Students study abroad in Africa
students traveled to Southern Africa this summer to participate
in a new study abroad course. Here, they posed at the Three
Rondavels viewing site on the Blyde River Canyon in South
Africa. It was a stop along their trip up the Great Escarpment
of Southern Africa near the end of their time abroad.
By Fariss Samarrai
Burke, a rising third-year African-American student, had never
been abroad. This summer, she went to Africa for three weeks as
a member of a new study abroad class offered by the Department
of Environmental Sciences.
kept a journal of about 75 pages, she said. Its
all about what I did, how I felt. Im the first person in
my family to travel outside the country, and Im thrilled
that my first trip was to Africa.
is sharing this experience of a lifetime with her Richmond family.
I talked to my 89-year-old grandfather about it. It blew
his mind that I had actually gone to Africa and had seen and done
so many things.
in the real South Africa
26 One of my classmates thought I was being oversensitive
when I expressed my ambivalence over photographing the children
in Soweto, stating that they dont care.
Their smiles hide a much deeper-felt pain like in
that poem We wear the masks.
Africans wear a mask.
My feelings were only strengthened
by an encounter we had today.
As we were passing a
cute baby on the road many of us stopped to take pictures.
He began to cry.
I felt bad for objectifying
such a helpless child to my American curiosities.
gave me a glimpse into the soul of the
real South Africa.
29 The class was polarized as all the American
students tried to solve a problem that has been plaguing
South Africans for years AIDS.
kept coming down on Americans for trying to fix the problem
when we didnt really understand it.
saying that Americans thought everything could be fixed.
... They looked upon our optimism with disdain. ... At that
moment I was never prouder to be an American.
the I can do anything mentality of Americans.
I think South Africa needs a dose of American optimism
5 Steven and Eric, two University of Venda students,
gave me some advice yesterday that I think will stay with
me for the rest of my life.
They kept asking me questions
and I kept prefacing my answers with I guess
or I think.
Of course, I would answer
Then Eric just stopped me and said, You
know sometimes you just need to give a concrete answer and
its OK to think before you speak. You dont have
to answer so fast.
I took their advice the
rest of the day and I began to feel like I was in another
country that in a lot of ways was more sophisticated than
Journal excerpts from Erin-Marie Burke, a rising third-year
course, People, Culture and the Environment of Southern
Africa, is the irst U.Va. study abroad class to take students
to Africa for a concentrated learning experience. It is part of
the environmental sciences departments ongoing research
and education initiatives in that region. The University recently
joined a consortium with four universities in southern Africa
as a result of years of research collaboration there.
best mirror for looking at ones own culture is to look at
other cultures, said Bob Swap, research assistant professor
of environmental sciences.
Africa definitely has helped me to look at America with new eyes,
Burke said. Im able to make comparisons regarding
the problems of poverty, racism and gender inequity. The trip
made me feel grateful that we have the type of government that
we do in America where its possible to make change.
developed the four-credit course to help students understand how
people and their cultures shape the environment of a region, and
how the environment affects people and the development of culture.
Swap has been conducting research in Africa for more than 10 years.
He plans to lead the course again next year and to develop new
class included 15 people Swap, two teaching assistants
and 12 undergraduate students. All of the students are humanities
majors, half of whom are African-Americans who were making their
first trip to Africa. The trip began in urban areas, then moved
into rural areas, eventually concluding at some of the most wild
and beautiful natural areas in southern Africa, including Kruger
National Park. The students were paired at times with students
from the universities of the Witwatersrand and Venda in South
went into the cities and villages, allowing the students to meet
the people, to ask questions and come to some understanding of
the societies there, Swap said. We tried to show them
the real Africa, beyond the typical tourist destinations.
students met with former African National Congress guerillas and
visited the Apartheid Museum, an AIDS outreach center, a gold
mine and the Cradle of Mankind, a world heritage site. In urban
and rural areas, they saw the everyday difficulties people face
of simply acquiring resources, such as women in a poor rural area
of South Africa who spend the bulk of their day carrying water
in jugs to their village from a distant river.
students got some understanding of the spiral of poverty, the
differences between the haves and the have-nots, and how people
can be forced to use their time simply to exist with little time
left to try to improve their situation, Swap said.
saw the true value of natural resources and infrastructure; the
things we take for granted in the U.S. This led to a lot of soul-searching,
a lot of late-night rap sessions. The trip shook to the root some
of the students preconceptions about Africa and even our
asked the students to keep a journal. This trip was exciting,
unconventional and moving, a trip they will never forget. I hope
it helps them to become more humane, to have their human values
shine through for the rest of their lives.
isnt yet sure how she will use her journal, but she considers
it a treasure. After she graduates from U.Va. she will spend a
year or two teaching with the Teach for America program in Atlanta.
want to help the disadvantaged right here in America, she
said. Theres no excuse for poverty here.