Tag Archives: South Africa

The Amy Foundation


Today was definitely a day to remember. We visited the Amy Foundation, named for Amy Biehl.

In 1994, Amy, a Stanford graduate, was in South Africa working on her Fulbright and as an anti-Apartheid activist. One evening, the 26-year old insisted on driving some of her friends home who lived in a township (areas outside the city designated as districts for black South Africans; typically very poor). She was to return to the United States in two days. After dropping off her friends that night, she was forced from her car and stoned to death on the side of the street by a group of political activists from the township.

Amy would not survive, but her mother and father came to South Africa to meet with the families of the perpetrators and figure out how they could carry on Amy’s work and passion for social justice. They decided to start the Amy Foundation, which began as an after-school program for school-aged children in the townships. After they had served 5-year sentences in prison, the four young mean who killed Amy made a plea in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty. Amy’s parents supported that plea and went on to hire two of the four young men at the foundation.

Today, the Amy Foundation provides an after-school enrichment program that includes programming on Saturdays and school holidays at 5 locations. The “learners” are able to go on field trips and camps through the program. They also added a program for young adults facing unemployment. Students learn how to compile a CV (resume), receive extensive training in one of three tracks (hospitality, arts & crafts, or beauty and wellness).

In addition to providing them with a certification, the hospitality program matches trainees with a prestigious hotel for a 1 month internship. The hotel benefits by receiving quality candidates from which to hire and the young adult likely will receive a job at the internship, but at least graduates the program with marketable skills, a respected certification, a CV, and a prestigious internship. The foundation has a beautiful model commercial kitchen and bistro! The chefs and servers in training made us a delicious lunch.

The arts & crafts program teaches beading and sewing. Students sell their handiwork and save up to buy a sewing machine of their own with help from the foundation. Students are able to gain work as tailors in the local department stores and often are able to start their own businesses after a few years of experience. Our group was impressed with their wares and purchased several items from these women and man directly from their sewing room. They have more students, but due to space limitations and funding, they can only offer sewing instruction two days per week and often have to use other spaces throughout the foundation offices to have enough work space.

The last track, beauty and wellness, partners with a local beauty services salon. Students take modules on nails, massage, waxing, and facials. As each module is complete, students are able to begin working in that field in an actual salon. They have a salon set up at the foundation, where students offer reduced-rate services as they learn their craft. With each module, they can go to work for the partner beauty salon that charges full prices (comparable to the U.S.!).

All of these courses are offered for free and the foundation provides transportation to and from students’ homes to the foundation. The beauty students weren’t present today, but the crafts and hospitality students all included alumni of the program who come back to help new students on their days off and consider the Amy Foundation home.

After touring the impressive facilities, we visited one of the after-school programs. They are housed in classrooms of local public schools. Students of all ages can take courses in health and environment, music, dance, reading skills, sports, and HIV/AIDS peer education. Upon arriving at the public primary school for this particular program, we were met by cute kids waving at us. One little girl ran up and gave me a huge hug! Another mouthed to me, “What is your name?” and I asked her hers in return. They were gracious hosts and performed their dances and songs for us in those respective classes.


District 6 and Robben Island


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Saturday was a jam-packed day. We began by visiting the District 6 Museum, a museum dedicated to remembering the forcible removals that took place in Cape Town during Apartheid. The District 6 Museum is housed in a former Methodist church built in 1883 and retains many of the church’s original characteristics. District 6, in particular, was a low-income neighborhood of freed slaves, artisans, merchants, and immigrants. The desirable location led to it being repossessed so that the whites could move in. The well-established community was forced to leave their houses, often with a single suitcase, and relocated to assigned shacks in the outer townships (some of which hadn’t been built yet). In the early 1970s, District 6 was bulldozed to be completely redeveloped under the guise that the neighborhood had been dangerous and posed a threat to the surrounding white, wealthier communities.

