Unexpected Discoveries on South Africa Service Learning Trip

Last May, Professor Bobbi Rosenquest and I led a group of graduate and undergraduate students on Wheelock’s fifth Service Learning Course in South Africa. As with previous trips, the students were presented with many unique learning experiences as they engaged with children, youths, and adults in various parts of this beautiful and resilient country. Hannah Linscott, a Wheelock senior majoring in Social Work and Counseling Psychology, generously agreed to allow us to share her paper reflecting on her insights from this year’s trip. It is clear that Hannah’s learning from this experience will influence how she approaches her work with individuals, families, and organizations throughout her career.

 The next South Africa Service-Learning Course will take place in May, 2018. Interested students should contact Wheelock’s Center for International Programs and Partnerships: cipp@wheelock.edu  for information about this and other opportunities for international engagement.

-Lenette Azzi-Lessing, Professor of Social Work

South Africa Service Learning Trip 2017

My first conscious memory of South Africa was not until I was a 17-year-old junior in high school. As a junior at my local school, students had the option to take either Advanced Placement European History for potential college credit or the standard level World History II. I enrolled in World History II. The course spanned the entire academic school year and covered world history from the early 1700s to The Cold War. Because of the period we were focusing on in this class, we spent a lot of time discussing the colonial rule of western countries and the oppressive and violent practices that came about during this time. We also spent a considerable amount of time learning about these stolen countries and their struggles for independence.

When we came to start talking about the late 1800s and early 1900s, we began to learn about Mahatma Gandhi and his work as a Civil Rights leader. We learned about his life and his leadership and his rigorous adherence to nonviolent protest. This was when I began to hear about South Africa. Along with Gandhi’s work in India, we also learned about his connections and work in South Africa. From this unit, we transitioned into a unit about South Africa.

From the beginning of this unit, we talked about Nelson Mandela and his fight to end Apartheid. We learned about Apartheid’s parallels with America’s history of discrimination and segregation. There tended to be a lot of focus on Mandela’s early use of nonviolent protest and eventual distancing from that practice. We did not learn much about the history of Apartheid before Mandela’s leadership. We learned what Apartheid was, but as with many units in American history, the true nature of the effects of the oppressive regime was never taught.

Much of South Africa’s history that we learned, centered around Nelson Mandela’s life. That also meant that for the 27 years he was in prison, much of the history and struggles against the Apartheid regime during this time, were never covered. It was almost as if the entire country was on pause while Mandela was in prison. After his release, very few details were given about the time between Mandela’s release from prison and his election as president. After this historic election, our unit on South Africa was over. As far as we were concerned, the election of Mandela meant the end of Apartheid.

Human Rights and a History of Apartheid

After that unit, I did not learn about South Africa again until I was a 20-year-old junior in college. As part of my Political Science and Global Studies minor, I enrolled in a class called Human Rights & Globalization. This course specifically focused on human rights violations around the world and their connections to the process of globalization. One of the few units we were able to cover in the short span of one semester was the South African history of Apartheid. We were asked to read a book called Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathibane, which tells the story of living in a black township during the early to mid-1900s. It details things like the pass laws, separate facilities for people of color and white people, and the horrific conditions that many people of color were forced to live in because of discrimination and systemic violence. It was a great book and greatly helped expand my understanding of the effects of Apartheid and how the government enforced its oppressive laws.

We also watched a movie called, Long Night’s Journey Into Day. This movie was a documentary covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This movie, in particular, helped me understand a little bit more about what happened after the end of Apartheid. It showed the process that took place to attempt to heal South Africa from some of the many crimes against humanity that were committed during Apartheid. This was another great resource for me to fill in some of my knowledge gaps about South African history.

