Beginner’s Mind

beginners-mind-image-newAs 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.

 

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Wordless Wednesday: Maboneng Part II


Quick thoughts on my last morning in Cape Town

shutterstock_291713279-emotions-369x246This 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.


Emotional Scramble

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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?

 

 


South African Hippo

The hippo is Africa’s most dangerous mammal.  When I first learned this it went against everything I’d learned about hippos and seen from the docile animals in captivity.  Hippos are dangerous because they are highly territorial and do not want humans in their water territory.  As you can see from this video, they move a lot faster than you’d first imagine [click here for video]. It makes sense that South Africans would rename the Casspir, a hippo.

These vehicles were used by the South African police force to maintain their military hold over non-white South Africans during the Apartheid regime.  The casspirs were built are mine resistant vehicles and holds a total of 12 people (two crew members and 10 officers in the back) with remote operated gun turrets. As Trevor Noah writes in Born a Crime, the townships were military occupied zones build to control the population.

Now this machine that represents control, oppression, and death has been beaded in traditional Zulu style beads by artist Ralph Ziman. The Zulu culture uses beads to communicate, tell stories, and pass on their cultural heritage [click here to learn more]. This piece called “Afrika Four Seven” is on display in front of the South African National Gallery. This hippo is covered with 50 million glass beads that were all hand-threaded and then affixed to the vehicle.  The level of detail is absolutely stunning as you walk around the piece and see that every inch that could be beaded was.

There’s a public art piece in Maboneng that this reminded me of a bit.  Its a portrait of one of the early colonizers of South Africa.  He’s painted very traditionally, in period clothes/hair, but if you look below the collar you can see that current South Africa is about to consume him.  Our guide told us that “he was now being colonized by South Africa.” I think the same thing is happening to the hippo here.  The traditional Zulu bead work has consumed this vehicle and reclaimed it for South Africa by black South African culture.


Where’s the struggle, Cape Town?

When visiting Johannesburg and Cape Town the difference in the two cities is remarkable.  Cape Town is the light and airy beach city with Table Mountain providing a constant backdrop for your perfect Instagram post #blessed. Johannesburg is a bustling African city that feels like the heart of South Africa. Every day people arrive to Johannesburg from other parts of South Africa and the larger African continent and push all-in on the “City of Gold”.  However, its difficult to find the story of the struggle against Apartheid in “The Mother City” of Cape Town.

Cape Town has two notable tourist sites when it comes to telling the story of the struggle here in Cape Town. One is Robben Island and the other is the District Six Museum.  Everyone knows Robben Island as the prison island where Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years imprisoned by the Apartheid government.   The tour guides on Robben Island are s mix of former political prisoners and paid guides.  The paid tour guides take you through the bus portion of your tour and tell you about the history of the island and some of the other sites on the island other than the main prison block.  They do a good job of telling tourist about Robert Sobukwe, the leader of the PAC, who was imprisoned on Robben Island in a house, but in solitary.  He was not allowed any communication with anyone during his confinement. The government considered him extremely dangerous for his mind and sought to destroy it because it was his most powerful weapon against their regime. The prison portion of the tour is still conducted by former political prisoners.  They tell you about their time on the island, in prison, and their political activism.  The guide we had this time was still fired up about political activism and I think everyone in my group would have followed him wherever he lead us!


District Six Museum is staffed with former residents of the neighborhood. They do a great job of telling their stories of forced removal. Each time I’ve visited this museum I have been moved to tears (today was no exception). Our guide today told us the story about his prized racing pigeons. Three months after the forced removal he decided to let his pigeons out, to see if they would come back home.  He went to work and when he got home that night the pigeons had not returned home.  He drove through his old neighborhood of District Six and found all of his pigeons waiting for him in the rubble of his old home.  They didn’t understand what had happened to their home and even after all of these years the people are still trying to figure it out.  The racism of the old regime is such an unsatisfactory answer, but its the only one we’re left with.


Tonight, as I watched the full moon rise over the city-I couldn’t help but wonder “where are the rest of the stories of the struggle in this massive city?” Has Cape Town not recorded this important history because the tourism industry does not need it to? I don’t have the answers to these questions but I will now add this to my repertoire of questions I ask to the activists I encounter.

