Traveling to South Africa in the summer of 2014 was the most exhilarating experience of my life. My journey to South Africa began far before the great departure. Due to my excitement, I began researching the deeply rooted history of South Africa and apartheid and the legendary figures that sparked the movement towards their independence. I also began gathering items for donation, in fact so much that I neglected my own packing. As the countdown for departure got closer, the realization began settling in. In all my planning for the trip, I realized that nothing could have prepared me for what I was going to experience.
After a long day of travel, my Bennett sisters and I finally arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. Despite the weariness and the slight ache in my neck, a wave of anticipation kept me wide-awake. We checked in at the Da Vinci Hotel and were greeted with a big warm welcome. We had our first experience with African culture when dancers performed their native routines in front of us. I definitely felt very welcomed as the dancers even taught us some of the moves! We then went for dinner at the Maximillian restaurant at the hotel, where we were introduced with the Global Linkages team that would be with us throughout our visit in Johannesburg. We were in good company with delicious food, making it a great first evening in South Africa.
We had an early start the next morning, but all I could think was ‘wow, I cannot believe I am waking up in South Africa!’. I was greeted by the chill morning air of Johannesburg as we made our way to Lesedi Cultural Village. Once there, we witnessed an array of crafts and jewelry that would soon fill our suitcases. Traditional live music created a cultural ambiance as we shopped and socialized. We were then ushered into the auditorium where our guide educated us on the different ethnic groups and languages in South Africa. From there we visited the Zulu, Pedi, Sotho and Xhosa tribes and learned interesting facts about each. For instance, Nelson Mandela came from the Xhosa tribe. In one of the tribes we visited we were offered a local African delicacy, the Mopane worm. Always up for new experiences I tried the worm, it was dry and crunchy and left a bitter after-taste. It definitely would not be my first choice for a meal, but at least I can say I tried it. Luckily, the worm was not the only thing we were fed. After the tour we gathered for lunch. The spread was very appetizing because we had the option of crocodile and ostrich meat! Both in which were quite delicious if I might add.
With our bellies full, we headed towards Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls at Henly-on-Klip. There we had a chance to see the efforts made to contribute to education in South Africa for young-women. We then made our way back to the hotel. Some of my sisters and I strolled round the vicinity and found ourselves in the shadow of a huge statue in tribute to Nelson Mandela on Mandela Square. It was almost as if he was watching over us as we ate and made our way back our rooms. With jetlag setting in, we went to sleep knowing we soon had another full day ahead of us.
On day four we set out to the Apartheid Museum. The experience there was moving, overwhelming, heartwarming, and gave me an extraordinary wave of emotions as we made our way through the exhibits. It is almost unfathomable to understand the trials and tribulations non-whites went through on a day-to-day basis during Apartheid. Men, women and children were abused, harassed, and hardened to the inequality of life so harshly that it soon became the ‘norm’. There was one exhibit in particular that I am certain moved everyone that walked through it. It was a room with plaques of those who allegedly committed suicide during incarceration. Hanging from the ceiling were nooses signifying the loss of lives, some of who were younger than thirteen. However, despite the horrifying realities of Apartheid, it was heartening to see the persistent efforts of the people to stand against such discrimination. Led by the great Nelson Mandela, it was encouraging to read the accounts of those who upheld the non-violent attempts against the disparities.
After we left the Apartheid Museum, we toured Soweto, which stands for South Western Townships. There we were swept up with another wave of emotions. I was taken back many times while witnessing the conditions that the majority of the population was living in. Soweto was vibrant and full of life, children were playing, and people were hustling at the side of streets selling knick-knacks to passing motorists. It was imperative to note the difference in definition of poverty between America and South Africa. The gap is so huge in South Africa that a middle class does not seem to exist. We would pass mansions and on the very next block would be shantytowns. Even after twenty years of democracy, South Africa still remains a divided society on a socio economic level.
