A Travel Reflection From A Parent Chaperone

South Africa Trip Reflection From A Parent Chaperone
Posted on 05/11/2019

Connecticut’s resident, Mark Twain, wrote in The Innocents Abroad that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth.” On March 19, six GEMS seniors, one GEMS staff, and I (a GEMS parent) travelled over 8000 miles for 24 collective hours from our corner of New England to the northeast corner of South Africa. My children have been fortunate to participate in several GEMS travel experiences over the years, but this was my first trip (and last chance) to participate. Given three choices for their senior experience, our six chose South Africa as their final expedition for different reasons, but all chose it for its relevance to their senior capstone research project.


Our journey began with Kruger National Park, which is so enormous that it encompasses large portions of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Staying in a South African safari camp in Parfuri, a picturesque facility on stilts next to Luvuvhu River over a former village, we learned about the origins of the camp. This verdant and fertile land, ripe with flora and fauna, once belonged to the Makuleke people. During apartheid, in 1969, the South African government wanted to secure Kruger National Park, so they inhumanely removed and relocated the local villagers to small uncleared scrubland plots, 60 miles south. When apartheid ended, the people from Makuleke were one of the first indigenous groups to legally earn back the rights to their land, now encompassed in Kruger National Park. With their land back, the tribal council’s solution was to remain in their bush village (where the next generation was raised and called home), but invest in their peoples’ future through eco-tourism by employing their own and using gross earned profits to support the village. In Parfuri, we learned about the value of their land and saw many incredible animals on safaris with our tour guides, Izaiah and Wiseman—both from Makuleke and trained as conservationists.


After two days in Parfuri, we spent five days in Makuleke village where the residents have lived since the forced relocation. We stayed in circular mud huts, slept under necessary mosquito nets, and ate our communal meals outside under a thatched roof. It was a culturally immersive education that included capstone research, interviews with locals, Socratic seminars, daily journal entries, lesson plans, and service projects. The local children happened to be on a school break during our visit, so there was full youth immersion—our six were permanently surrounded with dozens of children wanting to learn and play. When our students weren’t teaching local children lessons or games, they were given opportunities to gather field research through: meeting the Makuleke Chief, touring the local health clinic, interviewing with local farmers, and exploring the new local industry—a banana plantation run by one of the Chief’s sons. We were privileged to have an audience with a village elder, who shared her experiences during the forced removal as well as see a dynamic reenactment of the removal, demonstrated by the elder women of the village. GEMS service to the Makuleke people included several planned lessons for the village students, reading to the children at the library from donated books, and fitting more than a hundred villagers with shoes generously donated by the GEMS community.

Our GEMS students were able to make lasting friendships with the local high schoolers; all of whom were friendly, articulate and engaging. I discovered through listening to their conversations that they were all part of a group called the Equalizers—students fighting for their right to equal education. The Equalizers had plans for college, many hoping fortune would pick them to attend school in the US. Perhaps the most impactful moment for me was visiting the local high school after meeting the Equalizers. Enrolling 1400 students, the school buildings were in disrepair, the classrooms were similar in size to ours except theirs were meant to seat NINETY students instead of our standard twenty. Makuleke students did not have access to individual textbooks or supplies, there was no cafeteria or food service, and their bathroom facilities did not have toilet seats or toilet paper. The fortitude it must have taken for the Equalizers to become as polished and educated in that bare and distracting environment is remarkable.


Also polished and educated, our GEMS students were incredible; they were respectful, polite, curious, punctual, and compassionate. As with any travel, our students were presented with a range of difficult moments (from the 4:50 am safari wake up calls to the hot 6 hour van ride that got us momentarily lost on the way to Parfuri); there was plenty of opportunity for them to lose their patience, yet they all remained poised. In every situation, a common theme existed; our students’ superb character. This trip taught me about true resilience; having personally experienced a shift in perspective has opened my eyes to the hundreds of shiftable moments to which our GEMS students have been exposed on their trips.  They have not remained unchanged. Of this I am sure, our GEMS students will graduate as broad, wholesome, and charitable human beings because they have ventured beyond our corner.


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