Please, if there are more sights regarding the struggle or resistance in Cape Town let me know!


Travel isn’t magic

“Not all those who wander are lost”-J.R.R. Tolkien

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I’m not sure if you can read a study abroad blog without, at some point coming across that quote.  However, not all those who travel are seek to have their minds broadened. Sometimes travel is just about a nice trip.  I’ve had profoundly moving experiences domestically as well as when I’ve traveled internationally. I’ve also encountered people

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

almost seemed to be determined not to change despite of the evidence around them. I’ve met a lady who in some ways confounds me and in others ways I feel like I’ve known her my whole life. She’s been living in South Africa for 8 years and came on two mission trips to the country before moving here. She lives in the house where we are staying in Cape Town and encounters/works with people from all over the world.  However, when she talks about current political issues in South Africa she does not sound all that different from how the majority of white people in America talk about #BlackLivesMatter. She is one degree removed from saying “those people” but the phrase feels embedded in her thoughts, the language she knows better than to say.

When she started talking about the current university protests from last year and simply how wrong the students were, everyone in my little group (me included) just let her talk. It was only our second day at the house and we had five more to go.  South Africans are quite open about controversial topics, but Americans are not and this was an American speaking. The Dutch couple eating with us did not have the same social constraints because they were leaving later that same day. So, when the American woman stated how wrong the students were for their demands of free higher education because “no one in the world gets that”, they quickly challenged her on the facts of the matter by stating the countries in Europe that do, indeed, get free bachelors education. I wondered if she was accepting the new information or if she was re-calclulating why the students were still wrong even given the new information.

Yesterday afternoon I brought her up to our guide that’s been with us since day one. But in that delicate way you have to do when you are not sure how the other person feels about the situation.  He responded in the same delicate way but letting me know that he did not agree with her. Once I saw an opening then I stated flatly how I was a bit shocked that someone could live here for eight years and coming here for two more years before that and still not know very much about South Africa. He said that they “just let her talk because she knows everything already.” Honestly, it seems as though she has moved from one small bubble in the United States to another small bubble in South Africa.


Wordless Wednesday: Maboneng Edition


Regina Mundi Church

img_2895When one museum is closed God opens the doors to another. I know that’s not exactly how the adage goes but it seems fitting for how we ended up at Regina Mundi Church.   We were supposed to go to the Hector Pieterson museum but it was closed. The sign said for an emergency…I’m half suspicious that it was just closed for the last of the holiday. Either way, when the guide saw that the museum was closed he thought of the church and I’m so glad he did.

We were able to rush to the church and get a tour before it closed at 5.

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Our guide for the church has been giving these tours for a long time and he was perfect for our small group. He was soft-spoken but funny (grandpa joke funny). While Robben Island is called the “university” of the struggle Regina Mundi church is the “parliament” of the struggle.

Life pre-democracy did not simply mean segregation and all that goes along with that, but because life was basically outlawed for any non-white in South Africa it was a police state, even before the official “state of emergency” was declared in the 1980s.  Since the ANC (along with other political parties) was a banned organization then people found creative spaces to meet (i.e. churches).  However, the police caught on (tipped off) and became aggressive towards parishioners.  After the uprising by the high school students on June 16, 1976 the people of Soweto gathered to mourn those who were killed by police and rally for the cause that they would not die in vein.

As people were inside the police gathered outside.  People began coming out of the church confronting the police (with words and their fists raised) and the police responded with violence.  They began arresting students (people who seemed about the age of the high school students that had organized the original protest) present. Don’t misunderstand. These were not orderly arrests. Rather police were violently grabbing people by whatever part of their body they could get a hold of. Police were also using dogs, wood billy clubs, and rubber billy clubs on the protesters. The rubber ones were especially viscous because of how long the instrument was and how it would conform to the body it was being used on. The video of this is incredibly difficult to watch. One of the parents told the news crew that was there, as Soweto’s children were being driven away in the back of a police truck, “How will they ever know justice when they are being treated like this?” As I watched the video I wondered how many of those children never came home again because dying in police custody was common practice.

