Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Final Posting: Pictures Tell A Thousand Words

This will be my final post. It took me way, way more time and effort to put together the photo presentation than I had anticipated...chalk that up partly to my inexperience in picture/video making and partly to me not having a software program that facilitates doing such a thing with ease.

Most, if not all of you will be relieved to learn this posting will be extremely brief. For those of you who have lumbered through this blog’s postings, many of which indeed were long in length and oftentimes heavy in subject matter, I thank you and hope that you found something of value for the investment of your time and effort. Sharing stories from my Travels to South Africa has been a privilege, and in many ways, it’s been cathartic.

I’m including the link below that I believe will offer a more meaningful and complete summary and closing than words I might choose to write: one told through pictures. I’ve tried to include photos that capture the essence of my South African experience. Yet for all of the moments I caught with the camera, I no doubt missed many others. Enjoy.

Watch the picture presentation:
With thanks,


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Technical Difficulties and Something for Us to Ponder

Ok, so compiling a photo presentation hasn’t gone as easily as I anticipated. I tried using Windows Moviemaker, and every time I open it, I get a message that it has encountered a problem and has to close. I’m trying to figure out what the issue is, as well as looking into other possible software programs to organize and share my photos. Sorry for the delay, but hopefully I’ll figure it out in time to post them tomorrow.

For today, however, I am going to provide you with a link to an Op-Ed piece that appeared on The New York Times web site. The subject of the piece is “slum tourism,” and it’s written by a junior at Wesleyan University in CT whose home is in Kibera, a Nairobi slum. I found the commentary to be thought provoking and worth the time to reflect on what he shares. I don’t want to give away the story, so I’ll provide the link below. Please feel free to share your thoughts and reaction via comments.

Here’s the link:

Hopefully I’ll be back with the photo-finale tomorrow!

Monday, August 9, 2010

An Argument for South Africa to Learn from the United States' Higher Education Challenges

Yesterday, I focused on the overall experience of the trip to South Africa and specifically on the country’s people. Today, I turn to higher education. After all, the reason for my trip to South Africa was the privileged opportunity I have to be studying for my doctorate in higher education management.

In my July 21 posting, I shared some summary observations regarding the state of higher education in South Africa. In short, I noted that while its desires seem appropriately focused and from a policy standpoint there has been abundant action, the South African government has not made progress in accomplishing its higher education goals at a rate it desired. After 16 years of democracy, the gap in college participation and completion rates between the affluent and the poor and between the white and non-white populations has not been significantly closed. Even with all of the official government policies that have been adopted and with the minimal participation and completion rate improvements that have occurred, South Africa currently has a higher education participation rate for 18-24 year olds of only 16-17%, and even more strikingly, a completion rate that also is only about 16%. The country continues to have a huge disparity between its wealthy and poor populations, and increasing access to and success in higher education has not done much to help close the gap. A related concern for the people of South Africa is that its educational system is not producing enough “technically” skilled workers, so that huge workforce is importing talent rather than drawing from the huge population of unemployed South Africans.

It seems to me that those in positions of influence for South Africa’s higher education system could do well by learning from what hasn’t worked in the U.S. While the U.S. system of higher education fares well when compared to most other countries, we continue to have serious challenges in the areas of participation and completion rates in general, and in particular, among lower socioeconomic statuses and historically underrepresented populations. I believe the U.S. continues to struggle in closing its achievement gap because too much emphasis has been placed on programming and policy-making at the post-secondary and secondary school levels. While it makes sense to try to make improvements among current college students for completion and among current and former high school students for college participation, my opinion is that those populations are too far along for change of the magnitude we seek to occur. My point is that a major emphasis should be placed on the K-8 population of students and on family dynamics in general.

My premise is that students in the K-8 years are still in the formative stages of developing a mindset about college, its benefits and its feasibility. For systemic change to occur, going on to college and completing a degree have to become the norm and the expectation, rather than the exception or the option for only the elite. Yes, there are exceptions to these claims. But if we drill down even further and focus on those families and children from the lower socioeconomic statuses and from backgrounds such as African American, Hispanic/Latino, rural, or first generation college-going, these and other areas are where the real opportunity for dramatic change lies. In South Africa, I believe the same strategizing is needed. Admittedly, the populations that fall into these categories are larger and represent a larger portion of the overall population than they do in the U.S., but thus the rationale becomes even stronger. Scope and scale of initiatives, including funding sources, will absolutely be problematic. And even if these emphases were to gain traction, they cannot be at the complete elimination expense of secondary and post-secondary focused initiatives.

