Friendly people, breathtaking scenery and exotic wildlife exemplify South Africa, a Tusculum College professor and administrator found in a recent trip.
They also found extreme poverty and a lingering undercurrent of guardedness in a country that has emerged from a divisive system of apartheid and is still learning to live together.
Dr. Nancy Thomas, associate professor of English, and Jacquelyn D. Elliott, vice president for enrollment management, traveled for two weeks earlier this year in South Africa with a class from Bridgewater College.
The venture provided the Tusculum representatives insight on planning international, academic trips for the college’s students in the future. In March, Dr. Thomas and Dr. Joel Van Amberg, assistant professor of history, will be leading a group of Tusculum students to Italy and Germany. It will be Dr. Thomas’ first experience leading a group of students on an international trip.
“It is good to go someplace very different than your own country,” Thomas said. “I enjoyed seeing the students’ reactions. For some of them, it was their first time out of country and they were wide-eyed.”
South Africa is increasingly becoming a tourist destination, and tourism is a major industry for the country, Thomas said. “Before the (2010) World Cup, few traveled to South Africa, but now people want to go. Our tour guide told us that his schedule is booked through the end of 2012.”
While the country’s scenery and wildlife attracts tourists, the country is a study of contrasts as the group also saw extreme poverty and reminders of the country’s apartheid.
Thomas said that she and her fellow travelers saw mixed groups of races everywhere and the people seemed friendly with each other. “They are learning to get along,” she said. Overall, she continued, the country had a feeling of progress and a genuine friendliness among the people.
“One of the most amazing things about the country is its diversity,” Thomas said. “Everyone we met was extremely friendly. Fortunately, all spoke English, many were bilingual and some were trilingual.”
Diversity can be found in the people themselves from the nine tribes of the indigenous people to the white descendents of European settlers. Thomas said people were genuinely welcoming and hearing personal stories from the people they met made the trip that much more enjoyable and meaningful.
“I came back different, listening to people’s personal stories and how people are working to change,” she said. “The poverty there is so different than our own and worse. It changes your world view.”
The groups’ tour guide was white while their driver was black. The two had not met before the trip but became fast friends. The group had the opportunity to talk to the two men for about an hour one evening, Thomas said, and the South Africans explained that under apartheid their friendship would have not been possible.
The group visited Robben Island to see the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27-years because of his anti-apartheid stance. “It was one of the highlights of the trip, seeing where Mandela was imprisoned in person,” Thomas said, adding that both black and white South Africans regard Mandela as a saint. At the prison, they heard the personal story of a political prisoner jailed at Robben Island.
Elliott added a personal story that impacted her was told by a Robben Island tour guide; a junior in college. In a personal conversation, Elliott asked the guide to share one story about his life that depicted South African culture. “My life has been impacted because my mother was imprisoned when I was a child,” Elliott said he told her. “My family was not told where she was taken, and I lived with my grandmother. It wasn’t until my mother was transferred to another facility that I finally reunited with her. I was sixteen when that happened. My mother was a stranger to me in my own country.”
One of the group’s destinations was Soweto, a section of Johannesburg that became known internationally after an uprising in the 1970s in protest of apartheid.
A part of the community is poor and the other is middle class. In the poorer section, Thomas recalled that the homes were shacks, built from whatever scrap materials that could be found, without electricity or running water. Each block had a spigot that provided families with access to running water.
Elliott said she was invited into one of the homes, which housed eight people. In the home was a double bed, a single table with two chairs and a cook stove with some pans hanging on the wall. “When I think about how small the space is for eight people, and the fact that over 500 people share a single toilet in these informal settlements, I remember how blessed I am, and that I should give more to others in need,” she said.
The group also visited a settlement outside Capetown where they found similar conditions. Homes did have electricity, Thomas noted, but had no running water, and residents had to pay an equivalent of 75 cents in American currency to use a restroom facility.
The group left the clothes that they took on the trip to be distributed by a church organization to the needy, she said. They also donated money and school supplies to be distributed to schools in Soweto and the settlement.
In the middle class section of Soweto, Thomas noticed that all the middle class and upper class homes had six-foot fences surrounding the property. “You had to enter each home through a gate,” she said. “Perhaps it shows that there is still an undercurrent of insecurity there.”
The diversity of South Africa is also found in its scenery, which varies from savannah to desert to beach to mountainous terrain that Thomas likened to the American southwest – a rugged landscape with “scrubby” trees, not many tall hardwoods.
The Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of the African continent, was another destination. “There was something really spiritual about being there,” she said.
One of South Africa’s “touristy” sites is the Table Mountain, rising a mile above Capetown. Clouds roll over the top of the mountain, which was “one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen,” Thomas said. Elliott further commented that the “table cloth” phenomenon can only been seen in this one location in the entire world.
The nation’s wine district was a pleasant surprise. Thomas said she learned that wine and brandy are among South Africa’s leading exports. The wineries were “very upscale,” she said, and there were acres and acres devoted to the growing of grapes.
The wildlife found in South Africa also contributes to its diverse character. Many people have the misconception that wildlife is running loose in the country, Thomas said, but they found that to see the animals, tourists have to travel to reserves or national parks.
Ostrich farming is a significant sector of the South African economy, and a visit to a farm was part of the group’s itinerary. South Africans use every part of the ostrich for some purpose, whether it is the eggs for artwork, the skin for leather and, of course, the meat, which is a popular food in the country and in Europe.