The museum itself has established an oral history project and gone about collecting primary-source memorabilia of the strong District 6 community to stand as a counter-narrative to the untruths told about their community to justify their forced removal. A major theme of the museum, according to our guide and former District 6 resident, is that they could remove the people out of District 6, but they couldn’t remove District 6 from the heart of the people. The photographs and artifacts tell the story of a rich community life before the forced removal. To this day, the neighborhood, though redeveloped, has not regained the level of safety for children and women that residents once enjoyed.

Robben Island is a former prison, prison to the political foes of the Apartheid regime–Nelson Mandel and current president Zuma, among others. To get there, we took a 45 minute catamaran ride. I was fortunate to have Dramamine, but political prisoners weren’t so lucky. As we sailed out from the harbor into the open Atlantic Ocean, I thought about all of the prisoners who were told they would come to Robben Island to die. In addition to holding male convicts and political prisoners, the island was also once home to banished lepers–who also were taken there for a life sentence.

From uniforms to food allotments, our tour guide explained to us the differences in what prisoners were allowed based on their race. We saw Nelson Mandela’s solitary cell and the spot in their courtyard where he wrote his book, which later was smuggled out of the prison by a man being released. Prisoners were sentenced to hard labor in the rock quarries. The political prisoners were deemed the most dangerous (and rightly so), as they were intellectuals and found ways to send messages out using prisoners who were being released as conduits. They also converted other prisoners to their cause and educated their fellow inmates.

The island was huge. We took a bus tour around the island and a walking tour through the maximum security building. Our guide only mentioned two successful escapes from the island since the Dutch colonizers made it a prison in the 1600s. Cut off from Cape Town and the world at Robben Island, Nelson Mandela managed to become the face of resistance to Apartheid. Mandela led a successful hunger strike at the prison that resulted in an upgrade from floor mats to beds. His stay at Robben Island was about 2 decades before he was moved and held at two other locations. There is a powerful picture of the remaining freedom fighters (political prisoners) being released in 1991. Robben Island remained open as a prison until 1996, when its prisoners (then all felons) were transferred to other sites, and the work began to convert Robben Island into a museum and testament to the struggle for freedom.

We ended the day by visiting the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront–a promenade of shops and restaurants, mostly for tourists.

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Big Day in Cape Town!


Do you ever have days so full of life and light that you can’t believe it was all the same day? We’ve had so many adventures since this morning, I can hardly keep track.

We began our day with breakfast at our bed and breakfast with South African scholar and change agent, Dr. Jonathan Jansen. He’s currently a visiting professor at Stanford (also an alum!) and president emeritus at University of the Free State. While Wednesday’s book signing was about his new book As By Fire, this morning was about his current research on interracial couples on college campuses in post-Apartheid South Africa. We had a great conversation on a how societies move forward and about his confidence in each successive generation to be more accepting, as we teach our children better than society taught us. He has more books coming out next year (I think he said he has four in the works).

We then toured a beautiful boarding school in the mountains called Cape Academy, focused on STREAM (Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Aerospace, and Math). The lab facilities were incredible, and the school has helped many students get their private and commercial pilot licenses. Their graduates, which include both wealthy and impoverished students, have gone on to be successful in top U.S. and South African universities.

The Groot Constantia Wine Estate was nearby and a delicious stop for lunch and wine tasting. I had a Cape Malay curry–winter vegetables and chick peas, combining Indian and South African influences. Delicious! The views of the city were also amazing.

We went from the winery to Table Mountain–a (if not THE) must-see site in Cape Town. Because it was late afternoon, we took one of the last cable cars up instead of hiking. We barely made is around the entire top before having to get back in a long line to catch the last cable cars down for the night. Pictures can’t do it justice, but they are better than my words, so see below!

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Sacred Ground


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Sunday was a day of sacredness.

