A Reluctant Goodbye

It’s taken me a while to write this final post.  Mostly because I was unsure on how to put all of my feelings about being abroad onto paper (well, on the internet). But now I finally feel as though I am re-adjusting to the American culture that I hadn’t experienced for over 2 incredible months. I think I might have taken a bit longer to fully process all of my thoughts and experiences in relation to my time abroad, in comparison to my fellow classmates, but I think I’m ready to finally share them.

Ever since I got off the last 16-hour(!) plane ride home from Johannesburg, I’ve gotten non-stop questions about my time abroad and all of the different activities and classes that I experienced while I was there.  I was extremely excited to share everything that I did, but I was a little disappointed to find out that most of my family members only asked about the excursions.  And yes, of course I was happy to tell them about my week in Kruger and the different animals that we met during our Garden Route trip.  I continue to retell those stories with the biggest smile on my face.  But, they don’t often ask about the classes that I took or about the reason why I even chose to go to South Africa to study Public Health.

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Thankfully, some of my family members and friends asked those kinds of questions, and we were able to have conversations about topics like the current income inequalities, the effects that came from the end of apartheid, and the quadruple burden of disease that afflicts the population.  I had hoped to have these conversations upon my return to the US, and I was relieved to find that there were people at home who did want to talk about these things.  Especially because I wanted to share all of the things that I had learned and show their importance.

My experience in South Africa definitely changed me for the better.  I feel more open to other perceptions of health, culture, and various aspects of life, as I had to be open to a perspective different from my typical westernized-world view.   I feel that I can continue to use this newly acquired skill, which still needs to be developed fully (I’m not 100% there yet), not only in the future as a physician, but also in my everyday life to empathize with others and continue to grow as an individual.  I know that sounds cliché, but I feel as though I partially completed a goal I had going into this program, so I see this experience as a huge success.

Although I may not have made a huge impact in South Africa, South Africa has definitely left its mark on me, and its one that will continue to be with me as I grow further.  For the students who are participating in this program after me, I have some advice.  Take it all in.  The landscape, the people, the history, the entire country.  Open yourself up to everything that is different.  Be open to the things that make you uncomfortable.  This will make your experience even more worthwhile.

So here’s my final goodbye to South Africa. I hope to see you soon.

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What Comes Next?

I’ve been home for about two weeks now, and in the meantime, I’ve quickly reintegrated into my normal Northwestern student routine of taking some summer classes and working in my research lab, but I still think of our South African adventures every day. So, in the wise words of Hamilton’s as King George, “what comes next?” My transition back into my life at Northwestern has been so fast that I feel I’ve barely been able to reflect on our trip so far, and I’ve been struggling to think about how to move forward with my experiences in a meaningful way. It’s easy to reflect on our trip in terms of the crazy adventure activities we did or how much we learned in our classes and what tourist sites we visited, but it’s been much harder for me to capture what I experienced and make it a part of my life from this point on.

Sunset on the Garden Route

Sunset on the Garden Route

Other than continuing on with my professional interest in medicine and global health, I’m not entirely sure how to incorporate what I learned in South Africa into my life. I think that many people treat these experiences as eye-opening and life-changing events that make them more grateful for what they have, and don’t get me wrong—it certainly was eye-opening. But I believe that the goal of this experience was not to feel sorry for the people we met living under harsh circumstances but rather to understand their culture and learn about the entangled determinants of their conditions and how previous attempts to fix them have failed. Our professors often joked that it would be our generation to help solve all of these problems, and this may or may not be the case, but either way, I feel a strong aspiration to fighting for equality in terms of health care and social justice in South Africa, where so many issues they face are the same as those here in America, and I hope that my life will involve something that will keep me connected to South Africa.

Hope to see you soon, Cape Town!

Hope to see you soon, Cape Town!