As we toured the church we saw bullet holes still visible in the ceiling from where the police fired into the church. We were shown two window by our tour guide which showed where bullets were fired from both inside and outside of the church.  His argument was that police were inside of the church firing on the people.  But nothing prepared me for standing in the front of the church and seeing the marble cracked and broken from the panicked people trying to escape the bullets. Imagine the crush of people it took to break marble? Standing in that space I could feel waves of emotions rushing towards us and running through us as we stood there.

On the way back to the hotel I mentioned that not fixing the church seemed like an act of defiance. Our guide quipped that they didn’t fix the church so they could make money from tours. I responded that they weren’t making money from tour groups in 1980 or 1986. Rather it reminded me of Jackie Kennedy’s famous quote after her husband, President Kennedy, was assassinated. In the plane she was still wearing the suit she’d been wearing in the motorcade as it was attacked. The pink suit had the President’s blood spattered all over it. Someone asked her if she wanted to change her clothes and she responded, “Let them see what they’ve done.” As we stood in the church with bullet holes in the ceiling and marble that had been crushed by people trying to escape the police, I imagine people from the “parliament” discussing if the church should be repaired or not and people saying “Let people see what they have done!”

We were here and we bore witness.

  


Meet South Africa

Meet South Africa and discover yourself.

After yesterday, I think my students feel like they are finally meeting South Africa.  Yesterday, we spent the day in Soweto and really saw the city. This was the first time I felt like I had an appreciation for the true span and scope of Soweto.  I’ve had the typical experience in the past of first the Apartheid Museum, then driving to Mandela’s house, taking a tour, and seeing the street performers who make a living from the tourist coming through. Then next it was Hector Pieterson Square.  But this time we took time to spend the day there.   The difference is like an appetizer sampler at a restaurant or sitting for a full meal.


First, I wanted to make sure we had plenty of time at the Apartheid Museum and so we blocked off 3 hours.  Our guide said that we could block off three hours and at the end of the three hours we would still want to come back another day.  I think some students definitely came away with that feeling. There’s an interview with Winnie Mandela that always amazes me. She’s asked by the interviewer if South Africa will ever have one man one vote and without a single hesitation she replied, “Yes.” Interviewer, “Who will be the first black president of South Africa?” Winnie Mandela, “Nelson Mandela.” Period. I believer this interview took place in the 1970s, when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island. There were no signs then of the Apartheid government falling or letting Mandela out of prison. Her resolute response floors me.

Second, we went to lunch in Soweto at a lady’s house who does this as a business. On the itinerary it was simply labeled “lunch with locals”.  However, it was timed perfectly because I think we all needed this lunch after an intense and emotional morning at the museum.  When you’re in a museum space sometimes you only come away with the heaviness of the past. The oppressor can still reach through the exhibit and grab a hold of you and drag you back.  However, the South Africans that we meet lived through those experiences and are here, now, and looking forward.  The food was expertly prepared. The mamas were so warm and welcoming. After we finished eating we sat in the circle where we asked each other questions (the visitors and the hosts). It was an interesting dialogue. Like everyone else I’ve encountered they wanted to know about Trump…we all felt a little closer with both country’s political situation feeling disconnected from the people in the cities. By the time we left I didn’t realize we’d been there for several hours, but  I think we would have been happy to stay for several more!


The mamas talked openly to use about their experience with the xenophobic riots.  One of them had a migrant worker renting from her in 2014 when violence broke out. She said that she protected the man by telling the guys that they just were not going to harm him, period. This echos what I’d heard from Mama Aziba, when I stayed in the township in Cape Town. It was also interesting to hear how the women are all practicing Christians (some in church some not) but they all also honor/talk to their ancestors.  One lady said, “Why would I forget them? Without my ancestors I would not be here.” True for all of us. I’d asked them if they were Christian and still practiced their cultural traditions.  All of them said some degree of both. If they’d asked me I would not be able to answer the same way because my people assimilated too well.

Once the conversation reached a natural lull the mamas said that they were going to give us Zulu names.  I felt and still feel deeply uncomfortable with this. I talked to our guide about it, but communication was not clear between all the groups and it happened.  I haven’t completely sorted through the many reasons why I find this deeply problematic, but I know I will marinate on this, talk through my thoughts aloud with some friends, and write more about it later.

No matter what, when you leave South Africa you’ll be a different person than when you arrived. 


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