South Africa Wrap-Up

I have been back in the United States for a while. The culture shock and jet lag slowly wear off. The shapes of outlets do not look so oddly foreign anymore. Driving on the right side of the road requires less conscious attention. People sound less blatantly American (and my accent returns to "normal"). The general absence of butternut squash and peri-peri sauce is less glaring, and avocado is rarely abbreviated to "avo."

Following the final weeks of cold in Cape Town, the absurd heat of the desert in the summer feels good on my thawing limbs.

I have been trying to close out my ponderings on my time abroad, I wanted to pull together some notes about life in South Africa and the study abroad experience at the University of Cape Town for prospective future students. At the same time, I have been finding it incredibly difficult to just finish this entry. It has been in a slowly growing draft-form for close to two months. Perhaps I do not want to "End" my journal of South African adventures. I need to get this up on the blog, and if more comes up to be of use, I will add new posts then.

The new Photos software on Mac not only makes browsing and uploading photos a pain, it makes it near impossible to get the image right-side up.
This was a very different experience from the MBTE program I attended the preceding semester in Australia. Obviously, South Africa and Australia are two very different countries. Additionally, the program with the University of Queensland was a dedicated program for University of California students. Therefore, all my classes were with fellow UC students. It was a shorter, more intense program with a heavy emphasis on research and field work.

The program with UCT was a more traditional immersion program. I took regular classes with South African students (as well as that institution's immense international student population...I had the opportunity to learn and interact with students from Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Botswana, Canada, Germany, Tanzania, Jamaica, the Netherlands, Norway, Malawi, and Uganda).

UCT is a three-year university (more in line with the British model) with the option of a fourth year Honours. It does not incorporate the American liberal arts model.

Academics were surprisingly rigorous. I was shocked when I arrived to learn from other US students that they felt a semester in South Africa was an easy-going party. Neither my housemates nor I found that to be the case. I can see how it would be easy to slip into partying with the other young internationals, but our courses required a lot of reading, plenty of independent study, and regular assessment. I studied a lot and yet felt like a slacker when comparing myself to some of my friends.

Much of university is grading system in South Africa is different from the US. Tests aim for a higher level of understanding, and the marks are assigned more sparingly. One counselor described the difference to me as, "American universities believe everyone deserves 100% and mark you down; South African universities believe everyone deserves 50% and marks you up from there." That is not entirely accurate, but it helps. 50% is passing. 75% is generally the cut-off for "First class" which roughly translates to our "A." Grades I would hate myself for getting in the States were apparently considered admirable. If 100% is considered perfect, it is reasonable to see that people don't perform perfectly. My friend got an 80% on one of her exams, a grade her professor claimed to have never before awarded.

Professors were much more casual and easily approachable that I expected. I anticipated that US universities would occupy the middle ground between the extreme casualness of UQ and a stodgy, conservative UCT. However, it seems to me that UCT is placed more in a middle ground between UQ and US universities. Every professor I knew was on first-name basis. I think I referred to someone as "Dr. _________" once upon introducing myself only once. In fact, one of my lecturers actually giggled about my formality with him. Professors, tutors (TAs), IAPO, the library, department secretaries, all proved to be willing and interested resources for my academics there.

Upon our arrival (and to a certain extent even before departure), we were bombarded with warnings about Security. South Africa does have a high crime rate. I admit that it became difficult to find the fine line between prudence and paranoia. I have lived in bad neighborhoods and tough towns before and know how to stay conscious of my surroundings. I also enjoy the benefits of being a large man, and thus a more intimidating and less-inviting target. At a certain point in the semester, all of us international students started to slack off on our watch, and two American girls who lived just down the street from us were mugged on their way home (losing some money, housekeys, and cellphones). Fortunately, they were not physically harmed. It was a wake-up to us all about the realities surrounding us.

Ida Cooper's initial outings for us were smart in informing us how much cash we would need to bring for certain events. This laid an initial understanding as to what the South African Rand was worth and how much was appropriate for different outings. It taught us not to carry excessive amounts of cash around. As we established local bank accounts, we could carry our bank cards (as it seems many South Africans just use those, and many places accommodate debit cards).

