Monday, November 21, 2016

Week Seven: Nujoma and the Namib

by Lolita Schalekamp and Hannah Johnson

Reflecting back on the week that just ended, we have to appreciate the various ways in which we’re able to learn here at CGEE. This week alone, among many other field trips, we had the opportunity to visit one of Namibia’s most important monuments and think critically about the problematic ways in which a nation’s history can be represented. Before the week’s end, we also got to travel into the world’s oldest desert to learn about sustainable living.

At beginning of the week, our group had the opportunity of visiting the Heroes’ Acre outside Windhoek. This monument honors the heroes and heroines of the liberation struggle in Namibia, and operates for the purpose of “fostering a spirit of patriotism and nationalism, and to pass on the legacy to the future generations of Namibia.” We learned that this site is not only a memorial, but also hosts many events, particularly army demonstrations. Heroes’ Acre currently contains 174 tombs for the courageous men and women in the fight for independence. Not all of the tombs are filled, but as the heroes pass away, spaces will be reserved for them.

One of the questions that arose from our tour was what are qualifications in choosing who gets to be buried at Heroes Acre? As our tour guide explained, the criteria was not always transparent, as many families of leaders in the liberation struggle would like for their loved ones to be buried at the monument. Indeed, this process has sparked controversy within some circles.

Statue of the Unknown Soldier at Heroes Acre
The monument itself consists of a marble obelisk and a bronze statue of the “Unknown Soldier.” Upon seeing the statue, its resemblance to Sam Nujoma is striking. Although our guide stated that the soldier is not modeled after anyone in particular, the statue has come under criticism for being a tribute to Sam Nujoma himself. Since Nujoma is the founding president of the independent nation, along with being the initiator of Heroes’ Acre, this theory seems relevant.

Another one of the group’s iniquities regarded the architecture of Heroes’ Acre. Compared with other monuments in Namibia, the architecture felt foreign. The grandiose nature of the obelisk is characteristic of Stalinist Empire style or Socialist Classicism. After some research, we learned that North Korea was given a N$60 million contract to build the monument. This has rightfully made many ask: where were the Namibian architects in the construction of their ‘national’ monument?

This leads to the next point: the collaboration of world leaders in the struggle for Namibian independence. As a part of Racism and Resistance class, we became increasingly aware of the parallel development of the SWAPO/SWANU political ideology alongside the PLAN military wing. North Korea’s support of the liberation movement is not as surprising as one might perceive. In fact, many communist nations such as the USSR, Cuba, and North Korea contributed aid to the Communist Party in Namibia, which in turn has strong ties to SWAPO’s formation. This could be interpreted as geopolitical strategy of Communist countries in the context of the Cold War, or from the Namibian perspective, a lack of support from international governing bodies such as the United Nations.

Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET)
As the weekend approached, we packed our sleeping bags, lathered ourselves in sunscreen, and trucked our way toward the desert where we had the privilege to stay at the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET) Centre. NaDEET lies in the dune valley of the Namib Desert and serves as a place for people of all ages, but more specifically school children, to properly practice eco-sustainability. NaDEET is a non-profit, non governmental organization whose mission is to protect the natural environment of Namibia by educating its citizens to practice sustainable lifestyle. We were immediately greeted by the warm sun and soft sand, where we hiked over a few dunes to reach our base.  

Spectacular sand waves in the Namib Desert!
The entire weekend was full of fun and hands-on learning. We discussed sustainable energy and water, where we monitored our water use and discovered that the centre was fueled by solar energy, discussed waste management and nature conservation. Water conservation was one of the largest topics of conversation. It is undeniable that water is the basis of all life on Earth, however Namibia has a limited freshwater supply and labeled one of the most dry countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Being in Southern Africa, we have learned to be more mindful of our water use and waste. NaDEET introduced a variety of ways to reduce our water use, including implementing bucket showers. The bucket showers reduce shower time and water waste. We have returned to CGEE house with the mindset to take shorter showers and investigate what it would take to have dual flushing toilets. In fact, the average toilet flush uses over ten litres of water per flush. If we introduce a low flush or dual flush toilet in our home, we would reduce our water waste by 2-3 liters of water each flush. As discussed at NaDEET, in a five person household, this can lead to saving nearly 200 liters of water per week!

