As our fall semester enters week 12 of travel in southern Africa, we would like to share a sample of student work from the field. Our interdisciplinary classes ask students to draw connections between regional geology, local politics and economy, indigenous cultures and more. From observing elephant behavior at a natural waterhole in Honors Natural Science to interviewing indigenous community members about the cultural impact of regional hunting bands in Travel Journalism, our students are engaged with and inspired by the African culture and landscape.
The following student work provides a glimpse into the funny, sensitive, and highly insightful personalities of our Traveling School students as they dig deep and find their place in the global community.
By Saskia — Vermont
Rust brown sand shifted below me as I climbed out of Big Blue. Sun brushed every visible surface in the early part of the day. A light breeze picked up sand and danced with it into the distance. The town we had entered (although hardly a town at all) was desolated except for a few tour busses and cars. The multi-story 1890’s houses stood alone, inviting in visitors alike with broken in windows and doors. Large gaping holes riddled the proud buildings like Swiss cheese. The outside plaster peeled and most of the roofs had long since collapsed opening them up to the sky. Despite its abandonment in 1926, this ghost diamond town was stunning.
As we filed out into what was once the theater in the center of this town, we talked about diamonds. That morning we had participated in a class on the science of diamond mining and the subsequent social, environmental and economic affects. We had come to this old town to witness firsthand the power of a metamorphic clump of carbon. As our smiling tour guide led us through the town the immense wealth was astonishing. This town of roughly 350 Germans contained a bakery, butchery, two bowling alleys/casinos, a champagne bar, shops that sold caviar, a swimming pool and a trolley that would take people through the two-block town. Not to mention that all their water had to be shipped across the desert in barrels from Cape Town. In addition, by 1907, all the houses had electricity and phones. The houses were expansive, many of them more than two stories high. While diamonds were being mined in this town, the residence where living with increasing wealth. Well, some of them.
When our guide mentioned the “200-Namibian-Contract workers” my class knew the truth behind those sugar-coated lies. That’s the benefit of learning hard history, you’re faced with the bitter but true story.
In 1904 General Von-Trotha wrote an extermination declaration to wipe out the Herero ethnic group. What followed was 4 years of incredible violence on the Herero including concentration camps where 65,000 people were killed. Preprinted death certificates wrote “death my exhaustion”. After 1908, surviving Herero where contracted out to various companies as slave labor. “Contract workers” meant slavery.
Encouraged by Allie, Skye and I approached the guide after the tour and enquired further about the “contract workers”. She said there was no information about the lives of them, including where they stayed and what their lives were like because none of the Namibian works came forward to speak about their experience. She insisted that although they were indigenous Herero contracted from the colony, “Namibia didn’t have slaves”. We later talked about how that was not at all true. After the tour we all walked around the buildings being consumed by sand and sat down for a class on the economic effects of discovering a precious resource, like diamonds. We learned about the wealth disparity that often follows such a discovery. We related it to what we saw with Champagne bars and the little we knew about contract workers.
After walking around some more we returned to our current home in the seaside town of Lüderitz for one last diamond related class to learn about current issues. We silently walked around 7 or 8 stations reading articles and watching little videos. The most powerful video I saw was about the recent conflict in Serra Leon that is fueled by diamonds. The video highlighted the unthinkable violence that ripped apart the country. Atrocities I would never imagine one human could inflict on another, because of this stone.
All of today, diamond day, would mean little if I didn’t swallow the bitter pill that we as a society have contributed to this problem. As consumers we vote with our money and we have voted for diamonds.
After walking around the abandoned town, taking classes in the science, economic and social impacts of diamonds, after tracing the sparkle on your hands back to the ones who pulled it out of the ground and did whatever they needed to do to make a profit, I know how I will vote with my money. I am fortunate to be informed honestly by my incredible teachers and I won’t go about throwing that knowledge away.
Are humans a part of nature?
