Deep Thoughts on South Africa

Deep Thoughts on South Africa // Woof Magazine

I hardly know where to begin with my Dialogue of Civilizations experience. There was the coursework, albeit minimal.  There were late nights spooning with ten people in a bed, trying to watch The Avengers on a small MacBook Pro screen.  There were nights I can’t remember, thanks to absinthe and adrenaline.  There were really, really, REALLY attractive university cricket players (cheers to you, Reese!) There were animals; there were long drives in a bus that reeked of urine. There were near death experiences and traditional medicine. We had no running water at one point due to an elephant crushing a water pipe. There was newfound friendship and love.

Let’s start with the people. 31 fabulous Northeastern students, mostly physical therapy majors but also a mix of health sciences, biology, and behavioral neuroscience majors. We were joined by Professor Adam Thomas (who we affectionately called “Prof Thom” or just Adam) and his friend, a Northeastern alum, as we embarked on a Health and International Medicine Dialogue to South Africa.  We traveled throughout the country, starting in Johannesburg, heading south to Cape Town, northeast to Durban, then to a game and trout farm in Glenrock, Bonamanzi Game Park, Swaziland and finally, Kruger National Park for a safari.

We earned credits for two courses, one of which the grade was based solely on a research topic of our choice that was related to both healthcare and South Africa. I chose to focus on comparing childhood obesity in the United States and in South Africa.  Spoiler alert: the epidemic is worse here in the States.  The other class was more about the culture, including a group project and a book review.

Deep Thoughts on South Africa // Woof MagazineMuch of our time was spent visiting hospitals at the beginning of the trip, as we got deep into the South African health care system early on. We visited both public and private hospitals, with private hospitals only accessible to the small portion of the population that has health insurance.  These people are far better served than those that use the public sector.  The differences between the two categories were horrifyingly clear, particularly when we visited the townships.  Private hospitals had beautiful views, incredible facilities and seemingly few patients.  The public hospitals were overcrowded and noticeably less advanced.  While for some the private hospitals may have been a more desirable place to work, I found myself extremely interested in wanting to help make the public hospitals better in the future.  Most of us also had the opportunity to shadow medical students from the University of Cape Town in mobile healthcare clinics at night in the poorer townships.  While some people got to do amazing things during shadowing, like perform HIV tests and deliver good news about not having HIV, I wasn’t so lucky. But I took someone’s blood pressure, and totally got the right numbers, so score one for my Basic Clinical Skills class!

The culture of South Africa also encompasses perhaps one of my most favorite pastimes: food. Different things I tried: springbok (a type of antelope), kudu (another type of antelope), crocodile, ostrich, biltong (a dried type of meat) and boerwors (a type of sausage).  Not to sound cliché, but the crocodile really did taste like chicken.  I also ate more than my fair share of malva pudding, which isn’t a pudding at all.  It’s a delectably moist cake usually served with some sort of custard on top, and it’s DELICIOUS.  Can’t stop, won’t stop, don’t even ask me to stop eating malva pudding.

Dancing is also a large part of South African culture.  Sure, we did a lot of dancing at the clubs, but we also got to see some more traditional dancing on our various excursions.  During one visit to a village, six girls performed for us, stomping, clapping and twirling around to the beat.  Some of those in our ranks were even lucky enough to be dragged into the center of a semi-circle to dance with them.  On our last night a traditional Zulu dance performance was arranged for our enjoyment.  Costumes included fringe, animal skins and lots of bare skin.  The dancing was one of my favorite cultural moments of the trip.  I find it intriguing that other countries have more traditional, cultural dances.  Actually, I’m really jealous.  What do we have in the States? Grinding?

Another huge part of South African culture is their sporting events. Rugby and cricket are two sports that are an integral part of life in South Africa.  Some of us had the immense pleasure to assist physical therapy students working with cricket players at the University of Witswatersrand, and most of us got to see at least one rugby game. The rugby culture is kind of like that surrounding American football.  Rugby is king.  And in my honest opinion, it blows football completely out of the water.

While they all may agree on the power of Rugby, South Africa’s population is actually abundantly diverse.  With 11 official languages, it’s no stranger to a mix of culture and people.  Not knowing a word of Afrikaans, Zulu or Xhosa wasn’t much of a problem though, as English was extremely widespread.  We were even taught a few phrases and tried (terribly) to learn some of the Xhosa tongue clicks.

Going into this Dialogue, I was friends with no one that would be on the trip. I knew of a few people going on the trip, but being the paradoxical, anti-social yet outgoing person that I am, I had never really talked to them before, besides when I accosted one in our statistics class after finding out that she was also going. Within the first few hours of being at Boston Logan Airport, I began to make friends with her through excessively uncomfortable amounts of small talk. Now that I had one friend, I figured I would be fine.  But then, I kept making more friends and soon enough, I was friendly with everyone on the trip.  I don’t understand how such a great group of people all ended up on the same Dialogue, but I’m grateful.  I love every single person that was on the trip; each added a different element to the fantastic mix of people. We all had our smaller groups, but I felt like I could sit down with any random mixing of people at dinner or a rugby game or in our favorite Cape Town haunt, the Slug and Lettuce, and have a great conversation over a 20 rand (or $2) beer or Snake Bite.

