Students learn about poverty during study abroad in Africa
By Charlotte CrystalIt’s way better to give than to receive.
That’s what some U.Va. students decided after spending a summer studying in Africa. Moved by the experience, they looked for ways to give back to the communities that had embraced them.
The students — both graduate and undergraduate — organized funding for a number of community development projects after returning to Charlottesville. They hope their efforts — providing clothing for orphans, expanding access to clean drinking water in a rural village in South Africa and creating a computer lab for young people growing up in a Moroccan slum — will open the door to a more hopeful future.
“Morocco is right on the verge,” said Gwen Calisch, a first-year graduate student in politics who attended the program there last summer. “It’s not desperately poor, but it’s not industrialized either. It needs help to get to the next step, in terms of communications, education and marketable skills. The big issue is the rural-urban divide. [The capital city of] Rabat is well developed, there is an educated elite class and there are [strong secondary schools], but the rest of the country is struggling to catch up.”
Students involved in these community development projects attended one of two interdisciplinary, study abroad programs sponsored by U.Va. — a nine-credit, six-week intensive French language and Moroccan civilization course offered by the French Department and based in Rabat; or a six-credit, three-week course, “People, Culture and Environment,” sponsored by the departments of anthropology and environmental sciences and based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
This past summer was the second year Majida Bargach, lecturer in French and a native of Morocco, offered the program in Rabat. The first year was 2002, but after a terrorist attack in Casablanca in 2003, the program in the predominantly Muslim country was canceled for the year.
Robert Swap, research associate professor of environmental sciences, and Hanan Sabea, assistant professor of anthropology, direct the interdisciplinary program in South Africa, which was offered for the third time last summer. The program has been enriched by a collaborative agreement with several universities in southern Africa, including the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Botswana.
Students from across southern Africa — South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique — join the American students in classes, adding to the cross-cultural experience.
For U.Va. students in these programs, the experience is transformational, Swap said.
“We saw women begging for money for their babies” in Morocco’s city streets, Calisch said. “We saw men in the streets without limbs, begging for money. We saw dirty children in the streets. You knew they weren’t getting fed.”
“They saw what it was like to be living on the edge,” Swap said. “In South Africa’s tribal villages, they saw people who had to make do with less than 10 gallons of water a day for a family. They saw women standing in line for three to five hours a day to take their turn at the village well. Then they had to walk three to five kilometers for fuel wood. After a while it starts to sink in. For the first time, students understand what impoverishment really means.”
In a move to institutionalize their efforts, students who returned from South Africa in 2003 established the University Giving Tree as a contracted independent organization. Since then, the group has raised money and coordinated other activities on behalf of selected community development projects in South Africa.
One Giving Tree project raised money for a new well to increase the supply of potable water in the South African village of Venda in Limpopo Province, where the students spent a week last summer. Two U.Va. engineering undergraduates, Holly Hillyer and Charles Weistroffer, who are active in Engineers Without Borders, another charitable student group, helped dig the 60-meter (195-foot) well last summer. U.Va.’s Center for Global Health also contributed funds to the well project.
To raise money for their “computer café” project in Morocco, students sold water and sodas at U.Va. football games, said Ashley Silver, a third-year undergraduate who attended the program last summer and has been active with the computer project since then. Silver is pursuing a double major in foreign affairs and economics with a concentration in Africa, and a minor in French.
Daniel DiSalvo, a doctoral candidate in politics who attended the Morocco program in ’02, used the funds to buy nine surplus computers, now sitting in Bargach’s basement awaiting shipment to Morocco, Silver said.
“The main thought with the computer project was to combat kids getting drawn into fundamentalism by giving them access to different world views— the news and voices from around the world,” Silver said.
The students involved in the Morocco project are now brainstorming new fundraising ideas, while Silver seeks CIO status for CHANCE, an organization to carry on their work. They’re also looking for ways to encourage graduating fourth-year students to donate their old computers before they leave.
“This is a small start,” Silver said. “But I feel like I’m actually making a difference. It’s a way to create more awareness in America of the rest of the world, and awareness in the world of Americans doing something positive and unselfish.”
2004 by the Rector and Visitors