Study Abroad blog

The following blog posts are student reflections on the 2011 UVA in Southern Africa study abroad trip. 

By Nick Allen

Screen shot 2011-06-23 at 9.02.34 AMAudrey (left) with ESAVANA students

Thohoyando, South Africa

Unlike my peers, I spent this friday of the trip with a different agenda. After being hospitalized for 4 days it was in my best interest not to travel to Mozambique; therefore, this week I have resided in Thohoyando with a University of Venda professor. I was diagnosed with acute tonsillitis and put on a series of antibiotics. The hospital stay was miserable. While the facilities were fantastic and the staff welcoming and caring, my time there seemed to last weeks especially without a familiar face. It was hard to sleep as thoughts of so many people who had similar and even worse conditions were not receiving care due to lack of access.

The lowest point of my stay was when I received a call from my parents and insurance informing me that I may have to be escorted home if my condition did not improve in the next few days. I did not care to leave a trip that had already been one of the best experiences of my life. Luckily I was able to be discharged and put back on oral medication.

This Friday was my first mobile day since my hospital release on Tuesday night. Today I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon at the University of Venda. At the University I attended a community engagement seminar led by Professor Francis and Dr. Beata Kilonzo (my incredible host for the week). The seminar was to rally for the upcoming engagement projects in the Macia community during the University break. Although I felt disconnected from the group due to my lack of knowledge about the community, the seminar did cover many of the topics I had encountered during the ESAVANA workshop held at the University of Venda the prior week. I particularly enjoyed hearing about what the Venda students thought about the challenges facing their own local and neighboring communities. The most debated topics dealt mostly with prioritization of challenges. Different members of the group had varying opinions on what was most important, and additionally how teams should be split up to cover all of the objectives. I was surprised to see that it looked like there was a lack of interest. I wasn’t sure if not everyone was in attendance but it appeared that the staff were still trying to rally for more support. My purpose in the workshop was to act as a learner and take in as much as possible to. In the words of Professor Francis, “intelligently borrow” so I can bring this knowledge back to the states.

After the seminar I met with Audrey, a colleague whom I was introduced to the prior week. Audrey acquainted me with more University of Venda students and gave me a tour of the University. We visited university housing to eat and assemble with Audrey’s friends. One of the older students and I talked a great deal about university/tertiary education in the U.S. and South Africa. I got the opportunity to walk with them to the local shops and see the malls. It was pleasant to walk around the town with friends and not be alone.

As this was my last day in Venda I reflected on my stay with Beata. I thought about how fortunate and grateful I was to have met someone as genuine and loving as her. The fact that she willingly housed, fed, and guided a complete stranger for five days still baffles me. Very rarely would that ever happen in the U.S. After dinner we had our usual conversation and she told me about her experiences growing up in Kenya. She informed me that it was traditional for families to make more food than necessary during supper just in case travelers needed food and shelter for the night. It was hard for me to at first comprehend that sense of community coming from a society that promotes individualism and ultimate security. Nevertheless, I came to understand and grow fond of it. I was also excited to learn about her focus of study, economics and micro-finance, as it is mine as well. Getting her take on micro-finance practices and experience working with the United Nations was quite remarkable. Overall it was a satisfying day, and I slept well knowing I was going to rejoin the group in less than 24 hours.

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By Ornélio Nhaduco

IMG_3542
Mpumalanga, South Africa

Eram  7:30h da manhã, dia 17.06.11 numa Sexta–feira , quando partimos de Mpumalanga em direcção a Pretória para concluírmos os nossos estudos que decorriam a quase quatro semanas.

Durante a viagem paramos no God’s Windons lugar espectacular que da acesso ao topo de uma montanha a partir da qual foi possivel visualizar as belas plantaçoes de Pinus sp que existem ao redor. Passados 15 minutos partimos para um outro lugar de nome GrasKop que do topo da montanha é possivel também  ver uma gama infinita de maravilhas naturais que a natureza por si só oferece.

Passados aproximadamente 25 minutos continuamos com a nossa viagem em destino a Pretória e pelo caminho é possível visualizar as grandes fazendas agrícolas que ocupam extensas areas fornecendo uma paisagem maravilhosa a natureza. Antes que me esqueça deixa me reveler a grande lição que pude tirar nessa viagem: Pequenos detalhes aqui na Africa do Sul são transformados em grandes atraçoes para turistas e garantindo desse modo a geração de renda que no meu entender garante a estabilidade economica que o país vem gozando até ao momento.

