So long, South Africa!

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been back in Seattle for almost a week now.  My time in South Africa felt like it lasted months.  There were so many new experiences had, new foods to try, and new friends made.  When I left, it almost felt like I was leaving home.  It’s amazing how such a short time in a place can make you feel so connected to it.

The lectures at the conference were very stimulating, but the real immersive part of this experience was getting to know the people and cultures of South Africa.  I will always remember my new friends trying to help me pronounce “Xhosa” or “Qwaqwa” with the correct click sounds from the Xhosa or Basotho languages, respectively.  I never did get it right, but I sure had fun trying!  I’ll always remember the drums they welcomed us with at the Qwaqwa campus, as well as the spontaneous dancing and singing that erupted every so often at different events.  What a beautiful culture!

While I was in Bloemfontein, many South Africans I spoke with recommended that I visit Cape Town while there.  I figured, “When else will I be here?” and went for it.  Cape Town was amazingly beautiful.  It was like stepping into a postcard.  One of the great things about study abroad is that it brings you to these amazing places, and often-times you have the freedom to explore wherever else you would like to on your way to the place, or before going home.

 

On the flight home, I flew over the North Pole.  I never really thought about it, but it is actually shorter to fly from Seattle to the Arabian Peninsula (I had a layover in Dubai on both my outbound and inbound flights) by flying over the North Pole.  It was very cool to see the ice covering that part of the world.  I almost half-expected to see some polar bears down there!

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It’s good to be home, but I left a little piece of my heart in South Africa.  I hope to return there at some point in the future.

 

Lions, cheetahs, ostrich, and baboons, oh my!

Well, almost a week has passed since arriving in South Africa, and I have had some amazing experiences.  Since arriving, I have seen ostriches, baboons, and zebras in the wild.  We also visited a place where we could see captive lions, leopards, and cheetahs.  I actually got to pet a live cheetah, whose fur was rougher than I would have imagined, fluffy-looking as it was.

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The Global Leadership Summit has been incredible.  We got to hear from Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda Le Grange.  Nelson Mandela was the first black president of South Africa, and the first president after the Apartheid era.  His former assistant shared some wonderful stories about Mr. Mandela’s courtesy and respect for other people’s customs and culture.  We also heard from Candice Mama, whose father was murdered by the leader of the Apartheid government’s death squad.  She told the story of how she met with her father’s murdered, and came to a point of reconciliation and common humanity after many shared tears.  She was also kind enough to let me film an interview with her for the video project I am working on while here.

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Today, we drove to the University of the Free State’s Qwaqwa campus (pronounced with the clicks of the Basotho language).  On our way we passed a small town.  Just looking at the houses from one side of town to the other, it was striking to see the vast gap in wealth that still exists in South Africa between those who were formerly oppressed under Apartheid rule and those who were privileged.

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The rest of the drive was beautiful, including several rock formations that were reminiscent of pride rock in the Lion King.

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The Qwaqwa campus (where I am currently) is right on the border of Lesotho, so it is very naturally beautiful.  I’m excited for some time away from the bustle of Bloemfontein.  This area is much more mountainous and open.  For dinner tonight, we were served Braai, traditional South African barbeque.  My plate had Boerewors (traditional Boerewors), steak, a chicken thigh, and a filet of fish.  4 dead animals on my plate at once!  That’s the South African way!  Until next time…

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Touchdown in South Africa!

After two weeks of intensive study into the history, customs, and culture of South Africa, as well as two full days of travel, I have finally arrived in South Africa.  We took a total of 3 flights to get here.  The first flight was 14 hours and put us in Dubai.  The airport there was very interesting.  There was a prayer room right next to the restrooms, and we heard the “call to prayer” play over the loudspeakers.  There was a McDonalds in the airport as well.  I saw something called “The McArabia” on the menu.  It wasn’t a sandwich, but rather a pile of assorted food items.  I wasn’t brave enough to try it, so I stuck with the standard that can be found the world over:  the Big Mac.  While it is  advisable to try the local cuisine while traveling abroad, it is sometimes nice to get a taste of something familiar to stave off the homesickness.

