What better way to learn about South Africa—both its vibrant culture and apartheid history—than to spend seven days living on the peninsula of Cape Town? That is just what a group of 19 Gill St. Bernard’s students, along with three teachers, did as part of a unit course this past spring. During the trip, they mingled with high school students, visited the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, cooked a traditional Malayan dinner and even learned a few phrases in Xhosa from the locals.
The excursion to South Africa marked Gill’s first on the continent. Christine Chan, who teaches AP Government at Gill and serves as the school’s international student advisor, proposed the idea. “I wasn’t sure the trip would be approved and that students would want to go,” she says. “But it ended up generating a lot of interest, and it seemed the perfect way for them to learn about the country’s history of apartheid and the current struggles with race, poverty and AIDS.”
On the trip, students saw the effects of each first-hand. At the visit to Muizenberg High School, Gill students connected easily with their South African peers. “It was seamless. Our kids were nervous but they got over it. They weren’t sure what to expect, but everyone said it was the best experience they ever had,” says Chan. Lila Birnberg ’17 was struck by the similarities between those students and her friends at Gill. “My buddy for the day likes the same television shows and music that I do. She even quoted Mean Girls, my favorite movie. Even though we live so far apart, we’re still so similar.”
The group also spent time at two preschools in the township of Red Hill, where they played with the children and assisted with reading and writing the alphabet. Chan said, “It was winter there, and shipping containers were used as classrooms. One kid took off his shoes, and he was wearing mittens. No socks. But even though they only had a few resources, a backpack, a reusable water bottle, they were still getting a good education.”
Later in the trip, the students paid a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. They also toured a community treatment center for HIV run by the non-government organization mothers2mothers, which offers testing, education, treatment and support for women infected with the virus. This stop was particularly poignant for Catarina Matthews ’16, as her late grandmother, Marie Matthews, donated seed money to start mothers2mothers.
With a visit to South Africa, sight-seeing is also an important part of the agenda. The students had a chance to see African penguins on Boulders Beach and they spotted elephants, cheetahs, lions, tigers and zebras on the Aquila Game Reserve.
For Emma Cullen ’17, this unit was the perfect mix of site-seeing, community service and cultural immersion. “I loved it,” she says. “It made me appreciate the things I’m fortunate to have. In the townships surrounding Cape Town, people live in boxes, and when some kids go to school, that’s the only meal they get.” Another added bonus for Emma was making new high school friends on a far-away continent. “They’re following us on Instagram, and one girl posted a picture of the two of us,” she says, adding that their tour guide sent her birthday wishes over the summer.
When it came time to say “sala kakuhle,” (good-bye in Xhosa), Emma admits there were tears. “I didn’t want to leave,” she says.