While in Soweto we visited Nelson Mandela’s home which is now a museum. Walking through the rooms and viewing the articles left behind by the Mandela family was quite surreal. We then walked to the Sakhumzia Restaurant where we had lunch. After, we visited the Hector Pieterson Museum that commemorates the role of the country’s youth in the struggle against Apartheid. It is located just a few blocks from where 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot in 1976 during a protest, in which he was walking past on his way home from school. The museum focuses on that momentous day and celebrates the student’s struggles toward their freedom. It really touched me as a student, because I can relate to the weight we can carry at such a young age. Youth in America have become rather complacent and comfortable. We have lost our sense of justice and unity.
The day continued on as we departed for Motsoaledi, an informal settlement in Soweto. There we were able to view the conditions of the homes firsthand. A water tap was shared among those in the community for cooking, showering and cleaning. Since there was a limited flow of running water, the people who lived there shared outhouses sparsely located within the townships. We also visited a day care center and visited one of the homes in the area. The children were very sweet as they followed us back to the bus when our visiting time was completed. As our tour guide mentioned, Soweto covers ninety square miles housing over four million residents. Of those residents, a little over one million are child headed. I have never personally witnessed such upsetting conditions, and it pressed me to want to help the people that lived there. That experience caused me to recognize all the privileges I can sometime take for granted.
That same night we left for Moyo’s at Zoo Lake for dinner. During which we were brought into the discussion on the “Comparisons and Contrasts: The Freedom Movement in South Africa and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States”, facilitated by Dr. Jarvis Hall, Professor of Political Science, North Carolina Central University.
We conversed over the subject, which served as the prefect reflection to the end of a tremendous day.
With our batteries charged and our cameras ready, we left for a safari tour the next morning. At Pilanesburg Game Reserve, we saw the wild side of South Africa. We were fortunate to see four out of the big five, among other animals. We saw the majestic giraffes, the huge elephants, the white rhinos, two lionesses and the lazy hippos. It was definitely an exhilarating experience! We had lunch and then visited Sun City and took many pictures in the Palace of the Lost City with the intricately carved animals. After we got back to the hotel, we proceeded to create vision boards for the Young Women’s guide-dream board project founded by Mrs. Yetunde Odugbesan. It was nice being with my Bennett sisters that night. Listening to their personal dreams and visions for the future brought us even closer together.
The next day, we visited Orange Farm Day Care Center for a fun day. We met the children and the teachers and they eagerly gave us a tour around the school. Despite their individual situations, the children were all smiles and very welcoming. We all took to our stations for the fun day, which included sports, dancing, storytelling, and face and mask painting. The children were very receptive and engaged with all of us as we entertained them. I was never much of a kid-friendly person, but the children somehow found a way to my soft side. I know we all did not want to leave, but we had another engagement that would define the rest of the trip for most of us. As we waited in the lobby to meet Mrs. Winnie Mandela, yes, Winnie Mandela, I could not help but feel that it was too good to be true. As we viewed her walking through the doors to the conference room, I instantly felt the presence and dominance that she held. We each were given the opportunity to introduce ourselves and I found myself rehearsing my own name in my head. It was an extreme honor to be able to meet a woman of such caliber and finesse however, the day was far from over. We visited Liliesleaf where we sat for dinner with our guest speakers, two South African Belles. One of which is Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s granddaughter, Celenhle Dlamini ’02. We were told testimonies of how Bennett College prepared them for the work they do now in the new South Africa. They were both inspirational and relatable as they talked about their experiences as international students being submerged into a completely different culture. The work they do now along with the name they carry as Bennett Belles is certainly motivating. They encouraged me to take a long hard look at my life and what I plan on doing with it. It is also very comforting to know that as a Bennett Belles, we have sisters all over the world working towards a cause.
Fortunately we also had the opportunity to visit two universities on our trip, the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Western Cape. At both institutions we were met by the Students Representative Council (SRC). We took part in a networking lunch where we had the chance to meet the students and exchange contact information. Some were deeply involved with their community and have created organizations in effect. It would be beneficial to collaborate between our school and theirs on potential community service projects. The students showed us great hospitality and I wish them the best of luck on all their endeavors.