Sundays were the Highlight

Every Sunday we were in Stellenbosch, Anna (a fellow program member) and I tried to attend church. We did for the most part. We both come from Christian faith backgrounds, so coming to South Africa, I felt that it was critical for me to find a church to attend while living here. Kaley, the NU South Africa program ambassador this past year had recommended a church called Hillsong that had various locations in South Africa. The one she told us to check out was the Somerset West location and even went as far as connecting us to some members of the church community.

Right as we got off the bus shuttling us from Stellenbosch University to church the first day, the first thing I noticed was that the congregation members were spilling out into the courtyard giving roses to the women. I asked a church member about this, and she said that it was in preparation and excitement for an enormous conference for women focusing on empowerment, strength, dignity, and etc. happening the next weekend. I later found out that our program already scheduled some events and got bummed that we couldn’t go. I further got surprised when I myself received a rose from a complete stranger, as well as Anna.

The lobby of our church

The lobby of our church

One of the aspects of this church that I appreciated the most was how far above and beyond the church body made everyone feel like it was their home. Especially for me, who was over 8,000 miles away from home, this community made me feel like being in South Africa for 10 more weeks would be a piece of cake. That first day, we were introduced to multitudes of people. Whether they came up to us because they heard our loud American accents, or because we looked hesitant or even a little anxious, I felt loved and noticed. Not forgotten. Not invisible.

This church was not a typical church service that I’ve experienced in the past but felt more like a concert. The music was always loud and pumping getting people genuinely excited to be there at church on a Sunday night. The pastors wore skinny jeans and were just as trendy as the hipster Stellenbosch students. I couldn’t believe that this was normal life. This happened each week.

One of the highlights of my church experience in South Africa was being able to attend a large worship service consisting of thousands of other people coming together for church! It was an amazing service and experience! We heard inspiring words from the founder of the global church as well as other revolutionary leaders in ministry.

The thousand plus church service that Anna and I attended in Cape Town.

The thousand plus church service that Anna and I attended in Cape Town.

The other highlight was simply getting to know the actual people that made up the church congregation. Anna and I were able to join a bible study group where we could go deeper into the lives of some of the people in the community. They were all loving and accepting of us and seemed to genuinely want to get to know us. One of the most difficult parts about leaving South Africa is having to leave behind a community that helped ease the transition from America to South Africa.

Justice Under a Tree

Upon arriving to Johannesburg, I could feel an immediate difference in the atmosphere of the city. While Cape Town felt more California-esque, Johannesburg felt more like the bustling cities of Chicago and New York City back home in the US. Endless mountains were replaced with a skyline filled with towers – although it has nothing on the Chicago Skyline (sorry Jo’burg). Also, we were able to not only see the city itself but also see the historical impact that the apartheid government and anti-apartheid movements had on the city. Our visit to Constitution Hill showed most of those effects.

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Skyline of Johannesburg.

Constitution Hill is a place of great importance as it was a prison from the late 1800s to the late 1980s and was later chosen to be the site of the new Constitutional Court during the 1990’s. This site was chosen because of its history for holding anti-apartheid activists who were awaiting trial and were subjected to the unhygienic, violent, and degrading conditions. Many famous activists had spent time within this prison, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

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When rebuilding the Constitutional Court, many different aspects of the new South Africa were incorporated. The building itself was built using the bricks and even stairways from the old prison blocks, as a reminder of where they had come from. “Justice under a tree” was used as the theme of the court, as that was where traditional African societies would meet to solve disputes. This theme was seen everywhere within the architecture of the building, and showed the importance of the cultures that were previously minimized by the former government. The new 11 official languages were incorporated into the court by having the name of the constitutional court written in each language on the building as well as the 27 Human Rights carved into the doors of the court in each language, including sign language. The 11 languages were incorporated into the court again by having 11 justices to serve within the Constitutional Court to symbolize each one.

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The Constitutional Court with the seats of the 11 Justices.

Constitution Hill is a melting pot of the past, present and future. It remembers the past of what was suffered during apartheid, the various cultures of South Africans that were seen as subordinate, and shows the bright future that the country seeks out for its citizens. Johannesburg, to me, felt like the first place where the past was really represented in daily life. It may just have been due to the many structures, museums and buildings dedicated to the past, but it helped establish the difference in “character” of the two cities even within those living there.