Another reason we became close, I suppose, was the trouble we seemed to get into. We had four rather interesting, almost near-death experiences in that short month. The first involved a sangoma, or traditional healer.  While visiting a village outside Durban, we had the opportunity to see a traditional healer and learn about what she does.  At one point, our village guide offered us some mysterious muthi – traditional medicine made from animal and plant products, ground up into a powder.  This particular muthi was red in color and could supposedly eliminate any headaches.  Normally, I wouldn’t have accepted instantly, but this was Africa and mine wasn’t the only hand that shot in the air to volunteer to try it.  We were warned we would sneeze, but who hasn’t had a little sneezing fit?  The muthi was in a plastic jar, and like baby powder, becomes smoky when its container is shaken up and then opened.  Once the jar is opened, you’re supposed to inhale the vapors deeply through your nose.  I would estimate that about two thirds of us were unreasonably starving enough for a traditional experience to try the medicine.  At first, no one was sneezing, and my already limited faith in traditional medicine was waning.  Then, it happened.  Bloody noses, lightheadedness, blacking out, eventual vomiting and fevers, and lucky for me, only a terrible case of the sniffles and serious congestion.  Never again.

IMG_0499Near-death experiences numbers two to four aren’t nearly as cultural.  Number 2 stars me having a panic attack while shark cage diving in Gansbaai.  You guys remember Shark Week?  My shark cage diving boat and captain were featured, so yeah. You may love Shark Week, but I’VE LIVED IT.  Number 3 features a helpless five-foot-one me and my easily six-foot white-water rafting partner flipping our boat over in the midst of the most difficult rapids, getting trapped under the boat, and almost drowning.  Rumor has it we were supposed to help our partners back into the boat, but size differences aside, I don’t think little ol’ gasping me could have had the energy to lift even a small child back in after what I was convinced was a fight for my life.

Number four places me and eight of our companions face-to-face with a charging elephant in Kruger National Park.  It was day two of the safari, I had just recited the entire opening monologue to The Wild Thornberrys and all I wanted was to see a lion.  We were driving along in our open safari jeep, on the prowl for my favorite large cat, when we happen upon two elephants.  One was eating peacefully, and we slowly crept up to watch it.  Then, we heard the unmistakable sound of an elephant trumpeting.  Aww, how cute, I thought, the other elephant wants attention, too!  The jeep crawled forward and our driver and guide, Derrick, killed the engine so we could watch the talkative elephant.  It’s ears were sticking straight out to the sides in what was the most perfect photo-opp.  It turned around and started to head back into the bush, then suddenly whipped to face us and started running directly at the car.  Derrick turned the car on quickly, revved the engine and I thought we were safe.  Then he came back for more. This pattern continued at least three more times, and with each rev of the engine, I accepted the fact that I was going to die and that I was never meant to leave Africa.  After convincing Derrick to not have a standoff with an enraged elephant and to haul ass out of that part of the park, we all realized that he had been reaching into the glove compartment. For a tranquilizer or a gun, I have no idea.  All I know is that as badass of a safari tour guide as Derrick was, he had never been charged by an elephant until that time.  You never forget your first.

Deep Thoughts on South Africa // Woof MagazineI fell in love that month.  No, no South African man swept me off my feet, I didn’t go out on a date with some strange man I met at a bar and I certainly didn’t meet the love of my life on the kind of really scummy beaches of Durban.  But I did fall in love with a country.  A whole damn country.  It’s all I think about, and I wish I were exaggerating.  It’s all I talk about, and you can ask my friends that didn’t go on the trip for verification.  I’ve never experienced something like this.  I am forever bonded through this adventure with 30 new people. (Sorry, you guys are stuck with me forever.  Everything about that month enchanted me: the wildlife, the food, the accents. Oh, the accents!

I have next summer completely free of obligations; no classes, no co-op, nothing. I was thinking of another dialogue, but I know absolutely nothing will compare. And I have my fellow Dialoguers, my amazing professor, and the beautiful country of South Africa to thank for that. This is my love letter to the month I spent abroad.  See you soon, South Africa. I love you. I miss you.


Jordan Mandell // Woof MagazineJordan is a health sciences student in the pre-med program from Rochester, NY.  She is proud to say that her work has only been featured in Woof Magazine, because she’s super exclusive like that.  When she isn’t dousing herself in glitter with the hopes of becoming Ke$ha, Jordan enjoys long plane rides, embarrassing herself in Zumba class, baking sinfully delicious cupcakes and spending money that she doesn’t have on Newbury Street.