Thursday, February 6, 2014

Week 2: Pretoria & Windhoek: Different Interpretations of History

By Matt Erbes & Kelsey Renner

The list of names of those commemorated at Freedom Park,
a memorial and museum dedicated to the liberation struggle
of South Africa

This past week was a busy one for the students of the Center for Global Education (CGE). After our Soweto homestays concluded on the morning of January 27th, we hit the road yet again on the way to Pretoria, where we stayed for a couple days. We got the chance to visit the U.S. Embassy, Freedom Park museum and memorial, and the Voortrekker Monument, which were all important sites with socio-political value. After our brief stay in Pretoria, we finally left for Namibia, and we arrived at the CGE house in Windhoek on January 29th. The past week has been a clear representation of how different interpretations of history can mold our consciousness and awareness of today’s society. It has been an eye-opening experience to see how such interpretations have shaped societies in Southern Africa to date.

At the U.S. Embassy, we were able to sit down with several different federal employees who gave us differing perspectives on foreign service careers [1]. Each had a very different career path that had led them to the Embassy. It was thought-provoking for us to hear as a group with many different educational backgrounds, and we were interested to hear how our respective fields could prepare us for a career in foreign service. During this meeting, it was clear that they all had different perspectives on the world and what the United States’ role in it should be, but they all worked for a common goal despite any differing interpretations of the history of US foreign policy. 

View of Reconciliation Road running from Freedom Park to
the Voortrekker Monument
The Voortrekker Monument, dedicated to the memory of
the Boer's trek inland and their struggles against native Africans.

It was fascinating to see the Freedom Park memorial and the Voortrekker Monument on the same day, for they both were dedicated to wildly different interpretations of South African history. While Freedom Park was more of a tribute to African and foreign men and women who lost their lives fighting for liberation from discrimination, the Voortrekker Monument celebrated the proud history of the Boer pioneers who settled in South Africa and endured many hardships to escape the unfair treatment directed towards them by the British. Our tour guide at Freedom Park focused on the spiritualism of the monument and how it worked very hard to maintain its mandate to display open reconciliation. This was a direct contrast to the Voortrekker Monument, which had almost no mention of reconciliation with the African peoples affected by the Boer resettlement long ago. The Freedom Park museum, which focused on various facets of African history, was symbolic and artistic in nature. For instance, the museum featured live performers who acted out various scenes of South African history, and each exhibit felt like it would not have been out of place in an art museum. Similarly, the Voortrekker Monument featured a massive frieze which depicted the story of the Boer migration in dramatic terms. Despite this, the overall style of the Voortrekker Monument was more designed towards both relaying specific factual information and glorifying the Boer people through bold and staunch architecture. It also painted a very biased picture of the African and Boer relations, as it showed the violence being caused mainly by Africans. The two monuments were both impressive tributes to their causes and pasts. 

We were all very excited to finally arrive in Namibia after ten days of travel around South Africa; we were happy to finally be able to unpack our suitcases and feel at home. Since our arrival, we have done a couple tours of different parts of Windhoek, the capital city which will serve as our home base for the semester, in order to get oriented with how to get around and how the city’s form has developed. Since we have only been in Windhoek for four days, we are still learning the history of Namibia and the Windhoek area. However, it is easy to see that Windhoek is a very vibrant city with lots of culturally significant attractions. Through our classes, volunteering, and internships, we hope to learn about the different interpretations of the past and how it may affect the future. 

The day after our arrival, we embarked on a walking tour of Windhoek’s central business district. This was a very helpful experience, as it forced us to learn how to get around on our own, and we were directed towards many important cultural, commercial, and entertainment sites. We also got to meet Namibians our age through our “Katatura Quest,” a short walking tour of the Katatura district led by youth who live in the neighborhood. This was a refreshing experience, since it was the first time we have been taught directly by kids our own age. This allowed us to relate on a different level to what we were learning. Because we were split into small groups for the tours, each group’s experience was a little different and our reflection afterwards was very helpful to tie everything together. 

Our trip so far has been very dependent on different interpretations and perspectives, and we have no doubt we will continue to see that present in the rest of our studies. As a group who has so many different thoughts and opinions, these experiences will help us to learn how to reconcile differences, offer thoughtful criticism, and grow together on this journey.

This blog is the work of our students. To learn more about Center for Global Education programming, visit us at


[1] We met with five staff members of the US Embassy in Pretoria on January, 29 2014 but were asked to keep the conversation off the record to allow for more open discussion of their personal, educational, and professional histories.

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