This June, the College of International Studies’ signature Journey to Africa program headed to a new destination: South Africa. The program, which allows students to immerse themselves in an African country for three weeks while studying with OU faculty, has previously been based in Tanzania. But this year’s students had the unique opportunity to explore the complex politics and history of South Africa through media and issues of political trauma and human rights. It was a learning experience they won’t soon forget.
Guided by Gaylord College of Journalism Professor Elanie Steyn and Human Relations Professor Zermarie Deacon, the group spent half of their program in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, and half in Cape Town, its oldest. Because Journey Programs cover a lot of ground in a short time, the program chartered buses in each location in order to explore interesting nearby cities such as Pretoria, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek. The group also had the chance to visit historical, cultural and natural points of interest in combination with their work in the classroom.
South African Media
But the main focus of Journey to Africa: South Africa was the close study of a nation of which most students have limited knowledge. Dr. Steyn’s course, Telling a Story over Decades of Change: The of South African Media, was designed to explore South Africa’s recent history through the lens of media. “The course first looked at how the media were able to tell the story (from different angles like politics, economics, social class) during the Apartheid years, given realities such as censorship, political uprising, banned political organizations and international sanctions,” Steyn explains. “It then also focused on how the story is being told now, almost three decades into democracy.” As part of their coursework, students attended meetings with media organizations and scholars and visited relevant sites. Steyn notes that “our site meetings were aimed at helping students understand the history and complexity of the South African society, through the lens of how the monuments and institutions themselves ‘tell the story.’”
Human Rights & Mass Trauma
Dr. Deacon took a different approach, but one that incorporated many of the same political, social and economic issues. Her course, entitled Human Rights & Mass Trauma in South Africa, centered on the intergeneration transmission of trauma the resulted from the era of Apartheid. “Students were able to visit many impactful sites that helped them understand the story of South Africa history — Apartheid Museum, Lilisileaf, Soweto, Robin Island, District 6 Museum and Freedom Square, to name a few,” Deacon explains. “Each of these sites helped students understand the Apartheid history of the country as well as the challenges this poses for modern South Africa.”
She adds that the group also visited Apartheid-era monuments and institutions working for change, such as the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, the South Africa College of Applied Psychology and 18 Gangster Museum. At this museum, students heard directly from activists working toward greater social unity. “This introduced [the students] to the complexities of life in post-Apartheid South Africa and the current realities of post-Apartheid South Africa,” explains Deacon. “Students were able to develop an understanding of how Apartheid-era social and political trauma transcends modern life.” She is quick to add that the program wasn’t entirely spent dealing with difficult emotional and historical topics — the group was able to blow off some steam with visits to beautiful Table Mountain and Boulders Beach.
Forming Connections & Learning from Locals
Though Journey Programs are relatively short, they are beloved by students for the opportunities they provide to connect with and learn from local activists, educators and community leaders. According to the instructors, the highlights of Journey to Africa: South Africa were to such experiences: a meeting with Christo Brand, former prison warden and friend of Nelson Mandela, and a cooking class at the home of a Muslim Malay woman and her family. “Both the family who welcomed us for the cooking class and Mr. Brand were friendly, welcoming and fascinating to visit with,” says Deacon. The meeting with Brand, Steyn adds, “told a story of humanity and relationships trumping all other external factors, such as race, crime, prejudices,. It showed the power of relationships and how that can change everything.”
The cooking class was unique in that it provided an opportunity to learn about the culture and cuisine of the Malay people while also sharing conversation with a local family. “The cooking class was especially meaningful, as we were able to sit with the woman who taught the class and talk to her about her life and experiences,” says Deacon. Adds Steyn, “This, again, showed me that borders only exist in our minds, and that when people decide to overcome those borders and focus on relationships, a lot can change.”
Student Jenny Ji agreed, noting that the cooking class was her favorite part of the program as a whole. “It was really interesting to learn more about the impact the Malay people had on South African culture,” she said. “Plus, the food was amazing!”
An Impactful Experience
Journey Programs are often the first time a student ventures abroad, a more often than not they return to the United States with a new perspective and an appetite for more travel. “I hope this has shown them the power of being exposed to other cultures and ways of thinking, and how traveling broadens our vision and the way we look at the world,” notes Steyn when asked about the impact of the Journey to Africa program. “I [also] hope this experience has shown students what life looks like in a country filled with opportunity, but also challenges.”
Deacon sees Journey to Africa as special because its provides much more depth and understanding than a standard tourist visit. “While we did some of the fun touristy stuff, we were able to take a much deeper dive into the history and current realities of the nation,” she says. “I hope that students were able to see the parallels with American history as well in order to prevent them from assuming these are things that happen ‘over there.’ I believe there is value in being able to make these connections in order to become true actors for change and social justice.” She believes that the connections students made with locals will stick with them, as well. “I hope that students were able to uncover the shared humanity between the South Africans we met and themselves . . . the ability to see our common humanity helps prevent ‘othering.’”
Overall, the instructors see the experience as an amazing privilege; an opportunity to go deeper into another culture and explore some fascinating history, beautiful places and kind and interesting people.
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