IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care (Spring 2)

South Africa Spring 2012 Letter Home

Written by: Vivian Chan, Alexandra Falsey, Kelsey Gaetjens, Anthony Harris, Willa Kendrick, Natasha Kumar, Marjorie Lacombe, Monica Landy, Carla Villarreal, and Trustees Fellow Janelle Little

South Africa group photo

After another extended journey, we finally arrived in our last destination: South Africa! We left behind the busy airport and urban traffic jams of Johannesburg and entered the peaceful solitude of the Wilgespruit Fellowship Center, our home during the first week of the program and a rejuvenating beginning to our South African experience.

Walking down the winding path to Wilgespruit, we were greeted by a woman we had never met before who called us her sisters and brothers. This initial interaction set the tone for the caring community we were soon to become a part of. We were warmly welcomed by Anastasia, Bonita, Brenda, Lauren, Mario, and all of the other wonderful staff who filled our time at Wilgespruit with joyful memories and enduring friendships.

During our time there, we learned about Wilgespruit's history as a site of anti-apartheid resistance, a meeting place for underground leaders (Nelson Mandela was sheltered in its complex of caves while on the run from the government), and as a catalyst and facilitator of the reconciliation process following the country's transition to democracy in 1994. We received our first introduction to South African history, learning some of its many stories from JP De La Porte, who worked for President Mbeki's administration. In addition to our academic lectures and site visits, we were excited to finally exercise consistently. Some students went on daily morning runs and one student hosted group yoga sessions at sunrise.

Wilgespruit is an inter-faith gathering place and one of the highlights of our stay was when we contributed to this atmosphere of religious celebration by hosting a Passover Seder involving all IHP students and faculty and the staff of Wilgespruit. Religious rituals were observed in a communal setting and everyone shared a delicious home-cooked meal of matzo and traditional foods, followed by a decadent flour-less chocolate cake for dessert and a freestyle soccer performance. We continued the tradition of fun and feasting our last night at Wilgespruit with our first braai (barbecue), one of many that would come to pass in South Africa.

With Wilgespruit as our base, we ventured out to explore Johannesburg. During our time there, we had a firsthand account of South Africa's tumultuous history by our wonderful guide, Booysie. We started our tour of Soweto, one of South Africa's largest and most well-known townships, with a visit to Soccer City, a massive stadium built for the World Cup. Booysie talked about how even though the World Cup brought tourism and financial resources, the economic impact did not spread to the local community and South African workers. This was our first exposure to the reality of how post-apartheid development had not reached all sectors despite many promises. We also visited the Hector Peterson memorial (dedicated to a 13-year-old student who was killed while protesting the implementation of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools). We spent an hour or more meandering the streets of Soweto, reading the plaques outlining the events of the student uprising of June 1976 and learning about the rich history of struggle and solidarity born in these streets. We concluded the walking tour with a stop on Vilakazi Street, home to two of South Africa's Nobel Laureates, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Other highlights of this day were a delicious buffet lunch at Wandies, where an amazing family of performers serenaded us and encouraged us to tell everyone we knew to visit Soweto. We also went on an inspiring visit to a youth center in Kliptown, one of Soweto's most economically impoverished neighborhoods. We watched their physical training, a form of exercise used by the African National Congress (ANC) to keep people fit and motivated during the struggle. PT is now used by the children to maintain their connection to the past and as a daily discipline to fuel their minds and bodies. After their incredible performance, we spent an hour talking with them, playing games, exchanging email addresses, and taking lots of pictures.

Another site visit in Johannesburg was to the Aurum Institute, which does HIV/AIDS and TB public health interventions and research. We visited one of their projects, Bree St. Emotojeni Center, which focuses on the health of minibus taxi drivers and TB prevention.

One of the most moving moments on the program was our visit to the Apartheid Museum, which expanded our understanding of the horrors of apartheid and the hopes of the reconciliation process, through the educational exhibits, documents, photos, and film footage. We heard about apartheid in lectures and read about it, but visiting the museum concretized this knowledge and influenced our experience to come in Islington.

After a restful week in Wilgespruit, we boarded the South African Wildlife College bus bound for Bushbuckridge. After a seven-hour drive through incredible scenery, we arrived at the Wildlife College. We were greeted by a baby puff adder, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world (thankfully one of the few snakes we saw!). After this initial fright, the college became a place of relaxation as we spent free time in the Harry Potter-esque tents, swam in the large pool, and explored the beautiful open campus surrounded by animals that greeted us on our daily drives back and forth from Islington, where we lived with our host families.