Para mim é uma grande lição para o meu país (Mozambique), que com tantos recursos naturais não tem consiguido maximizar o proveito dos mesmos para tirar os Moçambicanos da pobreza absoluta da qual são reféns.

Em fim foi uma viagem longa, cheia de atracções e inspiradora para o meu futuro como Engenheiro Florestal pôs aprendi muito e espero fazer das lições tiradas um factor de sucesso na minha vida professional, fazendo das metas um alvo cada vez mais proximo. E assim Foi.

(English version by Google Translate)

It was 7:30 am, 17/06/11 day on a Friday, when we left towards PretoriaMpumalanga to complete our studies which derived almost four weeks.

During the trip we stop at God’s Windons spectacular place with access to a mountaintop from which it was possible to see the beautiful plantations of Pinussp that there are around. After 15 minutes we went to another place name Graskopto the top of the mountain is also possible to see an endless array of natural wonders that nature itself provides.

After about 25 minutes to continue our journey to Pretoria in destiny and the wayyou can see that the large agricultural farms occupy large areas provide awonderful landscape of nature. Before I forget let me reveal the great lesson that Itake this trip: Little things here in South Africa are transformed into great attractions for tourists and thereby ensuring the generation of income in my opinion ensuresthe economic stability that the country has enjoying so far.

For me it’s a great lesson for my country (Mozambique), that with so many natural resources has consiguido maximize them to take advantage of Mozambicans in absolute poverty from which they are hostages.

In the end it was a long journey, full of attractions and inspiring for my future as aForest Engineer put learned a lot and hope to make the lessons learned from afactor of success in my career, making the goals a target closer and closer. And so it was.

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By Kelsey Patterson

BlydeThree Rondavels from Blyde River

This morning we headed off at 7:30 to make sure we made it to our boat ride by 9. Once we got to the boat we met up with Maddie and Colleen who are two fourth year UVA students who are working on a JPC project in the region which Dana and James are going to go work on once our four weeks are up.

We all got our seats and headed off down the Blyde River in the Blyde River Canyon. The guide told us all about the vegetation and animal life around the river. Sadly since it’s the dry season the hippos had wandered off to find a place with better grass so even though it’s a popular hippo hangout spot we didn’t get to see any. There is one spot where apparently all the mama hippos go to give birth but then the guide had to go and depress us all by telling us if the baby wasn’t that of the head male then he would kill it. We also learned the fun fact that hippos kill more people than any other animal, including snakes. But I still think I would rather run into a hippo than a snake in a dark alley.

Some of the sites the guide pointed out were the three rondavels and the crying face waterfall. We went to see the dam on the way back to SAWC, it wasn’t nearly as long as the 3 mile long one in Mozambique but it was still huge. We got to stop at a Spar and gas station for food on the way home, I’ve really grown to love gas station food on this trip. I’ll definitely miss the Simba chips and Lunch bars when I’m back in the states. The other thing I’ll miss is the fact that driving down the road it isn’t surprising to see two giraffes just chilling by the road, I’m going to be really sad when it’s just squirrels and the occasional rabbit on the roads instead of giraffes and elephants.

Back at the college Matt took us on a quick tour to show us a bit of the college then take us into a lecture room for our history and safety talks. I don’t think anyone had realized how involved SAWC is with the community, they clearly make an effort to go to schools in the area to help out since the government keeps a lot of funds from ever reaching the kids. The safety talk was somewhat horrifying. After hearing all about the poisonous spiders, the scorpions, and the three types of snakes that could kill me, I have decided that I’m going to have to be piggybacked everywhere at night and never be without someone who is qualified to perform CPR. I think Matt may have realized that he freaked us all out when I went up to him after words asking what the chances of me dying from a snake bite were. Seeing how he laughed at me I took that as a sign that chances were good I was going to be okay.

