South Africa stuns visiting students

This story is the first in a series about students participating in Marquette's South Africa study abroad program.

South Africa — a country with a tumultuous history, the scar of apartheid and home to Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu — now hosts 10 newcomers from Marquette.

The group arrived in the Conservatory neighborhood, not far from downtown Cape Town, at the beginning of the month. They will live with Judy Mayotte, visiting professor of theology and Bobbi Timberlake, service learning program administrator, until June 20.

The students journeyed to South Africa as part of a study abroad program, in which they take classes in social justice and leadership and participate in service learning at local sites.

They attend the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre and the University of Western Cape, where white students are a minority, according to Kristen Wick, a senior in the College of Nursing.

The university setting takes the students out of their comfort zone and plunges them into a completely different culture, Wick said.

"Diversity is amazingly apparent here," said College of Arts & Sciences sophomore Maura Hagen. "Marquette always talks about diversity and how they strive for it. They are millions of steps away from even coming close to the diversity present here. It truly is a 'rainbow nation.'"

In addition to the obvious difference of skin color, the students were bombarded with striking new images, customs and lifestyles.

"When I walked out of the International Airport in Cape Town, the first thing that struck me was the huge mountain jetting into the blue sky," said Leah Huff, a College of Communication junior. "We all were taken back by the immensity and beauty."

"Everything is much more slow-paced and relaxed," Hagen said. "It is so peaceful. Even downtown where everybody is doing their business they take time to look around and talk to people."

Emily Iverson, a College of Communication junior, said she discovered a new meaning and connotation for words associated with race in the United States.

"Many blacks here call themselves 'colored,'" she said. "This is not a derogatory term for them at all. 'Colored' (people) are not fully black."

She said many South Africans come from mixed ethnic backgrounds.

The students agreed most South Africans were very friendly and warm toward them. As a people, they are much more subdued and dress down more often.

Yet, amid gorgeous terrain and smiling faces, the students glimpsed time and again the distressing economic and social situations they had only read about.

Some settlements consisted of a row of roadside shacks built from scrap metal with words like "Coca-Cola" splattered across the side, Hagen said. The settlements are not supposed to be permanent residences, but about 1 million people in Kyelitshe, a squatter settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town, call these shanties home.

Iverson once encountered a Kyelitshe man on the bus. He said he was hungry, so Iverson offered him a bag of raisins she packed. He shared it with some other Kyelitshes on the bus with him.

" … And soon enough the entire bus was there eating raisins," Iverson said. "They were all smiling and joyful to be eating about 15 raisins each."

To Wick, there is little evidence of a middle class.

"I feel like there are two extremes and little in between," she said. "You are either living a luxurious life or residing in a township unable to meet basic human needs."

Courtney Hattan, a College of Arts & Sciences junior, described her first ride in a 'combie' — vans used mostly by black South Africans.

When she took a ride with four other Marquette students, Hattan heard parts of a Parliament session on the radio and the people's authentic responses to their government.

"It was such a moving experience because the people were so passionate about their country and about wanting it to become peaceful," Hattan said. "At one point, the combie driver said that we all just need to love each other and have hope that things will become better."

Such mentalities are what the students hope to learn from their experiences in South Africa and integrate into their own lives.

Iverson said she hopes "that we are able to personally find a way to what reconciliation and forgiveness means to each one of us."

All interviews with students were conducted by e-mail.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 15 2005.