Exploring a Land of Contrasts on S. Africa Service Learning Trip


For two weeks in January, Professors Lenette Azzi-Lessing and Patty Hnatiuk led seven Wheelock students on a tour of South Africa.  Dr. Azzi-Lessing has written a series of posts on their experiences. (Click here to read Chapter 1.)

Chapter 2: Painting, Hip-hop, and Friendship in a Land of Contrasts

After a long drive from Johannesburg, over steep hills and past banana orchards, the students, Patty, and I boarded the van for the bumpy but scenic ride to Lillydale Learning Center.  We were now in bush country, near Kruger National Park, where people from all over the world come to experience safari and marvel at the majestic animals and lush plant life. Not far from the area’s renowned resorts are the homes of South Africa’s rural poor. Houses built of cement or corrugated metal line either side of the dusty road, many of them without running water or reliable power. Women of all ages walk for miles with large plastic jugs, sometimes piled in rusty wheelbarrows, to collect the day’s supply of water from the nearest public source. Often young children run alongside the women and the tiniest are swaddled against their mothers’ backs. Too poor to own cars and without reliable public transportation, men, women and children walk great distances to jobs at the resorts or to school.

Wheelock students on a service learning trip to South Africa Giving the library a fresh coat of paint.
Giving the library a fresh coat of paint.

Our mission in Lillydale was to paint the walls of the library that last year’s Wheelock service learning students helped rebuild. Working with  a group of a dozen or so local young people, last year’s students sorted through piles of books mixed with debris and cleaned empty book cases, before arranging the books on the shelves and creating an inviting library to be used by local residents. We had been connected to the Lillydale Learning Center by Toby Milner, a Wheelock alumna, who, with her husband, Charlie, established the Lillydale Literacy Project, a teacher training program there in 2000. The Milners return to Lillydale three to four times a year, to provide training to local teachers in order to prepare them to teach English (South Africa’s official language) as a second language in schools and community programs.

The Milners were unable to be in Lillydale at the time of our visit, but David Khosa, the Learning Center’s director, was there to greet us with a warm smile, paint brushes, and rollers. As we began our work, the students, Patty, and I realized that we would have to manage without much water, as the Learning Center, like much of the surrounding area, has no running water.  We quickly figured out how to make the most of the few jugs of water we had brought from the store, which was all we had for washing brushes and hands and for drinking.  In no time, our Wheelock students, along with a small number of local volunteers whom David had recruited, were well on their way to putting a fresh coat of paint on the library walls.

Wheelock students learn new dance moves, South-Africa style.
Wheelock students learn new dance moves, South-Africa style.

At lunchtime, Patty and I brought out the cold cuts, peanut butter and bread we had bought that morning, and everyone took their sandwiches to sit outside, away from the stifling heat, dust, and paint fumes that lingered inside the library.  Sitting under the trees with a slight breeze and views of the surrounding meadows, a plastic chair, sandwich, and cup of water were the elements of fine dining.  As everyone finished eating, Patty and I watched our Wheelock students, David, and the volunteers teaching one another their best dance moves. Hip-hop intertwined with popular South African tracks from the boom box and IPhones, to blend with the laughter of young people communicating in the universal language of music.

After a second day of more painting, laughter, and dancing, it was time to bid farewell to David and the rest of our Lillydale friends. David rose from his chair and thanked us for our work on the library and expressed his hope that we would return.

One of the local women who had helped with the painting presented me with a gift: a length of printed fabric which she tied around me, sarong style. I was touched and honored by her generosity. We soon learned that she sold such fabrics to help support herself and her family. The students purchased all the remaining fabrics and tied them over their clothing. We giddily posed for a few last photos with our hosts, proud of our new fashions as well as the freshened walls of the library.

Wheelock visitors and their Lillydale hosts pose in the freshly painted library.
Wheelock visitors and their Lillydale hosts pose in the freshly painted library.

We hugged David and our other new friends goodbye, and walked across a meadow to visit the Bhubezi Health Clinic next door, where its director, Jerry Marobyane, gave us a tour. The clinic was started to provide high quality health care to adults living with HIV/AIDs. Jerry informed us that Bhubezi had recently expanded to care for more than 120 HIV-positive children. It was sobering to learn about the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, especially its impact on children, thousands of whom have lost one or both parents to AIDS or its complications.   On the afternoon of our visit, dozens of patients waited in long lines to be seen for testing and treatment.  The students were impressed with the range of health care services provided at Bhubezi, its dedicated staff, and its high tech facilities, including a large lab and medical imaging equipment. To find such a state of the art clinic in an area where running water is rare was amazing and just one of the many surprising contrasts we encountered during our visit to South Africa.