South Africa Educational Study Program
That night we left for Durban and arrived on the Indian Ocean where we spent a wonderful morning relaxing on the beach. While in Durban we saw the well-known play "African Footprint." This play took the audience on a journey of the history of South Africa using dance and music that was very rhythmic and inspiring.
Then it was on to the Kwa-Zulu Natal Midlands where we visited the new Didima Rock Art Centre tucked below the Drakensberg Mountains near Cathedral Peak. This presentation prepared us for the bushman cave paintings that we visited in Lesotho. Local women in the valley sell intricately woven baskets at the museum and we brought many back to the US. Later we observed local women weave rugs in a shop near by where exquisite rugs and wall hangings are sold.
Our next stop was in Malealea, Lesotho. Because the tiny mountain kingdom is surrounded by the Drakensberg Mountains we had to drive around the entire range to enter Lesotho customs through the capital Maseru. Malealea is a tourist compound in the middle of a high mountain plateau surrounded by tiny villages and fields of maize and sorghum. As in many places we visited, unemployment is high and tourists actually help the local economy. As we did in other places, we hired local guides for our activities and bought from the local craft store. The craft cooperative has developed extensively since our first visit with students four years ago. Women paint and weave beautiful items in an adjacent hut.
In Malealea many of the local young men work for Mick who owns the tourist compound. In 3-4 weekly shifts, groups of male guides rotate and take tourists on walks and pony treks. A young man might work no more than several days a month to lend support to his family. One of our guides told us that electricity would improve the quality of their lives as they would be able to purchase heaters and stoves that run much more cheaply and efficiently than the costly paraffin appliances. Local inhabitants must buy paraffin on a daily basis to cook food and heat their huts. It was cold on this plateau when the sun went down and darker than any place we've been except for Kruger Park. In our thatched huts the electricity was turned off at ten o'clock. We had electricity from a generator for about 4 hours a day. Getting dressed by candlelight in the morning with no heat and no hair dryer was a new experience.
The following morning all of the Skidmore students went on a pony trek to the waterfall and the gorge where the rock paintings are located in three open caves. Susan and her husband Hans walked across the mountain plateau to the same gorge led by Jonathon, a young man who is helping to support his mother and siblings. Jonathon had to drop out of high school in Maseru after two years because his money ran out. He hopes to buy a vehicle some day and run a taxi service. Jonathon led them to the gorge and they climbed down steep and rocky paths to visit the three Bushman sites. Erosion has washed out the trail in parts and they were literally crawling down the trail hanging on to roots. It was well worth it! The rock paintings are over a thousand years old and are very intricate. The features of the Eland are detailed and well preserved. San hunters dance and aim spears at the Eland. Students also climbed down to see the rock paintings and were amazed at the beauty and intricacy of the paintings.
Karen, Mary, Jan and Suzanne (Rina's administrative assistant) toured the village in a Land Rover with Steven, their guide. There were many areas where no roads existed. They were able to observe the daily lives of the village people. Resources are limited, but there is a peaceful sense to the community. They saw British high school students painting the high school buildings as part of a community project organized by their teachers in Great Britain. They also met two Peace Corp volunteers from the United States who described their decision to join the Corp for a more meaningful life. They passed two cemetery sites where three funerals take place every weekend in this small community. This opportunity to meet with local people in their homes, visit the school and meet other international groups working to make a difference was one they will reflect on often.
While still in Malealea we visited the local primary school where we observed middle school students learning about isosceles and equilateral triangles in English. Almost all of the children we met in schools were learning English as a second, third, or fourth language. The language abilities of the children are quite remarkable.
Then it was on to Cape Town via the garden route. Highlights of that journey included a visit to an Ostrich Farm where we learned a lot about ostriches. Farmers use every part of the ostrich from the meat to the leather to the feathers. Many of our students decided to take the challenge and ride an ostrich. Steve managed to do it solo which was pretty impressive!
The final part of our journey was spent in Cape Town, a city similar to San Francisco, including hills and ocean fog. We stayed at a marvelous place called Planet Africa right in the center of town and a few blocks from the ocean. We had trouble getting to our main destination, Robben Island, because the winter sea was rough and the boat rides were cancelled. Fortunately, we got the last available block of tickets for a nine o'clock visit on Monday morning. That visit was powerful. We took a bus tour of the island and learned some of its history dating back to when it was a leper colony. Early on, Robben Island was used as a penal colony by the Dutch and that continued up until 1994.
In 1963 Nelson Mandela and seven political prisoners were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Over time many more were sentenced to serve time there. We saw the lime quarry where these political prisoners worked. We were led on our tour by a former prisoner who told us his story and showed us what his life was like on Cell Block E. The prisoners who committed violent crimes were separated from the political prisoners and kept in medium security buildings; political prisoners, however, were kept in maximum security buildings. These black prisoners wore shorts and were given no shoes, socks or jackets. Most of us were dressed in jackets, sweat shirts and long pants the day we visited Robben Island and we were cold in the cell blocks. There were windows with bars but there was no glass, so the cold wind must have been strong and constant during their imprisonment.
Based on race the food rations were different. "Coloreds" did not receive much, but "blacks" received even less. It was an emotional tour for all of us. We learned so much. Afterward, Andy, one of our students interviewed our guide for her oral history study and he was more than willing to tell her about his life on Robben Island and as it is now as a free man. Powerful experiences and learning for all of us. He also told us about reconciliation. Susan asked him how that was possible and he told her that he learned about forgiveness from Nelson Mandela.
Later that day Kalfi, our bus driver, drove a group of us out to the Cape of Good Hope where we climbed to Cape Point and saw with our own eyes the place where Diaz, Magellan, Cook, and Vasco da Gama sailed so many hundreds of years past. It was a wild and beautiful place. Chacma baboons run wild on the Cape Reserve and we saw them attack two tourists who held food in their hands. Baboons are neither cute nor cuddly and are actually quite viscious because so many humans have fed them illegally.
Our last day in Cape Town was spent at a Primary School visiting a class of seventh grade students. The first question students asked was about Aids and crime in the US. They also thought that all Americans were rich, owned large homes and that crime was limited. Students in South Africa pay to go to a government school and also buy uniforms. They were interested in the idea that school taxes are levied in the US and that students do not have annual fees. The fifty rand that it costs each child annually is a huge amount for many families. This visit was a great connection and we hope to return to visit this school n the future.
Then it was off to the airport. From the time we left our hotel to the time we arrived at home 30 hours passed. A long journey. A tiring journey. A rewarding journey. All of us arrived safely at JFK and that is no small thing.
Karen and Susan have completed their third Journey and Reflection study tour. This past journey was a rich experience for us and for our students. We are not the same people who left Saratoga Springs, New York on May 22. Rina Prenzler was our guide and our center while we were in South Africa. To her we extend our deepest appreciation and admiration.
Susan S. Lehr, Professor
Karen E. Brackett, Director of the Early Childhood Center