Life Is Short, Eat Dessert First

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a pretty bad sweet tooth. When I was a kid, I used to tell my parents that I had a separate stomach for dessert, so I always had room for dessert no matter how much food I’d already eaten. Given my love for dessert and all things sweet, I’ve had a pretty great time in South Africa exploring new desserts. This past week, for our Culture, Language, and Identity course, two other NU students and I gave a presentation on South African desserts. So, working with the knowledge from that presentation as well as my own first hand experience with South African desserts, I present to you:


Dessert #1: Koeksisters (7/10)

Koeksisters are basically a South African donut. They’re a kind of chewy-crunchy hybrid that I can’t really compare to any other food I’ve had. They’re deep-fried then immediately dipped into a sweet, sugary syrup. So basically, a crunchy donut, dripping with a syrup that tastes somewhere between honey and pure sugar. They’re pretty good, but you can only eat so many before it’s just too sweet. Fun fact: there’s a two-meter tall statue of a koeksister in a town called Orania.

Dessert #2: Malva Pudding (8.5/10)
Malva pudding, while hard to make (even using a box mix) is delicious. This is the one dessert that we actually made for our class presentation instead of buying it from the grocery store. We used a box mix, and it seemed easy, but this is the “kitchen” we have to work with in our dorm rooms: IMG_2188
However, the end result was surprisingly good, despite being burned on top and underbaked in the middle. Probably because of the entire stick of butter that made its way in there. Anyway, malva pudding is a cake-like pudding made with apricot jam that’s often served with custard or ice cream. It’s very delicious, and even Oprah has a recipe!

Dessert #3: Milk Tart (9.5/10)
Milk tart is my new favorite dessert, and I’m really looking forward to trying to make it when I get back home. However, I told a South African that milk tart was my favorite South African dessert, and looking confused, he said, “Well milk tart’s not really dessert… Desserts are desserts and tarts are tarts.” Regardless of the status of milk tart in South African cuisine, it’s delicious. It consists of a pastry crust filled with a creamy custard and topped with a dusting of cinnamon. There’s even a National Milk Tart Day on February 27th, which I will most definitely be celebrating in 2016.

In conclusion, South African dessert (and South African cuisine in general) is pretty amazing. Koeksisters seem a little difficult to make, but malva pudding and milk tart are totally worth a try. There are tons of recipes for all three of these desserts online. Time has flown by and we have less than two weeks left in South Africa, so I’m making an effort to get as many of these desserts as I can while I’m still here. I know my homemade versions back home won’t be as good, but at least I’ll be able to take a bit of the culture back with me!

“Winter” Is Coming?

So the other day, I was talking to a few other people in the program about our upcoming trip to the Garden Route (along the southern coast of the country). We were wondering about the weather in that area, and I found myself saying pretty naturally, “Well it’s south of here, so it’s probably a bit colder.” Immediately after saying that, of course, I realized how backwards that is from what we’re used to in the US. But even so, I hardly had to think to switch around the whole Northern/Southern Hemisphere thing. I was pretty proud of adjusting to this small part of everyday life, and it’s gotten me thinking about what else I’ve adjusted to in the past six weeks. So here’s a list!

1. Apparently, the fact that north is warmer and south is colder.
2. The weather. Honestly, not too hard to adjust to the gorgeous sunny-with-a-light-breeze days. Although now that it’s becoming “winter” (60-75 degrees during the day, sometimes with rain), we see a lot of students walking around in heavy coats and boots, which is hilarious. Yesterday I saw a girl wearing mittens.