I’ll finish by saying that I think the above observations and recommendations call for significantly increased capacity. Capacity of resources, financial, human and other, will be necessary to make any of this even remotely feasible. In addition, I believe capacity increases in postsecondary spaces and seats need to occur. An infusion of more students that have not been present in the past can’t be done at the expense of other college-seeking and going populations. It seems that the political dynamics of this scenario would prevent progress. On the other hand, if capacity can be increased to the point where those who are academically capable have equal opportunities regardless of whether they are from traditional college-going populations or traditionally underserved populations, then progress may be possible.

These are my thoughts, and they are incomplete as a prescription. There are so many other factors to consider, not the least of which are academic preparedness issues, for students in South Africa but also for the country’s teachers. But to put it succinctly, I think South Africa, and our own nation, could be better served by refocusing attention towards families and to younger aged children.

Tomorrow I’ll finish this off with my attempt at a photo-finale! Thanks for reading.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Post-trip Thoughts and Reflections: the South African Experience

We’ve been back from South Africa for almost two weeks now, and I still haven’t posted my final thoughts on the trip. It’s amazing to me how quickly upon returning from a trip we get re-immersed in our daily lives, the hustle and bustle, and how easy it is that experiences can get pushed to the back of one’s mind, to the back burner of our focus and attention.

I’ve decided the best way for me to attempt summarizing what the trip meant and all that I’ve taken away with me is to do so in two thematic categories: the experience of visiting South Africa and South African higher education. And if I can pull it off, I’ll finish off this blogging experience with a photo collage to help bring to life the stories I’ve shared.

Today’s posting will focus on the experience of visiting South Africa. In previous postings I’ve shared in some detail the incredible natural beauty of the country, so I won’t go on about it again. What I will say is that I am fully aware I didn’t come close to seeing all that South Africa offers in geographic variety and sights. But in seeing the Cape Town and Johannesburg areas, as well as the Pilanesburg Game Reserve, I was in awe of the beauty and I would go back for another visit tomorrow if given the chance.

The food and drink in which we partook were equally pleasing. The rich diversity of cultures found in the people of South Africa provides for myriad tastes and styles when it comes to food. Whether you are looking to sample the many different meats found in traditional African barbecues or seeking vegetarian options, it’s all there… and it’s all delicious.

Lastly, and most importantly, it was the people of South Africa that were the true highlight of the trip. In learning about the different cultures and backgrounds that are found in South Africa’s population, I was enlightened. Words cannot describe the atrocities that occurred during the Apartheid era, and while democracy is now the country’s form of government, the visible and ever-present injustices and inequalities are a constant, undeniable reminder of how even the most seemingly ideal systems of government cannot rectify decades of narrow-mindedness.

And yet, throughout our ten day journey and common among all of the people we met, there seems to exist among South African’s of all backgrounds a sense of hope. In the traditional sense of the word, we observed a sense of hope for a more just future. Even among those who remain marginalized, such as the residents of Kliptown, the sense of hope seemed to extend backwards, to the present. Living in conditions that we, as Americans, can’t even imagine nor comprehend, South Africans who live in the squatter shanty-town slums seem to hold on to hope as a guiding force to transform their daily lives and conditions into a focus on the good and the gifts versus the bad and the injustice. I can’t help but recall the words expressed by my son, wise beyond his 11 years, when he said through tears that “they have so little, but they seem so happy.” His assessment, I believe, is transferable to any country, any population that is among the less fortunate. The measure of a person’s happiness is not seen through material things. The people of South Africa also showed that happiness cannot be represented through one’s living conditions. Happiness is found in the heart and in the mind. This is a lesson for which I am grateful and which I pray I never forget.

Tomorrow, I’ll offer my thoughts on South African higher education.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Long Night's Journey Back to Home

They say time flies by when you’re having fun; well as I sit to write this, my journey to South Africa is over. After two 8+ hour overnight flights, we made it home to the U.S. Our first flight out of Johannesburg made a refueling stop in Dakar, Senegal, during which the Dakar airport security team boarded the plane and literally checked every overhead compartment, seatback pocket, under seat storage space, and restroom on the South African Airways jet, supposedly conducting routine searches for “stowaways.” Perhaps understandable but falling upon deaf ears for sleepy passengers, the Dakar airport security team insisted that we remain standing throughout the inspection. Which leads me to ask you… what human being could possibly “fit” in a seat back pocket?!?! After 8 hours of flying, it being 2am, and knowing you have another 8 hours to go, that stop was not the highlight of the trip.

My posting is going to be very brief tonight. I’ve tried to fight off the jet lag, but it isn’t working. It’s 8:10pm here, meaning in South Africa it would be 2:10am, and I am fading quickly. So I’m going to leave my final posting until the next day or so, in order that my thinking is alert so I can do justice to the meaning of the trip.

