A little over a month has gone by since I first departed from the United States to begin my semester abroad. Time feels as if it's gone by so quickly, and yet I can't even begin to remember all the amazing experiences that I've already had here in South Africa. I can say one thing for sure, though - an SIT study abroad program is far from the routine day-to-day of college life. Experiential learning is the name of the game here, and it's exactly what I'd hoped it would be.
SIT South Africa is about 20% classroom, 40% site visits, and 40% active field engagement through various projects. To give you an example, my first week here was spent going from Johannesburg to Durban, visiting the Apartheid Museum, touring Soweto, exploring the Constitutional Court, seeing springbok bouncing outside my window, and having a braii each night with our lovable program staff. And that was our slow orientation week. Recently I just finished spending a week in Amatikulu, a rural area in northern South Africa, teaching at a high school while conducting ethnographic research on a local sangoma and learning dlala induku (Zulu stick fighting).
The only typical class I have right now is my Zulu language class (which I’ve fallen in love with; Ngithanda ukufunda isiZulu kakhulu!) Otherwise my days are either filled with lectures given by a range of experts on the various aspects of South Africa, or our group is out on an excursion. We’ve been all over not only the city of Durban, but a good chunk of the KwaZulu-Natal province.
It’s far from a vacation here, though. While I’ve enjoyed every minute of my time so far, our many trips and projects have been exercises in engaging with the social and political intricacies, tensions, and changes that South Africa is experiencing as a democracy just barely out of its diapers. Sometimes these are violent, as in the case of an annual strike by taxi drivers. Other times this manifests in very visible wealth gaps; it isn’t at all uncommon to see a plot of tin shacks fighting to stay standing against the wind while luxurious condominiums and department stores loom but a stone’s throw away. Apartheid law may have come to an end, but the effects of a 46-year-long racist state continue to persist in the form of racialized economic classes, segregated communities, social tensions, and the infrastructure of entire cities. It’s here that the value of this program’s experiential doctrine has truly shined, as I would not have learned nor been affected as much as I have been this past month were I sitting in a classroom all day.
Aside from excursions, the homestays that are integrated into the program have been invaluable. So far I have stayed with a family in Amatikulu, and am currently living with a different family in Cato Manor, a township in Durban. My Cato Manor baba (father) has told me story after story about his life during the apartheid years, pointing to the various areas that were designated for Indian or Black housing and recounting the difficulties of raising a large family under a racist regime. My mama is fond of cooking and watching movies with Jackie Chan, the latter of which we have bonded over quite seamlessly. I’ve only just begun to stretch my stomach enough to handle the portion sizes that she serves for dinner each night. The fact that our Indian neighbors insist that I eat with them beforehand every other night hasn’t helped the matter much either, but I’m far from ready to complain.
Despite each day being filled with a bustle of pre-planned activity, I’ve still had the time to explore Durban on my own initiative. Among my favorite places are Cool Runnings, a tavern that features a large drum circle every Thursday; the maze of streets snaking through Cato Manor; the Sun Coast beachfront; and the bovine area of Warwick Junction, where you can buy freshly-chopped cow cheek to eat (picture below).
Additionally, the University of KwaZulu-Natal is quite visible from the SIT building, perched atop a hill and overlooking much of Cato Manor. Every Wednesday night, the University features jazz musicians from all over. Just two weeks ago, I had the fortune to hear a jazz guitarist from Mozambique play a few of his own original mixes. My plan, originally, was to tape these and post them onto Youtube. However, because the bandwidth here is incredibly limited, I was only able to eek out a short segment. Nonetheless it’s a good taste of what the night held.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of everything that’s gone on here, but to explain it all would take at least a book or two. As for what’s in store next, I can say that I’m looking forward to our third and final homestay in Newlands, a neighborhood predominantly of Indian and Coloured families. I and other students have also begun focusing the topics for our Independent Study Projects, which will fill up the entirety of April. For that month, students are in charge of securing their own accommodations and finding their way through the city, meaning all of our excursions have had the added benefit of getting us comfortable with Durban. While video blogs may be out of the question given the limited internet, I plan to make a few more blog posts while I’m still in South Africa. One thing is for sure, though: nothing can do a study abroad experience justice short of experiencing it yourself. It’s something no one, no matter their major or travel history, should miss out on if the opportunity is there.