Community / The Nation and the World

“Ubuntu”: experiencing humanity and difference through travel

This spring break, 42 Dana Hall students across grade levels 8-12, along with six faculty chaperones, embarked on a 10-day journey through South Africa.The two of us were fortunate enough to be a part of this life-changing experience centered on the theme of environmental and social justice.

The trip began with a 7:00 am flight to Johannesburg from Boston. After landing and meeting the Explorica guide, the first stop of the trip was going to the Cradle of Humankind caves and the evolution museum. 

Following that, we went to the Apartheid Museum, which was one of Isabel’s highlights of the trip. Seeing, reading, and hearing the stories of the oppressors and oppressed was very impactful. I couldn’t help but think about a family friend of mine who is from South Africa and lived during the apartheid era, and his experiences in this systemic oppression and racism, as well as the emotional and physical abuse he had to endure. Another eye-opening moment was a video of apartheid in action. Although seeing South African people being beaten by white officers was difficult to watch, it helped me to understand the severity of apartheid and its effects. 

The last thing Isabel did before leaving the museum was a virtual reality experience that depicted the court case of Walter Sisulu, a friend of Nelson Mandela who was a key but lesser-known figure in the anti-apartheid movement. I was glad I was able to experience this because when people think of Apartheid, they immediately think of Nelson Mandela, his critical contributions to the movement, his jail sentence, and his Presidency. But there were so many important figures throughout the movement that deserve recognition as well, and I was glad I got to learn about the lives and contributions of many. 

On the morning of the third day, we headed to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG), another of Isabel’s favorite parts of the trip. On the first day, each student was paired with an OWLAG student hostess. My hostess was named Spirwen, a senior at OWLAG. She taught me to knit, which was something I had never done before or thought I would ever do, but I found it very enjoyable. Everything we knitted was put together to form a larger project, and it was sent to a community service organization dedicated to serving children. I had so much fun making new friends, and in doing so, I learned how similar we all were, even though we live nearly 8,000 miles apart. Spirwen and I both watched so many of the same TV shows and movies and even listened to a lot of the same music. We also both had the same social media platforms like Tik Tok, Instagram, and Snapchat. After talking and doing arts and crafts, we then received a tour of the beautiful campus. 

The following day, we went back to OWLAG to attend classes with our hostesses. What struck Isabel first was how warm and welcoming all the teachers were, and I felt like I was back at Dana Hall. After we attended classes, we had an amazing assembly to celebrate National Women’s Day, but then it was sadly time to leave. I had a tough time saying goodbye to Spirwen, but fortunately, we were able to exchange our information so we can keep in contact. 

The fifth day began at the Hector Pieterson Museum commemorating those who lost their lives in the 1976 Soweto uprising. The last day in Johannesburg we traveled to Soweto, first visiting Nelson Mandela’s house and then the Kliptown Youth Program, which was one of Jasmine’s favorite parts of the trip. Many of the children living in Soweto have to travel far for school, and the after school program provides many of the students with breakfast before leaving for school early in the morning, as well as a snack for when the students return from school. We started the day distributing school supplies to the classrooms. I went to a classroom for younger kids where we distributed coloring books and crayons. The kids were so excited to see us walking around with boxes of crayons, especially since they were currently working on spelling out colors in the program. All of the kids that I approached with crayons were so excited to show their knowledge of colors, pointing to nearly all the crayons and saying what color they were. 

Spending time with the kids was one of the best experiences Jasmine has had. We had so much fun throughout the day helping them with some of their work and drawing together. The kids that I had spent the day with came up and gave me hugs as we were leaving. The hardest part about saying goodbye to the kids was when they would ask when we were going to come back and not being able to answer them, but hopefully, I will have another chance to return. 