Sala kakuhle! Sobonana emva kwexeshana Mzantsi Afrika.

In case you’re wondering what the title translates to: “Goodbye, stay well! I’ll see you later South Africa!”

I’ve been back in the suburbs of Chicago for a little more than 2 weeks now, and all I can say is that I miss South Africa so much. I’ve had so much reverse culture shock the first few days back that it’s been jarring. First, there are no mountains-just flat strips of land. Second, I became terrified being driven in a car because I thought we would crash into a different car coming in the opposite direction (SA drives opposite of us). There’s so much more that I’ve been experiencing, but since you all have heard us talk about South Africa so much, I’ll try to keep it short.

 

A breathtaking view of Table Mountain

A breathtaking view of Table Mountain

In the last two weeks on the program, many of my friends back home have asked me that same question, “Are you excited to come back home?” My response to them has been “I am, but I’m not.”

My hesitation lay with the question: How am I supposed to say goodbye to the place that has radically changed my perspective on the world and life and has become my home? There are so many incredible things that I’ve been able to experience here in South Africa. I’ve met wonderful people, learned about the complexity of South Africa, had so many adventures, and much more. I celebrated my 21st birthday with old and new friends. In South Africa, I learned to be adventurous and to step outside of my comfort zone. I learned how to actually deal with peer pressure and how to voice my thoughts.

Though it wasn’t always easy at times to immerse myself in South Africa, I found that I’ve gradually fallen in love with the place, nation, and entity that is South Africa.

Honestly, it felt extremely surreal that last day in Stellenbosch. We went out for lunch as usual, got on the bus to go to the airport and hopped on a plane. It didn’t really hit me that in less than 48 hours, I’d be back in my warm and comfy home separated from the country that I’ve learned to treat as my second home. Only, when I got home, it didn’t feel right.

Even though I’ve been back and have talked to people about my experience in SA, I’m still hesitant to answer questions like, “What was your favorite part? What did you do there? Tell me about your fun adventures!”. Yes, I want to tell you about my fun adventures and such, but I also want to give you more than a surface level perspective of South Africa, since it’s changed me so much. I also want to tell you about unending plight of the quadruple burden of disease or politics or poverty. The list goes on.

Though I’m still wrestling with how I’m going to answer these questions, I know one thing for certain. I’ll be heading back to South Africa again. So really, I’m not saying goodbye to South Africa, but rather departing with a “see you later” mentality.

All 20 of us at the Cape of Good Hope

All 20 of us at the Cape of Good Hope

 

The Animal-Human Interaction

Our trip to Kruger National Park was amazing and certainly something I will remember fondly for the rest of my life. We were led by David Bunn, Cleo Graf, and their team of incredibly knowledgeable guides, who helped us learn about Kruger and HaMakuya, the rural area where we’d be going for our homestay experience. We were all very excited to see all of the animals—especially the Big 5—but before coming to Kruger, I didn’t necessarily understand the complex and uncanny nature of the human-animal relationship that is ingrained in Kruger and the neighboring rural areas.

During our lectures in Kruger, we learned about both the ivory and rhino horn trades, as well as about environmental and ecological factors that affect the park’s animal populations. We spent a lot of time discussing elephants particularly and learning about their superior intellectual and emotional capacity and about how their growing populations can be destructive to other animals’ habitats and certain species of plants. This touches on a problem that Kruger currently faces—with growing elephant populations, what is the best way to protect other animals’ habitats and maintain the ecological diversity of the park? Another problem that the park faces is the killing of rhinos to trade their horns, especially because of its proximity to Mozambique and Zimbabwe, allowing for easy transport across country borders.

Some of the elephants we saw on one of our game drives.