Joe Schaffer describes life before and after the erasure of Cape Town’s District Six

Going into this trip, I was trying to gather as much information as I could about the country. I was trying my best to learn and remember the cultural guidelines that were outlined in our pre-departure session. I was trying my best to absorb and understand the many complex issues that South Africa was facing. From my previous experience and exposure to South Africa, I was going in with a few expectations. However, for the most part, I was continually surprised during the trip. This was not necessarily because I had held a preconceived notion. In most cases it was because what I observed and experienced was different from my norm.

Shattering Expectations

Based on pictures and just what I knew about South Africa I thought that it was a fairly developed country but had a long standing problem with poverty. I pictured a country like the United States. I imagined that it had rural areas where fewer people lived. I imagined that there would be a lot more farms in these regions. I imagined longer travel times to get to things like a grocery store. I also imagined large developed cities like Boston or New York, with big buildings and larges homes and town houses. For the most part, I was right about several things, but I was also wrong and surprised about many other things.

The rural areas were, in some ways, as I expected. There was a lot more space between homes, and individual family homes had much bigger lots. Their houses were also bigger than I had expected. I had originally thought that the homes in these areas were made of tin siding. I was not expecting to see that they were made of the mud and brick. There were a lot more farm animals in this area. Things took a much longer time to get to and from. There was a lot more open land. Granted, some of these areas that appeared extremely open were also nature parks. This was something that surprised me. I knew we would be visiting a nature preserve, but I did not realize how many parks there were and how big they were.

I was also surprised by how many animals I saw outside of perimeter fences. The first time I remember this happening was when we were driving from Good Work Foundation to the high school with a herd of cows traveling alongside the van. Not that this is unheard of in rural areas in the U.S. Nonetheless, I was not expecting it. I was surprised to see several baby goats that were wandering around Kurhula high school. I realize now I should have asked someone about the common philosophy around animal ownership.

Another thing I was surprised by was the town of Hazyview. I was quite surprised by how big and populated it was. I could see that it was still a rural town based on how far away it was from many things. However, I was not expecting to be staying in such a large hotel with a tourist center next door. I was also not expecting to be near so many shops and restaurants, including a large mall right down the road. Lastly, I was very struck by how beautiful every inch of the landscape was. When we were told we were going to the bush country, I am not entirely sure what I was picturing, but I could not comprehend incredibly gorgeous it was. Overall, my expectations were repeatedly shattered in Hazyview and Justicia.

Wheelock students assist Good Work teachers in the Justicia Digital Learning Center
Wheelock students assist Good Work teachers in the Justicia Digital Learning Center

Through our service activities, I also had several more eye-opening experiences. The first one that stands out to me was on our first visit to Kurhula High School. While we were waiting to start our activity with the eighth-grade class, I began talking with Charlie about the South African school system and Kurhula High School. I began to ask about typical class sizes for one teacher. I had worked in classrooms before with 20-25 kids, and I knew how chaotic that environment could get. Because of this, I was expecting a number close to the 30’s because I knew their classroom sizes were much larger. I was shocked when Charlie told me that it was not uncommon to have a classroom with around 60-80 students for one teacher. He remarked that classes with 30-40 students would be a dream for many of the teachers there.

Moving from the rural areas to the cities, I was also once again stunned in a lot of ways. I was surprised in little ways, which were partly due to cultural unfamiliarity. Additionally, I was struck by how frequently people talked about Nelson Mandela. On several occasions throughout the trip, Mandela and his legacy came up, including with several students at the University of Fort Hare – East London. Students at Fort Hare seemed incredibly politically active on their campus. I began to ask one student questions about political parties and the political processes on campus. He immediately stated that he was not a political person because he did not like the nature of politics. However, he was able to give very detailed answers to all my questions. To me, it seemed that even though he did not like being involved in politics, he was still able to understand it and stay informed. Along with that, I was surprised to see how openly many people discussed politics with us, including tour guides and bus drivers.