The delicious end result!
Our homemade pizzas cooking
in the solar ovens! 
The true fun began around lunch time, where we prepared food as a community and made homemade pizzas in the solar ovens. The fierce Namibian sun fueled the solar ovens and naturally, eliminates the use of gas, electricity, or wood and produces zero pollution (solar cookers baking our homemade pizzas and the end result shown in the pictures).

After a walking tour of the dunes, observing the tracks and droppings of the diverse ecology and wildlife in the desert, and sand boarding, we finally caught the breathtaking stars!  Namibia’s NamibRand Nature Reserve, which is one of Africa’s largest nature reserves, remains one of the naturally most dark places on Earth. NaDEET aims to protect the environment and educate guests, and this includes understanding how we have contributed to all forms of pollution. Attached is a link shared at NaDEET of a short video called “Losing the Dark” by the International Dark Sky Association regarding light pollution and solutions.

CGEE students after a successful evening sand boarding
in the stunning Namib Desert.
Our group was split up along three different houses, therefore when the weekend came to a close we were elated to compare our water and electricity usage with our friends (a good ol’ competition was a great way to spark environmentally sustainable habits!) Upon returning to Windhoek, we reflected on ways we can promote sustainable living but also practicing what we learned. Some are proposing solar cooking to their internships to combat the issue of expensive electric bills as some of us are researching dual flush toilets. The program was the perfect balance between educational and entertaining!

In short, during our visit to Heroes’ Acre and NaDEET, we learned to think critically about issues of memorializing a country’s history, in addition to more contemporary questions on how to build a sustainable and environmentally conscious society. In both cases, there is an inherent politicization that is ultimately involved in the process, whether that be foreign outbidding in the construction of a national monument or access and availability of environmentally friendly practices. As we learned at NaDEET, the only way to truly make a difference as a socially conscious community is to actually practice what we learn; through an increase in knowledge comes a responsibility to create spaces of dialogue that address these issues.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Week Six: Realities of Reconciliation: Acknowledging complicity amidst a deafening silence

by Kitty McGirr & Emily Owens 

Between 1904 and 1908, German colonial forces conducted a massacre of 110,000 Herero and Nama people in Namibia—the scale and sheer brutality of which constituted the first genocide of the 20th century, and the practices of which laid basis for yet another genocide 30 years later in Holocaust Germany. More than a 100 years after this systematic extermination occurred, Germany has only recently agreed to recognize the genocide in a formal admission of historical guilt. 112 years for an apology. 112 years for acknowledgement. 112 years for no trials, no truth commissions, and most pertinently, no reparations for an annihilation order that wiped out 70% of the Herero and 50% of the Nama tribes’ entire populations. Our first speaker of the week, Uruanaani ‘Scara’ Matundu, a local lawyer and scholar on the Ovaherero genocide, shared with us his conviction that reparations remain the most suitable political response to the mass violence perpetrated by the Germans in Namibia. His was an advocacy radically inclusive in nature. Indeed, as a Namibian born in exile in Botswana himself, Scara was keen to underline to us the necessity of justice being instituted to all Herero and Nama people, irrespective of whether they were living in Namibia or were still residing further afield in the countries to which they had been exiled.

Mural displayed at the Independence Memorial Museum
in Windhoek— a space dedicated to the acknowledgement of
Namibian historical events such as the genocide and the
commemoration of Namibia’s journey to independence. 
As it stands, Germany is refusing to enter into discussions about the payment of reparations to Namibia, proposing that it provide developmental aid packages as an alternative form of redress for past atrocities instead. The allure of foreign aid has tended to quell any contributions by the Namibian government in furthering reparation initiatives on the ground due to the widely held belief that demanding redress in any other form would threaten the country’s preexisting dependence on foreign monetary support. To compound this lack of official support on an institutional and governmental level, Scara lamented the distinct lack of white, and specifically German, allyship in his and other Herero and Nama-speaking people’s struggle for economic recompense. I felt especially galvanized by the fact that not one German person sat on the reparations committee with Scara. Namibia, in contrast to its South African neighbor, chose to engage in a policy of silent forgiveness subsequent to the overturning of apartheid. No Truth and Reconciliation Project was conducted within its borders after independence. Instead, the common refrain has been one of unity and forgiveness, of inclusive rhetoric that asserts with the utmost conviction “we are all Namibians now.” Yet in spite of black Namibia’s almost supernatural capacity to forgive centuries of white racial violence, the majority of white Namibians have yet to truly earn that forgiveness by struggling to secure justice for their fellow citizens. I am struck by the audacity of white silence and inaction in the Namibian reparation struggle, but I am perhaps more confounded by the sheer consistency of complicity with injustice that whites continue to exhibit in other global contexts, including that of my own home.