Ranger Rick was nice enough to come by and give us a talk about Kruger. He was obviously very passionate about his job, especially the war against rhino poaching. I don’t think many of us had realized what a problem it was until Ranger Rick went off on a tangent about how intense the war was getting. He made it very clear that they were winning and judging by his intensity we all agreed that there is a definite possibility that out of the 50 poachers who have been killed he has probably killed over half of them. Probably with his bare hands. He was also kind enough to share his preferences about game meat, apparently all of which is delicious in his mind. The only one that is a little bit tough and grainy is elephant meat. I think that I’ll just take his word on that one and stick with chicken and beef since I can’t even entertain the idea of eating  cute little elephant. But it was interesting because it clearly showed how different our cultures are, to Ranger Rick eating a giraffe or elephant isn’t weird, in fact it is preferred because they lack the chemicals that cows from cow farms are pumped full of. But to me the idea of eating either of those isn’t something I would even consider. I guess it is one of those “eat what’s available” kind of deals.

Maddie and Colleen came to meet us at SAWC and give us a presentation on their work at the disabled school since some of our group was going to join them for two days for our next community engagement project. It was interesting to see what they had done, especially since we had all heard a lot about it from James, Bob, and Dana. After that all that was left was dinner and splitting up for the game drives, I didn’t get to go which was kind of a bummer because they apparently saw rhinos right after leaving the gate.

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By Wametsi Obonetse

ESAVANAESAVANA study abroad group, 2011

Being in South Africa for the first time was the really most exciting thing in my life and I felt much honored to have this opportunity to explore the different cultures and the environment in other parts of the Southern Africa.

We stayed in Venda for a week and from venda I have learnt a lot about the people, culture and the environment. We had a community engagement workshop at the University of Venda which, we were taught about the different community engagement tools and we used some of the tools when we did a community engagement project at Mashamba Presidential school in which we were investigating the effectiveness of the new stoves that has been implemented by the previous UVA students. I really appreciate the new stoves used in the school, most of the rural schools use the traditional method of cooking which leads to environmental degradation and health problems to the cooks.

We managed to successsfully achieve our objectives of our project because of the three R’s: respect, relationship and reciprocity that are always emphasised during the entire program. The Mashamba people were very happy and welcoming and we were free to discuss every ideas with them that we thought they could benefit from them.  To me as an environmental science student all the tools and the exposure to community engagement  are of great importance and have added value to my educational background,I have learnt that I have to involve the people in the environmental problems that they are facing.

Culture in Africa is being displaced by modernisation and to my surprise Venda culture is still maintained, we went to Rammbuda community we have seen the respect that is given to the chief, there is a place where the royal family live and have their own graveyard. We managed to do all the practises that are done because of cultural appreciation of the society. Overall the entire program Rocks…………

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By Emily Hearle


IMG_4541
Upon arrival to South Africa, I was hoping to find that moment of inspiration– you know, one of those moments when your life seems to fall into place, and some part of you is inpspired to do more to help others. On May 31st, I finally felt that stroke of motivation that I had been searching for. Eight of us from the ESAVANA program spent two days at the Mashamba Presidential School in Venda, a primary school for residents in this area of the Limpopo province. Our mission was simple; we were sent out to assess a stove project that UVA students implemented last year. The primary school was in desperate need of new forms of energy, because prior to last September, the children had to bring wood to school each day to fuel the stoves for cooking lunch. We found that the new stove system not only decreased cooking time from 4 and half to 2 hours, but also decreased emissions, burned less wood, and was overall safer for the cooks to use.

What I did not expect in our trip to the school, however, was the greeting that our group recieved upon arrival. The teachers and administrators of the school welcomed UVA students like we had been friends for years, and we were immediately considered their “brothers” and “sisters”. The visit to assess new stoves soon turned into a cultural exchange between Americans and the members of the Mashmamba school. A common theme that has been building throughout this study abroad experience is that one has so much to learn simply from listening to others who offer a different perspective. We were brought to the Mashamba school to follow up on a stove project, but in the process we learned about the school’s daily operations and the basics of the South African education system. In addition, my colleagues and I were blessed to interact with a staff that was so passionate about educating young learners. At a roundtable discussion, all administrators were very open to our group’s ideas and offered feedback as to how they thought one might enhance the Mashamba school.

One of the most valuable tools that I left the Mashabmba school with was the ability to realize that a group of 20 year old American students view issues and solutions very differently from those who see them on a daily basis. I have also begun to understand how to break down communication barriers and the distinction between “us” and “them”; when discussing the school it was clear that despite cultural differences, we could all join together for the common desire to enhancing these childrens’ education. Nevertheless, my favorite part of the whole experience was playing and interacting with the children. They were so fascinated with our group, and at certain points I had to pull my hands away from the kids because they would not let go. If nothing else, the children themselves inspired me to want to help the school– I finally felt that sense of purpose. Because I want to pursue a career in education and social policy, the Mashamba school reaffirmed why I am trekking down the academic path that I am. The 700+ children at the Mashamba have no idea how lucky they are to be educated by some of the most passionate people I have ever met. I am so thankful that I was able to be apart of their lives as well, if only for two days.

