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Fall 2001

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Into Africa
Students and faculty awed by culture and education tour

by Kim M. Smithgall

     Delilah Britz, a teacher at the Edendale primary school in the Republic of South Africa, set a goal for herself—to help at least one or two children, so they could have the tools to help others. In this way, Britz felt she might begin a ripple effect.

     She did...and the ripple has carried across an ocean, to the Skidmore campus and beyond.

     “I met Delilah when visiting South Africa for an education conference in 1996, and I felt an immediate connection with her,” recalls Karen McMahon Brackett ’81, director of Skidmore’s Early Childhood Center and a lecturer in the education department. That initial meeting led to ongoing correspondence, and in 1998 Brackett returned to South Africa, accompanied by colleague Rosie Manley. Several months later, Britz and Edendale’s principal, Rina Prenzler, traveled to Saratoga Springs, followed in 1999 by teachers Anna Chiloane and Anastasia Motimela, who spent three weeks at Skidmore.

     And this summer, fourteen Skidmore students and four faculty members, along with two elementary-school teachers from nearby Schuylerville, N.Y., visited South Africa for a three-week study tour. Led by Brackett and Susan Lehr, professor and chair of the education department, the program was “amazing” for education major Suzanne Burke ’02. “When I look back on the variety of what we did, it’s unbelievable.” Indeed, the journey was jam-packed with activities, both educational and cultural.

     In the capital city of Pretoria, “our host families were very friendly and welcoming. We were able to get a real feel for the culture and how family members interact, which isn’t all that different from our own families,” comments Kimberly Collins ’01, for whom the trip was a graduation gift from her parents. “Something I wasn’t accustomed to, though, was the fact that middle-class families had maids or housekeepers.”

     The participants also made comparisons between American and South African educational systems—analyses that formed the major focus of the trip and that yielded rich fodder for both conversation and research. For example, the visitors noted that South Africans have a strong appreciation for education, though some schools have few or no supplies. “Students pay to go to school. Education is definitely a privilege,” observes Rebecca Brand ’02, an education major who journeyed with twin sister Elyssa ’02.

     Perhaps most striking was “the importance of music, dance, and art as integral parts of South Africa’s culture and curriculum,” Brackett says. “We were greeted with singing and dancing wherever we went.” Rebecca Brand was pleasantly surprised at some of the music she heard: “There were influences from Skidmore! The South African kids were singing songs that originated in our Early Childhood Education Center.” The ripple effect at work….

Classroom comparisons, cultural contrasts

     Spending time in different classroom settings “is incredibly valuable to our students,” Brackett says. “They’ll likely be working in very diverse classrooms or other settings, and this experience opens the doors for them to bring rich experiences into their careers.”

     Wesley Goldstone ’02, an American studies major, says, “My research involved a case study of a second grader, what he knew academically, and the teaching methods used in his classroom. The most interesting part was comparing this student to my little brother, who is also a second grader.” Goldstone reports, “I don’t think the education is as good as it is in the United States. But, in comparing the kids as people, there really weren’t many differences. They’re into playing sports, running around, and just doing the crazy things that second graders do.” Goldstone also teamed with Brackett and two other students in collecting oral histories from people of various ethnic groups.

A Zulu family offers vistors an impromptu dance performance.

     But South African students have more diverse language skills than their American counterparts. Lehr was particularly interested in studying curriculum materials that were developed in eleven different languages. “The children actually laughed when they heard that our college students could only speak one or two languages,” Lehr notes.

     Another Lehr project was s reader response study: teachers read two stories to their elementary-school pupils and Skidmore students recorded their responses. One story reflected village and market scenes common in South Africa; the second told of an event in the childhood of American sports star Michael Jordan.

     “The first thing I noticed was that the children were absolutely mesmerized when we read to them. They’re not accustomed to being read to,” Lehr says. Rebecca Brand was surprised that the children seemed to identify more with the story about Michael Jordan. “They’re so influenced by American television. In fact, their only perceptions about America come from television shows,” she says. “That influence made them ask lots of questions about the United States and what it’s like to live here.” Says Collins, “The children were convinced that America was the greatest place on earth, that Americans are all rich and that we don’t have any problems.” She adds, “They wanted us to pass along their greetings to Jennifer Lopez and Michael Jackson.”

     After conducting research in Pretoria, the Skidmore group traveled extensively in South Africa, visiting Kruger National Park, Sun City, Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were once imprisoned), and the popular holiday destination of Kwazulu-Natal. Experiences in the independent kingdom of Lesotho and at a children’s AIDS hospital added poignant impressions of the country’s vivid contrasts: warmth, friendliness, and good cheer mingled with the agonies of economic hardship, disease, and persistent racism.

     “One morning in Lesotho” Lehr recalls, “a teenage boy guided me on a remarkable journey across a mountain plateau. Amidst the stunning beauty, there was such poverty; the families were living a hand-to-mouth existence. At the same time, though, there was a certain richness, a closeness to the earth and simplicity of living that most Americans are no longer in touch with.”

     Burke says, “Wherever we traveled we received the nicest welcome,” and that warmth permeated even the worst situations. “The Princess of Wales AIDS clinic for children was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. No one could speak on the way back to our lodgings.” Adds Burke, “I felt awkward at times—as if I was behind a glass window looking into someone else’s life. In many ways, I guess I was.”

     While some of the experiences were difficult, the Skidmoreans agreed that all were invaluable. “It’s so easy to become closed-minded,” says Brand. “This trip gave me an incredible awareness of how people live in other cultures and the freedoms and advantages we have in America.” Concludes Brackett, “The journey left an impact on each of us that will last a lifetime.”

     The Skidmore–South African exchange program will continue, and in the coming year this summer’s travelers will be sharing their impressions and insights in public exhibits, at national conferences, and in classrooms, dorm rooms, and family rooms. The ripple continues.…

Kim Smithgall is a communications specialist for the Schuylerville Central School District and a freelance writer; she lives in Saratoga Springs.

Along with classroom sessions at Skidmore, preparation for the South Africa trip included these readings:

Glenn Frankel, Rivonia’s Children: Three Families and the Cost of Conscience in White South Africa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999)

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Little Brown, 1994)

Mark Mathabane, Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa (Touchstone, 1986)

Miriam Mathabane, Miriam’s Song (Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Beverley Naidoo, Journey to Jo’burg: A South African Story (HarperCollins, 1985), Chain of Fire (Lippincott, 1990), No Turning Back: A Novel of South Africa (HarperCollins, 1997)

Frank Welsh, A Narrative History (Kodansha America, 1999)


© 2001 Skidmore College