Last summer, 20 students experienced cultural and economic hardship very different from their own experience at Notre Dame while on a six-week study abroad program in South Africa.
“It was a typical study abroad program that’s intent was cultural immersion and exposure to poverty,” said Anre Venter, psychology professor and program coordinator.
While in South Africa, the students lived in an apartment complex near the University of Cape Town where they took two classes. Outside the classroom, students had to travel and volunteer.
Senior Joanna Stabile said the most interesting part of the program was gaining perspective on how the various townships coped with the lasting effects of apartheid, especially poverty.
“During apartheid, they [government officials] forcibly removed anyone of color or black from the cities and into the townships,” she said. “Even though apartheid is over, the black people are still living in extreme poverty in the townships.
Stabile said while visiting the townships, she and the other students would typically be the only Caucasian people in the area. She said children often expressed shock at the sight of the students.
Venter said exposing the Notre Dame students to poverty was a central component of the program.
“By taking the students to the townships like Soweto, one of the first black townships, they got insights into how the local African people lived and live,” Veter said.
During their time in the African nation, students went on safari in Kruger National Park and visited an orphanage in the Mpumalanga Township. Venter said the orphanage was makeshift, operated by a local woman out of her house.
Senior Justin Siler said there were between 20 and 25 children living in the orphanage ranging from infants and toddlers to teenagers. Some of the children were born infected with AIDS and had been abandoned at birth.
Visiting the orphanage and going on safari were not the only chances the students had to experience South Africa outside the classroom. Students had the opportunity to live with a local family for a weekend, and Siler attended the first game of the FIFA World Cup.
“Each of us, either by ourselves or with another person, were able to spend a weekend with a family in a township,” Siler said. “It was a really cool experience.”
When the students were not in school or travelling throughout the country, they did service work in the townships. As the World Cup resulted in some school cancellations, NGO’s and government agencies set up alternative programs. Stabile volunteered at one such program.
Stabile said some of the children in the program expressed concern about getting home at an early hour as Nigerian men had been kidnapping girls to be sold into slavery.
“It was crazy hearing about the human trafficking,” Stabile said. ” I never imagined I would sit with an 11 year old and listen to her talk about how she lost her friend.”
Stabile said the extreme disparity between the lives of South African youth and her own made a lasting impression.
“I had to be confronted with all this poverty and not really be able to do anything about it,” she said. “It changed me for the better and I gained something, but [I] wasn’t really able to give something back, and that was a challenge.”
Upon returning to Notre Dame, Stabile and some of the other students began trying to help the locals in a way they could not while in South Africa. Venter’s daughter, a student at Trinity High School, has collected around 500 pounds of clothes, shoes and other goods. Stabile and her peers are collecting funds to ship the goods back to South Africa.