The next day, we set off on the seven-hour drive from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park. Along the way, we visited Blyde River Canyon and Bourke’s Luck Potholes. One of Isabel’s favorite spots was an immense cliff called “God’s Window.” The views of the canyons, rock formations, and waterfalls were beautiful and vast, even though I was a little nervous being that high up. Bourke’s Luck Potholes were formed by water erosion. There were beautifully colored rocks and whirlpools, and sitting on the edge of the rocks watching the water pour down below me was a sight I will never forget.

Jasmine loved the two days in Kruger National Park. On both days of early morning guided excursions, we traveled in groups of seven people in Jeeps without a top or windows. As we drove through the park we saw impalas, elephants, giraffes, wildebeests, coyotes, zebras, and even a leopard in a tree. On the first evening, we had an elephant interaction at Elephant Whispers. After the second day’s excursion, we headed back to Johannesburg in order to fly to Cape Town.

On the morning of the first day in Cape Town, we went to Robben Island, home of a now-closed prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Being on Robben Island was an extremely powerful experience for Jasmine. The guide who gave us a tour around different rooms in the prison was a former prisoner, and he shared his personal story with us about what it was like to be a prisoner at Robben Island. One part of his story that stuck with me the most is when he told us how different prisoner groups had different visitor restrictions. There were some prisoners who were only allowed a letter from home every six months, and even then their mail was censored by the guard who had the power to take out any part of their letters that they wanted. We also had the chance to see Nelson Mandela’s cell, and it was amazing to  see in person something I had learned about in classes at Dana Hall.  Knowing the history and the importance behind where I was made it that much more powerful.

That night after our Robben Island visit, we experienced an African feast, complete with performance and facepaint. On Day 9 we visited Bo-Kaap Quarter of Cape Town, known for its colorful houses lining the streets, and then headed to the waterfront markets. The next day we began at Greenmarket Square before heading to the District Six Museum, a memorial for the forced removal of residents from an entire neighborhood under apartheid, before finally going to the Castle of Good Hope. This same day we headed to the airport for our departure from South Africa.

The trip was equally as unforgettable for the rest of the students. Lenzie Mitchell ’21 recounts that “going to Kliptown was an amazing experience and getting to work with the kids and the community was enlightening.” Paige Young ’21 also says, “I miss South Africa because of the girls I met at OWLAG. They taught me about their culture and welcomed me into their school. I miss them a lot and can not wait to visit them soon.”

Thankfully the trip was only affected by COVID-19 at the end, and all students and faculty members were able to return home and do so safely. During the last few days of the trip, President Donald Trump implemented a travel ban on all foreign nationals into the United States. Seven international students and Ms. Donna Corrigan flew back to Boston two days before the original departure date in order to return before the travel ban went into effect. The rest of the group flew out of Johannesburg as planned on March 16t, returning home, safe and sound, on March 17.

This year’s trip to South Africa was particularly memorable for faculty members who have visited the country previously. Upper School Librarian Maggie Davidov has visited South Africa numerous times, but it was her first time visiting the country with Dana Hall on the spring break trip. She said, “this time was so radically different because I got to see so much of the country. However, one of the things I will never forget about this trip was the newspaper headlines I would see as I came down to breakfast. The headlines began with: ‘Coronavirus: Don’t Panic’ and in the end, it was some version of the opposite.” Art teacher Michael Frasanelli has been on the Dana Hall spring break trip many times before and comments on how the trip differed in previous years, saying that, “traveling to South Africa with the Dana Hall trip has always been wonderful. That aspect of memorable experiences was certainly true on this last trip, with the international outbreak of the coronavirus happening right before our eyes. What I mostly remember was that we as a group really helped each other get through the stress of the daily news and the frequent changes of plan we had to make by really enjoying each other as we continued to take advantage of the opportunity to learn about South Africa.”

All photos are by Jasmine Huang and Isabel Sullivan. Above right: An elephant at Kruger National Park. Above: an African feast in Cape Town; Robben Island from a distance; the colorful Bo-Kaap neighborhood in Cape Town; and views along the water front.

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