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By Emily Sparks

Zebra

Today I felt like I was in the Wizard of Oz because I saw lions, and tigers, and bears…oh my. Well, I didn’t actually see tigers or bears but I did see lions and lots of other amazing animals.

From sunrise to sunset our group spent the day driving through Kruger National Park. Within the first hour of entering the park my van spotted Impalas, giraffes, zebras, and lots of guinea fowl. As time went on we were fortunate enough to encounter male and female Kudus, hippos, and various packs of elephants and wildebeests.

Easily the most exciting part of the morning was when we were searching for a lion. We spotted four or five cars parked along the road and we knew they must have seen something great. We parked next to the other vehicles and asked what had been spotted. We learned we were in the presence of a lion that was underneath a tree far off in the distance. After looking for the lion for around twenty minutes we decided it was time to move our search onward.

Later on our way to lunch we crossed a river and saw many elephants and hippos lounging around the water. The scene was both picturesque and the perfect way to end an eventful morning. After lunch at a cafe in the park, we spent the afternoon focused on big game. While we enjoyed spotting more giraffes and zebras, and seeing cape buffalo for the first time that day, we were all determined to spot lions and rhinoceri. We searched for two and a half hours without seeing these animals. Finally as we were driving towards the exit gate my van saw a rinocerous and two lions along the main road.

As we drove out of the park everyone was excited about all the animals we had seen that day. We drove to Thulani Cultural Lodge and met Ian, a local businessman that is friends with Professor Swap and had previously won South African Entrepreneur of the year. Not only did Ian make great food (I heard the peri-peri chicken was incredible but being a vegetarian can only attest to the excellence of the baked beans and pei-peri fries), but his business achievements and future development plans were inspiring.

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By Ya Ma

Hut at CovaneStudents  at Covane Community Lodge

We headed to Maputo, Mozambique, on Jun 19th. It is a very busy and interesting city. During the two days, we visited a local NGO called LUPA Center, shopped in a local traditional artcrafts market, and shared a lot of great experience with students at UEM. It was very exciting for us to see the urban city in Mozambique. We learned a lot from our visiting. People’s passion for life in Maputo was inspring and enlighting.

六月九日我们从海滩出发 ,一路开到了莫桑比克的首府:马普托。这是一个很热闹的城市,这里有车水马龙的街道,当我们开进城的时候正好是交通高峰期,马路上全是车和匆忙的行人,人们头顶上顶着各种大小形状的物品,形成一道别样的景观,交来往错的公交车上满满登登地挤满了回家的人们。路过一个非常漂亮和崭新的体育场,据说是中国人修建的,想起来在Xai Xai时候那唯一一条平坦漂亮的高速公路也是中国人在这里修的,而且仅仅用了一年半时间。我们在城中心的一家旅店落脚,把行李都拖上楼之后,我们迫不及待地去四周的街区看一看,最后在旁边的一家比萨店吃了晚餐,很丰盛服务也很好。

第二天一大早,我们就出去了LUPA Center,这是一家NGO,致力于开发以社区为主导的旅游业,我们之前去过的Covane Community Lodge就是他们扶持的其中一个社区之一。LUPA Center坐落在总统府和各国使馆区,所以我们有幸路过了面朝大海的漂亮的莫桑比克总统府和紧临总统府的中国大使馆。总统府的白色围墙一直延伸数百米,据说四周的人行道是不允许人行走的,这让我自然想到了中南海那一侧站满保镖的人行道,不过莫桑比克的总统府让我觉得这是比中国还要集权的政府。然后我们路过了中国大使馆,绿色的琉璃瓦在阳光和大海的衬托下闪闪发亮,高大的建筑在整个马普托都属于很少见的,联想起这些天听到的种种关于中国在这里的势力,让我内心暗暗的想象如果有一天能够来这里工作,也是一件很幸福的事情。值得一提的是,马普托的街道名称都很有趣,绝大多数都是人名,比如说,就在中国大使馆对面,有一条“毛泽东路”,很宽敞,挨着一个很大的公园,里面主要是小商小贩经营旅游商品的生意,我们在那里流连了很久才离开。