By Céleste — Quebec
I think humans are a part of nature in the measure where they only kill animals to respond to their basic needs, as many nomadic tribes did before agricultural progress and as many indigenous people still do. As an example, the San people living in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana, are an indigenous group who before the recent hunting ban in Botswana would hunt only enough animals to sustain and they would use every part of the animal: the bones to create tools, the skin for clothes, etc. In that situation, these humans are part of nature because they positively participate to the food chain: they are on top, but just kill as many lower animals as any significant predator – for example, a lion – would kill. In my opinion, the human part of nature stops where breeding starts. Breeding is a technology that is unique to human behavior and which other animals don’t use. Therefore, breeding is using advanced technology at human’s advantage, and brought humans to kill more animals than only what they need to survive because breeding makes animals more accessible. In that way, humans are not part of nature because they harm the food chain by killing more animals than another predator would and causing imbalance. I think humans and nature can’t be totally kept apart, but that they should be geographically as separated as possible for successful conservation. Urbanization should be kept apart from nature, and humans should participate in creating spaces for wildlife and for nature to operate without human’s direct presence but helping to balance the food chain, for example with precise hunting laws. In Namibia, hunting certain species is illegal in order to preserve wildlife. Trophy hunting permits are sold, this keeps certain species from overpopulating and the money goes back to conservation. This is a compromise between urbanization and nature that allows wildlife to find its balance. To conclude, humans can be a part of nature if they positively affect the balance of the food chain, and humans have a role to play in finding successful conservation strategies but also in staying physically apart from designated conservation spots.
The Breath of the Delta
By Grayce — North Carolina
The beginning of our Okavango adventure began in a way quite the opposite to what you would expect an exciting waterfall of experiences to – the 6:15AM wake up time definitely made the docket, along with Katie spilling an entire mug of Lychee juice onto her Elephant Pants. In summary, the morning sun rose with the same amount of endearing chaos as normally follows our band of eccentric and constantly hungry teenagers.
The jeeps driven by our perky guides showed up right on schedule, and we all piled into our designated cars like siblings fighting for the last cookie in the cookie jar. Maya and I jostled for the back seat, where I unfortunately lost the battle for and was banished to the middle row of dusty cushions with Celeste and Lucy. It ended up working out in my favor, though; Maddie gave Celeste speaker rights and she made an incredible playlist of 2010’s best songs. We were thoroughly impressed! “I Was Born This Way” by Lady Gaga awoke some kind of beast in Celeste and she hit some high notes that I did not know were humanly possible.
We arrived at our entrance to the Delta about an hour and a half later. The guide was seemingly uninspired by our awestruck expressions. Grasses as high as the sun itself wove their bodies through the delicate current of deep blue water. The sky was spotless and proud, shrouding us in a boiling mass of heat. CarolAnn’s hand reached out towards the sun cascading along the ridges of our skin as if she could cup it in her hand and take it home with her. Though the air was free of bugs, it thrummed with the energy akin to the brush of a guitar string. The earth was breathing, and we could sense it.
You could ask anyone about the hour long Mokoro rides from the Mokoro Station to our campground and they would all describe it the same way: peaceful. The wooden canoes danced their way through the grass. Chilly, clear water smoothed around us as if we were welcome guests to its home. Papyrus and clover built walls around the path, and the gentle sway of the boat nearly caressed my eyes to sleep. If there was any moment I could return to, it would be this one; Mother Nature’s hands are softer than the sandy earth may imply.
The next few days consisted of multiple walking Safaris, more cups of complimentary tea than deemed morally healthy, and too many laughs to justifiably document and recount. During our walking Safaris, we saw many animals trekking about their homes, including hippos, elephants, impalas, giraffes, baboons, zebra, and every single thorn bush imaginable. Our second day of walking contained more punches than the first. A hippo took a keen interest in our group, a moment that afforded Alex the most incredible picture. We saw a herd of water buffalo 500 or more in number crossing the river, and we saw lions! Everyone was thrilled at our luck for the last spotting, as we had been hoping to see a wild cat on the trip.
“Kitties!” Jane and I exclaimed (to everyone’s displeasure). We began running toward the guides and followed the lion’s journey from a safe distance for nearly half an hour. Our day wrapped up with another Mokoro ride to watch the scorching sun fall beneath the line of trees, the clicking wings of bugs transporting us to another universe entirely.
Leaving the next morning felt like leaving part of ourselves behind; pieces of our smiles left as gifts to the body of the Okavango Delta. We returned to Maun quickly, and watching everyone all together was enough to free us from our trance. Cassidy sat to my left, cracking one witty joke after another into my left ear, and Skye’s laughter rang like a chime in the other. Saskia and Leeia chuckled into their dinner and all the girls pitched into the activity words blurring our vision like a vapor. This is home, I realized then, among the handmade food and big blue truck. This is home and I am content.