St. Thomas Perspectives Abroad: South Africa

By , Chief Story Editor  |  Friday, February 1, 2013 10:51 PM

I have to admit, even my family waiting outside the Minneapolis airport wasn’t enough to make me want to walk out into the cold, slushy and rainy Minnesota night after spending a month in the glorious weather of South Africa.

But, all good things must come to an end, and Sunday night marked the end of my travels learning about the culture and communication of post-apartheid South Africa. I won’t say that my experiences were once in a lifetime because I’m sure that this trip won’t be my last.

Since my colleague’s update from Johannesburg in the first days of our journey, we’ve driven and flown across South Africa from north to south. We even had short stint driving through neighboring Swaziland.

Along with 21 other women from St. Thomas and Augustana College, I tried to take in the depth of experiences that whirled by in just 25 short days.

After visiting a large litchi and avocado farm and packing facility, we discussed life during apartheid with some locals in Nelspruit. Then, we were awed by raw nature in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve, the oldest game park in Africa.

In not even two days of game drives, we saw elephants and giraffes munching on high leaves, wild buffalo and rhinos wallowing in muddy holes and springbok, kudu and wildebeest meandering through the hills. The highlight was hearing the pure power in a lion’s roar as we watched him stalk two zebra.

Then it was back to civilization, although not 21st century civilization yet. We stayed in traditional huts at Shakaland and experienced the historical food, music and lifestyle of the Zulu people. Even though I hope I’ve had my last taste of Zulu beer, I definitely wouldn’t mind watching another dance performance.

Durban brought us back into bustling city life. Each day, we continued to learn about another aspect of South African culture at McCord Hospital, Victoria’s Street Market, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. We heard perspectives from media experts, professors, doctors and actors from DramAidE, a non-profit group working to promote public health communication through drama and communication.

In Capetown, the dreaded end of our time in South Africa loomed. We took a cable car to the top of Table Mountain, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. We walked in the footsteps of former president Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner under apartheid. Our tour guide was a man who, as a teenager, spent five years as a prisoner himself after being arrested for protesting in the Soweto uprising. He gave a rousing speech about freedom that brought me almost to the brink of tears as we sat in his cell.

I’ll never forget the two days we spent at Christel House, a school that aims to break the cycle of poverty. We helped the high school students we met to write a “Six Word Project” about their lives, schools and hopes for the future. The profound, poetic creations said more about the kind of young people they were and hoped to be than hours of conversation ever could have. As a surprise, our group performed a mix of popular American dance songs like “Single Ladies,” “Cotton Eye Joe,” “Move It Like Bernie,” and featured our professor Kevin Sauter as rapper Psy in the crowd pleaser “Gangnam Style.”

Capetown wasn’t all seriousness. I tested the limits of my motion sickness on a shark dive in the Atlantic Ocean. Probably 80 percent of the time on the dive boat was spent giving “snacks” to schools of fish or in the fetal position. The other 20 percent of the time I spent in the underwater cage or watching the great white sharks snap at the bait was worth it. As the seventh world producer in wine, right behind California’s Napa Valley, our traveling wasn’t complete without trips to two beautiful wineries. Fortunately, our host was kind enough to teach us out to be proper wine connoisseurs. “Swirl, sniff, sip, ahhh.”

I’ve had an unforgettable opportunity to experience the world. Even though I’ve left the county, I think South Africa won’t ever leave me. The lessons I’ve learned in the classroom of South Africa about freedom, hope and diversity are permanent.

Heidi Enninga can be reached at

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