In May of 2010 I traveled with the University of Louisville to Gaborone, Botswana to participate in an ISLP “service learning” trip. This program requires students to research issues (health or social) that affect young people in developing countries, design programs to deal with those issues and travel/implement workshops to deal with those issues.
After four months of preparation we were ready, so 24 students and 8 faculty hopped on a 14-hour plane ride from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. Our trip was one month before the World Cup, so the “buzz” in J-burg was endearing. My initial transition to Africa was quite subtle; true the accents are different and the food has a slight Indian influence, but the television is what clued me in that I was on a different continent. Due to a bout of time-change (+6 hours) insomnia, I spent my night in SA watching cable TV. Now they have pretty much the same content we have in the US (sports, drama, travel and The Dukes of Hazard-I’m serious), the sports are cricket, rugby and football (soccer) and the dramas are quite campy (think low-budget WB network), it was while watching travel shows that I realized I could see wild lions, elephants or beautiful savannahs within a few hours of our hotel; I was hit with the realization that I was not in North America.
We woke early the next morning to continue on to Botswana (like a 45 min. flight). The difference between arriving in J-burg and Gab’s is the difference between driving to a brand-new Whole food’s versus a road-side fruit vendor. Gabs actually has a decent infrastructure (roads, potable water, electricity), but the lack of modern aesthetic is apparent right off the plane. However, since the trip was coordinated through the Botswanan government, our accommodations were actually in a plush resort on the outskirts of town; this choice was very nice for acclimating to the unfamiliar surroundings, relaxing and for chasing monkeys through the courtyard, but was not how I would choose immerse myself in the culture; getting there and interacting with the students was the most fascinating part of our trip.
Three days in we had done the major tourist things (shopped, a safari – got to pet a cheetah – and ate lots of food) and we began our programs. The students were quite amazing, even now thinking of certain students bring tears to my eyes. When you consider that 1/3 of the students in my class will contract HIV in their lifetime, the students I interacted with knew the barriers they faced and still had dreams of escaping the poverty they lived in and finding professions that would make a difference in their communities. Many of the students I spoke with told me of their villages (up to 100 km away) and the lives they have left behind to seek education. I had a young women explain to me how to make a house out of mud bricks, one told me how to milk a cow, a group told me indigenous stories and I was even serenaded with Lady Gaga. I wish to one day be involved with programs that don’t go in for a few days to learn/share a little, but to be imbedded in communities and facilitate the potential I saw in those young adults.
It’s difficult for me to be critical of such a great opportunity, but the organization of this trip felt very sheltered. My biggest complaint is that interacting with our students was really the only consistent interactions we had with the locals- I don’t count service staff. The students were a source of inspiration and, due to a lack of knowledge of the local language, frustration. I’ve had a few months to digest my trip to Botswana Africa and I would not recommend my experience to the seasoned traveler; If you have not traveled much, this might be an excellent way to get your feet wet. But if/when I go back, my intention is to live among the people as much as possible and attempt to embrace the world my students live in.
Filed under: Africa | Tagged: Botswana, cheetah petting, cricket, elephants, food, football, Gabrone, HIV, immersion, Indian influence, indigenous stories, ISLP, Johannesburg, juror #22, Lady Gaga, local language, milk a cow, mud bricks, reflection, research, resort, rugby, safari, savannahs, service learning, soccer, South Africa, time change adjustment, University of Louisville, villages, wild lions, World Cup | 1 Comment »