It was recommended to travel in groups, not stroll around after dark, and never walk with headphones in (besides advertising that you were in possession of some electronic object of worth, it impedes your awareness of your surroundings). Public transportation like trains and combies should probably not be used after dark. Everything comes with receipts. ATMs do not give the option of not receiving a receipt. Do not throw those away on site: someone can pick the slip out of the trash and know how much cash you now have on you. When paying with a card at a restaurant, ask the waiter to bring the credit card swiper to the table (something they are all prepared to do), so you never send your card away and out of your sight.

That said, I did walk to two meetings a week that were about 1-2km from my house. As the seasons changed and the sun set earlier, those walks ended up being after sunset. I never had a problem. That said, the walk is through one of the nicer neighborhoods in the area, and as previously mentioned am perceived as a very different target than, for example, a young woman. Still, each time I took that walk I would carry only my phone, my student id, and about R20-50.

The absolute best way to Get Around is to make friends with someone who has a car. However, that may not be possible for everyone, and you are always at the mercy of someone else's whim and availability. Cape Town is a remarkably walkable city (by day).

UCT provides a shuttle service called the Jammie. It is very safe and reliable, and free to UCT students (have your student ID on you). The UCT orientation provides information about this service. Since I lived so close to campus, I rarely rode the Jammie. However, it was very useful in getting between campus and the downtown campus (with its adjacent museums and attractions) or certain local shopping centres.

There is a train system that runs fairly regularly. It is somewhat dingy, and it can be hard to spot your destination station through the scratched up windows (there is no announcement of stations over an intercom, as you might find with other transit systems). There are two classes of cars. I was told by a helpful gentleman that I should be in the "first class" cars. It took a few rides before I could spot the green "PLUS" on the side of the car that indicated that fare class. There is a tendency on Sundays for the ticket windows to close at the different stations, resulting in a free ride. Don't necessarily count on it, as you don't want to get caught fare-dodging.

While there is supposedly a bus system in Cape Town, I have to admit that I saw the bus maybe six times during my entire semester there.

Then, there are the taxis (a fairly ambiguous term encompassing three different modes). There are official metred taxis. Of the three, this is the safest and at the same time most expensive. I was particularly fond of Excite Taxi. They had the lowest fare per kilometre. They also seemed to be the most reliable in terms of friendly, honest drivers (and the owner of the company, it turns out, lived a couple doors down the street from me). I could go from my house in Rondebosch to Gardens (in the city) for about R80.

Then, there are other taxis not particularly attached to any company (or sometimes even any signage). These rarely had metres, and you either smartly negotiate the fare before getting in or accept whatever they charge you upon arrival. These tend to be hanging about in various locations (I would call ahead and request a cab from Excite for planned trips) and were good for their immediacy. You could also negotiate a really good fare, especially on slow days (although it sometimes feels like taking advantage of people in a tough, demanding industry). A similar trip as the one described above could go for anywhere from R60-140 (depending on the driver and the day).

Lastly, and most cheaply, are the combies. They are minivans that zoom up and down the main streets. Similar vans are often engaged for specific journeys, and I rode them weekly with commissioned drivers out to the TeachOut locations in the townships. The combies usually consist of a driver (whose only match in terms of sheer road warrior madness were the Butler's Pizza delivery guys) and a caller who leans out the open sliding door hooting, whistling, or shouting at people along the streets trying to pick up fares. This is a true adventure worth experiencing. I could get clear across the city for R6-8 (we are talking about $0.50-0.75 for a comparable distance as the other taxis described above), by far the cheapest of the transportation options. Unlike buses, combies will stop just about anywhere along the route you ask, much to the dismay of the rest of traffic. However, be prepared.

I was told never to get into one after dark, and I heard stories of people finding themselves to be the only passenger on a night-time ride to unexpected destinations that end in being mugged and dropped in some remote corner of the city. In general, I only rode them during the day and only got in one that had other passengers.