As difficult as it can be to admit, we as individuals grapple with these same issues on a daily basis- and oftentimes, we fail to meet them with integrity. We lie complacent in our circumstances of relative privilege and comfort, while simultaneously remaining complicit as beneficiaries of a network of systems that deny so many others the same comfort we enjoy. Communities in the States, particularly white communities, equally fall into Scara’s categorization of inaction: we deny, we sometimes empathize, but very rarely do we act. What do long overdue reparations for communities of color mean for us on an individual level? What do our claims to support racial equity truly mean if our “support” is contingent on our own sense of security in an unwavering systemic advantage? What effect would recognizing the significance of these reparations for ourselves—to move past denial and empathy, into a trajectory of intentional action and solidarity—have on our communities, our societies, our national and global interactions? And beyond clear instances of marginalization and visibly unjust circumstances, just how often do we commit this disparaging complicity within our everyday lives?

Herbert Jaunch, an active force in the promotion of equity within Namibian trade and labor unions, provided our group with yet another avenue for critical thinking on this topic through his presentation on the influence of Chinese foreign investment on both the Namibian economy and labor force. Jaunch cited numerous instances of unethical wages, exploitative practices, and an overall lack of concern for the wellbeing of Namibian citizens enacted in the name of profit and economic growth. These human rights violations are not unique to the case of Chinese investment; when we choose to examine our own government’s foreign investments and even our individual purchases, we easily uncover an ongoing history of corruption- a history which we continue to write through our everyday capitalistic entanglements. Yet again, we are forced to acknowledge the significance behind our silence—while we can profess our disgust toward injustice and exploitation, we are concurrently supporting corporations and labor practices that drive this inequality through actions as simple as visiting the grocery store. 

So where does it ever end? How can we even begin to detach ourselves from what seems to be an inescapable network of chaos?

The reality of reconciliation is that none of us truly know the right way to reconcile. We glorify the concept of reparation without ever pausing to acknowledge or attempting to repair the broken perceptions that exist within ourselves. It is when we not only recognize, but push forward through our silence that we begin to combat our own complicity—in turn, ultimately coming to terms with the vital role we each must occupy in shaping a more just global society. 

Uruanaani ‘Scara’ Matundu, Namibian lawyer and scholar on the Ovaherero genocide; conversation on September 20, 2016 in Windhoek, Namibia. 

Herbert Jaunch, trade and labor union activist; conversation on September 23, 2016 in Windhoek, Namibia. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Week Five: Home Far Away from Home

by Hannah Davidson & Clara Randimbiarimanana

One of the best parts of studying abroad is the homestays, it is a special way to emerge into a new culture and also to learn in an unstructured and experiential way. Homestays are a period of time in which we are matched with a family and given the opportunity to live with them and get to know the culture through people that quickly become our extended family. Last week was our second homestay with CGEE after Soweto in Johannesburg. For this home stay most of us were matched with families in Katutura and Khomasdal, which are areas on the out skirts of Windhoek.  

Clara’s Week:

My host family is Tswana speaking and has lived in Katutura for as long as three or four generations. I only learned so much in such a short period of time during my stay there. My host mom is very passionate about social justice and women equality in Namibia and she was kind enough to share her experiences with me.

"This is a picture of my host mom
and myself after church", Clara.
Like in many other countries, gender inequality is still a big issue in Namibia. Women sometimes are expected to follow certain social norms and expectations. One of the questions I was asking was about young Namibian women clothing standard. My host mom usually wears a dress, which looks really nice but I was just wondering if it was her personal choice. However, she said that it all started when she got married because dresses are seen as respectful clothing and “lady like”; thus her husband expected her to wear dresses even though she did not like it in the first place. Although I’m aware that not all Namibian women have had the same experiences, her story made me think about gender expectations in general and the way women internalize and accommodate to social expectations. The cultural values associated with gender sometimes start as simple as clothing, but can go all the way to what is the “normal” way for women to behave. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge the power dynamics behind the perception of gender role in general and the space of socialization such us: culture, background and family. Family is the primary place of perceptions about different concepts. 