"Winter," brought to you by The Weather Channel

“Winter,” brought to you by The Weather Channel

3. Walking on the left side of the sidewalk (finally got it!).
4. Casual conversations about race, gender, and politics. One of the coolest things about South African culture is how open and knowledgeable people are about political issues.
5. Taking my time with just about everything. Going out to dinner consistently takes two or three hours. There’s hardly any fast-casual dining – even a lot of coffee shops are basically sit-down restaurants. So the pace of life is much more relaxed, which is actually kind of nice!
6. Load Shedding. It’s complicated, but the national provider of electricity is unable to meet the demand for electricity. So they’ve instituted rolling blackouts, where the power will shut off for 2.5 hours at different times in different parts of the country. It’s not a huge deal, but it definitely takes getting used to. It’s crazy how much we need power for – cooking, using the internet, doing anything at night, etc. Our blackouts are often from 6-8:30pm, so it’s too dark to do much. We usually play cards, sleep, or watch TV that someone has saved to their computer ahead of time.

1.This gorgeous view I walk out to every morning:

These are all pretty small parts of everyday life, but I think it’s these little things that make up part of the culture of a place (although some of the things on my list are probably more important culturally than others). On the surface, Stellenbosch looks a lot like any American college town, but there are definitely differences here that I’m getting a feel for. And a lot of these little differences will probably change how I view life in America – politics might be treasured a bit more, life won’t be so rushed, and consistent electricity will never be taken for granted. But one thing hasn’t changed: the word “winter” will always be reserved for days much colder than 60 degrees.

Lights Out…Indefinitely

Setting the scene: I’m sitting there with my roommate, we’re making dinner, enjoying our meal, laughing, enjoying life until all of a sudden the power goes out. No electricity is working in our rooms or the rooms of anyone else–and the only thing that we can use to get around are the flashlights on our phones. At first we thought, “Oh this must just be a blackout, the power should come back on any minute now, right?”


What we had just experienced in that episode was our first encounter with load-shedding. What is load-shedding you may ask? I will tell you dear friend:

Load-shedding [noun]: The process in which the primary provider of electricity in South Africa systematically shuts off all power in a timely, organized process as a result of overwhelming demand for the supply of electricity. When load-shedding occurs the power goes out for 2 and a half hours and may happen more than once a day over the course of weeks or months. Decoding the Madness

Used in sentence: “Once you load-shed you never go back because you honestly have no choice but accept it unless you want to buy a generator”

Common side effects during an episode of load-shedding include but are not limited to:

Inability to be productive in any capacity


Perpetual Confusion

Boredom with mild bouts of helplessness

When we were finally informed on what was going on and that load-shedding was in our lives for good it was up to us to get crafty in finding ways to pass the time in the dark. The first time we decided to lay out on the grass and enjoy the view of the stars and constellations while discussing the time-space continuum, our existential existence, and aliens. When it became too nerdy intense to talk about those topics on a daily basis, we began to expand our load-shedding interests to include playing “Heads Up”.

Even though the lights come back on eventually and the loss of time can be an inconvenience– especially when you’ve made plans for super productivity (i.e. washing laundry, doing homework, making dinner etc.)– load-shedding has taught me a valuable lesson. I have learned that every day needs a little time taken aside where you have the opportunity to truly do absolutely nothing, and be completely free of the distractions from the outside world, computers, cellphones, or Wifi. In this time, I have found new appreciation in the simple things in life and have officially gotten over my fear of the dark–by force, not choice.

*Night vision is not actually a side-effect, but it would be SO useful if it were

Goeie Dag, Molweni, Hello

I think I’ve always taken language for granted, living in a country and a community where pretty much everyone I’ve ever needed to communicate with speaks English. I studied French in junior high and high school, but the possibility of ever needing to use French to communicate seemed so distant. In South Africa, though, the language you speak is so important.

I took this picture because I thought the sign was funny, but it’s a good example of the multilingual nature of South African society. The languages on the sign are English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa.

South Africa has 11 official languages, which I have trouble wrapping my mind around. Even more amazing is that most people speak between two and five of these languages relatively fluently. Luckily, everyone I’ve met so far is pretty fluent in English, so communicating hasn’t been difficult. However, language drives many of the problems in healthcare and education that South Africa is currently facing, and that’s been interesting to learn about.