While the crazed drivers could get great distances in short periods of time, you might find yourself sitting in the van at some street corner for a period of time while the caller walks up and down the street trying to entice fares to hop on. They also tend to pack the van to beyond maximum capacity. I have experienced them laying a board between the seats to provide a bench for additional seating and encouraging old ladies to just stand in the small aisle. One time, they kicked a guy off to make room for two smaller women. There is often some bizarre music blaring, but other times the driver and caller (and maybe one or two passengers) engage in animated conversations (in English, Afrikaans, or isiXhosa).

One enjoyable thing about Cape Town for me (an admitted language lover, but several of my friends also enjoyed it) is the sheer variety of spoken languages going on all around. South Africa has 11 official languages (12 counting sign language). I never had a problem communicating in Cape Town. Most people speak English (in some form or another, but let's not get into accents), even though it is only the first/home language of less than 10% of the population of the country. Cape Town is a bit more "English" than other places (across the valley in Paarl and Stellenbosch, everyone defaults to speaking to you in Afrikaans). Still, it was delightful to have background conversations occurring in Afrikaans (both "proper" and KaapsAfrikaans - the form spoken by Cape Malay peoples), isiXhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho, etc. Additionally, Cape Town is a pretty international city, so I could eavesdrop (though not understand) conversations in many other languages as well.

There is some fun South African English worth having handy. I found myself picking up many of these, helping me to feel a part of (and sometimes even mistaken for) South Africans. As a general expression of surprise (disgust, amazement, enjoyment, dismay, etc.), there are two expressions. "Agh" (with the guttural "G") and "Eish." Many of the kids use "hectic" to mean anything crazy (usually in the negative sense), and things that are cool are referred to as "chilled." "Izzit" is a conversational filler used in the same way that we use "is that so?' or "uh-huh." The fun is that the form does not change, regardless of the statement it is reacting to ("We are going out tonight" "Izzit?"). While "Cheers" is used as a drinking toast in England and the US and as a thank you in Australia, South Africans use it to say "goodbye" or "see you later." Traffic lights are frequently called "robots," so do not expect to see androids on street corners when someone giving directions tells you "Go down to the robot and turn left."

I also discovered that when you want to get around someone (something you will need to do on the crowded campus), it is customary to say "Sorry." In the States, we commonly say "Excuse me" but that is used when you wish to get someone's attention to talk to them. I found it quite frustrating for a while when every time I wanted to get around a group of people, I would say "Excuse me" and then have them turn to fully face me. They assumed I was trying to address them rather than merely get past.

There are two important Afrikaans words that are in common usage in English. Lekker means cool, beautiful, lovely, etc. It is used to describe a day, how one is doing, or just about anything else where we might employ the word "cool" (lekker does not quite apply to such hyperbolic things for which we might say "awesome"). The other is braai (pronounced almost with a long "I" sound). It is an important part of South African social custom and is essentially a barbecue (if collective outdoor cooking of meat and consuming of beverages is more than just a social event, it is a cultural identity).

When going to Eat Out, there are a couple of nuances worth knowing. I never saw them split a bill. However, people seemed to have no problem working together to pass the bill around the table and chip in what is their share. Figure out what you owe and add it to the pool. Tipping is generally about 10%. Since America's convention is 18%, and I tip heavy here in the States, I was quite popular with my waitrons (the gender neutral term they commonly employ). Paying with credit cards is common (as people are sometimes paranoid about cash), and wait staff have no problem charging portions of meals to different cards to accommodate groups. The rule is to have them bring the credit card machine to your table. They can then run the card at the table. Most countries now have credit cards with chips that are inserted into the machine and use a PIN rather than a signature for security (unlike Australia, however, South Africa seemed still aware that some countries do have cards that need to be swiped). One thing to remember, food and drink are comparatively cheap in South Africa. The only thing I do not like about that is the sticker shock I received upon returning to the States.


