A City of Contrasts Mellon Fellows Travel to South Africa
Life in the township of Khayelitsha, South Africa, is one of struggle and hardship. Shipping containers serve as makeshift barbershops and storefronts. These “spazas” operate without health regulations and offer meat, fruits and vegetables which are rarely fresh. There are no supermarkets.
Of the million people living in Khayelitsha, most reside in imikhuka, homes made of corrugated iron, scrap wood and whatever else people can find to keep the elements at bay.
“I’d never seen anything like that before,” says Zerafin Gonzalez, a Heritage University graduate who recently visited the country. “I’ve seen [poverty] in Mexico, but not that bad. Houses were made of cardboard and wood. Very, very poor.”
Apartheid may be over in South Africa, but its meaning of “separateness” still has ramifications and resonance today — in the townships, yes, but even as far away as central Washington.
In January, Gonzalez and fellow Heritage alumnus Crystal Lame Bull experienced this land of contradictions firsthand when they traveled to the African country for nine days with mentor Winona Wynn, chair of the English and Humanities department. The trip was part of a Mellon Mays academic exchange hosted by the University of Cape Town called “A City of Contrasts.” The point of the exchange
was to “view Cape Town with various lenses,” says Lame Bull, a member of the Yakama Nation. Contrasts, according to Gonzalez, is an understatement.
In the townships, there was nothing. “They didn’t even have toilets. Just porta-potties,” he says. And in downtown Cape Town, “there were skyscrapers, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Everything.”
Like all scholarly adventures, the fellows weren’t there simply for the experience. Both are currently writing papers on the trip that dovetail with their academic pursuits.
Gonzalez graduated from Heritage with a degree in criminal justice and plans on attending Central Washington University in the fall. He hopes to have a future in law enforcement and he went to South Africa to investigate the effects the Mexican drug trade has on the continent.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has documented links between the Mexican drug cartels and criminal groups in Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Given their porous borders and weak law enforcement agencies, the countries are used as conduits to ferry drugs, primarily cocaine, to Europe. Gonzalez is investigating the impact cartels may have in South Africa.
“The Mexican drug cartel acts globally,” says Gonzalez. “With unemployment at about 25 percent [in South Africa], you never know who might get involved.”
After graduating from Heritage with a degree in business management, Lame Bull received a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane. She plans to pursue a doctorate in higher education leadership from Seattle University. She says her paper will compare the Yakama people with indigenous South Africans.
“What might we learn from the culture, traditions and customs of these indigenous people?” she asks. “Were there similar struggles? If so, how were they liberated? Would it be beneficial to implement an international student exchange between Yakama students and students from South Africa?”
When you step toward the ferry that takes you to Robben Island, photo hawkers implore you to pose on the ramp. “One, two, three. Smile big and say Man-delll-aaah!”
A quick reminder that you’re headed to the prison island that held Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner.
It’s just the first of many times that a local will throw you into introspection, leaving you struggling to comprehend the complex and troubled history of this African nation.
Wynn, the Mellon fellows’ mentor on the trip, kept an online travelogue during the trip (available at heritage.edu), where she described the heart-wrenching and thought-provoking trip to the island.
On an island tour bus, the local guide scans the crowd of visitors and interrogates a catalog of nationalities: German, French, et cetera.
“Listen,” the guide says, “do I have any guests from Holland on this tour?”
“Several blonde people to my left are shifting in their seats,” Wynn writes on the travelogue. “I am beginning to sweat. I am on a prison island, confined to a tour bus with an interrogating guide in control. … [One] person in the suspect group raises his hand and wiggles his fingers. Good, at least he is confident. Maybe our tour guide will admire his courage and spare us acrid commentary. No chance. ‘Okay, all I ask of you is that you keep your seat. I just hope you are not here to attempt to colonize us again.’ At this comment, there are a few nervous titters.”
Wynn notes that the final greeting is for the Americans, who the guide thanks for “solidarity in our struggle.” Relief.
After a long day and a visit to the souvenir shop, Wynn shuffles to the returning ferry, in a daze and tired. The ferry is named Sikhululekile. “We are free.”
In a land rich with history and turmoil, of vast riches and destitute poverty, both Gonzalez and Lame Bull say their most memorable experiences came from interacting with the underprivileged people of the townships.
Lame Bull went to the township of Ocean View, where she ate a traditional meal and was entertained by the modern dance of young people there. “Although the community is steeped in poverty, they live with a clear sense of hope,” she says.
Gonzalez went to Khayelitsha. “We got to see how people lived. We actually got to go into some of the houses,” he says. “They have no money but one of them brewed some beer for us. It was nice.”
But in the end, it was the city of contrasts that left the deepest impression.
“It’s two completely different things to read about it and to experience it for yourself,” he says. “To see the riches and the poverty, the discrimination and how people live, to taste and smell the food.… It saddened me but it also made me appreciative of how we take things for granted here at home.”
Read the Blog entries from the trip