. If we can be reminded of what it means to be a beginner we do a service to our students.
This is the last morning at the Team House for my Winter Program. I say it that way because I do hope that I’ll be back in June with the second program I want to run, over our summer break. As I start to reflect on this trip something I didn’t expect was the isolation that can happen as the instructor leading a study abroad trip. The students had each other and while we were in Cape Town we had two guides who also had each other as co-workers. However, as an instructor I didn’t have a peer group to share the trip with. Thank goodness for social media! I’m sure as I repeat this trip I will build on relationships that I started this time, but I think its something that could be addressed through the study abroad office in program director orientation. Hopefully, between now and the next trip I can build relationships with other program directors to discuss how to mitigate against this while abroad.
Now, time to have breakfast with my students and try not to cry! They are the loveliest group and I have been lucky to be their instructor.
A short-term study abroad program offers many benefits for students and instructor alike, however the experience can be quite emotional for all involved. There’s quite a few articles written about what to expect as you enter a culture often referred to as the “stages of homesickness” but should more accurately be called the types of homesickness (just like the “stages of grief” bs should be re-named but that’s for another day!). Even if students are not feeling homesick they are still feeling a wealth of emotions that are complicated and often contradictory. This is especially true when the topic and place is difficult.
I would not imagine that students going to London to study public relations would have the same difficult emotional journey that student going to South Africa to study social movements may face. Yesterday was a difficult day for my students because we did a township tour in Khayelitsha. While students had spent the day in Soweto they hadn’t done a walking tour and the parts of Soweto we were in were quite wealthy compared to Khayelitsha. Honestly, I was surprised again by the townships and expected to find more areas of entrepreneurship.
The tour experience for the students was a high level of discomfort because they didn’t feel appropriate going into people’s houses on a Sunday afternoon without warning. A couple of the students who were in the front of the group saw the woman heading the tour pay people to let us into their homes. We went into a barber shop and the men made appropriate comments to my female students. My students felt on display as much as the people in the townships were on display. One of the girls was asked if someone could take their picture with her and she was uncomfortable because she was unsure what he was going to do when he posed for the picture.
At one point on the tour one of the men in a house we were visiting said that the girls looked scared. He compared the students to visitors from other countries who’ve visited the township and, evidently, are very flamboyant while they’re visiting the township. The girls weren’t at all scared but they felt like people’s private lives weren’t for touring. People don’t drive through our neighborhoods, want to come into our homes, and randomly take pictures.
Also, I felt like our tour guide wasn’t as passionate or considerate as her mother may have been if she’d been the one to take us on our tour. The mother was the one who started the tour business and bed and breakfast about 15 years ago. She briefly spoke to us before we went to church and she told us about studying in the United States in the 1990s. She wanted to come back and help women start businesses. She wanted to be the one who would train them in entrepreneurship and help facilitate their start-ups. But when she came back to South Africa she wasn’t able to get loans from the banks to start that type of business. So, she started her B&B. She was very proud of her house, which they’d expanded to a quite large home with a garage. She now works with a lot of universities from the US and hosts students in her home as they volunteer with NGOs in South Africa. She really seemed to care deeply about the townships and giving people an experience. I didn’t get the same feeling from her daughter as she gave the tour. There seemed to be a class divide between her and the people whose homes she was asking to come in.
My students had a lot to say about the day too! Here’s links to a couple of their blogs:
If you have thoughts about touring townships please leave your comments or feedback below! Do you think that tourists should go into these spots? Why or why not?