Thank God for Steel

On one of my last days in South Africa, my housemate Sachi and I went to a great white shark cage dive.

We were picked up in the pre-dawn hours and driven to Kleinbaai, a little over 2 hours east of Cape Town. We were given a breakfast as part of the package, in addition to the standard liability/indemnity forms that dominate just about every activity one can do in South Africa. Even the field trip for my biology class, and the form actually said that they agents of the university could intentionally cause me harm without being held liable for any damage to my person. Everyone always says that the forms are not legally binding, but they give me confused and ill looks when I suggest that if not legally binding, then there is really no point to them. I guess I am just being a difficult American.

I am pleased (for lack of a more appropriate word) that I had the foresight to consume a small breakfast of only very soft foods (fruit, some scrambled eggs, tea). While I was the first of our party to succumb to seasickness (still feeling the effects of my body turning itself inside out), I was also the one who had the easiest time of it. While those motion sickness bands you put on your wrists help with bus rides, they seemed to be no match for the Southern Atlantic. Fortunately, I was able to wash them well before my flights home, so my wrists did not smell like salt water and chum.

It was an amazing outing, and the sharks are amazingly beautiful and powerful animals. They are incredibly threatened and in need of drastic conservation. I am especially grateful to my father for sending me a water-proof camera to use in South Africa and Fred for making this trip a birthday present.

We then went out on the boat, a foam-hull catamaran (no sinking, decreased likelihood of capsizing) out a ways to a location where a chummed cage is maintained to keep the animals in the vicinity. Some of the birds have also learned to follow the boats, and schools of other fish also flock to the cages to get a bite.

The cage we climb into.
Casting the fish head

The view above water from within the cage
The view below water
Although the trip was billed as one of the amazing extreme sport opportunities in South Africa, the actual experience was rather mundane. Besides seasickness, there is an exercise in patience. At one point, I pondered the idea that rather than shark-viewing, our outing was a psychological experiment to see how long a person can tolerate sitting in very cold sea-water (we had a balmy 12° C that day) in a metal cage while someone drags a giant fish head over you.

However, when the first sharks appeared, they commanded awe. When one quite enthusiastically chased the fish head at our cage and jammed his nose into the bars between one girl and myself, we also developed a true appreciation for modern engineering and the steel bars keeping us from truly swimming with the great whites.

Why South Africa?

I have been asked on numerous occasions why I chose to come to South Africa. In fact, the Afrikaans course I took this semester advanced this as a topic for discussion. There is nothing like trying to reach for things you know how to say as a beginner in a language to convey the complexities and subtleties of intention and causality.

Hoekom het jy aan hierdie wil gestudeer? 

For those thinking of studying abroad, I wanted to share some of the thought that went into my decisions (in English, as my Afrikaans is not that good, and yours may not be much better). 

For starters, I remember meeting a foreign exchange student when I was young (maybe age 8 or so). I thought that was the coolest thing. It is probably the closest I have ever come to something I would "want to be when I grow up."

I love to travel. Experiencing different places and peoples is a delight, and I love that the world gets simultaneously larger and smaller with each experience I have. There I things I have learned about myself and humans with each exposure to a new place and group of people. Additionally, I enjoy a more mundane form of tourism. When we went to Japan, Fred and I were just as interested in going grocery shopping with our friends as we did exploring Shinto temples and Meiji castles. There, amidst countless products written in a language we could not read, we developed an understanding and gratitude for what it means to be literate. As much as I love 'visiting' places, it is even more wonderful to get to 'be' there. So I relish the opportunity to stay in new places for extended periods.

When I started to return to my education, I saw flyers for study abroad but thought it was closed off to me. I am an older returning student, a transfer student, and a science major. Certainly study abroad was for young humanities and social sciences majors who started as freshmen at the university. I was excited when it was made known to me that I had every right and opportunity to study abroad.

I definitely wanted to study for a year rather than a semester. No one I am aware of has ever come back from a year abroad and said, “I wish I had only stayed a semester” but loads of people have regretted not extending their time abroad.