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The next flight was 8 hours to Johannesburg in South Africa.  After this, we took a 1 hour flight to our final destination, the city of Bloemfontein.  The birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkein, and the judicial capital of South Africa (there are three capitals total), Bloemfontein is also the home of the University of the Free State, where the Global Leadership Summit is being held.  After a friendly welcome yesterday, I crashed for a four hour nap.  Traveling for two days straight took a lot out of me.  After the nap, my group of friends from UW Bothell all went out to dinner at the local mall.

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Today we attended an orientation where the program was explained to us, followed by a meeting with our “cohort” groups.  Each group is expected to create a 3-5 minute video presentation by the end of the conference (in two weeks).  The cohort meeting was followed by a campus tour.  Lastly, we attended an opening ceremony which included African drumming, a few welcome speeches from notable university officials, and a local comedian.

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There are a few things I have been very struck by since coming to South Africa:

First, the culture has been very welcoming and inclusive.  We have been told numerous times since coming here that we are not just colleagues or visitors, but more importantly we are friends.  The principle of “Ubuntu” was explained to us at the opening ceremony, the idea that no person is an island, but connected (whether they want to be or not) to every other person around them.  It’s nicely summarized in the idea that “‘I am what I am because of who we all are“.  I find this aspect of South African culture very refreshing, and have immensely appreciated and enjoyed the selfless hospitality I have received since coming here.

Secondly, I have been a little surprised at how Western the culture of South Africa can be at times.  I’ve heard American music, heard South Africans talk about American movies and TV shows (especially Game of Thrones!), and seen common American brands at the local stores.  I can definitely see the huge influence that Western colonization has had on this area.  While the surface of many things here appear Western, there exists a huge melting pot of cultures under the surface.  Desmond Tutu called South Africa a “rainbow nation”, and I’m seeing that more and more as I interact with South Africans from different ethnic heritage groups.

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So far this has been a fascinating journey, and I’m excited to see where it leads as we discuss difficult issues in the upcoming weeks at the Global Leadership Summit

 

On the road again…

5/20/2015,  Blog by Steven Kay, Computer Science and Software Engineering, Reconciliation via Digital Storytelling in the US and South Africa

dfsaThis will be my second experience with study abroad, a little bit older and, I like to think, a little bit wiser. I’ll be heading out to South Africa come July 2nd to attend a Global Leadership Summit at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. But first I’ll be taking a couple of intensive summer session courses designed to get me educated on South African culture and societal issues, and digital storytelling. I’m not even sure what digital storytelling is yet, but I’m excited to find out.

Last summer I traveled to Beijing, and made the serious mistake of not studying anything about Chinese culture or history before traveling there.

Due to a massive language barrier in China, I ended up learning far more about China via Wikipedia perusing when I got back than I ever learned while there. In hindsight, I wished that I had acquired that contextual information BEFORE visiting those awesome places and experiencing that awesome culture. So this time around I’m digging deep.

I looked at my library for a book recommended to me by an professor here at UW Bothell called “Cry, the Beloved Country” that goes deep into societal tensions in South Africa. Unfortunately, I was able to find nothing but Cliff’s notes and the like. I finally resorted to buying it online through a Thrift book retailer for 5 bucks. I think I’ll also have to re-read “The Power of One”, a story about a young English boy growing up to become a professional boxer in South Africa. It was made into a move back in the 90’s as well, which was decent, but I think the rule of “the book was better than the movie” holds here.

Besides delving into these literary works, I think I’ll have to get some cinema going, as well. I loved District 9, and may have to re-watch that as part of a personal going away party. I’ve also heard “Searching for Sugarman” is a great documentary about an little-known American musician who became the musical voice of Apartheid. Being a musician myself, I think this will be enjoyable, as well as a possibly great introduction to the history of Apartheid (which I know next to nothing about). Maybe “Long Walk to Freedom” and the autobiography it’s based on (written by Nelson Mandela) might be worth checking out, as well.

After courses, books, and movies, the last gaps will no doubt be filled by Wikipedia.   The amount of information organized and made available on Wikipedia is amazing to me. I can spend (and have spent) all night on Wikipedia jumping from article to article, learning things I would never have touched in a University setting.

I’m excited for South Africa, but equally excited to expand my brain. Let the learning begin!