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!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Trip to Venda

We are on the bus for much of the day today, making our way from the metro area of Johannesburg way out to the far north-east of the country, to the area known as Venda. The Venda people are rural and many of them continue to live traditionally. To get there, we have a 7 hour bus ride. We are trying to get there early so we can stop in a traditional craft workshop on the way, and still arrive by sunset. The lodge where we are staying is putting together a traditional bush bar b-q for us, which they call a 'bush brai.' They are setting up near a watering hole for animals, and if we are there by sunset, we'll be able to see animals come to drink before dark.

I should let you know that we are staying in a different lodge than was listed in our itinerary. Our new lodge is called Dongols Ranch Lodge, and the contact information is: dongols@iafrica. com, or 015-533-1068 (in case of emergency).

The land as we drive past is filled with bushes and small trees, very green but sort of scrubby. The soil here has a high mineral content and is alternately very red or very gold. The gold soil is that color because of the actual gold content. In fact, the Johannesburg area is focused on gold mining, and is South Africa's largest industry. Johannesburg is the largest city in the world not built on a water system, and exists (and thrives) from mining.

The highways are excellent, and look much like European highways. There are regular rest stops and scenic pull-offs. While the land is mostly flat, there are some rolling hills off on the horizon. As we get farther north, we'll start to see the mountains in the distance. There are also some very large high hills that look like ridges, with very little vegetation growing on them. These hills, which are quite dramatic, are fairly frequent along the side of the road. They are mine tailing dumps, some very old. As the gold veins are mined, the remaining soil is piled and packed to create these hills. Even 100 years ago, they were concerned with erosion, so the tailings are piled almost squarely, which leads to the dramatic look of the hills.

This part of South Africa is quite dry, and we are at a very high elevation. In fact, we are higher up than Denver right now. As we drive toward the east, we will hit the continental divide, which is marked by a dramatic mile-high drop-off. Literally, the continent of Africa is slowly splitting apart and has been for millions of years. If you look at an elevation map, you can see, the whole length of the continent, along the eastern side, a chain of lakes, mountains, and rivers, which mark the divide. The far eastern part of Africa is not only at a much lower elevation, but the whole ecosystem changes as well. Up high in this part of the country, it is drier and dustier and grassier. In the east, it is warmer, moister, and greener. The plants and animals are different as well, as we will soon see.

As we've been driving, we've been seeing lots of political signs. The region we are in currently is having a state election in mid-may, just after we leave. Many older South Africans are not fully literate, so the political signs use a lot of photographs and symbols. We have seen Jacob Zuma's face everywhere! While he is the President of South Africa, he is also the head of the ANC (African National Congress), the ruling party. People here don't vote for individuals, they vote for political parties. So Zuma is not himself on the ballot, but his party is. Actually, when we were in the Apartheid Museum, one of the last exhibits before we left was a framed first ballot of the free and democratic South Africa in 1994. The Apartheid regime had made most competing political parties illegal, so when South Africans were finally free, the ballot, with all the parties, was highly symbolic of the new democratic nation.

Zuma is a controversial president. Both Mandela, the nation's first real democratically-elected president, and his sucessor, Mbeki, were highly educated resistance leaders from the small Black middle class. They were both also from the Xhosa ethnic group, but highly influenced by Western culture and ideals. Zuma is a Zulu chief, a former mining union leader, with four years of formal education in grade school. He also has many wives and children. He is highly influential with many South Africans, not only because the Zulus are the largest ethnic group, but because he is very charismatic and speaks like "an African." He has used this influence to help with workers wages, but he has also used his influence in controversial ways. For example, he has publicly stated that if a man is circumcised and takes an immediate shower, he can't get HIV from having relations with an HIV positive woman. This is now known as 'The Zuma method," and as can be imagined, it is very controversial.

Most of the students are sleeping on the bus right now. We'll be stopping for a quick lunch in an hour or so. We've already given them their first pop-quiz (with a bonus question!). We haven't graded them yet, but we are fairly optimistic!

So far, so good...

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