Global Initiatives further expands its reach, rewards

South Africa trip builds reconciliation, wildlife and water conservation into curriculum.

Eimer Page
March 12, 2018
A group of Exeter students in Capetown, South Africa

A group of 18 students journeyed to South Africa between winter and spring terms.

I kept my movements small and my breath smooth as I peered out from beneath the safari hide to the large herd of elephants at the watering hole only feet from me. This was Addo Elephant Park, the third largest national park in South Africa, and the only one to house Africa's Big Seven (lion, rhino, buffalo, elephant, leopard . . . plus whale and shark due to the park's recent expansion to include a marine reserve). I was in South Africa scouting Exeter's latest addition to the Global Initiatives travel destinations, and I kept picturing the reactions of the students as I traveled. Those same students arrived in Cape Town in early March, and their two weeks in South Africa will sweep them from the heights of Table Mountain all the way to the valleys of the Transkei, where Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela spent his boyhood.

The South Africa itinerary has been designed to give our students access to the complex and troubled history of South Africa, while also highlighting the country's incredible resources and resourcefulness. Exeter's study abroad programs are designed to fit our broad curriculum, so students who take the opportunity to travel on a school program have the benefit of an experiential immersion. Whether the program is a language immersion term or a short vacation experience in somewhere like India, Cuba or South Africa, participants have the chance to process and enrich their Harkness discussions by experiencing the place, people, culture, geography and history of their destination firsthand. That is an irreplaceable and very powerful experience.

The 18 students on this trip, mostly uppers and seniors, were selected based on applications that demonstrated a passion for history, culture, travel and problem solving. Students who receive financial assistance also receive aid to participate in off-campus educational opportunities, and the cost for all families was subsidized to allow wide participation. The students are traveling with two local guides and three experienced Exeter faculty, and they spent the winter term preparing for their spring break trip by meeting regularly and reading about the history of the country.

Cape Town is the launch pad for the trip, and the water shortages in the city have become part of the group's curriculum. While 'Day Zero' (the day when the taps are due to be shut off and water distributed only by the government) has been delayed until July, our group spent time as they prepared for the trip thinking about responsible tourism and their duty to avoid contributing to the city's problems. Dry shampoo and baby wipes will take the place of lengthy showers until the group moves further east. The group will visit Robben Island, to see where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 incarcerated years, and will also visit District Six and speak with former residents of the razed neighborhood. The students will visit Langa township, whose municipal pool had already been drained when I visited in January, and will learn about the ways the drought is impacting Cape Town residents across socioeconomic and racial lines.

In Port Elizabeth, some 475 miles east, the students will live and break bread with the self-styled "Mammas" who run the Red Location. This collective (all older women) started the Red Location a decade ago as a response to the 60% unemployment rate that plagued the population of the township. The women began by baking and selling bread for 1 rand apiece. They saved their profits and turned an old beer hall into a space for the local children. The Mammas now run a lodge, a cooking school, and an informal art space. My own time with them in January, hearing the stories of their imprisonment, their resistance to apartheid, and their transformative response to those experiences, will long remain in my memory.

Port Elizabeth is also the starting point for the group visit to Addo Elephant Park and Schotia Reserve. Students will witness dazzles of zebra, crashes of rhino, towers of giraffes, bloats of hippos, and all manner of other wonderful collective nouns of animals. I kept a running tally of animal species I saw, and the list reached 40 in a single day!

The trip ends at the Cintsa reserve on the Indian Ocean. Students will be taken across the river to the tribal villages of the Transkei, and will have the opportunity to witness yet another side to South Africa. Its wild beauty, its incredible animal and mineral resources, its tragic history and its warm and open people will all form a part of this newest addition to Exeter's 40 annual travel opportunities on five continents.  

Travel gives one perspective on one's own home, so Exeter students can find their beliefs shifting once they see the ways other societies prioritize and organize themselves. South Africa's history of apartheid and its post-apartheid attempts at restorative justice offer an imperfect model, but the experience will prompt deep discussion of what it means to live in diverse communities. We have much to teach and at least as much to learn from the rest of the world. Exeter's commitment to offering such travel opportunities stems from our desire to offer young adults the fresh perspectives and models they need to begin designing the world of their future.

Eimer Page is the director of global initiatives and an English instructor.