My original thought was to go to Africa. It is a vast unknown continent with a rich history. The continent has many countries struggling to develop and find their identity following independence from European empires while also contending with modern exploitation in the globalised world. There is a an intensity of experience, a gloriousness of the natural world, and a contrast of cultures that gave coming to Africa a definite allure. 

While I enjoyed Europe and wanted to go back, I felt compelled to choose a location that is much more exotic and challenging. It obviously needed to be a school with courses in the biological sciences. At the same time, I needed to go to a place where instruction was in English. The thought occurred to go to Spain or Chile or another Spanish-speaking country to re-start my Spanish language skills that have lain dormant for so long. However, I already need to work my ass off to comprehend the science courses I take (why couldn’t I get inspired to major in something that comes naturally to me?). Trying to figure out the course materials and make sure I am grasping the language used to deliver the lectures sounded a bit overboard. 

While there are many different routes one can take to study abroad, I appreciated that the University of California has multiple locations already sorted with their EAP (Education Abroad Program). This means that the location and university have been assessed, there is some sort of reciprocity, and the credits from the time abroad are immediately recognized in the UC system.

In Africa, there were three primary programs that stretch for a year and had some form of science: Senegal, Ghana, and South Africa. There are also semester long, highly-focussed programs in Botswana and Tanzania, but neither of those seemed to suit. The instruction in Senegal is in French, so that was out. My original intention was to go to Ghana. However, I was encouraged to consider South Africa as the University of Cape Town has a much more well-established science faculty.

I have to admit, taking one look at a google-image search for the University of Cape Town was just about enough to sell me on the matter (and sustain my interest through the variety of hoops though which one has to jump...). It is a beautiful campus.

However, there is a difficulty that arises when trying to study abroad across the equator – the academic calendars are staggered. Everyone starts the academic year in the Fall. While our academic year starts in August/September, universities in the Southern Hemisphere start in January/February. This makes it difficult to apply for a year, as you end up straddling academic years (in one place or the other).

On this technicality, I almost passed, but it was suggested to me to look into going to multiple programs. This would allow me to spend a semester (not an inconsiderable amount of time) in a location while also getting to see more places, experience more cultures, study biology in more biomes...

Fortunately, there was also the amazing program in Australia dedicated for biology majors about which I have already written loads. 

It is a lot of work to go for two programs, but in my opinion it is worth it. And I have not been the only older student or transfer student that I have encountered on these trips. In fact, three of my friends in SA are also transfer students to UC. It is fun trying to explain transfers to students here, as all universities (varisty in South Africa, unie in Australia) are on the Scottish/British 3-year model, with a fourth year of honours.

Anyways, I do want to say that I have greatly enjoyed South Africa. The city is breath-takingly gorgeous, with Table Mountain playing a central role ecologically, climatologically, culturally, spiritually. It is a somewhat sprawling city, yet oddly compact. It is remarkably easy to get around the city, despite its lack of comprehensive or comprehensible public transportation.

Table Mountain from across the valley. Not the dense wall of fog below it.

The trams running up Table Mountain as viewed from my friend's apartment in Vredehoek
Taffelberg from Gardens
The other side of Devil's Peak. The UCT campus is in the lower left.

People are friendly, on the whole. At one point, I was declared South African in a group of people due to my presence in the city for longer than one month (I do not know how the deadline of a month was reached to bestow honorary nationality, but I appreciated feeling a part of the group). As I talked with other international students on the eves of our departures, I also realize that I really dove into being in South Africa to a degree that many of my peers did not. I encourage all who come abroad to do the same:

During one of the orientations before I left the US, a speaker encouraged us to take moments in our adopted countries and just experience being there. She recommended not taking a picture (as is our modern knee-jerk reaction) every time we find something beautiful. Rather, she suggested just sitting and making mental note of the sounds, smells, and feelings, in addition to the sites. While I have taken a fair number of photos, I also have spent time without my camera and just took it in.