One of the craziest things I’ve learned: In South Africa, mother tongue education is available in all 11 official languages. So a kid can be going to school taught in English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, etc. But then to complete high school and be eligible to go to college, students have to pass the matric exam, which is only offered in English and Afrikaans. Most students study one or both of these languages at some point, but aren’t necessarily taught in these languages for other subjects. So basically, imagine taking the ACT or SAT in the language you studied in high school – it would be impossible! I can’t imagine taking those tests in French instead of English. The inequality this must create for young South Africans is astonishing.

In terms of my experience with language here so far, I’ve tried to learn a few words in Afrikaans, which is the first language of many people at Stellenbosch. We’ve also learned some Xhosa (another common language in our province) in our Culture, Language, and Identity class.

We're having fun too! Here's a group of us who took a surfing lesson -- mid-lesson the shark alarm went off (meaning a shark had been spotted) and we had to get out of the water. Luckily, no one was harmed.

We’re having fun too! Here’s a group of us who took a surfing lesson — mid-lesson the shark alarm went off (meaning a shark had been spotted in the water) and we had to get out and wait for half an hour. Luckily, no one was harmed.

One small language-related blunder: during our first week here, I was at the grocery store with another Northwestern student waiting in line at the check out counter. The cashier put up a sign on the counter that had some Afrikaans written on it, but we obviously had no clue what it meant. Then she started kind of glaring at us and eventually gestured angrily at the sign, so we left the line, super confused. It turns out the sign said, “This lane closed,” so that explains her reaction. But hey, it’s cool that we were mistaken for natives!

The most useful Afrikaans word I’ve learned so far is “jammer” (pronounced ya-muhr), which means “sorry.” This is for when I forget that I’m supposed to be walking on the left side of the sidewalk and accidentally bump into people. At least in this regard, I’m still working on blending into this new culture, but stay tuned for updates!

(If it was not clear, the title of this post is “hello” in Afrikaans, Xhosa, and English)

Anxious Aloof American Abroad

I had always known since I arrived on Northwestern’s campus as a naive freshman with zero knowledge of anything, that my undergraduate career will not be complete unless I studied abroad. Studying abroad was truly an experience that I was looking forward to for so long; having the opportunity to be in another country with its own unique, rich, and complex, culture and history would allow me to learn and grow in new ways I could have never imagined.

In the 9 days I was home and preparing for my departure, it finally began to settle in my reality that my arrival to Stellenbosch was approaching extremely quickly–and I didn’t feel prepared in any way, shape, or form. Despite the months leading up filled with packets, brochures, orientations, and stalking the IPD website, I still didn’t know what to expect. In the car ride on the way to airport, my heart raced and every possible thought went through my head as gave myself a mental pep talk that sounded a bit like this:

“You’re not scared, Iheoma right? You can’t be scared. You’ve got this!  ‘Who gon stop you huh?!’ Nobody that’s right. Did you pack properly? You didn’t forget anything did you? You have your passport right….right?? I wonder what terminal I’m going to? WAIT are my bags under 50 pounds …I’m gonna be so pissed if it’s not under 50 pounds” etc. etc.

On top of that my mind began to recollect the various forms of advice I received from friends and loved ones in the days leading up to departure:

Mom- “Don’t act stupid. Don’t lose your passport” (uhmm alright thanks Mom)

Dad- “Spend our money wisely *he said as he made a futile attempt to stifle the weeping sounds from his wallet*”

My brothers: “Don’t get Ebola” (Why would they even say that??)

When my dad and I finally arrived at the airport and pulled up to the curb for Delta departures, it was as if my mind finally cleared. With two big suitcases, black Jansport on my back, and ladybug pillow pet in tow I finally accepted the magnitude of the journey I was about to embark on. I, Iheoma Nkemere, daughter, junior at Northwestern, global health student, was about to begin writing the newest and most exciting (thus far) chapter in my life.

