Thursday, February 4, 2010
As many of you know, I recently decided to change gears from my biomedical engineering coursework and study abroad for a semester. In fall, I was selected, along with about 30 other students from around the nation, to partake in the International Honors Program's (IHP) Health & Community Trip for a cross-cultural analysis of global health in South Africa, Vietnam, and Brazil for 16 weeks this Spring. This was truly a blessing and seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to focus on a more macroscopic study of the natural world and [try] figuring out where I fit best or can make the most sincere contributions. Going in, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. The program's site only offered a vague and dodgy description of what the program entailed, but the encouragement of friends/mentors, mid-college frustrations-restlessness-angst, and the prospect of skipping an *entire* Cambridge winter (it's the peak of summer in the Southern Hemisphere) really spurred me to follow through with the application.
After a two week orientation and kick off in Washington DC and a week in South Africa, I finally feel like I can properly explain what it is I will be doing this semester. IHP is a mobile university without walls of sorts and my group consists of 33 students and I, 2 permanent Traveling Faculty Members, 1 Travelling Teaching Fellow are hopping around the world with the goal of better understanding some key things about global health-- how health policy collides with local culture and a traditional medicine, and the study of health as an artifact of not only biological, but also political and social control. This is explored in the context of formal classes on public health, globalization, and medical anthropology along with guest lectures, homestays in local rural and urban communities, and visits to government and non-government community organizations and clinics.
As a country, South Africa may be one of the most beautiful but troubled places I will ever encounter. The legacy of apartheid and its tragedies, which ended only in 1994, has created a bizarre state of a nation that is really hard to explain. It's as if everyone is still in transition and suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder further complicated by a 13 or so percent prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the adult population. At the same time though, economic prosperity and the general brightness and friendliness of the population makes it seem like this is paradise on earth. The emphasis on racial classifications has also been tough for me deal with personally and in our group. Sometime during the course of our 18 hour trans-Atlantic flight, it seems that I have jumped races which holds awkwardly dense social implications here in South Africa. That's right, apparently I'm no longer black, but "coloured" which is a social rung above black around here. Despite my insistence that both my parents are black, I'm still considered to be of the mixed/racially ambiguous class because of my complexion. It wasn't really an issue in Johannesburg but older people and some people in the rural areas take this distinction seriously. Until apartheid ended, the "official" method the government used to differentiate between a black and coloured person was the "Pencil Test" which is administered by placing a pencil in a person's hair (as scientifically as possible, of course) and seeing if it stays put. If it sticks, you're black, if it shifts or falls out, then you're coloured. I laughed when I heard this, but people were super serious. This is just a reflection of how arbitrary and baseless these racial categorizations and the system of favoring was, but until South Africa moves past that, it looks like I'm coloured, but black on a technicality.
For the next 3 weeks, Jan, our country logistics coordinator and local expert has arranged for us to stay at the South African Wildlife College in Kruger National Park located in the Limpopo Province of northeastern South Africa. The College itself is on the border of Mpumalanga Province (formerly called Transvaal) which is home to 4.8 billion year old rocks--the oldest in the world. Mpumalanga is also known for its trout, mango, gold deposits and coal.
The drive from Roodeport (a Johannesburg suburb) took about 9 hours since we made multiple stops, but the scenery was the most wonderful I have seen in my entire life. I recently learned the word “veld,” which are the grassy plateaus (picture Theo Huxtable’s flatop shooting out of the ground or a topless hill) that define the terrain. They are truly mystifying, magnificent and covered with very thick brush which is home to an incredible amount of biodiversity. Like hills they create valleys, and several valleys that we passed on the drive have tiny villages of grass thatch roof huts or massively wide rivers going through them.
According to our map, there were over 2 dozen natural waterfalls along our route but I only saw one from the highway. This was actually the first natural waterfall I’ve seen before and it was truly one of those surreal moments that made me forget to breathe. The drop was close to 1300 feet and to watch such a powerful stream of white on the backdrop of deep green was truly a majestic gift. I know the Limpopo River was close by, but I’m not sure if that’s the body of water it fell into. I’ll definitely ask around for more info. Along the way, we also drove through Drakensburg Pass /Drakensburg Escarpment, which is the third largest canyon in the world.
Our travel weary (but still spirited) group arrived at the Wildlife College after nightfall and after the traditional dinner of pap, steamed greens, and a meat selection (this time chicken), we tried to settle into the student dormitories where we will be staying for two nights. Tomorrow afternoon, we will be moving in with our homestay families to live “truly rural livelihoods” (think wells/boreholes and goats) for the next 3 weeks. After a week in the modern comforts of Johannesburg, none of us expected to be living like this. Kruger National Park is one of the most famous reserves in South Africa and known for its elephants, impalas, leopards, lions, and rhinos. It’s lesser publicized offerings are high humidity, 90+ degree weather, black mambas, and 24/7 exposure to malaria carrying mosquitoes. We were actually instructed to check our beds before entering them thoroughly for thick-tailed scorpions because once you’re stung, you’ll have less than 24 hours to live. Sure enough, around 11:30 last night, I awoke to the sound of roaring (yes, roaring) outside my window. All of us were very very very nervous so we informed old the rangers who then deployed the anti-poaching squad to investigate the situation to make sure nothing illegal was going down. To reassure us, the informed us that we have a very sturdy fence surrounding our dorms that only the strongest elephants can break through…needless to say, that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear but I must say that lions sound just like they do on television.
On another note, apologies for not writing earlier. Our trip began three weeks ago, but this is the first time I’ve had regular internet access since then. I will try as artfully as possible to recount the past few weeks in future emails while adding new details. It is ironic though that this safari is the first time I’ve had free wifi.
In the next email, I promise to send a more detailed explanation of how I found myself in the middle of the wilderness and more information about my program. In the meantime, here is a piece of South African pop culture to hold you down. As the country prepares for the FIFA World Cup this summer, they have been blasting this song throughout the countryside. It’s the official song of the games and is by Somali artist K’naan. It has quickly become my favorite song and the theme of this odyssey.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I do,