This space represents the photographs not taken in my
effort to absorb the experiences of being there

A friend here recently commented to me that he found it impressive and rare for an American to make a stab at learning one of South Africa’s official languages. Most people I met here would find it charming and amusing that I was taking Afrikaans, but I also get the sense that people had respect for the attempt. They still sometimes make fun of my pronunciation and accent, but in all my efforts to engage with the languages and cultures here has impressed people, which in turn has brought me closer to them.
Die Taalmonument: the monument out near Paarl to the Afrikaans language, in terrific/horrific 1970s style

"This is our earnestness"

I took the impulsive leap with my friend to run to Zimbabwe for a few days to see one of the natural wonders of the world. However, I did not limit my experiences to sharing them with other international students (as fun as they are). Before coming, I sent an email to the biology department that put me in touch with a couple of field research opportunities, assisting graduate students. Through those, I have seen and done things most American students do not get to. It also broadened my contact with South Africans, opening the doors to my Friday nature walks, bird ringing, and trips to the Knersvlakte. I volunteered with TeachOut, which took me to the townships and let me work with high school students from disadvantaged portions of the populace. Through the fellowship and community organizations, I made local friends who I am saddened to be parting with.

Who knows? I may come back to South Africa for some graduate study. I do really feel at home in Cape Town even though the winters and lack of building insulation is a bit yucky, reminiscent of my time in San Francisco.


All Finished

Well, the semester is completed. The last exam was written last week. My marine ecosystems course ended with a lengthy and in-depth examination that taxed not only the writing hand but the lessons of the semester. Unfortunately, we had to write the exam in the Sports Centre on campus. This means we were somewhat outdoors (there is a roof and some walls, but it is exposed to airflow from the outside) and had to sit in the same room as other course examinations, one of which had numerous typos that needed to be announced to correct (and thus was quite distracting). Still, when all is said and done, all is done.
We've been watching you study. We want to go see something interesting. Let's Go!

The house on Grotto Road is emptying out. All of the Princeton students (Prianka, Alicia, and Paarth) have departed. It just leaves us UC students (Mandolyn, Saachi, Joe, and me) for the coming week. We are all, in addition to taking care of final business, trying to make the most of the remaining time here. Some are making up for their dedication to their studies and are trying to do a bunch of the things they did not take the time for earlier in the semester.

A portion of the Grotto Road crew: Me, Mandolyn, Alicia, Prianka, and Paarth. Kathleen, Saachi, and Joe were not present.

The household with Monica and Dumisani (Matthew) who help out with the household maintenance
I have been spending time with some of the friends I have made here. My departure in a tiny bit over a week is evoking a mixture of feelings. I am excited to see Fred, my family, my animals, and my friends back in the States. I am looking forward to summer (winter continues to set in here, and I miss feeling my toes) and going to bed without a hoodie and beanie. I anticipate my next year at UCI and the research position I must secure there. At the same time, I am going to miss my life here in South Africa. I have grown quite fond of this country, and Cape Town in particular. I have made some excellent friends here, and for the first time in my life, I have a group of friends my own age. I am curious to know if the sense of belonging I experience here (something I have never really felt in my life) is the result of personal growth or this geographic location. Time will tell.

I have been back to the Watershed (a giant local artist craft market on the waterfront) and the Two Oceans aquariu. I have gone on a couple walks in Kirstenbosch Gardens.

I got to go on a last couple of Friday night nature walks. Sally, a graduate student at UCT with whom I was in contact before coming, had invited me along on a weekly nature walk above Kirstenbosch Gardens, which quickly became one of the most anticipated and savored events of my weekly routine here. When the weather was warmer (and the sun up later), the walk would conclude with a picnic in the gardens. Now that a portion of the hike is in the dark, we usually head to Dennis and Gigi's house for "Sop'n'dop" (Afrikaans for Soup and Drinks). Everyone brings food to share, and there is an assortment of hot soups on, in addition to excellent company among local birding enthusiasts, botanists, zoologists, a geologist, and assorted other people interested in the local nature. The warmth with which I was received by this group has been truly gratifying.

