South Africa Learning Reflections, Pt 1: Travelers Are Important

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“Travelers are important when they use their privilege to benefit those who do not have the same privileges. Travelers are important when they are also learning from the community.”


This summer, professors Lenette Azzi-Lessing and Bobbi Rosenquest led a group of students on a service-learning trip to South Africa. Prof. Azzi-Lessing agreed to chronicle their travels for us, and we’ll be sharing her writing with you in this three-part series. Thanks so much for the opportunity to see South Africa through your words and pictures!

Read Part Two | Read Part Three

A few days after commencement, Professor Bobbi Rosenquest and I, along with eleven Wheelock students, left Boston and after approximately 22 hours of travel, arrived in Mpumalanga Province in the northeast region of South Africa.  This area, near Kruger National Park, is referred to as bush country, largely undeveloped land where the tree canopy is not dense.  In addition to Kruger and other game parks, the area boasts many beautiful farms growing bananas, mangoes, and other crops on fertile hillsides and in lush valleys.  We spent a few days in Hazyview and Lilydale, two villages populated mainly by poor and low-income black South Africans, who live in modest homes along dirt roads; most of these homes lack running water and other amenities.

Our visit was hosted by Toby and Charlie Milner, who have operated a professional development program for teachers in the area for over fifteen years.  A Wheelock alumna, Toby draws on her many decades of experience as a classroom teacher in the US along with the wisdom of South African education experts to offer training that is responsive to the needs of teachers in the local context. Toby is known as “Mama T” by many of the young adults in this rural area whom she and Charlie have befriended and mentored.  Although they are soft-spoken and humble, the Milners are a “dynamic duo”, using their multiple skills and life experience to help support learning in the villages in whatever ways they can.

thumbnail_image2Also hosting the Wheelock group was Linky Nkuna, the Centre Coordinator at Justicia Digital Learning Centre, a program of the Good Work Foundation. The centre is based at Madlala High School, the same high school that Linky attended 15 years ago.  After spending a number of years working as a camp manager at a local game reserve, she has found her passion bringing “digital-era” literacy education and career-training to school-aged learners and adults.  Our students were immediately engaged by Linky’s energy and enthusiasm for helping local learners find a future beyond high school.  As she states on Good Work’s website, “I would love to see young people from my community become something in life instead of finishing high school and then just sitting around the village waiting for nothing. I want them to aspire to go to University and to dream big. To believe in education and inspire each other.”

We at Wheelock are partnering with Linky and the Milners to contribute, in a modest way, to Good Work Foundation’s mission to bridge the gap between learners in this part of rural South Africa and what “the world speaks…..English literacy, computer literacy, and career training.”   At Linky’s request, the Wheelock students on last year’s service-learning trip conducted an assessment at four local high schools. They interviewed learners, teachers, and a few principals to help identify barriers to obtaining education beyond high school, as well as resources that already exist in the schools, surrounding communities, and families. This information is being used to help create additional strategies for putting local youths on track for college and other post-high school education, something critical to reducing the region’s high rates of poverty.

Linky had requested that this year’s Wheelock contingent interact with the high school students in less formal ways.  This was based on her belief that interaction with individuals from other parts of the world is an important part of education.  Just as the Wheelock students had the opportunity to broaden their learning by meeting many South Africans, Linky was eager for local high school learners to meet and converse with a group of American college students. This posed a challenge to our students, as they would have to find ways to connect with their South African counterparts without the structure of anything like the needs assessment tool that last year’s Wheelock students used. As we rode the van our first morning  along the dusty, rutted roads that lead to the high schools, the anxiety was palpable, especially among the more introverted members of our group.  Moreover, the entire group was unsure as to what they might have to offer the high school learners and didn’t want to be perceived as acting as saviors from a rich, white country –valid concerns when preparing for this kind of interaction.

image2Not surprisingly, things were awkward at first.  Both the high school learners and our Wheelock students struggled a bit to find common ground. With Linky’s encouragement, they broke into smaller groups and found spaces to gather under massive trees in the school’s verdant courtyard. In no time at all, the groups were off and running. Some of the groups engaged in deep conversation about career aspirations and family issues as well as lighter topics like favorite music and movie stars.  Other groups formed a circle and sang and played games under the warm South African sun.  It was hard to distinguish which songs and games were South African and which were brought from Boston, due to the peals of raucous laughter rising up from the circles. Joining in were two additional Wheelock students who had recently arrived to begin summer internships working with the high schools and Good Work Foundation.

These activities continued at three high schools over the course of two intense days. On the van rides back to our hotel, past the women walking the dusty roads home from work at the resorts, the goats, and the sometimes-wandering cows, our group reflected on the various conversations.  We had more-formal sharing of reflections after dinner each day.  These discussions were challenging. They centered on race and privilege, on the ugly aspects of national history shared by the US and South Africa. They included issues spilling over from some of the race-based challenges on the Wheelock campus.  Our students asked themselves hard questions about why they were on the trip and how they account for their privilege given the extreme hardships confronting many of the high schoolers they met.  These questions were provoked, in part, by questions asked by some of the high school learners, such as “Why are Americans more important than South Africans?” and “Why are whites more valuable than people with brown skin?” Although most of the learners seemed to welcome the opportunity to interact with young adults from Boston, some were understandably jaded and suspicious regarding our students’ motives.

Bobbi and I encouraged these important discussions and were impressed by the ways in which our students faced these and other difficult questions with honesty and humility.  There are, of course, no simple answers. Extreme inequality and oppression against certain groups are as old as human history and persist throughout the world, including in our own country. We encouraged the students to continue wrestling with the issues raised in these initial discussions, not only throughout our time in South Africa, but as they continue their journeys as students and later, as professionals. We also discussed the importance of not letting our internal struggles get in the way of demonstrating our humanity and being open and appreciative guests of the many South African hosts we would meet throughout this journey.

On our second day, a group of our students had the opportunity to converse with an administrator at the one of the high schools.  They asked for his opinion as to whether the time they were spending with the high schoolers was of any real value. He replied, “Travelers are important to the learners and to their education.” These words inspired one of our students to write the following in her post-trip essay:

Reflecting on his words after the trip has ended, I think that travelers are important, too. Travelers are important when they listen and partner with the community they are serving. Travelers are important when they teach what they know to benefit the community rather than do something and leave, making the community dependent on travelers. Sometimes things are not good and people need help, but that does not make them helpless. Travelers are important when they use their privilege to benefit those who do not have the same privileges. Travelers are important when they are also learning from the community. This concept of traveling makes me think more about service abroad versus service at home. I think that there will be people to serve at home, but those with the privilege to travel, should use their privilege to serve those abroad, too. The world is so small and interconnected, and we should treat it that way. It is all about compassion.