Dynamics of Race

My expectations were repeatedly proven wrong in several different ways, and for that, those moments will stay with me. Starting in Hazyview at the Good Work Foundation I had several memorable and insightful moments. As a white person, I knew I was going to be a minority in the room. However, I was unaware of how intimidating my presence would be some groups of black South Africans. While working with the pre-schoolers, it did not seem to be an issue. They appeared to be warming up to all of us very fast. Once with the fourth graders cane though it was very different. Many of those students did not want to interact with me very much or even look at me. The facilitator explained that it was because these rural students were not used to seeing very many white people. This made me wonder what, if any, were their previous experiences with white people. Were the students reacting this way because I was white and a stranger? Or had there been previous negative experiences with white strangers?

In contrast, while assisting in the interview process for the Bridging Academy, I noticed something very different. During the individual interviews, I was placed at a table with three other people, one person from Good Work Foundation and two Wheelock students. I was the only white person at the table, and myself and the two other Wheelock students with me had already introduced ourselves as guests at Good Work Foundation. Despite this, I noticed that during the interview a few candidates made significantly more eye contact with me, even when I was not asking the questions. Again, I began to wonder what, if any, previous experiences some of the candidates may have had with white people and if that was influencing our interaction. Nonetheless, it was a very powerful experience for me, especially as I am coming from a place where I am in the majority that holds a lot of privilege.

Those experiences also got me thinking more and more about the power dynamics of being a white person and a minority but in a country where the white minority still has an incredible amount of economic power. I did not fully understand the magnitude of this until we had visited both Cape Town and East London. While driving through the townships and the informal settlements, I could not process all that I was seeing, and I cannot put one emotion to how I was feeling other than surprised. I was not expecting to see so many people in such a small area. I was not expecting the see so much barbed wire and fences around people’s homes. I was not expecting to see so many homes, all made of the tin siding and wood. Another thing I noticed is that I did not see any white people living in the area. People of color were very clearly the majority in this area as well as in the city of East London in general. My classmates and I noticed that it was much easier to find black hair care products at any of the stores we visited in those cities and they even had travel size versions of the products as well.

Economic Power Differentials

However, it was a very different picture in Cape Town. There were significantly more white people in many of the areas we were in, and we did not see nearly as many informal settlements like the ones in East London. Despite the fact that there were more white people in the area, the fact remains that people of color are still the majority in the country. However, while I and some other students went to the Pick-n-Pay down the street, a couple of students were looking for black haircare products. The store had a very large aisle of bath and beauty products, but there were no black hair care products. We continued our search in a pharmacy next door which also carried some hair products, but no black haircare products. This was very surprising and troubling to me for a few different reasons. It made me wonder why there were not many if any, hair care options for black haircare in the area of Cape Town we were in. There were more white people in the area, but that did not mean there were not people of color. The store was almost entirely staffed by people of color. I began to wonder why the store seemed to be catering only to the white minority.

Along with this economic power differential, I learned a more that was very troubling. I did not fully understand what poverty meant for so many people. I had an understanding of what I thought poverty was like from what I have seen in the U.S. It wasn’t until visiting the informal settlements that I learned what poverty in South Africa looked like. I was not expecting that most homes would not have running water. I was not expecting there to be so many barbed wire and fences and for there to be such a need for those protections. More importantly, I was not expecting that many of the people working full-time jobs were living in substandard housing in the settlements.

The inequality was also very evident in the childcare centers. When we were first told that we were working in childcare centers, I pictured the childcare centers I had previously worked in.  I was not imagining that these centers did not have running water, which as a childcare worker myself, I often need in order to help keep the kids I am caring for clean. I was not expecting to hear that the children had to use buckets outside in many cases because there was no plumbing or toilets. I was not expecting to see that many babies were in disposable diapers that were worn and reused. I was not expecting to see so many children under the care of one person, which was the case in several of the centers. These things were very troubling to me, and I found myself very stressed. I was very worried about choking hazards, the children playing with the barbed wire, the broken glass on the ground in the yard, the discomfort many of the babies may have been in because of the lack of access clean diapers, the lack of food, and the sheer number of children in one space. I was very troubled by the environment of the centers, and it was quite a wake-up call for me.