之后我们去了马普托的大学:UEM。这是一所当地知名的学校,和UVa有很深厚的关系。当天下午我们到达的时候,就受到了学生和老师们热烈的欢迎。我们先是参观了教学楼。说实话,这里的设施很简陋,走廊里弥漫着污浊的空气,教室里灯光暗淡,桌椅很简单,也没有什么布置,自习室里也没有什么人。可是出乎我意料的是这里的学生们非常的热情。对于他们来说,似乎生活充满了活力和激情。他们邀请我们坐在教室里交流学习生活,然后给我们表演了热情的歌舞,甚至拉我们一起在教室了跳起来,整个教室都热烈地如同庆祝节日一样。之后UEM的学生们还给我们准备了特色的食物,因为是热带国家,这里盛产椰子,所以他们的特色中好多都是椰子加工做成的甜点或米饭,很可口,我们都吃得非常兴奋。 当我们告别UEM的时候已经是夜色时分了,空气开始变凉,可是我们的心情如同火焰一样温暖。

夜晚的马普托别有一番风味,我们一路沿海开到一家海鲜餐馆。吃了好多精心烹制的海鲜龙虾,我们又去了不同的酒吧。尽管我们只在马普托停留了短短的一天,可是我们都玩得很尽兴。我们遇到了很多人,多多少少和我们有关联,了解他们的故事让我们感受到生活的魅力。

(English version by Google translate)

June 9 we proceed from the beach, all the way to the capital of Mozambique: Maputo. This is a very lively city, there are busy streets, when we open into the city just in time to the peak traffic on the road full of cars and pedestrians hurry, people wore all kinds of head size and shape of items to form a different kind of landscape, to pay from the wrong bus home full Denden packed with people.Passing through a very beautiful and brand new stadium, said construction of the Chinese people, think that the only time in Xai Xai a nice smooth highway repair is the Chinese people here, and in just a year and a half. We settled in the city center, a hotel, the luggage dragged upstairs, we could not wait to go take a look around the neighborhood, next to last in a pizzeria to eat dinner, very rich service was excellent.

Early next morning, we went out LUPA Center, which is a NGO, committed to the development of community-oriented tourism, we have been before the Covane Community Lodge is one of their community to support one. LUPA Center is located at the presidential palace and embassies district, so we had the privilege of passing through the beautiful Mozambique facing the sea close to the Presidential Palace Presidential Palace and the Chinese embassy. Office of the President of the white wall that extends several hundred meters, said people around the sidewalk is not allowed to walk, which I naturally thought of Zhongnanhai guards lined the side of the sidewalk, but Mozambique’s presidential palace so I think this is more than China still authoritarian government. Then we passed the Chinese embassy, ​​green glazed tiles in the sun and the sea against the backdrop of shiny, tall building in the Maputo are all rare, think of these days to hear all the forces here on China let my heart secretly imagine if one day be able to work here, is a very happy thing. It is worth mentioning is Maputo’s street names are interesting, the overwhelming majority of names, for instance, on the opposite side of the Chinese embassy, ​​there is a ‘way of Mao Zedong “, very spacious, a large park next to , which are mainly small business operators, business travel products business, where we hang around for a long time before leaving.

Then we went to the University of Maputo: UEM. This is a well-known local schools, and UVa has a deep relationship. In the afternoon we arrived, the students and teachers by the warm welcome. We first visited the school building.To be honest, the facilities are very primitive, the corridor filled with polluted air, the classroom lights dim, tables and chairs is very simple, there is no arrangement, who did not self-study room. But beyond my expectation is that students here are very enthusiastic. For them, it seems that life is full of vitality and passion. They invited us to share their knowledge of life sitting in a classroom, and give us a warm song and dance performances, and even pull a jump with us in the classroom, the classroom is as warmly as the celebration of festivals. UEM students back after we have prepared a unique food because it is a tropical country, where rich coconut, so they feature in many desserts are made of coconut or rice processing, is very delicious, we eat very excited. When we bid farewell to UEM is night time hours, the air began to cool, but we feel as warm as flame.

Maputo night do not have a flavor, we opened all the way along the coast to a seafood restaurant. Eat a lot of well-cooked seafood lobster, we went to different bars. Although we only stayed in Maputo for a short day, but we are very fun to play. We met a lot of people, and we have more or less related, to understand their stories make us feel the charm of life.

