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An African Awakening

Written by Kristen Leising '07
4/17/2007

Ndlambe Village

Studying abroad in South Africa was the greatest experience of my life.

I was able to explore the country with the School of International Training (SIT), an affiliated Ithaca College Study Abroad program. There are numerous affiliated programs through SIT and other study abroad programs, including Ithaca College’s own programs in Australia, London, and Los Angeles for students of the Park School of Communications. Literally, you could spin a globe and travel anywhere your finger stops. Japan. Spain. Fiji. Ghana. Chile. Canada. Italy. India. I chose South Africa because I wanted an experience like no other. I didn’t want to study abroad in a country I might travel to for vacation. I was looking for a unique cultural experience to challenge me to see the world like I never had before.

I got exactly what I was looking for. I never imagined I’d spend a Saturday afternoon in South Africa plucking chickens. I certainly never thought doing so would be considered a part of my academic career. But on a blazing hot African day in March 2006 while almost every other American college student was on spring break, I found myself on a rural farm in the poverty-stricken village of Ndlambe in South Africa doing just that.

The host family I stayed with lived in unemployment and poverty.  To earn extra money they raised chickens, only to kill and pluck them to sell to “pensioners” (retired people) for a profit of approximately $1 U.S. They lived in a two-bedroom house with no running water and an outhouse located near a pigpen. During the week, students walked miles to attend the village high school. The classrooms were bare—a few broken desks and dilapidated chairs. Students sometimes shared chairs and books. Most began the day with no breakfast and attended school without lunch. In the senior class of 2005, only 31 percent of the students passed math.

It was in this village that I began to understand the interconnected systems of poverty and racism. Through my interactions with the Yedwa family and Ndlambe village I was able to see just how complicated the world truly is. Post-apartheid South Africa is very much in a state of transition. While there may no longer be government-sanctioned racism, the deep scars from the past are open wounds glaring for all to see. Most black people live in poverty, whether in a rural location like the Yedwa family or in an urban township outside a major city. “Coloured” families, a South African term used to describe Indian, Asian, or people of mixed races, also live in townships. It has been 13 years since the end of apartheid, yet racism is very much still alive as the country discovers how to heal.

Juxtaposed against my stay in the Ndlambe Village (where I bathed in a red, plastic bucket for a week due to a lack of running water) was my next home stay with a white family in a suburb of Cape Town called Stellenbosch. The family had a personal history with the apartheid government and was coming to terms with their own understanding of other races and poverty. As difficult as it was to understand the devastation of black rural life, it was also difficult to understand the mental oppression faced by the white family. The apartheid government kept white South Africans separate from people of color as to keep the violence and gross human rights violations of apartheid quiet. Their own understanding of what the past meant and where the future is heading is in a state of transition. This provided me with an opportunity to understand the power of political systems, respect of opposing viewpoints, and ability of the heart to forgive oneself and others.

Studying abroad in South Africa was the highlight of my college career. Without this opportunity, I would see the world in a much different way. Ithaca College provides astronomical opportunities to experience the planet and your own personal globe in ways you never thought possible, traveling beyond traditional classroom walls. Literally, you've got the whole world in your hands.

Speaking with just a click

While in South Africa I learned a click language, Xhosa. It is one of the 11 national languages of South Africa, spoken by approximately 18 percent of the country. There are three clicks made on consonants.

  • “X” is clicked on the side of your mouth with the side of your tongue against your teeth
  • “C” is clicked at the front of your mouth with your tongue on your teeth
  • “G” is clicked with your tongue off the roof of your mouth

The first family I stayed with in a black township spoke both Xhosa and English fluently. The second family I stayed with, a black family in a rural setting, spoke some English but mostly Xhosa.  This was the ultimate test of my understanding! At times it was trying to learn the language but it was extremely beneficial and rewarding when living with families who spoke Xhosa.

 



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