IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care (Fall)

South Africa Letter Home

Cohort group in South Africa


After a three day odyssey, culminating in an overnight train from Changsha to Hong Kong and a flight to Dubai, we finally arrived sleepily, but very much excited for the last leg of our semester! We were immediately struck by the sheer beauty of Cape Town – Table Mountain and Signal Hill looming over Cape Harbor, almost as if protecting the city from the rest of the continent. We spent a few nights adjusting to our new home and then we traveled to Zwelethemba, a traditional-black township about two hours outside the city. After two weeks in the tight-knit community we headed back to Cape Town and into the Bo Kaap for the end of our classes and our last homestay. Then finally the semester was almost over and travel to High Africa, a rural picturesque resort to reflect on all that we accomplished this semester.

Our academic experience here in South Africa has been rigorous and incredibly thought-provoking. More than in any other country, here our curriculum has been based first and foremost in first-hand narratives, in the stories of people living with these public health challenges too often reduced to numbers and statistics. In our first day in Zwelethemba, for example, we had a panel of homestay mothers who spoke so eloquently and courageously about their experiences having lost their own sons and daughters to AIDS. To hear these stories of loss, survival, and determination taught us more than any theoretical lecture could have about the experience of HIV/AIDS in South Africa and what communities are doing to fight this epidemic.

Another invaluable academic experience was visiting Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town. We were led on a walking tour by Monwabisi Maqhogi, the founder of a Christian church that actively seeks out and accepts HIV-positive believers after they have been rejected from their own churches. On this tour we witnessed the structural injustices that plague South Africa’s impoverished settlements—inadequate housing, lack of running water, makeshift spider wires hand-assembled in order to access electricity that the government has failed to provide. We also had the chance to see all the ways in which activists and organizations are strengthening this community in the face of adversity—ranging from home-based support groups to health education radio shows. The experience renewed our commitment to connect our academic journeys to social action.

Between juggling classes, finishing our final papers and projects and spending time with our families, we all were able to explore South Africa. Cape Town immediately offered exciting possibilities – amazing cafes, organic restaurants, first-rate museums, beaches and hiking – to name a few. Hiking Table Mountain followed by a gourmet burger from Royale or Hudson restaurants was a definitive highlight for many. Some loved the view so much from Table Mountain, they returned for a sunset picnic. Other highlights included Cape Point and visiting the African Penguins in Simon’s Town. Although there were less touristy sites near Zwelethemba, students still managed a wine tour, a hike to a waterfall and all loved the impromptu dance sessions and street games with our host brothers and sisters. Overall there was just too much to do with such limited time that we couldn’t see everything we wanted!

In South Africa we have been blessed to have not one but two homestays. What struck us most about our homestay in Zwelethemba were how fluid and big families were. As one student said, “Family is a fluid structure. Households are made of grandparents, nephews, and cousins…in a way, this structure is born of something very sad (death, illness), but in many ways it speaks to the strength, resilience, and love of these amazing people.” It was so humbling to be welcomed into these homes, these families. In the Bo-Kaap, we stayed with Cape Town’s incredibly vibrant, devoutly Muslim Cape Malay community. Uniquely South African, the majority of these families are the descendents of slaves and indentured servants brought to the cape by European colonists beginning in the mid 1600s. Many of our host parents moved to the Bo-Kaap in the late 1970s after being forcibly removed from their original hometowns as part of one of the most inhumane elements of apartheid—residential segregation. In addition to looking after us and cooking us delicious meals, many of our families were gracious enough to share with us their histories of struggle and activism and to contribute so much to our education by telling their stories. Many of us formed deep friendships with our host siblings in both Zwelethemba and Bo-Kaap, ones that we hope to maintain for years to come.

Now that our entire IHP experience is quickly coming to a close, we have a chance to reflect on the countless ways in which we have grown over the past four months. More than anything, we are feeling immense gratitude for all the places we saw and the people we met. As one student says, “IHP makes history relevant to our lives. It teaches us to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to our surroundings and to amazing people.” It is difficult to fathom that a few months ago, we were watching Kathakali dancers in Kerala, India and now we are writing from a beautiful retreat center near the mountainous vineyards of Worcester, South Africa. It is impossible for such an expansive geographical journey not to be matched with a profound emotional one.

Seeing the world has helped us understand our own roles in it, all the various ways we can make positive health impacts in our careers, our families, our communities. For some of us, after seeing how vast and diverse this earth is, we are suddenly incredibly aware of how little we know, renewing our hunger to always be learning more, a desire we are bringing back with us to our homes and home universities. We want to sincerely thank the incredible team of people who have made this semester possible for us; you have changed our lives. We would like to end our final letter with a student quote:

“This experience has taught me so much. I’ve learned a ton about health but also about life: how to be independent, how to be open minded, how to see the positive in every situation and above all, how to embrace every opportunity that comes my way. The information we learned in classes will help me in my major, but the life lessons will stay with me so much longer.”  -  IHP Fall Health and Community Student

With love and thanks to everyone who made this incredible journey possible,
The 2011 Fall Health and Community Cohort

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Credits: 16

Duration: Fall, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
USA, India, South Africa, Brazil

Prerequisites: None. Coursework in public health, anthropology, biology, or related field recommended.

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