During my homestay, I see my mom doing most of the chores: cooking, cleaning, serving, etc. and I can’t help but think that this phenomenon is not exclusive to Namibia, because I see a lot of similarities in the household I grew up in. Each and every one in the family is assigned a certain role. The issue is that that’s where women start to develop their identity according to the type of family and culture that they grow up in. In short, my host mom experience is very unique and I could not generalize all the Namibian women as being the same. However, this experience made me realize about the socialization and formation of concepts like gender and cultural identity.

Hannah’s Week:
Throughout this trip I have met some amazing children, especially in the last week. We were staying with host families, and I had the pleasure of having an energy filled eight-year-old sister.
This week I also started at my internship, which means I met my 20 five- and six-year-old students. I am an education major, so many kids have come in and out of my life, always seeming to shake things up for me a bit, and make me look at things in a new light. But this was a different sort of shaking up that my past with kids hadn’t been able to prepare me for.

I walked in to my first day of being a real live teacher with a backpack full of tricks, a white skirt, and candy jar with a skittle for anyone who followed the rules. I left at noon with a backpack of broken and ripped tricks, a light tan skirt, and a full candy jar. Even a game of duck, duck, goose had miserably failed. My first day as a real teacher was less then successful, but it was only the first day and I had quickly realized that teaching these students in the same way I would teach a class of students in the US was not going to cut it. I left feeling unsure of how I was going to actually be a sufficient teacher for these kids. 

Hannah's host home for the week.
As my week continued I felt blessed to have my host sister and mom to go home to. My host sister was rambunctious, but the cozy feeling of family and being loved gave me energy. Every night my sister would play with my hair as we would co-read a chapter book together. Being able to have this comfortable space to call home was probably why my patience continued to surprise me with my students. 

I survived all three of my internship days with some sort of grace and I hadn’t completely wrecked the kids yet, so there were definitely positives in my week. I found myself comparing what my students and host sister knew and how they learned to students that I had worked with in schools in the US. My students here struggled to sit through a whole picture book and my host sister was taught subtraction in a way I had never thought of before. The idea that context has a direct effect on how students learn and actually do school has definitely been ingrained in my mind going to school to be a teacher, but seeing it like this was a whole other thing. Trying to consider if a book will actually fit in my students frames of reference or letting my host sister show me how she does her math homework are some of the things that I know are going to make me a better educator now and in the future. As I continue to learn (and struggle with) these children that are coming in and out of my life, I hope I can learn how to be the teacher that they need, rather then getting frustrated that they aren't the students I am used to. 

This last week was one, that for most of us, we will share and grow from for many months. Although each of us had vastly different experiences, we were given an opportunity to learn and explore a new culture in a way that pushed us outside our comfort zones or made us wonder and question. This is something that is truly invaluable.  We are so blessed to be welcomed into these families’ homes and lives. 

Week Four: Hooked on Windhoek: Introduction to Namibia

by Jeremiah Chamberlin & Hannah Johnson

At the beginning of the week, the CGEE group had the opportunity to engage with students from the University of Namibia (UNAM) in an informal discussion. This became an invaluable experience; for many of us, it was the first time we were able to interact with Namibian peers and dually analyze some the experiences that have shaped our lives as students. The topics of discussion ranged from our favorite hobbies and involvement in campus life, to deeper issues such as racism and discrimination on campus.

One of the topics that emerged from conversation are the barriers to accessing education at the collegiate level. For many of us at CGEE, we echoed the idea that financial considerations present the largest challenge in the United States, compounded by the realities of institutional racism and economically diverse backgrounds. From the perspective of the UNAM students, race did not play as important a role in college choice and acceptance rate. However, they did emphasize the role of the education system in Namibia, especially concerning regions outside of Windhoek. It was surprising to learn that the quality of teachers and curriculums is low in many regions, and this has impacted the demographics of students that attend college. For example, particularly in the Northern regions, teachers are underpaid and schools are understaffed. From both the US and Namibian perspectives, we were surprised on how many similarities we were able to draw between education systems.

On Tuesday, our group spilt into subgroups to explore the various facets that Katutura, a former black township in Windhoek, has to offer. We received itineraries for the day and were accompanied by guides from Young Achievers, a local youth organization. On this ‘Katutura Quest,’ we visited a diversity of both government and non-government organizations and programs that are involved in the community. One such program is the Katutura Community Arts Center, which is open to the public. Within the arts center is the College of the Arts (COTA).

During our tour, we had the opportunity to sit in on a staff/student meeting where the changing financial policies of the college were discussed. Many of the challenges that small colleges face while moving forward are connected to some of the topics we discussed with the UNAM students on Monday regarding education. Among the concerns is the increasing cost of tuition as a government-subsidized college, which has put pressure on many students of low-income backgrounds.