Goodbye LAX. On to JFK…then AMS….then CPT for the adventure of a lifetime.


WOW: How I’m Cheating My Pre-Departure Blog Post

Thanks to some technical difficulties back in the States, I am currently writing you all from an internet cafe called WOW in downtown Stellenbosch. I was originally planning on publishing a painfully sentimental blog post prepared on the floor of the terminal in O’Hare, and if you would like to get an idea of the emotional roller coaster I initially wrote, you can visit I’ll also be updating that blog to supplement my posts here.

Instead, I thought I would cheat this pre-departure blogging process a little and share more about myself and the adventure that brought me to this internet cafe at 20:47 on a Monday night.

IMG_2310 resize

I took a break from my mess of packing and had an embarrassing photoshoot by myself. Shoutout to NU for allowing this trip to happen and supporting us while abroad.

My name is Carol, and I’m a junior at Northwestern studying Cognitive Science and Global Health. Outside of classes, my involvement is largely rooted in social justice and community development. Because of this, when I was deciding on where to study abroad, the Public Health and Development program in South Africa was the first link I clicked on when exploring the Study Abroad website as an impressionable freshman.

A professor I really admire at Northwestern once sat down with me and shared her own experiences studying abroad. Something she said really sums up my hopes for my journey now in South Africa: “I understood America much better, seeing America from outside, looking back… I saw how two other societies solved certain problems that seemed to bedevil Americans.”

Especially in regards to health and the structures that inform people’s health access and outcomes, we can really learn so much from communities outside of our borders. As a global community, we are faced with glaring health inequities, and we cannot pretend that we are not faced with similar issues here in the States. Many of the problems we face here are similar to those others experience and sometimes deal with better than we do.

Of course, many of these common problems manifest themselves differently in other communities especially like South Africa, a country with an arguably richer and more nuanced history than ours. I really hope that the experiences and revelations we have here inform us of how we as a society are not just different from South Africa, but similar.

That said, I need to admit that I am woefully unprepared for what is to happen next. The 30+ hour transit period from Chicago to Dubai to Cape Town was laden with self-consciousness and anxiety. I have never traveled alone for such great distances, and I am proud that I have made it safely to my destination and am happily typing away in this internet cafe.

I was met at the airport by a Stellenbosch University graduate student who was an incredible first guide into this new city. (I must apologize ahead of time and say that I am horrible with names. Case in point: I also already forgot my roommate’s name. We will meet again, and then I can properly publicly thank you for your hospitality and guidance.) We had been discussing our studies, music tastes, and annoyance at the United State’s insistence on not converting to the metric system, but when we arrived on campus, he suddenly turned to me and asked, “How’s your Afrikaans?” In response, I just laughed nervously. His response: “Oh, so nonexistent. You will have an interesting time then.”

There is much to learn and adapt to, and I admittedly should have done more research and reading on South African history, politics, language, and culture. But I am here now. And all I can do now is keep my mind open, absorb everything, and reflect. I will end with a sentence I have said so (annoyingly) much while back home and even here, but I mean with it the utmost sincerity: I am excited.

Today Is the Day!

Hi blog readers! My name is Emily Liquin, and I’m a junior at Northwestern. I’ve been preparing for months, but I can’t believe I’m finally leaving for South Africa today. This will be the longest I’ve ever been away from the Chicago area, so I’m pretty nervous. But I’m also incredibly excited – South Africa is such an interesting country (see links to recent news articles at the end of this post), and I can’t wait to learn more about its history and current issues while I’m there. I’m a cognitive science and psychology double major, but I’ve never really done anything in the field of public health. I applied to this program in hopes of branching out, learning more about healthcare in a completely different part of the world, and seeing how I can apply that to my major and my future career. I’m so grateful to IPD for the opportunity to spend the quarter studying public health in Stellenbosch, South Africa and to blog about my experience.