I was also very troubled to hear how the centers operate, such as the fact that children are bounced around from center to center because parents are unable to pay the fees. And the fact that the teachers and principals cannot get paid if the parents don’t pay the fees. Additionally, because the centers are not registered, they have no money from the government to help cover food costs for the children. The whole experience was very troubling and it was a little uncomfortable to be going into these teachers’ spaces. However, I also recognize that what is troubling for me is another person’s daily life, in part because the childcare centers we saw do not have support from the government.

I have only ever lived in the United States and only worked with children in the U.S.. Therefore, my only ideas of how children learn and interact come from the U.S. One of the first things I noticed when I was working and interacting with kids in South Africa was the amount of respect they had for all the adults that they were interacting with. I am not sure how much our role as guests may have had to do with that. However, I had never seen a classroom with so many students behaving so respectfully. I was also surprised by this because there were so many children. Whenever I have been in a childcare setting, the more children you put in one room together, the more chaotic it gets. However, no matter how many children there seemed to be, the teacher always seemed to have the classroom under control and classmates also helped to keep the room in order. They helped keep the workday flowing. They rearranged and cleaned up the classroom without being asked. The students were just as much a part of the operation of the school as the teachers and administrators were.

Empowering Women

Besides our interactions with the children, it was also very enlightening to visit Masimanyane, the women’s rights organization. I am very interested in working in this field in the future, so it was very interesting to hear how their team works and the specific struggles that they face. While we were there, I was very saddened to hear that two women had recently been killed in the nearby area. I was, however, very inspired by the fact that in response to such deaths, Masimanyane has dedicated itself to tracking the number of women who were killed in the area in order to get a better understanding of why there is a high rate of murder among women in South Africa and educate the public about this problem.

This, of course, was in addition to the many other services Masimanyane provides, something impressive for one organization to do alone. In the U.S, I have never seen one organization cover so many needs for a given population. The staff members most commonly discussed meeting the needs of women affected by intimate partner violence. They explained that they provide legal support in the courts and with police, emergency shelter for women and their children, counseling, violence-prevention education for young men and women, and advocacy. They provide this for any women affected by violence, conduct research on this problem, and continually work to stop human rights violations against women. Police, the courts, colleges, doctors, etc., all know Masimanyane and know to refer women to this organization.

This was incredible to me because I have never seen or heard of any organization like that in the U.S.. People affected by domestic violence in the United States may be passed off or referred to 4+ different people or organizations even to begin to address their situation. That does not include all the people and organizations that victims may need to get in touch with to address any emergency shelter or relocation needs.

Additionally, although their approaches to the complexities of domestic violence do seem to be very different, they face many of the same issues that U.S agencies face. The struggle to fight for women’s rights in a culture that heavily favors men is very challenging. This culture is engrained in many institutions like the police forces and the courts and it can be very hard to get legal protection from abuse. One advocate stated that one of their biggest struggles is making sure that police are enforcing protection orders that have been filed and that they are listening to women when they try to file a charge against their abuser. Although it is not as common within the U.S for police to turn away abuse survivors, it is still a problem and we, too, have a culture of misunderstanding and ignorance of how to handle domestic violence, sexual assault, and general abuse. Because of this, I have seen many people discouraged when they try to take action against their abusers and many others discouraged from ever taking action.

The advocates we spoke with at Masimanyane all talked very openly and candidly about the issues they face in culture and systemically. Throughout the places we visited, I noticed that many other people also spoke very openly and candidly about the state of the world they live in. As mentioned above, many students and even tour guides spoke openly about politics. Often while we were out and about, after someone asked if we were American, they often followed with a question or comment about Donald Trump. The South Africans we met seemed interested in politics in the U.S and how they compared to South Africa. Many spoke openly and negatively about their president.