In our interview with Joost Van de Port, head of the Media Department at COTA, he explained that the college and students need be able to gain more agency to receive national recognition from the state. Currently, COTA is not listed under the Ministry of Education, and therefore, not seen as a priority. As Van de Port explains, the college is in the process of gaining status to be listed under the Ministry of Education, which allows greater funding for the college, particularly from the National Arts Council. Van de Port claims that media literacy, particularly under the department of the Media, Arts, and Technology, is crucial for all Namibians to learn. 

Those of us with internships began officially on Wednesday, with a full day at our individual organizations. These included The Namibian Chamber of Commerce, Planned Parenthood, Namibian Women’s Health Network, Friendly Haven (for victims of domestic violence), along with a number of others. Because many of these organizations work with vulnerable populations, these first few days of interning were emotional for some individuals. For a few of us this meant hearing heartbreaking stories of domestic abuse; for others, it means coming face to face with the inadequate funding and understaffing of specific educational institutions. Naturally, it’s not all negative; there are organizations like Sister Namibia which are doing incredible work to empower Namibian women in surprising ways, while simultaneously challenging gender stereotypes. Collectively, these shared experiences are giving us a fuller, more complex understanding of the Namibian story.

One of the highlights of this week would have to be Thursday’s ‘Community Day’, held at the Elisenheim Guest Farm. While we may have complained about waking up early, the day became an insightful opportunity to reflect on our experiences. The day also gave us the chance to get closer to those we are sharing our experiences with, especially other members of the CGEE staff (specifically Evelyn, Jenobie, Sarah, and Passat). Initially playing games like ‘Seven’ (learned from our Katatura tour guides), the day began on a relaxed, informal note. We shared simple secrets about ourselves, like facts about our families or our favorite memories. It was a welcome reprieve from the emotionally intense schedule of Johannesburg. 

Elisenheim Guest Farm on Community Day.
ables are set up for our various identity stations.
However, as the activities progressed, the subject matter became much more personal. Entering ‘identity stations’, individuals were asked to share in small groups their personal feelings on aspects of their identity, such as race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, class, and nationality. Many of us were reduced to tears in the process of hearing each other’s deeply held thoughts and emotions, yet the overall sentiment was one of openness and acceptance. 

Friday marked the first day of actual class: Race and Resistance in Southern Africa and the US taught by Albertina. This included a field trip to the Owela Museum, which records the lifestyles, cultures and practices of Namibia’s indigenous tribes. The museum also addresses some of the injustices faced by these groups, like those suffered by the San people. Dubbed ‘Bushmen’ by early German colonizers, members of the San were considered evidence of the ‘missing link’ theory connecting apes and humans. In an effort to record data on what they considered an evolutionarily incomplete group, German ‘scientists’ made molds and casts of San people’s faces and body parts. Skewed information was then published, propagating racist narratives of white supremacy which are sadly still influential even today.

Molds of actual San people created for the Germans'
racist interpretation of the 'missing link' theory.
Despite the tragic reality of colonization and discrimination, the Owela museum remains an important place for appreciating Namibian history and heritage. Named after a board game common among many Namibian tribes (similar to Mancala), Owela stands as both a tangible and symbolic representation of the larger Namibian identity. The shared story of the nation is as beautifully haunting as the unique communal experiences which are braided into its past. As we acclimate ourselves to this new environment, we begin our journey backwards in time to the tumultuous formative age of disillusionment.

Week Three: Cape Town and Windhoek

by Clara Randimbiarimanana & Anne-Claire Merkle-Scotland

Our last week in Cape Town, I felt increasingly comfortable in the city and as if there was no end of things for us to do. We took some trips as a group to learn about the very complex and real injustices that South Africans continue to face throughout the country, especially the disturbing disparity of wealth, and the apparent segregation of blacks and whites that still continues even twenty-two years after the end of apartheid.

