After two sleepless flights of deliriously hand-writing last minute papers, we landed in Cape Town March 9th to an overcast sky and a chilly breeze. Hotel Lady Hamilton and her giant fluffy white king-sized beds eased our exhaustion and provided a two day refuge from the rain outside. My roommate this time around is Mel– a wild, adventurous girl who goes to school in DC and is on the same page in terms of activity lists for the two weeks we have here in the city. Morning number 1 we dragged our jet-lagged selves out of bed to attend Easter Mass down the street– getting our first breath of Cape Town air, spirit and layout. South Africa is the hub of IHP coordinators, so academically this program should be flawless. Alison is our country coordinator and in-country faculty. She’s a free-spirited 25 year old Capetonian already teaching medical anthropology to undergrads at University of Cape Town and subbing for Susan. Ah, Susan our other faculty here (and founder of IHP in South Africa!).
I’m going to start with Susan, if only because she’s the most charismatic, engaging, brilliant lecturer I’ve ever listened to. A UCT anthropology professor who completed her PhD in the Zwelethemba township on child labor in 1990s apartheid, Susan showed up our first morning 30 minutes late utterly disheveled, apologetic and admittedly bra-less. She proceeded to wing a 2 hour lecture she had forgotten she was giving. On history, on the formation of the African National Congress, on the 1967 Group Areas Act that re-engineered the community based on race (which was classified by phenotypic traits) and forcibly removed blacks to new neighborhoods, on the restructured class system, the deepened poverty, the exile of Nelson Mandela, and her own education path…all while throwing little personal tidbits in her lecture– like: “my mom, who was the President of Amnesty International at the time…” It was the personal story she told that resonated the most, though. When Susan was a child, her neighbors were siblings ages 1 and 4. The kids’ fairer complexion enabled them to attend a particular private elementary school where Susan attended. This was allowed only after the family had tea with the board of race classification. A year later, the children’s parents, who were darker-skinned, were forcibly removed from the primarily-white neighborhood. Unless they agreed to remain as servants to their children. As parents, what would you do: leave your kids in this great elementary school and become their servants? The family decided to take the kids out and move to the cape flats in an all-colored neighborhood.
After Susan left, we watched a short film on Nelson Mandela then Alison explained the health care system to us. Instead of lack of money, South Africa struggles with lack of human resources, a hospicentric public health system, the highest level of inequality in the world, and an HIV rate of 17%. It’s a “fourth-world” country in its dichotomy of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Before meeting the families, we took a tour of the Bo Kaap neighborhood where we’ll be staying. In the 1950s, the Group Areas Act separated people of different races to specific areas; the Cape Malay/Muslim/anyone with an Eastern appearance were sent here, so it’s a predominantly Muslim community. Mel and I are living with Kiya, an older Muslim woman, and her 23 year old son. Waking up to the call to prayer echoing from the nearby mosques is very reminiscent of Morocco.. and the view from our window over the entire city between Table Mountain and the Atlantic is lovely.
Classes are held a 10 minute walk (and 12 stair flights woooo) down the hill at the Bo Kaap Museum. Another fantastic lecturer was Professor Charles Villa Vicencio, formerly the National Research Director in the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) responsible for the report of the Commission handed to President Mandela in 1998. He spoke about South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994 and the three committees of the TRC; the Amnesty Committee encouraged 7,000 to apply for amnesty for crimes perpetuated during the apartheid regime, and only 1500 were granted amnesty. After Dr. Vicencio’s lecture, we toured the District Six Museum. District 6 was historically a community of freed slaves, merchants, artisans, laborers and immigrants, but was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act. This forcibly removed 60,000 colored and black people (their homes were flattened by bulldozers) to barren outlying areas called the Cape Flats.
But our first few days weren’t all academic. Mel and I stumbled across the greatest coffee shop to be: Bean There, next to a raw chocolate shop. Our mornings start bright and early at 730 for caffeine, reading about the latest shark attacks, and checking Cape Town calendars of events. We took an afternoon last week to hike Signal Hill with Libby and Shaina directly behind our house, then climb Lion’s Head!
Back at the museum, the documentary Taking Haart (Highly Active ARV Treatment) introduced us to South Africa’s HIV/AIDS health burden and the power of a civil society, the Treatment Action Campaign, to lead a movement involving the courts, peaceful protest and civil disobedience to force the government to provide antiretroviral treatment to HIV+ citizens– all the while denouncing denialism and the Minister of Health’s insistence that garlic, lemon and beetroot are remedies for AIDS. After the film, an HIV-positive activist told his story of living with HIV and TB (a common comorbidity) and spoke to us about the support group for men he founded in a nearby township.