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.


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.


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.


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


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.


Double elephant hugs


            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.

Home Sweet Homestay

Hello everyone! I’ve been excited to tell you about my homestay experience in a rural village, HaMakuya, during my stay here. This was the first time I was doing anything like this so I was a bit unsure of what to expect and was a little nervous to meet the people living in the village. Our group of students only spent two days with our host families so we didn’t get to know them very well, but we were immersed into their culture and their daily lives.

We definitely were in a whole different world when we got to Musunda – a smaller community within HaMakuaya – because the culture and social dynamics were different from the ones that we were used to. On top of that, each group was assigned a translator so that we could communicate with our host families and the other residents, as they mostly only spoke Venda.

Despite the language barrier, we were able to learn a lot about their lives and their community. Our host mother and our neighbors taught us all how to make pap – a staple porridge made from cornmeal – as well as a tea used as a means for medicine within the community. We were also given a special dish of Mopane worms to eat along with our pap. (According to my peers, they were “a bit chewy.”)


Bowl of mopane worms. It is usually eaten along with pap.

To end our time there, we had to subject ourselves to a little embarrassment. Our host mother dressed us in traditional Venda dress – ‘wenda – and asked us to do a traditional Venda dance in front of everyone (this includes our neighbors who came to watch us). Unfortunately, I don’t have any videos to show our hilarious attempts at traditional Venda dancing, but I can assure you it was fun and also very funny to watch. The homestay in HaMakuya was a great opportunity for us as students to immerse ourselves into a culture different from our own.


Women wearing traditional Venda dress.

Sweet Home Chicago

So I’ve been back in Chicago for 2 weeks now and it’s been good. The adjustment was not as bad as I thought it would be and my jetlag has not been that horrible. I miss waking up to mountains and the laid back South African culture the most. I was expecting to experience more culture shock, similar to when I came back from India, but everyday life continued and I simply merged into it. My family is still busy with basketball games and practices for both my brothers so life doesn’t stop and you have to adjust fast.

A week after I got back, I went to work in Chicago. The fast-paced work hustle in Chicago was a shock to get into for the first time. I feel like I am part of the “rat race” as we call it here in the U.S. I have been commuting from the western suburbs, but plan to move back to Evanston soon. My summer internship is great because it mirrors what I was learning in South Africa.  I observed and experienced the inequalities in health care in South Africa.  Now I am continuing to look at inequities in health care, but my research is focused on cancer care in the Chicagoland area.  My work in South Africa as well as my global health courses have laid the ground work for me to continue working to make a difference in the area of public health.

Our Typical Stellenbosch Schedule

After all of the traveling we’ve done recently, it’s been nice to finally get back to our normal Stellenbosch schedule. I had no idea of the schedule we’d have before coming here, so here’s a quick overview for any curious readers!

We have two classes each on Mondays and Wednesdays—Community Development Perspectives of Health on Mondays, Culture, Language, & Identity on Wednesdays, and South African Politics on both days. These classes involve lectures and discussions that are pretty similar to classes at Northwestern, but they are taught by our great Stellenbosch professors, Jacob and Amanda.

One of the academic buildings on Stellenbosch's beautiful campus.

One of the academic buildings on Stellenbosch’s beautiful campus.


Tuesdays and Thursdays are our field learning days, which are usually very educational and different from our usual Northwestern classes. On Tuesdays, our Public Health professor takes us to different health sites, such as NGOs, hospitals, and community clinics, to help us better understand how the health system actually works here. On Thursdays, we head off in groups of 3 or 4 to our service-learning placements, where we learn about community development and shadow clinical processes. I’ve been placed at an NGO called Phambili, which serves as a satellite clinic and community development site in Broadlandspark, an area near Stellenbosch that suffers high rates of HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. On the weekends (including Fridays) we usually have an excursion to an important cultural or political site, such as Robben Island and Parliament.

This may sound like a packed schedule, especially with traveling around South Africa and trying to experience everything Stellenbosch has to offer, but we have a good amount of free time to explore Stellenbosch and Cape Town on our own! There’s a mountain right on campus that we hike all the time, and we love having potlucks or braais in our dorm kitchens. With only a few weeks left here, I know I’m going to miss this interactive schedule that allows me to learn in the field and to have some free time to explore.

View from Stellenbosch Mountain

View from Stellenbosch Mountain