On Monday, we visited a community organization that was truly inspiring. The Victoria Mxenge Housing Project is without a doubt an unbelievably uplifting experience, for both educating us as visitors, and for the work they have done for the community. An incredible example of what strong women can accomplish, the organization began during the end of apartheid when a group of single mothers raised the funds and taught themselves how to build houses as a way of lifting themselves and their families out of severe poverty. One woman told us a story about how she set the roof on her house while six months pregnant, and how she built that house for her children, and someday it will be their house.  Twenty-two years later, we also met with the children of the women who created the housing project, and they shared their visions of the world and educational accomplishments as credit to their mothers, who relentlessly worked to better the community and the future of their children all on their own. In addition to building houses for their families and the community, the women of Victoria Mxenge also have built a community center and playground, so their work continues to have a lasting impact on the people all around them. I was truly astounded and inspired by the work of these strong women, and the impact they have had on their children, their neighbors, and the world.
Cape Town is full of tourists, beautiful sites, great food, a fun night life, incredible people, and rampant economic and social inequity. Exposed to all these things during our time in the city, leaving Cape Town was very bittersweet. While excited to travel to Windhoek and begin this next chapter of our study abroad experience, I was also sad to be leaving a place where I had truly begun to feel close to our group and started to feel comfortable. 

The city of Windhoek is very different from Cape Town. It is smaller in size and quieter than the busy nightlife we experienced beforehand. Namibia as a whole is far smaller than South Africa. The country is about the size of California yet has a population of only 1.8 million people. Windhoek has so much to offer, though, and in the first few hours I tried to take in as much as I could about the city and what is available to us these next few months. 

On the second day in Namibia, we were just dropped off in downtown Windhoek in groups of three and told to explore different parts of the city. It was a great way to get our feet wet to our journey in Namibia. Windhoek is a great city; not too overwhelming, it has its own pace and beauty: a beauty that is usually left untold by the mainstream narrative. The media usually portrays Africa based of is based of the years of colonialism, slavery, missionary. Of course, the world’s perception of Africa is dominated by the mess media which does not give much credit to the progress achieved after these years of exploitation. In the case of Namibia for instance, the last country to get its independence, it made so much progress since 1990 than the media is giving credit for. During the short amount of time we have been in the city, there are so many tall buildings and we also saw the independence museum right in the heart of the city. However, that it also where the former concentration camp for the Herero people (one of Namibian’s tribes). As an outsider, I think of it to be somehow symbolic; acknowledging the past, learning from it but celebrating their independence as well.

Our exploration of Windhoek was followed by our driving tour of the city. It was great entering the Single Quarters’ Market in Katutura and visiting different shops. The market’s feel, or the way it is structured, reminded me a lot of Antananarivo’s market in Madagascar on Fridays. How informal markets are set up always amazes me because they are so accessible for people from different social status and different tribes as well. So the market is not only a place where people get daily supplies but really a safe space for diversity. It amazes me how they navigate through different languages, and everyone just speaks a bit of someone else’s language. Namibia has 10 official languages (Oshiwambo, Nama/Damara, Afrikaans Otjiherero, Kavango, Caprivi, English, German, San) and a Namibian speaks at least 3.  Most people that we interacted with spoke but some did not, though they could understand each other really well regardless of their origins.

One of the greatest moments in the market of Katutura as well is the meat market. They sell a tomato salad with a Chakalaka sauce next to the raw meat tale where they sell Barbeque as well. That was probably the best snack I have had in such a long time. Slightly outside the main market, there were many places that cut raw meat as well that makes me wonder if beef meat is a big thing in Katutura people’s daily life. My first impression of Katutura was just amazing, it’s alive. Many people are walking in the street, yet it is not a big city for that matter. You would hear Namibian songs from the households. In short, it’s a lively place!

While far different from our experiences in South Africa, we have settled in our final destination, and have eagerly been learning about everything this new city has to offer. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Week Two: The Unseen Colors of the Rainbow Nation

by Imani Briscoe & Kitty McGirr

I remember waiting for my flight not two weeks ago genuinely envisioning what this “rainbow nation” was going to look like once I landed in Johannesburg. Now as we conclude our time here in South Africa, I am beginning to appreciate that what lays beneath this widely propagated ideal is much more complex, nuanced and problematic than the romanticized image I and many others with a similarly elementary understanding of post-apartheid South Africa would imagine this so-called rainbow nation to be. 

The varied nature of our activities and conversations on the program so far is indicative of the diversity of views and circumstances among the people of South Africa. However, while at face value this diversity supports the dominant narrative of South Africa as a rainbow nation, upon closer examination one begins to recognize that formerly institutionally separate racial groups are not suddenly coexisting harmoniously with one another now that apartheid has ended. In fact, the majority of what I have seen on the program so far suggests almost the opposite. Rather than achieving real unity and equity in the post-apartheid era, the many colorful identities comprising this so-called rainbow nation seem in some ways to be just as far removed from and unequal to each other as what was previously instituted under the apartheid system.  

