By Thomas Lavanchy, Visiting Teaching Assistant Professor – Department of Geography and the Environment
The Department of Geography & the Environment spent Winter Interterm with eleven students and two professors in Cape Town to begin the two-week Geographies of South Africa class. Students experienced a first-hand look at the physical and cultural landscapes as they traveled and learned about the beautiful, yet complicated, country of South Africa. Starting at the Cape, students engaged themes of apartheid, migration, globalization, and plate tectonics. Activities included hiking iconic Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope, mapping a geological contact made famous by Charles Darwin, and visits to Robben Island and Langa Township. We also enjoyed a rare opportunity to visit a private ranch in the Great Karoo to learn about the original inhabitants of the land (San people) and view their 6,000 year-old art.
The class then trekked north to Kimberley, the former epicenter of the diamond industry, to tour a diamond mine and discuss the impact of diamond mining on early South Africa and the enduring diamond engagement ring. The class concluded travels in the Central Drakensburg Mountains, where students learned about the struggle of rural Zulu people for access to land and the impact of AIDS on their communities and the economy. A key piece of their education included a service-learning project at a local crèche (preschool) in a rural community. For many students, this element of experiential learning tied together the many themes of the class and brought tangible connections to course readings and overall perspective on the plight of black South Africans.
Our work at the crèche was coordinated through a local NGO with long term commitment and prominence in the community. Because the University of Denver (DU) class is offered on a regular basis, it allows for a longer-term relationship between community members and DU professors. Some DU students also stay in touch with local community members. This year’s project was a partnership with six local Zulu women who had petitioned the State for permission to build a preschool to serve children in the growing community. These vibrant, motivated women marshaled resources within their community to construct a 12’ x 20’ tin roofed building to serve the educational needs of 32 five-year old Zulu children.
The DU team was able to complement the hard work of these women by providing playground resources. In addition to erecting a tire obstacle course, we also funded a jungle gym. Our modest contribution of time and money had more impact than we could have imagined. The women who built the school told us the playground would not have been possible otherwise. In true African fashion, they emphasized community and solidarity by welcoming us and inviting us to work alongside them. Beyond building a playground, the value of our service learning was primarily one of building friendships and putting faces to the stories and themes discussed in class.