South Africa was the place where we concluded the group projects we had pursued throughout the semester. During our time at the college, we focused on environmental health issues more than we had in previous countries and addressed a wide range of issues, from the threat of absolute water scarcity in South Africa to the process of land restitution following the end of apartheid. We spent a lot of time looking at traditional healing in South Africa and the intersection of spirituality and health. There was a strong presence of sangomas (traditional healers) in surrounding communities, including Islington.

One of our site visits, to Twinstalo Hospital, provided insight into the primary healthcare system of South Africa, where district level hospitals function as an entry to institutionalized care. During the visit, a hospital staff member kindly showed us around the hospital and explained the various wards. From pediatric care to the mental health ward and the privately run HIV/AIDS center, we learned a lot from what we observed there.

Our other site visit was to Hlokomela, an NGO focusing on farm worker health. Its innovative model of care delivery incorporated community health workers and passport-like documentation initiatives to monitor the health of migrant health workers. At its beautiful income-generating herb garden, we meandered through the plants and tasted the successes and challenges of this project. The profits from the herb garden are used to sustain the NGO and the herbs are sold to grocery stores and local shops. From both of these site visits, we saw the impact of funding, both domestic and international, and the role that it plays to hinder or promote the organizations’ mission of health access.

The college was where we spent most of our days, but our homestay families in Islington constituted the core of our experiential learning in South Africa. Though we were first intimidated by pit latrines and bucket showers, we soon felt integrated into the Islington community, consuming pap just like our many brothers and sisters. One of the biggest aspects of village life centered around church and worship and some of our most eye-opening and memorable experiences were attending church on Sundays for hours with our families. Other memories include watching a lot of soap operas such as Generations, Scandal, and Rhythm City and discussing them the next day at the college. Every day after school, we came home and played with the kids in our home for hours, helped them with homework, talked to our families over delicious dinners, and went to bed exhausted and happy. At the end of our homestay experience, to honor our wonderful host families, we hosted a concert at one of the local churches, where we sang and danced and zumba'd our hearts out. After the concert, we stood in a circle exchanging African and American children's games and laughing until the sun started to sink beneath the horizon and it was time to go home.

Our life resembled a safari and no matter which location we were in, there was an ever-present appearance of wildlife. Our drives to the college often involved spotting zebras, elephants, and giraffes and we were always excited to see our furry friends.

We took a weekend trip to Moholoholo (where we stepped off the bus and were greeted by a friendly warthog, named Toodles by one of our professors). We had some close encounters with various wildlife, petting a cheetah named Bullet, feeding vultures, and swooning over a baby rhino.  We also had a very informative talk by our awesome guide, who told us about the ongoing conservation issues facing South African wildlife.

We participated on guided walks organized through the Wildlife College. For the first time during the program, we walked in groups without speaking. Most groups saw a plethora of wild animals up close, such as hippos and zebras.  We also went on a safari in Kruger National Park, where we were given a personal tour by a friend of the program. The park, which is the size of Wales, is one of South Africa's most popular tourist destinations and an important place of conservation. We saw many plants and bird species on the actual drive, but on the ride out of the park, we saw elephants eating by the side of the road and an elusive leopard, one of the Big 5 and one of the rarest animals to see. We celebrated this beautiful day with yet another wonderful braai and ate a delicious feast of vegetable kebabs, pasta salad, roasted corn, impala steaks, boerwors, and ostrich kebabs. Many students not only enjoyed eating the food, but worked for their meal by helping to cook and organize the food.

After our time in Islington, we concluded our semester-long projects, such as case studies and Photo Voice, and headed to Swadini for our retreat. We drove out of the bush and into the stunning mountains, which loomed over our chalets and the free-roaming kudu. (One of our students, known to all as the Kudu Whisperer, successfully touched the face of the kudu). During retreat, we visited the beautiful Blyde River Canyon, swam in the center's heated pools, and shared themed potluck dinners hosted by a different group of students every night. We also let our competitive and creative sides show by participating in field day games and a talent show. The talent show, full of skits and song and dance, ended with an impromptu sing-a-long with some of the songs we learned along the way, such as Shosholoza, Lean on Me, Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika (South Africa's national anthem), the chorus of Vietnam's national anthem, No Woman, No Cry, and Don't Stop Believing.

We were thankful to have time to reflect upon the program, the learning we did, and the relationships we built. Although our journey may physically be ending, we have come to see it as a beginning. As we go our separate ways and many of us continue traveling, we feel content closing this chapter. We see the end of our semester on IHP as a beginning to another journey with our new friends, knowing that the memories and relationships will continue to grow and influence us for the rest of our lives.

Thank you for everyone who came into our lives for a wonderful semester that we will always remember!

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Credits: 16

Duration: Spring, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
USA, Argentina, South Africa, Vietnam

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

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