In addition, it is very intriguing that, even with the acknowledged importance of the history of South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation”, discussions surrounding the indigenous people and colonization of what is now known as Cape Town rarely occur. Most of what we find in the American education history books regarding the changes Cape Town has gone through seems to focus on the racial issues of blacks and whites.  There is little to no conversation about the people who originally lived, loved and lost before the social constructs of race dominated the historical narratives; narratives such that influenced the process of colonization , which has very much impacted current day Cape Town. This past week we took a walking tour of the city of Cape Town with Lucy and Kadijah from Transcending History Tours, and learned a plethora of information about the way of life before and during colonial settlement and were given an opportunity to discover the untold story of Cape Town’s first people, the khoi-san.

Our tour took us through many notable areas including the first colonial settlement in the area, the Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town City Centre which holds some historic markers pertaining to the slave trade prior to the 1834 emancipation, and the well-known Iziko Slave Lodge which housed slaves from all over the world during the slave trade.

In every building we entered, every short filmed viewed, and every monument we paid respect to, I thought of Cape Town’s historical parallels to what was happening in the United States of America during the same time. It is illuminating to learn that on the other side of the world the same methods of racial division through systematic control and oppression were being implemented. It’s interesting to consider how both regions were shaped by the countless issues that colonization and devastation left behind. As a black American and proponent of black-consciousness, with no known blood relative connections to the Africa as a whole, I, Imani, have heard about the same kind of oppression and slavery time and time again on American soil and therefore felt like I shared a common history with those people who went through the same struggles as my ancestors did, just in another place of the world.

After leaving our homestay families in Soweto, we travelled to the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, a city traditionally associated with and populated by Afrikaner people. Upon arrival we met with the deputy director of the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice, JC van der Merwe for a discussion on the history of the campus as well as the issues facing the institution at present. One detail that I found particularly striking was the fact that no formal pressure was placed on UFS or any higher education institution in South Africa to desegregate their campuses after 1994. In fact, according to van de Merwe, the residences of UFS were still racially segregated as early as 2007. I was moved by this information for two reasons. Firstly, I was immediately reminded of the parallels between South Africa’s failure to desegregate its educational system and the language of Brown v. Board of Education in the US whereby the Supreme Court only required schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed”. Secondly, I was struck by how incongruous the politicized idea of a rainbow nation was to the reality on the ground in South Africa. Thirteen years after the ANC led the liberation struggle to overturn apartheid, white students at this university were still resisting administration mandates to integrate. 

The last activity for our day at UFS involved taking a tour around campus with two students we had met previously at a group discussion about our respective experiences as university students. One of our tour guides was keen to relay to me her experience being part of the first racially mixed female residence on the campus, which she described as a genuine “sisterhood”. However, the visual landscape of the campus was again at odds with the widely proliferated image of the rainbow nation, the narrative of unified racial integration and even the story my tour guide relayed to me about her mixed residence minutes before the tour began. Walking around the campus I did not see one mixed race friendship nor did I notice any white students present at a growing gathering of protestors demonstrating for higher wages for black workers on campus. Confused at what ostensibly looked like a state of enduring racial separation in the university community, I asked our guide if it was at all unusual that we hadn’t seen any interracial friend groups on our tour. Her response was a disheartening one: “No, it’s not unusual. People still don’t really mix”. These words, for me, were symbolic of the countless discrepancies I have witnessed in these two short weeks here in South Africa with regard to the romanticized ideal of a rainbow nation and the enduring reality of chronic racial inequality in the post-apartheid era.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Week One: Reflections on the Motherland

by Chiara White-Mink & Anne-Claire Merkle-Scotland

Apartheid ended 22 years ago when the first democratic elections were held in 1994, the same year I was born. For a nation that experienced so much horror in throughout apartheid these elections marked a new era of possibility and prosperity. That hope was shared throughout the world, when the message of a newly united nation travelled half-way across the world to the classrooms and schools I attended. However as residents and students in the United States, we should be well aware that change, especially social change, may take years and even generations to truly happen. Therefore, we were exposed to the realities of post-apartheid South Africa and the continuously growing economic challenges and disparities faced by South Africans, particularly the black citizens still facing severe effects from Apartheid.