I’ve spent the last few days packing – I think I finally got everything to fit in my bags. I’m a little worried that I overpacked or that I just packed a bunch of things I won’t need, but I guess only time will tell. I’m so nervous that I’m forgetting something important. I’ve looked at all of the study abroad packing lists and “27 Things To Do Before You Study Abroad” articles, so hopefully that means I have everything.

Later today, I take an 8-hour flight from Chicago to Amsterdam, followed by a 3-hour layover and an 11-hour flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town. It’s going to be a long day of travel, and I really don’t like flying. However, assuming I make it through the flights, I’ll then be in South Africa for what promises to be one of the most exciting quarters of my life! Here we go…

Links to some interesting news articles:

Finals Are A Real Thing Here?

Rebekah Williams, Public Health in South Africa, Spring 2014

As our quarter winded down to an end our excursions slowed and our finals picked up pace. Yes in fact we did have papers to write and presentations to prepare for. But like everything else in South Africa there was a silver lining! The work we were tasked with was structured to make us reflect on experiences in South Africa. Our assignments included things like reflective journals about our trips to JoBurg and our time in the Western Cape as well as community presentations about our work and constructive criticism about our service learning projects.

Hard at work in the library?

One of my favorite assignments was the final paper for the Contemporary South Africa: A Political Economy class. The paper asked to analyze a specific policy currently in place in South African law and consider the impact of its implementation. Students were asked to consider the audience the policy affected and who was ignored. In addition they also were asked to consider the role of the public and civil sector in the diction of the policy. For my paper I chose to focus on policy addressing violence against women, specifically analyzing the Domestic Violence Act of 1998. Although my understanding of South African politics is quite limited and basic, the lectures throughout the course by the course professor provided me with a solid foundation. I was prepared to sort through research and policy papers on the subject with a basic knowledge of abbreviations of political parties and key legislative players. This was key in trying to sort through the information I found buried in online archives. At the end of the paper I closed with more questions than answers about the future of South African politics but this left me eager to crack open another book on the history of this beautifully complex nation.

The Sun Sets On Our Journey Abroad

Sejal Shah, Public Healthand Development  in South Africa, Spring 2014

Sien jou later Suid-Afrika

Tonight I say goodbye to a charming country, one that has opened its heart and welcomed a stranger. It hasn’t dawned upon me yet that I will no longer see the mountain peak right besides my dorm that sparkles in the rain and glows in the sunlight. I will no longer see cars driving on the left side of the road, nor will there be as many manual cars. I will no longer be breathing in the air of a country with a rich history and an uncertain future. I will dearly miss this amazing country and the adventures it has to offer. Thus, as I say my final farewells, it will be a “see you later” rather than a “goodbye,” for I hope that someday I can return to South Africa.

As I reflect back on my time in South Africa, I am amazed by how much I have learned. I came to this country knowing only pieces of the apartheid story and the struggle to freedom. Now, I know more about the apartheid era, the government in power (ANC), and the rich cultures that play a huge role in society. I have seen the deficiencies in the public health system and its effect on society, yet I am aware about some of the institutions working tirelessly to help those the government doesn’t. I finally understand the truth behind Nelson Mandela’s words, “Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can use to change the world.” A solid educational foundation goes a long way for kids who know nothing about sanitation, health or the opportunities that lay ahead of them. Yet, the knowledge I have gained here has only made me realize how much there still is to learn. There are more voices to be heard and there are more problems to solve. The knowledge and lessons I have learned abroad will follow me back to the States where it will serve as a launchpad for my future learning.

NUinSouthAfrica 2014

Although I can talk forever about the places we visited, the people we met, and the sights we have seen, there is one aspect of the journey that cannot be overlooked. Over the past few days, our group numbers have been dwindling as my peers head back home, or in some cases, to Cape Town to pursue research or internships. I realized that as our group becomes smaller, it is no longer complete. Our time in South Africa has helped build a small, but strong, Northwestern family (including one honorary Wildcat). Together, we grew as we accepted the culture, history, language and essence of South Africa. We challenged each other to widen our perspectives on issues surrounding public health as well as development. Our home stay experiences required us to understand the situation of rural families that are out of touch with the government and, in a sense, the greater society. Our experiences abroad has created a special bond between our group that will never be forgotten.