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By Michael Bugas


Contitutional court

May 28, 2011 – Johannesburg, South Africa

In coming to South Africa, I truly had no idea what to expect. I knew that I would see a different culture, a different landscape, and a different history. What I didn’t realize was the shocking impact that this history would have on me.

Today we visited two historic landmarks, Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum. Constitution Hill was our first stop, which was an old prison for both men (whites and blacks) and women around 1907. The purpose of the prison under British control was to create a justice system in Johannesburg during the gold rush of 1886. The jail was divided into a women’s side and a men’s side, which was further divided into a white and black section. This imprisonment clearly indicated the racial divide that the British systematically instilled in South Africa from the beginning. The conditions were cramped and inhospitable. Both the women and the men were mentally and physically abused, as they were forced to strip naked and searched in public.

Similarly, the Apartheid Museum continued to show racial exploitation and classification. The blend of many different ethnicities, colors, and cultures lead to great diversity ultimately leading to a rich cultural mixing pot. However, for the colonizers, this blend was key to exploit leading in the rise of the Nationalist Party and apartheid government. The perseverance and fight in the oppressed during the time of apartheid was truly unbelievable. Despite the setbacks, these courageous individuals stood up for what they believed in through internal resistance and eventually achieved their rights.

Today, the past politics that South Africa has undergone has helped shape their present society, culture, and way of life. The remains of apartheid rule are still evident today through individuals classifying each other and having difficulty uniting as a nation instead of a race. South Africa has made huge hurdles since the 1950s, but must continue to work together in order to achieve the true equality and social progress that their new constitution explicitly states. The museums today were truly eye opening and have helped further explain the origins of South Africa, how history has played a large part on the lens in which South Africa is viewed, and how political policy has defined who and what South Africa truly is today.

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By Shreya Soni

5:25

May 25, 2011 – Johannesburg, South Africa

The view out my balcony exhibits a number of districts in Johannesburg and visualizes our questions about development, environment and people. Showing where urban sprawl meets seemingly unclaimed hills studded with trees, it is just another example of the field-based context provided by this class, which was the most exciting part of this experience to me.

Yesterday, I got to know a number of South African youth and heard some controversial views from them about blacks, views that I believe can be found in Americans as well. However, these were checked with history as South Africa has only had twenty years since its Constitution, unlike the U.S.

This paralleled a theme in our lectures for the day. The fight to preserve natural rights for humans and limit increasing social inequalities is as important in the U.S. as it is in South Africa as the top .01% control 90% of the GDP.

We watched two sobering movies, King Leopold’s Ghost and Tin Town at Human Rights Foundation and Center for Education Reform and Transformation. If I could have cried during the first movie, I would have. It was an uncensored report of colonialism in Congo displaying the darkness of the human heart as greed has us turn our brothers and sisters into slaves. I refer to Africans as our brothers and sisters as a result of our lesson on the first day, visiting the Cradle of Humankind and learning about the genetic similarities between the races and our origination in Africa.

It was also an example of the goodness of the human heart and the role of trust in holding and transforming our environment as we learnt from the daughter of Lumumba, a martyr because of Western forces desiring to continue taking advantage of the Congo, after it was granted independence. From the movie on the displacement of families into concentration camps due to FIFA we learned how it isn’t enough to have human rights on paper, the fight to uphold them is a part of our daily lives.

In the evening we shared dinner with students from the University of Johannesburg, researchers in NGOs and professors. This provided context for my future research interests as well as communication skills as I am learning to enunciate and speak slowly to relay my ideas to individuals for whom English is not a first language. These dinners take place in the beautiful lounge of the hotel, again exhibiting a view of all of Johannesburg as the sun sets.

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By Dyanna Jaye

Room with a viewESAVANA students studying at Room With a View

May 24, 2011 – Johannesburg, South Africa

A reoccurring theme on the study abroad over the past couple days has been culture and what defines us as humans. Yesterday, at Sterkfontaine Cave we discussed the development of homo sapiens, which first appeared around 160,000 years ago and are believed to have had “culture” around 80,000 years ago. What is “culture” though?

At The Origins center we learned about the development of the use of tools and artifacts throughout the process of evolution. On display there was a set of shell beads dated to around 80,000 years ago. This example of symbolic thought—the use of materials to represent an idea—is possibly the first sign of culture. I continued to contemplate this idea of what defines culture as we meandered or way though the museum.