Apartheid was crippling for black families, communities, and individuals by destroying communities and separating blacks from whites and sending them to specified “townships”areas of land outside of the cities where black people were confined to. Accessing medical care, education, and transportation cost money, and all the resources designated to blacks were far inferior in quality to the resources offered to white people only a few miles away. Blacks could not travel outside of their designated community, as well as work, attend school, or do almost anything without a permit.

Our current educational practices are a reflection of eurocentricity, intrinsically perpetuating the marginalization of communities of color and rendering us invisible in educational spheres. Blackness is positioned as the antithesis to whiteness and is thus implicitly framed as deficient and pathological. This is absolutely not indicative of Paulo Freire’s vision of education as a tool for liberation and social change. Instead, this exhibits an immensely problematic model of education that enables the success of the privileged at the expense of the oppressed. I, unfortunately, was unable to conceptualize my educational experiences as such until I began my collegiate career. I was provided with the space to critically reflect on my schooling, paying close attention to how aspects of my identity (such as race, gender, class, etc.) impacted what privileges and opportunities I was afforded and what I was deprived of. As a Black woman, I was faced with the harsh reality of oppression on the basis of race and gender. The most potent example of deprivation I can think of is the lack of culturally relevant material/the inability of educational spaces to centralize African-Indigenous belief systems as a method to empower students of color and expose white students to an undervalued world view; and subsequently, the expectation for students of color to assimilate to hegemonic notions about success.

Thus, my trip to the continent of Africa signifies my journey to increased critical consciousness, psychological emancipation and self-love, a revolutionary act. Education is intricately connected to our sense of humanity and I desperately sought an educational outlet that not only recognized, but honored my humanity. I concluded that this program attempted to a foster a space grounded in anti-oppressive ideology and actions that reflect intentionality and purpose. The first week of the program was spent in Johannesburg, South Africa where we went on various field trips to become critically acquainted with the country. I was deeply disturbed by the failure of my educational systems to acknowledge the interconnectedness of the struggle for liberation here and in the United States, or rather acknowledge the plight of people of color beyond the United States, period. It is also important to highlight the manner in which information is presented as well. Schools, as I have articulated above, typically convey information in immensely problematic ways (the dominant narrative), often excluding vital narratives and potent perspectives. Thus, I felt beyond privileged to hear about events here in South Africa from the voices of people directly involved, because I know that my educational spaces are lacking. One thing in particular I have been marinating on is the role of ordinary people in worldwide liberation struggles. This stood out to me on our visits to the Hector Pieterson museum and Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre. At Orange Farm, we had the opportunity hear from people on the micro level about issues that impacted their community. For once, leaders who rose to national prominence were decentralized and it was more about the work ordinary people are doing to provide for their communities. They actually shared their thoughts on one leader we have all been conditioned to love—Nelson Mandela. I am not attempting to refute his importance or discredit his accomplishments, but I was forced to critically analyze Mandela in a way like never before—in a way that countered the dominant narrative surrounding his political reign. The Hector Pieterson museum was especially interesting because we got to speak directly to Antoinette Sithole, a key player in the June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprising that resulted in the death of her brother. It is about time that we recognize the bravery and resilience of everyday people who are not necessarily internationally known or praised. 

Through visits to communities such as Orange Farm, located about an hour outside of Johannesburg, we saw and heard about the enormous problems within education and employment that poor communities are still facing even 22 years after the country was supposedly desegregated. With little resources offered from the government, schools continue to suffer from overcrowding and lack of materials, while adults and young adults are facing high rates of unemployment and lack of opportunities. Speaking to citizens, we learned how frustrated black South Africans are with the lack of economic mobility since the end of Apartheid. Still stuck in an oppressive and vicious cycle of poverty, many citizens have given up on expecting the government to create real effective change after so many years of what many view as false promises. One of our speakers Molefi Mataboge said it best when he stated “When politicians talk, we must listen not to what they’re saying, but to what they’re not saying.”

Coming to South Africa, I was expecting to see the land of Nelson Mandela and an integrated society somewhat free from the obstructions of apartheid, and constantly moving forward to maintain that promise of democracy shared throughout the world for years after apartheid ended. My experiences this week however showed me how much farther this great nation needs to go to truly see economic prosperity and opportunity for all of its citizens, and the serious changes that need to be made in order to make this happen.

The honorable Steve Biko once said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” I have recognized that education thus far has been the practice of domination—keeping me ignorant, silent, and perpetuating social inequities. I am here to build upon what I have been unlearning in the U.S. and am ready to take back my mind from the oppressor, by any means necessary.