We were further able to understand the animal-human interaction when we did our homestay in HaMakuya. After being in Kruger for several days and fawning over the animals, we learned quickly what destruction these animals can cause to rural villages. On our second morning, we woke up to news that some cows had been killed by lions the previous night, meaning that a family would go without their food and income source until they could afford a new cow. When we visited an orchard near by, the workers told us that elephants had recently destroyed some crops there, leaving more families without food or a source of income. One of the most difficult parts of our time at our homestay was trying to reconcile the natural awe I felt about the animals but also feeling sympathy and understanding for the additional suffering these animals caused people I met during my homestay. I think it was important for us to learn both of the importance of animal conservation as well as the damage they can do, as this accurately represents the complexities of Kruger National Park and the rural areas around it.

A majestic lioness one of our guides, Thomas, tracked down on a game drive.

A majestic lioness one of our guides, Thomas, tracked down on a game drive.

 

 

1200 miles into a new home

One of my favorite and most memorable experiences in South Africa so far was the rural homestay experience that we had the privilege of participating in. Four other students and I stayed in a homestead in a sub-community called Guyuni of the larger HaMakuya village in the northern parts of South Africa’s Limpopo Province.

This is a picture of the homestead we had the privilege of staying in for a couple days in Guyuni

This is a picture of the homestead we had the privilege of staying in for a couple days in Guyuni

To say the least, I was really anxious about this experience. Like Jasmine, I’ve never really had a homestay experience and was sort of afraid that they would hate us, or that we wouldn’t be accepted. I was wrong. Though there were a couple awkward moments towards the beginning of our experience with not being able to communicate, I eventually grew a bond with our host family that I will appreciate forever.

But first, if I had to give an accurate description of what we did in Guyuni, I would have to say that we played with kids for 75% of the time. After our game vehicle dropped us off into our homestead the first day, our group decided to walk to a nearby soccer field where what seemed like hundreds of kids-there were maybe only 40-could play and interact with us. As we walked there though the community, we seemed to attract more and more attention. So naturally, more and more kids and adolescents followed.

After hours of non-stop playing with the kids in the community, our group agreed that we wanted to get to know our host mother and family more, so we asked her if we could help out with any household duties around the homestead. Her response was to teach us how to make pap (see Jasmine’s post).

Boy, was it difficult. The process starts off by mixing water and the pap powder together to form a paste. As it becomes more homogenous with mixing and time, you gradually add more and more until the mixture becomes heavily thick and difficult to handle- well at least for us novices. Our host mom seemed to mix the pap mixture like it was nobody’s business.

Here’s a picture of one of our meals. In the blue bowl is the pap that we made. The one to the right is a bowl of spinach, and next to the spinach is a modest bowl of chicken that our mother prepared for us.

Here’s a picture of one of our meals. In the blue bowl is the pap that we made. The one to the right is a bowl of spinach, and next to the spinach is a modest bowl of chicken that our mother prepared for us.

This is a picture of our homestay mom trying to show Melissa how the pap is supposed to be made.

This is a picture of our homestay mom trying to show Melissa how the pap is supposed to be made.

Though it took some time and effort to communicate with our family, I gradually learned many things about them that touched my heart. What really got me was their openness in sharing the struggles and joys of their lives to me. Though I knew no Venda, I somehow was able to have a conversation with our host sister about faith and life.

Finally, one of my favorite parts of the days was when our family and their friends came over and wrote their names in my journal. Though I honestly can’t remember a third of the people whose names I have inscribed in my journal, I know that I’ll remember them and my experience in Guyuni even when I’m over 8,600 miles away in Chicago.

Elephant Encounters in Africa

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Kruger elephant attempting to knock down a tree.

Elephants. Need I say more? These big, beautiful creatures always cause me to get excited and once I found out that our program includes a week long trip to Kruger National Park, all I could think about was elephants. And you wouldn’t believe the squeals that came not only from me but from many others in the game drive vehicles.

