Welcome to the blog site for our Elmira College travel class to South Africa. We will update this blog regularly with posts about our travels and experiences. We'll upload photos when we have the chance. Check back regularly to follow our adventures!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

First Day in South Africa

It was hard to get out of bed this morning after such a long trip, but we all made it up by 8:00 AM for breakfast and then onto the bus. Our guide for the day, Robin, a historian, took us first to the Apartheid Museum. This museum is a world-class modern museum dedicated to preserving South Africa's history of racial divisions, violence, struggle, and reconciliation. Throughout our time in the museum, Robin talked about his own experiences as a white "European" English-speaker. His family roots went back to 1842 in South Africa, when his ancestors came with other British farmers to settle land in the West Cape. He was very open about how he was born before the formal racial separation of Apartheid became the law, grew up under Apartheid, and supported it for much of his adult life. It was only after the end of Apartheid, he told us, that he began to see how racial divisions had harmed not only his country but so very many people. Since Apartheid, he has dedicated much of his work to helping people who live in the township of Alexandra, one of the oldest and poorest townships in the country.

With Robin's guidance, we went into Alexandra to visit one of the social projects. First, though, we stopped for lunch at a shabeen, a sort of restaurant that under Apartheid operated secretly, but now is a vital part of the local community. For lunch, we had the typical meat-heavy South African food: spiced sausages, barbecued chicken, and marinated beef. We also had a form of grits, some chaka laka (spicy chopped carrot mix), and a pea and bean mix that tasted a lot like baked beans. It was delicious (to most of us, anyway!).

After lunch, we went to the social project, a school for orphans that our guide founded. Today was not a school day, and as our bus pulled in, children started running towards us, waving and smiling. As we came off the bus, children started coming up to us and giving us big hugs, or shaking our hands, or clowning around with us. Some of the boys were tumbling and doing flips in the grass. We had brought them some presents from Elmira College, so our students handed out soccer balls and Elmira College t-shirts to the kids (many of the kids were WAY too small for the shirts, but immediately put them on anyway). Some of the girls started bouncing the soccer balls as if they were basketballs, and a couple of our students started playing 'basketball' with them. Of course we were curious about these children, some of whom had been orphaned by AIDS, but those kids seemed to be just as curious about us. I think it's fair to say that the highlight of the day was the visit we had with these kids!

The township around us had many large shanty-towns and run-down hostels, mixed in with a few well-cared for tiny little houses. The people were all very friendly and even with the obvious and pervasive poverty they were very welcoming. Alexandra is a fascinating place, and it was a wonderful opportunity to have a chance to see a little of it.

From Alexandra, we went to Soweto, South Africa's largest and most famous township. This township was the former home of both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, and we had the chance to walk past their houses (the former Mandela house is in the process of being turned into a museum). We went to the spot where Hector Pietersen was murdered by the police in 1976. During that time, young students were protesting new rules that required that all students of color in South Africa would be required to be taught in Afrikaans, the symbolic language of the oppressor and a language that most of the teachers and students did not speak. In fact, widespread protests lead to a mass boycott of the education system, which has had a terrible lasting legacy in that many middle-aged South Africans are barely literate because their families did not allow them to attend school at that time. The famous photograph of Pietersen, being carried by another child running away from the violence, was one of the most evocative images of the Apartheid protests, and brought world-wide awareness to the controversy. We had a chance to visit the monument to the student protesters who died in that uprising. The open courtyard houses a wide brick plaza, with a pool at one end that slowly drips water down its side, symbolizing the loss of blood during Apartheid. But the memorial is ultimately hopeful, as the water trickles down through the plaza, into a widening rocky stream, eventually literally passing under a bridge and out of sight. The memorial plaza is up on a hill, and from there, we had a beautiful view down over Soweto.

In Soweto, we also had the chance to visit the famous Catholic church that Desmond Tutu led. This church was the largest building in Soweto, and was the only gathering place not controlled by the government. Of course, this meant that the church was often attacked by the police, who would sometimes not wait until parishioners were finished with worship before they entered to break up the crowds. The church ceilings are still filled with bullet holes, which are being left as a reminder of those times. The marble alter has not been repaired, either, from where a corner of it was smashed off by an attacking police officer with a club. The officer missed the head of the person he was attacking, and was using so much force, he broke through several thick inches of marble. Just seeing it was chilling. In the Apartheid Museum, we had seen film of the police attacking worshippers with tear gas and batons. But seeing the real place was so much more powerful.

We are now back at the hotel for the night. Students have all eaten dinner and are hanging out (and of course, writing in their journals!). We start very early tomorrow morning, with a drive out to the so-called Cradle of Mankind, one of the most fruitful fossil sites in the world for early proto-human bones. We will also be visiting Pretoria, the very Afrikaaner former capitol of South Africa.

Good night!

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