Exploring southern Africa
U.Va. students travel and learn
By Fariss Samarrai
Photos by Cha Samarrai
Fifteen University of Virginia students and their faculty recently travelled to South Africa and Mozambique for the study abroad course, “People, Culture and the Environment of Southern Africa.” An additional six students also traveled to Africa to conduct service-learning projects in local villages.
The class, led by Bob Swap, associate professor of environmental sciences, emphasizes understanding how cultures are shaped by their environment and how these societies likewise alter their environment.
During the month-long trip, students visited several locations in South Africa and Mozambique, including the Apartheid Museum, the boyhood home of Nelson Mandela, several rural villages, the coastal city of Maputo and Kruger National Park.
Swap tried to “put a new wrinkle in the gray matter” of his students by exposing them to new cultures and the challenges faced by much of the world’s populations, he said. “The fact is, these students will someday be corporate, legal and policy leaders. We hope to help them realize that in the future, when they’re making decisions, those decisions will have repercussions around the world.”
The following are excerpts from “dispatches” the students wrote from Africa for the U.Va. community. To see the full-length pieces, visit: http://www.virginia.edu/topnews/releases2006/20060621SwapAfrica.html
Rising Third-Year, Echols Interdisciplinary Major in International Health and Environmental Sustainability
Staring at me intently from a few feet away was a young sangoma woman, a traditional healer.…With a deafeningly solemn look on her face, she tossed a handful of bones out into the dust. From the way the bones fell, she was able to determine a fact about me that I was sure no other stranger would’ve known. “I am sorry to know that you have been dealing with a chronic injury from sports.”
I was shocked to hear the sangoma make such an accurate reading of my health history (I had been dealing with a tennis injury for a long time), and to me this meant that there must be some bit of method to what many Westerners have called witchery or “madness.” But she had something for me. “You must take this and you will be cured” [it was an herbal remedy].
I reflected on what this woman meant to her community. In the West, we perceive health in a heavily anatomical and physiological sense. In traditional medicine, the sangoma often searches for a systematic cause to a symptom. Traditional healing is different from our biomedicine in that the sangomas view health as a comprehensive well-being of body, mind, and spirit.
I haven’t really decided what I believe in terms of traditional vs. Western medicine, but what I learned was invaluable. I was able to receive a perspective on the issue that I am sure no tourist would’ve been able to grasp. Now, as I sit back at home in the quiet town of Staunton, Virginia—far removed from the culture of Welverdien—I stare at my tattered plastic sheet full of crushed medicinal bark and herbs and wonder, should I take it?
Rising Second-Year, Anthropology Major
The Zulu proverb says, “Mountains do not meet again, but people do.” Southern Africa faces many challenges related to racism and segregation, land management and external pressures to enter the international economy. Concrete and already successful volunteering opportunities have been established between U.Va., local communities and major universities. However, I feel now the duty to ask myself how I can personally contribute to the environmental and social sustainability of southern Africa.
Rising Third-Year, Systems Engineering Major
Before arriving in Johannesburg, I had many ideas about what I thought Africa would be like. Perhaps most prominent among these thoughts was that the majority of people would be in a state of economic desperation. I assumed that this impoverished condition would lead to a sense of hopelessness and a stagnant economic environment.
Both of these assumptions have been shattered. Instead I have found a vibrant culture of entrepreneurialism and economic optimism. The growth really is inspiring and the mood infectious. Although there are many poor areas, this spirit seems to suggest that with continued help and investment this condition can be overcome. I look forward to seeing even more evidence of this vitality as I continue my time in South Africa.
[Gavin stayed in Africa after the class ended to work on an economic-development project.]
Rising Third-Year, Biology Major with Philosophy Minor
The chirp of our tennis shoes on the polished linoleum floor echoed softly in the open space. This was the Regina Mundi Church, a focal point of the anti-apartheid revolution that begun with intensity following the protest riots of June 16, 1976.
Images seen during our trip to the newly opened Apartheid Museum flooded into my head. Winnie Mandela [standing] proudly defiant behind her altar podium preaching the gospel of political and social freedom and equality by any means necessary as pickup trucks with mounted fans blew tear gas into the building. Bullets and gas canisters shattered the panes of the stained glass saints, interrupting the chanting crowd. The smashing of the altar with the butt of an AK-47 marked the ultimate demonstration of the police’s power and brutality.
Sitting on the simple pew, fragmented rays of sunlight filtered through the still-broken stained glass windows filling the room around me with light. A printed [sheet] hangs on the wall indicating the schedule and language of the church’s services this week. This building is not a museum. For me, visiting this church made clear just how new this modern developing nation of South Africa truly is. With its difficult past, the creation of a new unified national identity for all people of South Africa emerges as the country’s most challenging and important task.