On our last night in Johannesburg, the Bennett Admissions team hosted a recruitment ceremony at the Jubilane Luxury Guesthouse. There we greeted the many anxious girls that had interest in attending Bennett College for higher education. They were extremely curious about life in student dorms and classrooms with only women. They asked about the majors offered and our own experiences. I had an amazing time talking and laughing with my potential Bennett sisters. We got to know each other in such a short period of time, and I hope they choose to come join our wonderful sisterhood at Bennett College.
The next morning we bid Johannesburg farewell as we departed for Cape Town. There we beheld the full extent of beauty that South Africa had to offer. Standing at the top of Table Mountain, now the official seventh wonder of nature, was absolutely breath taking. From the top we saw a panorama of mountain ranges, the ocean, the docks, and the vast natural beauty of Cape Town. We also toured the coast as we headed across the cape peninsula. While there we visited Cape of Good Hope, Western Cape, Hout Bay, Bantry Bay, Cape Point, Simons Town, and Boulders Beach where we saw the adorable South African Penguins.
Cape Town is not only beautiful, but it also houses many exemplary women, whom we had a chance to meet. My group and I had dinner at the District 6 Guesthouse where we had guest Speaker, Mrs. Amelia Jones, former CEO of the WCCC to join us. She eloquently spoke about women in South Africa and the changes it has had from 1994 to today. She spoke about how women in South Africa played a prominent role in the struggle for equal rights and what we can do now as women to help the same cause. We met Mrs. Ntsiki Biyela, an internationally acclaimed black female winemaker at Stellakaya for a wine tasting. She told us about her struggles making it in an industry that was dominated by Afrikaner men. Rev. Adora Iris Lee spoke to us about perspectives of an American working in Africa and how she came overcame obstacles as well. All these women were definitely an inspiration and I am blessed we were given the opportunity to be in their presence.
On our last night in South Africa, we left for a farewell dinner in Lelapa in the Langa Township. Once there, we were greeted with a night of music, dance, festivities, and a delicious dinner. The night ended with reflections from everyone finishing the statement ‘when I return to South Africa, I would like to…’ It was a perfect way to end an amazing trip in South Africa. When I come back I plan on seeing a lot more and staying much longer. One can never fully understand the struggles and the lives of those who live here if they only visit as a tourist.
South Africa seems to possess two sides;
There is so much that must be done to build an economy that is sustainable. My trip to South Africa left me reevaluating almost everything I do. It continuously has me appreciating all the little things I usually would not even give a thought about. Every time I flick a switch and the light turns on, every time I take a hot shower, or drink a glass of water, I reassess my life a little further.
I am extremely grateful to the Belle Foundation for planning such an awesome trip to South Africa. I know without a doubt that the experience from this trip will last way beyond my education at Bennett College, and will last a lifetime. I am already doing my own research to further develop my understanding of the culture as well as possible business opportunities that may be of interest to me in the future.
I am very aware that Oprah Winfrey had been very instrumental in helping young women in South Africa for many years. I was very delighted to have been able to visit the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls with my fellow Bennett family on this trip. Since 1873 Bennett College has been very influential in the development and empowerment of young women, so I think it would be very beneficial if both the Oprah and Bennett foundation could collaborate since both are working towards the same goal. I would be very willing to avail my time and effort to help if such an alliance were to happen.
I really appreciate the strength of the South African women in totality. Entrepreneurs as well as students I met were highly motivated and driven. I really hope my visit has inspired the people I have met as much as their presence has encouraged me to set my goals higher and strive to achieve more. I have promised to keep all communications open between the friends I have met with the intention to be alert to any opportunities that could strengthen and grow my Bennett family now and in the future.
South Africa was never a place I thought would offer so much inspiration to a business major. I probably would have visited with the intention of touring the safaris like many other tourists do. I definitely would not have seen and appreciated the other aspects this country has to offer such as the universities, small business, exemplary women, and great leaders with rich history.
Christina Liu, Bennett College