The university system in South Africa of course has its differences from that of the United States, but the similarities are clear: I attend classes, write papers, and study for exams. One course, however, has its students buzzing and pushes the boundaries of my comfort zone every day.
Joy, the lecturer for my anthropology class on Power and Wealth, has challenged us to take control of the course and our own education. She doesn’t give us lecture notes, she doesn’t assign weekly readings. We bow to each other at the beginning of every class to recognize each other’s knowledge and perspectives. We have discussions ranging from the feminization of poverty to the recent Student Representative Council elections on campus to racism in South Africa. Someone posts on the class Facebook page almost daily.
Last week Joy took us in small groups for a walk through the local township. Although the township is visible from campus, it is sometimes easy to forget that there is life in Grahamstown outside of the dining halls and the library and weekend nightlife. As we walked down the dirt streets she pointed out that even from across town one could see the 1820s Settler’s Monument, an imposing gray building, a testament to colonization and the resulting oppression that the Africans faced. Giant metal light poles still tower over the concrete block shanties, left over from the days of apartheid when they were used as searchlights. Almost everyone living in the township is black, a social division that has not been corrected since the legalized separation of whites, blacks, coloureds, and Indians.
Some houses do not have running water but have unique front doors that personalize them from their neighbors. Vibrant flowers transform a front yard into an oasis of beauty amidst the trash scattered along the roadside. Joy bought a loaf of bread for a woman who smelled of home-brewed alcohol. A man hoed rows of potatoes and spinach. We met an older couple who care for a teenage girl whose parents died from AIDS. Children gathered around us smiling and giggling, posing for photographs and singing the national anthem.
I worried about the tactfulness of our visit, as wealthy university students come to gawk at another’s poverty, but one man told us he was happy we were there with our cameras because we could take their stories back across the railroad tracks and get help for them. As we returned to campus, Joy encouraged us to write a short reflection on the afternoon and challenged us not to shower until the next day–washing the body washes away the experience, she said. Allowing the experience to stay with us and affect our daily lives is a new challenge.