Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reflections On A Semester In Cape Town, One Year Later

Tommorow, I’ll be on a panel with other students who spent a semester abroad in Africa. It’s led me to reflect on where I was a year ago – on a road trip in the Kalahari Desert, in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer.

I took the above picture in January 2011. It’s the sunset over the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which straddles South Africa and Botswana. It was the northernmost point on a long van trip which was one of the highlights of my semester abroad in Cape Town, on Macalester’s Globalization and the Environment Program. We learned about interactions between the climate and dunes and dust and salt pans, the different types of vegetation in different ecosystems along our drive, and the efforts of the areas indigienous people to be allowed to hunt and use water in national parks where wildlife is on view for Western tourists. All these subjects could be covered in readings or powerpoints in classes at Macalester, but they were made much more memorable by being there.

Coming down the Table Mountain cableway above Cape Town

Some of my friends from my program running down to the beach between Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, the southwesternmost point of the African continent.

I chose this program because it was a perfect match for my interests – I’m an Environmental Studies and Geography double major, and I like to study the twin influences of the natural and social environments in urban areas. Therefore, doing an environmental studies program is one of the most beautiful and diverse cities in the world was a perfect fit for me.

And who could pass up a living situation like this?

Granted, this mansion - the Penrose House - was shared with 16 other students, but that only added to the fun. The 9 other American students on my program (who were also from Pomona, Swarthmore, and Haverford colleges) and 7 South African students became some of my best friends. While it was hard to write papers on cultural geography theory or urban food security policy when you could hear your best friends talking and laughing from my desk, it was also one of the most fun living situations I’ll ever have. And I certainly learned as much ton from living room and dinner discussions with my South African and American housemates as I did from classes. Above all, though, we had an amazing amount of fun - some of my fondest memories are the "braais" (barbecues) we had most Fridays.

A typical Braaiday at Penrose House

Once my special seminar course was over in mid-February, I took two graduate level courses in the University’s Environmental and Geographic Science. These only met once a week. While they had substantial amounts of homework and writing, I was free to explore the Cape Town area for much of the week, going to museums that described the history, culture, and art of Cape Town and exploring different neighborhoods. Additionally, what I found most fascinating to learn about was the social fabric of Cape Town, defined by huge economic disparities and segregation among different racial groups in the city.

A mural in Woodstock, Cape Town

My research project, which acted as my fourth class, came from this exploration – I interviewed passengers of minibus taxis, a private transporation system that emerged because of the government’s historic lack of investment in public transit. Up to 20 people would be jammed into vans that whizzed down major streets almost every minute and picked up and dropped-off curbside. Not being able to drive myself, it was how I usually got around the city, and I developed an interest in studying the taxis as a cultural phenomenon. I studied one route that ran along Cape Town’s southern suburbs, and learned why passengers chose minibus taxis over other forms of transit despite the widely held belief that drivers were rude and they were unsafe. (Lots of developing countries around the world have similar ad hoc transit systems, so my study was original research that could be relevant to many places.)

A morning hike on Lion's Head with my program's staff

As great as it was to spend one semester at the University of Cape Town (which has fifteen times the number of students that Macalester does) ultimately being there made me happy that I had chosen a small school with a tight-knit community. Additionally, the vast majority of my friends here at Macalester went abroad the same semester as I did to a wide variety of places. (Living room conversation at my house often turns to stories about my housemates’ semesters abroad in Jordan, Morrocco, and Senegal.) Although semesters abroad are often emphasized for being great times for personal growth (and that’s definitely true!), having an entire community of people who have spent significant time abroad and hearing about their experiences has greatly enriched my understanding of the wider world.

- Diego Ruiz '12