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.

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.”)

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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.

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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

Off the Grid

I can honestly say I enjoyed being off the grid for a week. Despite a small amount of anxiety over fall class registration, it was very relaxing. From Kruger to Hamakuya, not worrying about emails (184 to be exact) for a week made the experience much more meaningful. We spent 5 days in Kruger and 2 days in Hamakuya, specifically Guyuni. Our time in Kruger was spent learning about different animals on safaris, the history of Kruger, and the research of Melissa, Cleo, and David. All three of them were incredibly knowledgeable in their respective subjects and provided us with so much information on animals and South Africa.

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Our homestay in Hamakuya reminded me of my homestay in India. Although I lived with my host family in India for 8 weeks and we were only in Hamakuya for 2 days, I still enjoyed the sense of community and hospitality present in our homestay. Our host mother, Phylis, was the matriarch of the family and was very respected in her family and community. Her homestead was very expansive, with chickens, cattle, goats, and crops all on her property. There was also a large crowd of children always occupying her homestead while we were there, waiting for us to wake up in the morning and staying until late at night to play games and dance. I really enjoyed this experience and wish I could’ve spent more time with my host family and learned more about their lives and culture.

Global Citizens

Throughout our time in Johannesburg, we visited multiple NGOs focusing on a range of issues. From women’s health to circumcision, we discussed many different issues which are at the forefront in South Africa. On the first day, we visited an NGO, called ANOVA, where we learned about various efforts to help gay men and women. The stigma around homosexuality affects gay men and women’s access to healthcare. ANOVA’s projects focus on creating gay friendly clinics and support groups.

We also visited MSF where we learned about the other side of the organization that many people don’t really know about. Although MSF is known for doctors travelling around the world to help people in other countries, we learned about their permanent location in Johannesburg that focuses on vaccines, research and development, and intellectual property laws. We learned about the issues with patent laws and their effect on access to drugs. South Africa honors old patents that have expired which creates a monopoly and increases prices making drugs inaccessible for the majority of the population.

One of my favorite NGO visits was at the Positive Women’s Network. I was really interested in their focus on girls’ menstrual health issues and how it affects their access to education. I was also interested in a point the presenter made about global consciousness. She described how global issues need to be on everyone’s mind and it shouldn’t take massive outbreaks like Ebola and the Zika virus to spike everyone’s attention. I found this point very relevant in my life as it can be easy to be absorbed in the Northwestern bubble. Even in America, the general population is not concerned about various health concerns until it poses a threat to them. Therefore, her point resonated with me and it made me want to strive to be a global citizen and look at the world outside of our university bubble.

Not that Different

I’ve been in South Africa over a month now and have enjoyed every second of it! From seal diving to hiking to safaris to museums, we have traveled from the Western Cape to Limpopo and learned so much about this beautiful country. With its beauty come many things that are different from home—for example, majestic elephants and massive mountains—but also many similarities.

Although the United States is a significantly older nation, it still struggles with many of the same issues South Africa is currently facing. You would think that with it’s age, the United States would have overcome many of the issues surrounding inequality and violence. However, we still see examples of racism and insufficient healthcare throughout the country. The police violence in Hout Bay reminded me of the violence you see on the news throughout the city of Chicago. The rape culture at Stellenbosch University mirrors similar situations in universities across the United States. All of these issues demonstrate that despite it’s age and power, the United States is not that different from South Africa and other nations.

The similarities also include many comforting reminders of home. My neighborhood in a small suburb of Chicago is incredibly tightknit and I always remember being close with all of my neighbors. During our homestay in Hamakuya, the neighborhood reminded me of my own. Children from various households coming together to play soccer, the neighborhood women helping our host mother cook, and the late night gatherings of laughter and music all reminded me of a summer’s night growing up.

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View from Lion’s Head

Baboon ate my Homework

Last Friday, all 20 of us and our program coordinator, Werner, and his assistant, Liezel, embarked on an adventure to Cape Town with some stops along the way. Our first stop was Cape Point (the Cape of Good Hope), where there’s a short hike before getting to a lighthouse from which there are beautiful views of the ocean and surrounding mountains. On the way up, we saw signs saying “Do not feed baboons,” but we were shocked to see baboons hanging around right on the trail! Of course none of us blatantly fed the baboons, but little did I know, there was a left over granola bar wrapper in my backpack. I turned around to take a photo, and before I knew it, I felt a baboon grab onto my backpack! I quickly decided to take off my backpack and retreat to safety, and everyone gathered around to watch the baboon go through my books, purse, scarf, headphones, etc., the whole time laughing at how this was actually happening.

Me watching helplessly as the baboon deconstructed my backpack

Me watching helplessly as the baboon deconstructed my backpack

In the meantime, the baboon’s mate and baby joined in, searching for any scraps of food (despite there being none), and eventually, we called up a ranger to scare them away. As soon as they ran away, everyone in our group helped me gather my baboon-scavenged things and we went on our way, warning people on the way down to get rid of all their trash!

We continued on the rest of the day to Boulders Beach to visit some penguins, none of which (luckily) stole any backpacks from any of us. This was a *small* reminder of the wildlife surrounding us here and the amazing things that happen here that would never happen back home!

The perpetrator

The perpetrator