In the true sense of the word “catholic” (universal), I attended Catholic Mass at the local church. Youth were raising money for the next World Youth Day. The parish was running a capital campaign to build a new sanctuary. The announcements spoke of ministries, activities, and fellowship. The translation of the Mass was nearly–but not exactly–identical to the U.S. English translation of the Mass. It felt very familiar, and yet, the full church sang and responded in slightly different accents. Songs ranged from traditional European, lyrics in Latin, and contemporary praise music to songs in the local African languages. There are 11 official languages in South Africa and several other unofficial languages–the Gloria (Tlotlo e nne go Modimo) was in Sotho.

I love going to Mass in other countries. The sameness and the differences remind me so strikingly that we are all many diverse parts of one body. However, sometimes the most sacred spaces we encounter are outside of a church. They remind us of our inherent connectedness as human beings. The Apartheid Museum is precisely one of those spaces. A space dedicated not only to remembering, but also to teaching and witnessing. Museums, along with schools, play such a critical role in the collective memory of a nation and of social trauma. One hopes that such a memorial will not only honor those who died, but cause pause and reflection as future decisions are made and we work to build a future that is brighter than our past.

The entrance of the museum is a courtyard with a reflection pool and fountain. Similar to the traveling Titanic Exhibit from several years ago or the Holocaust Museum, with your admission ticket comes an identity. But instead of being identified as an individual, you are classified as a White (Blanke) or Black (non-Blanke) and enter the museum through separate entrances.

The museum exhibits cover the first peoples of Africa, Dutch colonization in the 1600s, the 19th century English-Boer South African War (between the British colonists and the Dutch), and the continuing legacy of legally enforced segregation and oppression based on race. Signs, photos, posters, and other artifacts testify to the story of Blacks who were denied citizenship and treated to a police state and its brutality. But artifacts also testify to the students, the children, and the revolutionaries who spoke truth to power–who often died, suffered, or faced imprisonment for defying the system.

One of the final exhibits showed three large video screens. The right screen played footage of a former government official describing the violence he perpetrated as an official in the Apartheid regime. On the left screen was an advocate posing questions. The center screen showed the face of the young girl who was murdered and the grave in which she was cruelly buried. The screens went black. The footage was then replaced by a man in a wheelchair testifying to the brutalities perpetrated against him on one side. Center footage showing a single candle burning in the dark and the far side again showing the advocate/lawyer, asking him for his testimony.

This was the Truth and Reconciliation room, an exhibit playing live footage from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings–a mechanism for bringing out the truth about the violence and abuse of the Apartheid movement that was once heralded by its perpetrators as a system that should be modeled around the world. This commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who I met in high school at the University of Tulsa!) is controversial. Knowledge comes to light that many don’t want to face or deal with. Some of the worst perpetrators refuse to speak.

The point of the commission is to provide truth to the historical record, process the full-scale of the trauma, and move forward united, not to sentence the guilty. But, as is often a problem in the United States, the perpetrators want to know why the nation is still talking about 20 years ago. As if the current living situation of millions of South Africans isn’t a result of Apartheid policies, as if current access to education and to jobs in the economy have no root in past access to education or industry. As if the loss of children, sisters, brothers, and friends in the 1976 student uprising or the violence that reigned from 1990-1994 isn’t still hurting.

A phenomenal temporary exhibit featured the life and work of Nelson Mandela–timely for tomorrow’s Nelson Mandela Day of Service. We will be participating in this national holiday (and you can, too!). Some of the most impressive things to me about Mandela is his insistence on meeting government violence, control, and brutality with non-violent resistance and his ability to unite and lead after serving a 27-year prison sentence, including over a decade where he was often in isolation and nearly a decade of completely monitored house-arrest (at a warden’s cottage of a prison). I thought back to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Soviet Russia who says some of his best thoughts and his first thoughts on what it means to be good came from his struggle in the Gulag. I can’t help but think that women and men like these must be superhuman.

Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address that these men living and dead who fought for the Union hallowed and consecrated the battlefield far above our power to do so in words after the fact. I think that the brave women, men, and children who risked themselves to end the oppression of Apartheid have done the same. What will we do to ensure our brothers and sisters across the world have access to education, freedom, and security?

I left the sacred space of the Apartheid Museum my head full of thoughts, feeling empty and completely overwhelmed all at the same time.

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Don’t Give Your Time, Give Your Heart


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Our first full day of activities and, boy, was it a powerful one! We spent the majority of the day at Teboho Trust. A Saturday program that provides students (called “learners” here)–many who are orphans being raised by an older sibling–with a meal and extra educational support. Our day was spent joining the learners in preparing for a spur of the moment talent show, where various age groups (preschool through high school) danced, sung, acted, and delivered orations for us. Incredible talent!

Our group watched or participated in their rehearsals. Our “talent” was as educators. During the talent show, we gave an impromptu presentation about careers and education, helped them brainstorm about future careers, and answer questions about education and jobs in the United States. One very little one (elementary school) asked if we had to pay school fees to attend school–which is a required part of public education in South Africa and a struggle for many of these children (even though fees are some times a low as R100/$7.67 at the current exchange rate). Several of them asked about scholarships, paying for education, and if our parents chose our majors/careers for us.

Fellow volunteers from the Community Engagement club at the University of Johannesburg helped facilitate and emcee the talent show and also asked great questions about American universities, how to keep learners engaged in the classroom, and how expensive universities are. We found that young people here and at home face common concerns about paying for education, being able to buy a house, and the economy. It was these college students that said one can give their time, but spend that time distracted–thinking about other things, wasting time on their phone, or otherwise not really present where they are. Better it is to give one’s heart–the gift of your present, your presence, and your being.

The learners and the university students were hard to leave–we barely made it to the Hector Pieterson Museum before it closed. An iconic photo made Hector Pieterson, an innocent boy killed in the 1976 Soweto uprising, the face of the protest. The 1976 photo by today’s standards “went viral” in the international press.

While our visit was brief, I will share one lasting thought from the tour. The mom of the boy carrying Hector and Hector’s family both asserted that their sons were not heroes. Hector’s family reiterated that Hector was not unique–he happened to be the face representing many innocent children who were victims of police violence in the uprising. The problems that led to Hector being killed were endemic for all black South African children in need of accessible education. The mother of the boy carrying Hector said that her son was merely fulfilling his duty to a fellow brother and that just stepping over him to run away would have been wrong.

And Away We Go!


She’s at it again, they’ll say! Will she ever settle down?

Yes, I am at it again. And no, other than the whole got married part, I doubt my incurable wanderlust will dissipate.

This summer, I will be heading to South Africa, as part of Rutgers University South Africa Initiative.

We will be meeting with universities, schools, community organizations, government officials, and change agents. How do schools and education more broadly lead to social change? In post-Apartheid Africa, I will learn more about how schools educate and communities transform through major social changes.

One of the things I am interested in is how social change, reconciliation, and forgiveness have and continue to shape a community marked by violence and racism. How have students help lead that change? What lessons or observations will I learn/make during my visit that will relate to some of the struggles we face in our own country?

We had our first of a handful of orientations last night where I met the other 8 or so participants–who are PhD students (like me), current teachers, masters students, or education and community leaders.

I hope you will join me in this journey by:

  • Reading the book Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past by Jonathan D. Jansen and/or Social justice and transformative learning: Culture and identity in the United States & South Africa by Darren Clarke and Saundra Tomlinson-Clarke with me and sharing your insights
  • Following my blog
  • Suggesting other reading or giving me travel recommendations

Fair warning: True to my previous entries about my travels to India, Nepal, and Thailand, these posts (as demonstrated) will not be short entries. Sorry not sorry.

Why South Africa?

Listen to the Day of Affirmation speech Robert F. Kennedy gave at the University of Capetown during his 1966 trip–even just the first minute and 15 seconds is enlightening.