In the Summer of 1995, I went on a summer study abroad to South Africa and Swaziland. It was my first trip to the African continent and it totally changed my life. Oprah says children who do not have a relationship with their fathers have a hole in their hearts in the shape of their dad. Me, I have a hole in my heart in the shape of Africa, which I’ve never quite understood, but its definitely there.
My Africa lust started as a freshman at Mary Washington, when I decided to study international affairs as a major, and I needed a regional concentration. I picked Africa because it was the “place” I knew the least about. ( I say “place” because I hate that much of the world equates Africa as if it were one place and not dozens of countries.) I was fascinated by the “dark continent” that occupied days or weeks of my K-12 education (where Europe and the USSR took weeks and months). When my South African native geography professor announced a trip to his homeland for the summer, I jumped at the chance. Mary and Jim were less enthusiastic. They decided I could go if I could pay for it myself. After receiving a partial scholarship, lots of babysitting, and a very unexpected check from my Grandpa (who’d never left the US), much to their surprise (and mine) I was on my way.
Because we were on a geography trip we traveled extensively throughout South Africa – starting in Johannesburg and its surrounding areas, then taking a day long drive to Kruger National Game Reserve (such an amazing place where animals roam free and people stay in compounds), then a quick cross-border trip to Mbabane, Swaziland (its capital), then another long drive to Durban and Kwa-Zulu, Natal, and finally a quick flight to Capetown – which is one of my favorite places in the world. (It reminds me of the stretch between San Francisco and Napa, California but is so much better – no offense to California.)
In 1995, South Africa was just emerging from apartheid, and it was a main focus of our study. We looked at the “geography of apartheid” to begin to understand how this system played out practically. It was stunning to see the effect on the landscape of the cities we visited – how natural and man made barriers were used to separate people and to get an idea of how unraveling this nightmare might proceed, and how long it might take to get proper homes and services to the millions of people living in 8×8 corrugated tin shacks. We guessed it would be many years before all South Africans were able to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities that the stroke of a pen had “given” them in 1994.
When we were in South Africa, the Rugby World Cup was underway. It was the first major international sporting event to come to the country post-apartheid. It was, for the South Africans, a celebration of their rejoining the community of nations. Now, fifteen years later, I am loving the coverage of the Football World Cup from South Africa, as it is another major affirmation of their progress. It is not without some concern, I will confess, for the amount of money spent building venues and infrastructure for football versus the money spent to get people proper homes, jobs, sanitation, schools, etc. But I try to remember the amount of revenue coming in from the event, the tourists, and the wonderful exposure South Africa is getting world wide.
And I am loving the little South Africa vignettes we are getting throughout the tournament. It takes me back those 15 years and makes me want to hop a plane with Chris to show him what I have come to love. I would love to go see the progress (and I’m sure some of the lack thereof) in person. If I can find my old travel journal, perhaps I will share some more of my memories in the coming weeks.
South Africa was only my first trip to Africa…I have since been to Kenya (twice) and Rwanda. Each place has its own special beauty, diversity, and challenges. But if you ever have the opportunity to go, take it! I have yet to visit a place on the African continent that hasn’t touched my heart and changed my soul. It is a magnificent continent and, God willing, I hope to see most of its 54 countries sometime before I die.
(By the way, I only have a few scanned photo’s from my trip, and I have included them here — which reminds me I need to go back and scan in so many more!)