With these memories lingering in my mind, I say sien jou later Suid-Afrika! See you later South Africa! I look forward to the day we meet again.

A Cultural Immersion

Sejal Shah, Public Health and Development in South Africa, Spring 2014

An African Elephant in Kruger National Park

For the past two weeks, we have been busy traveling around South Africa. We spent time in Johannesburg, Kruger National Park and Hamakuya. At Johannesburg, we visited several historical museums, such as the Apartheid Museum, Liliesleaf Farm, and Nelson Mandela’s House. At Kruger, which is a huge game reserve, we saw the big five animals on the first day: the lion, African elephant, leopard, Cape buffalo and rhinoceros. The natural beauty of the different terrains, as well as the majestic beauty of the animals, were breathtaking. However, the best part of the journey came with Hamakuya where we were split into groups to partake in home stays in the rural villages of South Africa.

I stayed in a village called Dotha with four other students from my program. Our host mother, Rachel, and her mother-in-law welcomed us. We greeted our host family with the traditional Tshivenda (the local language) greeting, which consists of the girls laying on the floor with their hands to the side of their face saying “Aah.” The one boy in our group knelt on one knee and greeted the family by saying “Nda.” Our host family is quite extensive with the grandmother, mother, father, three daughters, son and daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren living there. We could not have asked for a more welcoming and caring family to stay with for the three days and two nights in Dotha. The village’s children also welcomed us and spent the whole weekend playing with us and accompanying us everywhere we went. Since most of the villagers only spoke Tshivenda, we had a translator, Glenda, to help us communicate with the community.

Terri, Christine, myself, Emily, Braeden and our host mother wearing traditional clothes in front of our hut.

Our family, who is relatively wealthy, has three huts and a small house. One of the huts is used for cooking while the other two are for sleeping. On the property, there are several chickens, cows, goats and dogs roaming around. The family also owns a large garden which is not typical of families in the village. The garden consists of several vegetables including spinach, cabbage and sugar cane. Our group and all the children were given several sugar canes to chew on for our walk back to the village. That was the first time I ate sugar cane, and it was definitely a sweet experience! Another new experience occurred the second day in Dotha. Our host mother dressed us all in traditional clothing so that we would look presentable for church. Then, with our translator and one of the younger daughters, we walked for an hour and a half to a Born Again church. We spent three hours in church, experiencing the emotional part of the repentance and the high spirited part of the sermons. The church welcomed us, having us on stage dancing while the pastor and other members of the church greeted us.

We had a great time eating sugar cane, playing soccer with the kids and dressing up in traditional clothes. Yet these amazing times didn’t hide the hardships of everyday life in the rural village. Since the water taps in the area are all broken, the women of the village have to walk at least 15 minutes to fetch “clean” water and carry it back to their huts on their heads. I say “clean” because some villagers get water from the river where cattle and children wade in. Others gather water from springs that may contain a high E.coli content. Other activities, such as grocery shopping, children going to school, and men going to work also provide obstacles. With the virtually nonexistent transportation system, the commute to almost anywhere could take hours. Children must leave for school before dawn arrives, and many fathers leave for work in the coal mines at 3am every morning.

The cooking hut and outdoor fire pit where all the cooking is done.

When we said a hesitant goodbye to our family, the mother and grandmother said they will miss us and be bored without our company. The monotonous daily life of women in the village is something I could not deal with. Thus, I am amazed by the strength of the women in the village and their acceptance of their place in their society. Nonetheless, sorrow set in when I said goodbye to our warm host family and the peaceful lifestyle of Dotha. Although the people in these villages don’t have much in terms of money, services and material goods, they are always in high spirits and willing to provide a helping hand when needed.