Not only did we see them on our many game drives (and there’s a ton of pictures plastered all over Facebook to prove it), but we also had lectures dedicated to them to learn about their impact on the African and Kruger ecosystems. Unfortunately, elephants do a lot of damage to the ecosystem as they tear down trees and other plants in order to eat. Elephants eat about 16 hours a day so they do a lot of damage to the landscape of Kruger, ultimately affecting the habitats of the other animals in the park. Also, since they are very emotional animals, the African elephant is very aggressive and difficult to manage within the park and in other areas of Africa.

There have been attempts and new ideas to manage the elephant population to decrease their impact on the environment like translocation, culling, and contraception. These also brought about many issues, including major ethical issues, and in the end were unsuccessful. New ideas are still being thought of to control the growing elephant population and save the ecosystem of the park, but there has yet to be an effective proposal.

My experience at Kruger has slightly changed my perception of the elephants due to the negative role they play in the ecosystem.  Although I had a preconception that elephants were amazing and do no wrong because I think they’re just awesome, it is important to know that they can do wrong, but they’re still amazing (to me at least).

Herd of Kruger elephants.

Herd of Kruger elephants.

The Gentle Giants

The majestic and gentle giants of Africa rendered me speechless. Whether we were admiring them from a distance in Kruger or getting hugs on the Garden Route, these astounding creatures beat out bungee jumping as my favorite part of the entire trip. Learning about their extensive memories and relationships made them seem that much more remarkable. We learned how they mourn and can sense the deaths of other elephants. We were also lucky enough to interact with the elephants on the Garden Route. There we were able to walk with the elephants, hug them, and feed them. The elephants each had a personality of their own and knew what was necessary to get more food.

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Double elephant hugs

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            Despite these amazing experiences with elephants we learned about their overpopulation and the destruction they cause in Kruger. Elephants have been knocking down trees throughout the Game Reserve for no apparent reason. This has caused many initiatives to develop in order to save the delicate ecosystem. These initiatives have been top-down approaches in order to decrease elephant population and increase park size. These proposals have not been successful and have adverse side-effects that harm the ecosystem even more. I thought this was interesting in the sense that top-down approaches are not specific to global health programs. Issues in different fields also struggle with vertical approaches that are not sustainable or effective in solving various issues. Overall, I hope that people will let these beautiful creatures be and let the ecosystem transform with time as human interaction will do nothing but harm the diverse ecosystem of Kruger.

The Power of Language in South Africa

After spending time all over South Africa, we have been exposed to many of South Africa’s eleven official languages. On our first day in South Africa (way back in March!) we were of course first exposed to Afrikaans, the Dutch-like language commonly spoken in the Western Cape. However, throughout our time here we have also learned about Xhosa, Zulu, Venda, and several of the other languages (see Jasmine’s post for more details).

At first, I thought that the variety of languages in South Africa simply reflected the diverse nature of the country, but I soon learned that each language has a power dynamic and a political role I did not recognize prior to this trip. At Stellenbosch University, classes are taught in both Afrikaans and English, meaning that students who do not know Afrikaans, who tend to be black students, are at a disadvantage. This has sparked the movement #OpenStellenbosch, which one of last year’s bloggers wrote about. Because of this, as well as the prominence of Afrikaans language throughout apartheid, many of us have come to think of Afrikaans as the language of power and oppression.

A few weeks ago, we were lucky enough to have one of South Africa’s most famous poets, Diana Ferrus, speak to us about her beautiful work. She also gave us a different, nuanced take on Afrikaans—the fact that Afrikaans was created by local Khoi people, the very first people in South Africa, and Dutch workers, making it the only true language of the coloured people in South Africa. Though Afrikaans has been used for oppression—and sometimes still is—Diana explained the importance of the language to coloured culture, reflecting the complex, nuanced nature of South Africa itself. We were fortunate to have Diana shed light on this complexity, and we truly enjoyed listening to her remarkable poems. It is these small complexities and lessons that I will remember most from our time here, and I am grateful for our time spent with Diana.

 

Our group with Diana Ferrus, a famous South African poet.

Our group with Diana Ferrus, a famous South African poet.