Five LSU Honors students recently studied abroad in South Africa alongside 24 students from University of California as part of the first ever Honors College summer study trip, designed to expose students to the history, culture, and current situation in South Africa through rigorous courses and hands-on service work.
Honors College Dean Nancy Clark, a historian of South Africa, led the month-long expedition alongside her husband Bill Worger, a professor of history at UCLA. The couple co-authored South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, which was published by Pearson in 2004.
Unlike Clark and Worger, most of the students have never been to South Africa before and experienced its culture for the first time.
This is the story of their journey.
JUNE 16 — JUNE 25: CAPE TOWN
Thursday, June 16, 2011
After landing at the glitzy OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, the students anxiously awaited their flight to Cape Town. They had been traveling for nearly a day and were eager to reach their destination (an informal settlement camp known as a “squatter town”), having looked forward to this trip for months.
Despite the lack of sleep, there was a sense of nervous excitement in the air that was almost tangible; it’s one thing to read about the problems facing South Africa today after 46 years of apartheid, and another thing to experience the devastating effects and realities firsthand.
Friday, June 17, 2011
The students settled into the small, oceanside “Team House” where they would be staying for the next week, and the trip was finally underway. Rejuvenated from a good night’s rest at the house, they headed to the Red Hill settlement to get a lay of the land where they would be working — and many were shocked by what they saw there.
Red Hill Settlement, a community of approximately 1,600 people, is located on a large hill and offers a gorgeous view of the Atlantic Ocean. Its appearance, however, belies the Red Hill’s ugly circumstances. Nearly all residents live below the poverty line, which is evidenced by the makeshift shacks that constitute the majority of the town’s homes.
“They’re a few years behind us in terms of social equality, so it’s interesting to see that,” said Madeline Bowers, a 20-year-old horticulture major.
Students who had been complaining earlier about having to share a bathroom were stunned to learn that five Red Hill families all share one outdoor bathroom and water faucet. But the people of the community greeted the students with their customary warmth, making everyone feel right at home.
Once the tour of the settlement has been completed, the group headed to Simon’s Town and Boulders Beach, where they were excited to see a colony of African penguins basking in the sun. The day concluded with hikes on the cliffs of Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, where eland and ostriches were sighted (as well as a couple of baboons).
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Today was the students’ second day volunteering at Red Hill Preschool. They are working with the two - and three-year-olds, who are extremely excited to see the van of volunteers pull in each day and greet them with hugs. The children are always very well behaved, gladly cooperating with the students who lead them through the day’s schedule.
Afterward, the students piled back into the van and headed to Pinelands to visit a LEAP School, a school designed to transform educationally disadvantaged communities in South Africa through math and science education. There, they were welcomed with a traditional African song and dance.
“It was an exceptional entrance,” said Stewart Humble, a 21-year-old biological sciences major. “It kind of set the tone for what would be the rest of the trip.”
Afterward, they were given the opportunity to break into small groups and share stories with the LEAP students.
“We got to talk to two sophomores, and they asked things like, ‘How do you view black people in America?,’” said Bowers. “It was really hard … in America, we don’t like to talk about race, but in South Africa they know they’re behind, but they have a lot more hope than we do. It was uncomfortable, but we all learned from it.”
Friday, June 24, 2011
After a week of hard work by the construction crew, the playground at Red Hill Preschool is finally complete. Watching the preschoolers play on the brand-new jungle gym and their freshly cleared soccer field is a moving sight — just seven days ago, this land was covered in rocks and debris.
Bowers, who had worked on constructing the jungle gym all week, said that finishing the service project was her favorite part of the entire trip.
"It was really, really amazing,” she said. “When they saw the final product, they were just happy to have a clean smooth place to play soccer. It was really special to see them be so appreciative of something so little that we did… After we finished building, we felt like we had really gotten something done and pushed ourselves outside our comfort zones.”
Although the students were happy to see that their hard work has paid off, the moment was bittersweet, because their time at Red Hill was over. Parting with the children was more emotional than anyone expected — it was heartbreaking to think that they were leaving them forever. But it was time to say goodbye.
Saturday, June 25, 2011
The final day in Cape Town was spent touring the museum at Robben Island, the site of the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years with other political and common-law prisoners. The tour guide was a former inmate from the prison, and students were stunned to learn about the conditions he once faced.
“Our tour guide explained how everyone was split into four groups: blacks, Indians, Asians, and then whites … everything was about the separation of the races,” said Humble. “A lot of these men were innocent. They had done nothing wrong — they were in prison for the color of their skin and what they believed politically.”
When they finally arrived at Mandela’s cell, a hush fell over the whole group.
“Nobody talked in there,” said Humble. “You just realized that he was there in those years in that tiny cell, and that he was sill willing to forgive all those people who put him there when he got out.”
JUNE 26 — JULY 6:
Monday, June 27, 2011
For the second week of the trip, the students worked in St. Lucia and neighboring Khula Village, a rural African community.
Here, students have been running Holiday Club, a camp where children gather and participate in recreational activities while on school holiday.
“On the first day, for forty-five minutes we played with a deflated ball because we forgot the pumps, but the kids didn’t even care,” said Humble. “To them, it doesn’t matter what color you are or what language you speak… all they wanted to do was have a little bit of fun.”
JULY 7 — JULY 13:
PRETORIA & JOHANNESBURG
Monday, July 11, 2011
Today, the LSU and UC students visited a medical male circumcision clinic in Orange Farm, a township outside of Johannesburg. The clinic (and others like it that are growing in number throughout the country) aims to prevent the transmission of HIV through its services and educational programs. At the clinic, students learned startling statistics about the seriousness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa, where over an estimated 5.6 million are living with the disease.
Humble said that being on the frontlines of the HIV battle was a life-changing experience, one that resonated even more strongly because of his background in biology.
“It moved me,” said Humble. “My view of the world has changed; it’s one thing to hear about the children in Africa, and another to actually be in a community with an 80 percent rate of HIV infection… Fifty percent of kids here may not see age ten. All of that made me realize how lucky we are and how important it is to do the best you can to help others.”
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
On the final day of the trip, the students looked back on all they had experienced over the last two weeks. The first day seemed so long ago, and yet they couldn’t believe it was finally time to return home.
“It was my first time travelling outside the U.S., and it opened up my interest into social order and history within apartheid,” said Bowers. “It really was life changing.”
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831