For tonight, I’ll leave you with something fun. You will recall I mentioned we had the chance to go on a second safari the morning before we left for the airport. That second safari was even better than the first. We saw 3 members of the Big 5, (lions, rhinos, and elephants). Speaking of elephants, I’m providing a video clip from our encounter with an African Bull Elephant. I won’t spoil things for you by providing too much detail before you watch the clip…but suffice it to say, all of us have a new appreciation for just how large and imposing these beautiful creatures are. Enjoy the video, and I’ll be in touch soon.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Safari Adventures

This posting is a day late due to the internet service being down when we returned from dinner on Sunday night. 
Greetings from Pilanesberg National Park and Game Reserve ( in Rustenburg, South Africa. I left you last night with a promise to be brief in today’s posting, so I’ll do what I can to be true to my word.

Marybeth Gasman, the faculty member from Penn who leads this trip, has commented numerous times that she schedules the cities we visit and the places we experience with a very intentional sequencing, and I now understand why. The early natural beauty of the Cape Town area was a great way to ease into the South African experience. The Johannesburg area visit, including the time we spent at University of Pretoria and in particular in Kliptown, was intense and extremely draining on the emotions. Finishing the trip with a stay at the Kwa Maritime Lodge ( and going on safari in Pilanesberg were perfect to finish off a week and a half’s experiences that have changed all of us for life.

As has been the case many times throughout this journey, I’m pressed for words to describe the safari experience, but incredible, awe inspiring, and invigorating all come to mind. If you’ve ever been on safari, you will understand. In South Africa, when one goes on safari the goal is to see the Big 5 for animals: the lion, elephant, rhinoceros, leopard, and cape buffalo comprise the group due to how difficult it is to hunt and bring down each of them. The only hunting that was occurring during our game drive this afternoon was for pictures and the experience versus for hides or meat. We saw 2 of the Big 5 (elephants and rhinos), as well as wildebeests, warthogs, zebras, giraffes, monkeys, springboks, and numerous other members of the antelope/deer family. It was stunning. I've included a couple of photos I took.

Our safari ended with a group dinner, in the middle of the Park, at Kwa Mazout. Kwa Mazout is encircled by a fence, to protect you from any of the prowling animals. The dinner features traditional African fare, served buffet style. The food and drink was terrific, and after eating everyone gathered around the fire and reflected on the trip’s experiences. It was a wonderful way to spend our last night together before flying back tomorrow night. An optional safari, tomorrow morning, was made available to us. So we will again get to go searching for the Big 5. If time permits, I’ll send a note from the Johannesburg airport tomorrow before we take off.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Healing through Happiness and Hope

Perhaps you noticed I have not posted since Wednesday. We left Cape Town as planned Thursday morning, heading for Johannesburg, and our travel went smoothly. I closed Wednesday’s thoughts with the prediction that my understanding of South African’s history and experiences was going to get more intense with our Johannesburg visit. It happened. In fact, to be completely frank, it happened to the extent that for the past two consecutive nights, I’ve been unable to satisfactorily process my thoughts into a coherent enough written (typed) form to be comfortable posting. So it’s not that I haven’t thought about you and about wanting to continue sharing my experiences. But tonight, I have come far enough on this journey to attempt painting a picture for you of what I have seen. I know that my prior posts have been lengthy, no doubt too long according to “best blogging” practices. I have every intention of trying to be concise, but I fear it may not be possible and apologize now if I take too much of your time as I share.

Today, my emotional journey through discovering the lived experience of the South African people became complete. Not in the literal sense, in that we still have two more days in this wondrous country and that it would be impossible to comprehend in a mere 10 days the past, present, and future experiences of a people and country as rich with diversity as South Africa. Rather, I am now able to reconcile the emotions and reflections I’ve been having in my heart and in my head.

On Thursday, we visited the Apartheid museum ( The 2 ½ hours I spent walking through the exhibits with my family and classmates were the two most emotionally painful hours I’ve ever experienced. Through reading and watching, listening and learning, I became more educated as to the horrors that occurred during the Apartheid era. The oppression forced upon non-Whites, the ruthless evictions and relocations of so many non-White families, the atrocious acts of violence and terror aimed at non-Whites…all of these and more, as I read about them, listened about them, watched them in videos, and observed them in photos evoked incredibly powerful feelings of anger, sympathy, disgust, sorrow, and confusion. I was particularly moved (to tears) by South African photo journalist Ernest Cole’s exhibit, which for me brought to life the terror and tragedy of the times. (I found this web site with some of Cole’s photos; click on the categories and numerous photos come up for viewing. My advice is do so when you have time to spend in reflection:

How is it possible that human beings are capable of treating other human beings in such inhuman ways? I realize the terribleness of Apartheid is not unique. One only need consider the experiences of Native Americans and African Americans in our own country, the Jewish people in World War II, or the Rwandan genocides of the 1980’s that also occurred in Africa…these and numerous others unfortunately provide too many examples that demonstrate humankind’s imperfections. Nonetheless, I found myself looking to the sky asking why? And I found myself feeling aches in my heart that were growing stronger.