Nic, Susan, Linda, Sally, Marc, Regina (I believe, had not met her previously), and Dennis. Notable in absence are Gigi, Florian, and Ragna.
View of the city lights, photographed poorly, from the heights of the nature walk.
Sally also has taken me along on a couple of bird ringing outings. As a avian scientist and an advocate of citizen science movements, Sally regularly goes with her nets, catches birds, and measures, rings, and catalogs them. Through this, there is a vast collection of data on bird populations throughout South Africa, their growth, movement, and responses to human development. Usually, I accompanied her  on these outings when she would host a primary school group who was there to observe and "help." I would man the nets, gently untangling the birds caught, placing them in a fabric bag and taking them over the Sally and Robynne (another citizen scientist and bird enthusiast) to measure and ring. It was usually cold and wet, and this last time I ended up covered in bird poop. It always made for interesting outings, afforded the chance to spend time with Sally (and when he was in town, Florian), gave me some awesome opportunities to participate with this sort of science, and exposed me to locations and activities in Cape Town that I am willing to bet other exchange students did not experience.

Sally explains the ringing process to the raptly attentive students

Robynne shows how to check the moult status of a bird

And then I am passing time with some of the other amazing friends I have made here, for whom it would take too much time and space to describe the provenance of our friendships. I had gotten to pass time with Wendy, Michael, Ben, LeeAnn, Gus, Ferline, Johan, Ncedisa, Philipa, Lenore, and many others. Yikes, I almost sound social. At the same time, my Saturday night was spent working on a giant jigsaw puzzle with Ferline. So, I am hardly being the wild and crazy man about town.

Actually, between the birds and the jigsaw puzzle, I sound like I am trying to recreate On Golden Pond. "The loons, Norman, the loons!"

And on to the loons.
Or how about urban zebra as seen from the freeway to the CBD. Yep, zebra alongside a freeway in the city.
Ben and LeeAnn have conceived an outing for this Monday that will be a combination of going away (good-riddance) party and birthday celebration. Ben was one of the first friends I made on the UCT campus, and I have been very grateful for his friendship as he helped me navigate the early lonely days at the beginning of the semester. I guess they are taking me across the valley to a hike in Jonkershoek and lunch in Stellenbosch. At first the details were kept hidden from me, though the event was not supposed to be a surprise, which led me to some entertaining conjectures about the irrelevance of my attendance at my own function. I am really looking forward to this outing with my friends, who I will be sad to say "tot siens" to.

I will post some other things about some of the other outings to the Heart of Cape Town Museum, actual day-time visits to the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens, and whatnot.



Consolidation: (noun) solidification, strengthening, combination or union of multiple entities, an undefined stretch of time following the semester at UCT where lectures end but final exams are still anywhere from 5-20 days away.

The end of the semester is here. Last week Tuesday, the lectures for semester one of 2015 ended at the University of Cape Town. However, the semester is not over. While I am accustomed to a ten-week quarter at UCI followed immediately on the eleventh week with a sprint of finals, that is not how it is done here. Rather, there is consolidation. And then final exams.

Of course, people do a terribly poor job of describing many of the hoops through which one jumps here. I hope I can pass along some of what I have learned.

Consolidation is a period where instructors (lecturers, course conveners, professors, what-have-you) consolidate your course grades so far and determine if you have DP'd.

This is neither the attempt at viral advertising Dr. Pepper made a few years back nor the much more adult concept that it was mistaken for. It is entertaining for some of us when professors and students start talking about their hope for DP before the end of the semester.

This city is full of entendre'd places named after unfortunately named figures of the past. See the Bolus family
Rather, DP stands for "duly performed." Each course syllabus has, in addition to the outline of the class and the grading breakdown, the requirements to DP the class. For example, my archaeology course required completion of 85% of practicals (including the final field trip practical) and the research paper. If a student fails to meet the DP requirements (receives "DPR"), they are not allowed to write the final exam.

So, consolidation is partially a time for grading catch-up by professors and issuing of DP.