After the museum, we listened to a lecture on Cognitive Archeology by Matt Caruana. Cognitive Archeology analyzes the functions of the mind though tool usage in correlation with the evolution of humans. During the Enlightenment era, it was popularly believed that cognitive intelligence is what separated humans from animals. Animals were believed to be non-cognitive, driven by the environment, while humans were the only species to use logic and reason. Several cognitive archeology studies disproved this idea by proving that chimpanzees, the animals that are the most genetically similar to us, acted in a way that way extremely cognitively complex by using and mortifying tools.

Since intelligence was not an adequate measure to separate us as humans from any other species, I began to analyze the idea that it must be our culture that makes us uniquely human. However, through studying the lifestyle of chimpanzees and the way that they pass down skills, Matt claimed that chimpanzees do have culture. He left me with a quote by Darwin, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals is certainly one of degree and not one of kind.” Therefore, we as humans, do not have any single factor that separates us from all other species, we have simply evolved to be more advanced and complex. Throughout history, various groups of people have often tried to gain power over other people, motivated by the belief that they are of greater value or intelligence.

Origins At the Origins Center with Rudzi Maboyi

This is the idea that fueled systems of slavery, corrupt governance, genocides, and the recent apartheid here in South Africa. Similar to the desire to find a single distinguishing factor between humans and animals, people around the world focus more on differences between cultures and individuals than on the similarities—which are overwhelmingly greater genetically and physically.

True progress towards a more peaceful world will come from the ability of the human race to come together by focusing more on the similarities between all peoples and cultures, rather than the minuscule differences that separate us. They have a saying in South Africa that is similar to this idea, “Umuntu Umuntu Ngabanta,” meaning a person is a person by people; I am me because of others; you are you because of others.

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By Matshona Phumudzo Solomon

Solomon

May 23, 2011 – Johannesburg, South Africa

Being granted this life time opportunity to come and join ESAVANA study abroad programme is my dream come true. What I’m learning I was least expecting. The group that I’m with is very good in terms of socializing, discussion and in terms of encouragement.

I’m very impressed on how people’s culture and environment interact each other here in South Africa. Most of the people particularly in rural areas depend on their environment for their living for an instance they depend on traditional plants for medicinal purposes.

Witwatersrand University gave us a more than I was expecting lecture on how traditional medicine works(TM), who is responsible for the healing using this traditional medicine. It is not each and every one who can heal using traditional medicine, you have to inherit it from your ancestor (it is an ancestral calling).

I was not even aware that up to 72% of South African citizen use traditional medicine as their primary health care and livelihood as some of the families depend on this traditional medicine for their living. Now I know that if this medicinal plants is not used properly it means that in south Africa they will end up without having this important traditional plants for their healing and for their spiritual purposes, it means they must get the knowledge so that they can be able to sustain this medicinal plants for more years to come.

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By Raleigh Hazel

May 22, 2011
May 22, 2011 – Johannesburg, South Africa

I must admit that coming into this trip I was a little skeptical. The overall layout and other aspects of the trip were not clear to me, and I also was very unfamiliar with the other students and teachers who were participating.

Despite my uncertainty, it really did not matter because I was so excited to take part on this unique adventure. This unique adventure was kicked off today.

I really enjoyed all aspects of heading to the sterkfontein caves. Our lecturer, Christine Steininger, was really informative and engaging. It was one thing to learn about the cradle of mankind in my classroom setting, but it was entirely another to literally touch this area with my own hands, to see it with my own eyes. We looked at our human ancestors skulls and tried our hands at carving stone tools was really cool. I also had never entered a cave system of any kind, the main cave at sterkfontein was extremely impressive. Again, seeing pictures of something in National Geographic and walking through them with a PHD qualified lecturer like Christine explaining all of its intimate features was perhaps one of the best learning experiences I have had in awhile. In addition, Christine took us to her research sites, called coopers A and B. We had the opportunity to explore active dig sites, see animal remains, and comment and learn about real life applications of archeology and anthropology.

May 22, 2011 (2)
The weather was beautiful for “winter”, this morning, afternoon, and evening we ate like kings and I got to see for the first time into genuine South African hospitality. My original fears of not being as close with the group were quelled as during the course of the day we all got to know each other while learning about human origins, earths geography, and other formations. I am eagerly anticipating the rest of the course and seeing what each new day brings.