Yesterday, we visited the University of Pretoria (UPT, UPT was one of the Afrikaans universities, and based on what we heard from numerous speakers during our visit, the institution appears to be facing ongoing, serious internal obstacles in overcoming its racially based discriminatory ways of the past. To cite a particularly alarming example, UPT’s official policy towards its residence halls and room assignments is that any residence hall is potentially available to any student. A quick browse through the residences (as they are referred in SA) section of UPT’s web site confirmed this policy. What happens in practice, based on the comments shared with us by a couple students and administrators is that students are only assigned to live with other students of the same race, and certain residences are unofficially designated as for whites only. The hurt in my heart grew stronger yesterday.

Coming into today’s scheduled visit to Kliptown, the shanty town slum in the Johannesburg suburb Soweto, I was struggling. I need to provide a little context about Kliptown. Kliptown is only one example of the shanty settlements throughout the country, in which it is estimated 1 in 10 South Africans live. Kliptown has an estimated population of 45,000 and is located in Soweto, which has an estimated population of between 2 and 3 million. Through relationships established by our professor for the course, Marybeth Gasman, PhD, we had been invited to visit within the Kliptown community, as guests of her good friend and Kliptown resident Bob Nameng (more on Bob later).

As our bus approached the Kliptown area, we started to drive by shantytown settlements, which seemed to sprawl on across the landscape forever. It appeared as though there was a sea of makeshift homes, made from varying materials with occasional brightly colored panels or roofs catching the eye. (The photo at right is one I took as we approached) The bus wove through the streets of Soweto and into what seemed like a bustling urban neighborhood, where small shops and make-shift vendor displays with people selling fruit, clothing, and a host of other goods. After snaking through some tight turns, the bus drove down a street that dead ended into a small parking lot that abutted Kliptown. I could feel my anxiety and hurt growing. I simply could not believe my eyes as I got my first up-close views of a shanty town.

We disembarked and were greeted by Bob. Bob is a 40-year old man who grew up in Kliptown as one of the community’s many neglected children. Twenty plus years ago, Bob founded Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY;, and our visit was going to revolve around a visit to SKY deep in the heart of Kliptown.

With my classmates, their guests, my wife and two children, we began our walk down a path, across railroad tracks, and into the community. (See the photo at left) My heart rate quickened as we disappeared into the maze of paths and small dirt roads. The first images of the shacks and shanties, and of the inhabitants young and old, nearly sucked the air out of my lungs. All of a sudden, the horrors brought on by Apartheid and the abject poverty conditions being experienced by so many South Africans were real, I could touch them, smell them, feel them.

We had been given a heads up that the community would be teaming with what appeared to be unaccompanied little children and that they were likely to want to touch us or to hold our hands—on this day, we were privileged to see the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” in action. Within minutes of our group’s appearance, the children began approaching.

The moment the first children approached, I began being transformed. It started with one of my male classmates having his legs hugged by two little boys. Then, children, Katie and Ryan, had a little boy come to and grab a hand from each. And then a little boy started nestling up to me, and the hurt and hatred in my heart started easing. (A picture of Katie and Ryan with their friend, at right) 

We proceeded through the community, Bob stopping us occasionally to explain something, and made our way to SKY’s buildings, all the while with our little friends guiding us through the touch of their hands.

The children of SKY put on a traditional African dance and singing performance for us that I cannot do justice to with words. Never mind that the talents they demonstrated were incredible, but the happiness and passion with which they danced and sang were unsurpassed by any performance I’ve seen before. My son captured much of the performance on video, but out of fear of posting it incorrectly, I’m including a picture (below) of the performance. I spent the entire time watching them, vacillating between smiling and fighting off tears. SKY, through the unwavering dedication of Bob and his growing team of Kliptown resident volunteers, offers to the Kliptown community numerous programs for its youth, including performance arts, sports, girls’ empowerment and life skills classes, as well as services for the elderly and sick, such as finding transportation for medical visits and craft making.

It’s late, very late, and I’m embarrassed how long I’ve gone on. I have so many pictures to share, so many stories and feelings to offer. For now, I’ll close tonight by sharing that the hatred and hurt that was holding me captive has been healed by the purity of the happiness unconditionally shared with me, with all of us, by the children of Kliptown. And most importantly, the residents of Kliptown, young and old, through their warmth and bright spirits, taught us that hope is stronger than hatred and hurt. The injustices that have occurred in the past and continue today are a terrible, terrible thing. But those at the margins, seemingly with no reason to be so, find hope and happiness that should be a lesson to so many of us who live lives of privilege.

I’ll be back tomorrow. And I promise, I’ll be brief. Be well.