Candid Talks about Politics

This open dialogue struck me as very different from the U.S.. Politics have always been a very rude topic of conversation in this country, especially with new people. I have friends and coworkers whom I have known for several years whose political beliefs and opinions I still do not know. Our bus driver in Johannesburg, Jack, did say that he did not like to discuss politics with his family members and preferred that his children stay out of politics because at the current time, it is messy and sometimes dangerous. However, he still discussed politics with us and explained more about the nature of the business in its present state. He also asked questions about the U.S and our politics. Overall, many of the individuals we met on the trip were open to discussing politics in a way that I have never seen in the U.S.

Jack also taught us about many more cultural aspects of South Africa and Johannesburg in particular. One thing that I noticed was very different was funerals. He explained to us that funerals often involve an entire community and anyone who is driving by a funeral procession who wants to join. For this reason, the family of the deceased has to bring as much food as they can because they never know how many people are going to show up. He added that it is the family in mourning’s job to prepare all the food as part of the tradition. Friends and other family members can bring food the day before to help with costs and preparation time. However, friends and family are not supposed to cook the food. He said that it does not matter if you know the deceased or their family; if you see a community in mourning, you should join them and show your support. This also struck me as very different because weddings and funerals in the U.S are often seen as very closed and private ceremonies reserved only for those invited by the family.

I am not entirely sure of the magnitude of this last aspect of discovery, but nonetheless, I was struck by it. Growing up and going to school in the U.S., it was not until I was in high school that I learned that what we are taught in school about history is not necessarily the truth. Christopher Columbus was not a great explorer. He was a violent oppressor. Slaves were not “immigrants”. The Emancipation Proclamation was not the end of slavery. These are just some of the things that were corrected for me once I entered high school. If a student had a good teacher, they might have had the chance to acknowledge these truths. If not, then those particular versions of history will continue to be believed.

Something I noticed while in South Africa was the acknowledgment by the government that South Africa has a dark and violent past that they are trying the learn and grow from. The best example I can think of are the countless museums to help remember the country’s history, the Constitutional Court, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed after the end of Apartheid. Instead of trying to cover up the past, we saw acknowledgment and attempts to right the past and prevent violations of human rights in the future.

I learned so much from my time in South Africa. I have learned a lot of general things about traveling abroad. For example, bring a small pillow for the plane, because I won’t always be able to “borrow” Bobbi’s. I have learned how important and crucial it is to do research on a country I am visiting and familiarize myself as much as I can with the culture. I also learned that no matter how much research one does, you will never know the culture until immersed in it, and likely have embarrassed yourself at least a couple times.

Getting Outside Your Comfort Zone

I have also learned a lot about service. As someone who plans to go into human services, this was a very enlightening experience for me. I learned that service is a little uncomfortable. I was out of my comfort zone at many times and was a little upset that I was being asked to provide a service that I was not a trained specialist in. However, in our case I came to realize that it was not necessarily an exchange of specialized and trained skills, it was an exchange of cultural experiences. This was very evident when working with the babies in the centers. I have never worked with a large group of babies. However, I have been around babies, and I know how to interact with them. I know songs, little games, and different ways to interact with young children. I shared these and the teachers I worked with, and they shared their expertise as well. I came home knowing more songs and games to try with the children I work with, especially young children.

With this said, I also realized the importance of making sure that anyone in a service industry knows their role in the space they’re in. I realized how important it is to make sure you are needed and wanted and to not overstay your welcome. Coming from a place of privilege, as both a U.S citizen and a white person, it is incredibly important not to use that privilege in a damaging way. Part of that is understanding cultural differences and respecting those differences. This means understanding when and how to appropriately address health and safety issue that may be related to a cultural norm and practice. That is something I do not have an easy answer to, and I am not sure that I ever will. However, it is something I need to constantly keep in mind throughout my career and my personal life.