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...

Friday, April 29, 2011

Drimolen and Pretoria

Another beautiful day in South Africa! We got an early start today, leaving the Africa Centre at 7am. We met our guide Marianne and proceeded to learn a bit more of South African history on our way to Drimolen, an amazing archaeological site that is part of the Cradle of Humankind. Researchers have been working here for at least the last eighty years unearthing the secrets of our hominid past.

After tea and biscotti, we learned more about this research as we toured the site. The fossils found at Drimolen and other nearby sites were formed as a result of sedimentation processes in vertical caves extending around 50 feet below the surface of the earth. The Austrolopithicus specimens found at the site date back approximately 1.6 million years. One of the most exciting finds at this particular site include the nearly intact skeletons of six newborn babies. This is rare because infants' bones are not fully formed, and thus rarely become fossilized. Of course, it's not all hominids here; there's plenty of microfauna as well (those are the bones of mice and other small rodents, preserved thanks to two million year old owl pellets).

After a lovely picnic lunch at the site, we proceeded to spend the afternoon in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa. The main attraction here was the Vortrekker Monument. This monument memorializes the struggles of mainly Dutch South African farmers called Boers to subdue the local Zulu tribes and carve out a home for themselves, a process similar in all its bloodiness to the American pioneers as they moved further into the American West.

Our final stop for the day was the lovely Gardens of Remembrance, which is another memorial of sorts, this time to South Africans who gave their lives in the two world wars of the past century. A lovely end to a lovely day. On our way out of Pretoria, we drove by the home of Peter Kruger, the rough and tumble President of South Africa from the mid-1880s until the end of the Anlgo-Boer War and the American Embassy. Tomorrow: a day of driving as we make our way to the Venda territory in the far northeast corner of South Africa.

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!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Leaving campus--and arriving in South Africa!

We left at 2:30 PM on Tuesday, and we arrived in JoBurg at 11:00 PM on Wednesday. The first flight, to Detroit, was fine, and the second flight, to Amsterdam, was OK (7.5 hours). But that last flight, to JoBurg, was 10.5 hours and I think we felt every single minute.

We are now at our hotel, the Africa Centre, with students packed into two rooms (yes, they are really seriously packed in!). We start out bright and early tomorrow with a trip to the townships (the famous Soweto and the smaller and currently more dynamic Alexandria). We'll have lunch in a Shabeen, or underground restaurant, with all kinds of African dishes served buffet style.

First, though, I think we'll sleep....

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

South African Weather Service

Here's a link to the South African Weather Service. It looks like it will be cool (mid-60s) in Johannesburg when we arrive. In other words, it will feel quite a bit like Western NY, at least temperature-wise.