It is also a couple weeks during which we are allegedly studying for final exams. I know of loads of students (in fact, many of the Americans) who have run off on quick trips to the Cederberg or Namibia or whatnot. It has been an interesting exercise putting in time to sufficiently study for my exams while at the same time not burning myself out and finding my brain shut-down.

I am actually two exams down, with one left to go.

Some tips:
  • Keep track of where the location of the exam is. There is an online reference. Do a google search for UCT exam timetables (the site URL is weird). You then accept their terms and conditions and enter your student ID, and the site brings up your exam schedule with locations. The exams do not seem to ever be held in the same classroom where the course was conducted. With loadshedding, that venue may change further.
  • Bring layers and possibly even a blanket. The rooms are quite cold. The Sports Centre, where my next exam will be written, is open to the elements. There is a roof, but the wind cuts right through the open sides.
  • Turn off your cell phone and leave it in your bag. They are very serious about that here.
  • Apparently, it is incredibly bad form to write an exam in pencil. Make sure you have functioning pens. I realize this may not be a big deal for some, but I do pretty much everything in pencil.


Teach Out

Twice a week, during this semester, I have joined some other students to go out to the townships and tutor disadvantaged high school students. This has all be part of a student organization called TeachOut.

TeachOut is a project under a larger umbrella organization called Ubunye that promotes social development. TeachOut operates under this umbrella along with Inkanyezi (a mentorship program) and Thetani Debating League (formerly the Township Debating League or TDL).

There is another student organization at UCT called Shawco, where student volunteers from the university work with young people in disadvantaged conditions. A couple of my housemates and friends work with Shawco. That organization appears to be more well-represented in the materials for students coming to study at UCT for a semester. I knew about it before I got here, but I only learned about Ubunye and its parts during the IAPO student orientation back in early February.

Ubunye is a much smaller organization, funded almost exclusively from student fund-raising activities. Part of what drew me to it was the fact that they work with high school students (Shawco generally focusses on younger primary school learners). As someone who is not always particularly fond of children, I find interacting with teenagers to be easier and more meaningful. I also liked the underdog, grassroots feel of Ubunye and its projects.

Twice a week, I have jumped into a van with other volunteers from UCT and trucked off to the townships.

On Mondays I work with high school students in Gugulethu. It was a bit daunting at the beginning of the semester as I walked into a classroom to work with 25 students, using a scratched up chalk-board to try and work through algebra problems. Over the course of the semester, most of the boys have apparently come up with something better to do on a Monday afternoon, so for the last few weeks, I have mostly worked with a small group of dedicated girls. I love that these young women are subverting stereotype and rocking the higher math!

Please forgive the Humanitarians of Tinder style photographs. TeachOut was holding a selfie contest among the tutors to help with recruiting (having us post selfies to facebook with a blurb about why we do it). Ever willing to participate...

On Tuesdays, I am the token Maths tutor (it is plural here for some reason) in a group of English tutors that go to a yabonga in Mfuleni. Yabongas are community centres developed to support members of the community living with HIV. The setting is much more informal, and I work with students from multiple high schools in the area, all of whom have been touched by HIV in some way (whether infected themselves or have family members who are). In general, at Mfuleni, I work with somwhere between 2 and 8 students, varying dependent on who comes to the centre that day and who feels more like doing English than Maths.

My boys at Yabonga Mfuleni

They take themselves so seriously...

...but got them to crack up when I joked about their police photos.

Some good camp among the kids.

And yes, they love my play-dough hair

Some sessions are hard to get going when there is a soccer ball around.

I will miss working with these kids. Even the administratively difficult days of miscommunications between schools, TeachOut, and us volunteers proved to be some of the most interesting and rewarding times spent in this country. It has opened my eyes to another side of South Africa and enriched my experience as a tourist, as a student, and as a person.

I encourage anyone, as I was encouraged, coming to South Africa to spend some time volunteering with an organization like TeachOut and Ubunye and expand the breadth of their experience here.