Photo Essays

Educational and Social Reform (South Africa)

Photos and Captions by Sarah Dennis

Soon after arriving in Cape Town, we visited Robben Island, most famous for the prison that held Nelson Mandela and so many anti-apartheid political activists captive during the long fight for freedom. The Island served as a prison as early as the mid-1600s, a hospital for leprosy patients and the mentally and chronically ill (1846-1931), and a training and defense station in World War II (especially to train women and blacks in secret).

This limestone quarry was where the prisoners did their hard labor. Though the stone was soft, the limestone reflected light, damaging their eyes, absorbed heat, making it unbearably hot, and produced dust particles that caused many respiratory problems. The small "cave" in the wall was used as a toilet, a storage facility, and as a classroom (80% of the inmates earned college or graduate degrees while in prison).

We traveled to a rural area in the north of the country for very unique experiences staying with families. Some families introduced students to the Chief of the village; some saw natural wonders of the region (such as a baobab tree probably between 300 and 500 years old); some attended traditional South African funerals; some saw traditional dancing at a local school; and some shopped. My family had two beautiful girls who seemed to really enjoy the children’s books I brought for them. My host "Dad" (age 34) shared his personal experiences during apartheid, admitting that the brainwashing, propaganda, and control of the media and public education by the apartheid government was so thorough that he didn’t realize apartheid was wrong. He said he was taught that the white police were there to protect him and all the people from immigrants from Zimbabwe, just across the border to the north. I was shocked.

Though a small portion of the experience was spent with wild animals, we visited lions at game park, and saw zebras, elephants, a giraffe, wild buffalo, hippos, impala, kudu, monkeys, crocodiles, and more during our visit to Kruger National Park (the size of Wales!). (See our beautiful van, too!) Most surprising was watching monkeys raid the outdoor refrigerator of the house across from me. I saw monkeys jump on the porch table and snatch oranges from people’s hands! One surprised me, hopping up on the ledge, just 3 feet from me as I wrote postcards. Luckily my little, yelp, of surprise scared him away.

We visited the former home of Nelson Mandela, in Soweto, which though it had been firebombed in 1985 and the interior was a recreation, the four pairs of boots on the trunk in front of the window were authentic. One pair he had worn "on the run", and one pair he wore the day he was released from prison. One pair he wore for the one day on Robben Island when the journalists and photographers came to report on the conditions. Only on that one day the political prisoners were given long pants and shoes and allowed to sew to distinguish them from the common law criminals who stayed bare feet wearing shorts who crushed limestone. Imagine not being allowed long pants or shoes in the winter (usually 60s-70s during the day and in the 40s at night, with no heat).

Towards the end of the trip, we visited a township school with 50+ children per classroom and very few materials. Many children were orphans who had lost both parents to AIDS. The teachers seemed very dedicated and tried to do their best, including the small group math activity where the children were adding and subtracting with old beer bottle caps. For the educators in the group, this was a highlight of the trip. The last week (e.g., "research week") also provided lots of free time to schedule other school visits (e.g., preschool, high schools, other elementary schools, universities) and to interview experts in our fields. This study abroad with Professor Teboho Moja and Professor Colleen Larson provides a unique experience that should not be missed!