Story by Ron Wagner ’93
They’ve already won the most important game of their lives, but most Americans didn’t even know they were playing.
There are a myriad of reasons sociology professor Kristy Maher, Ph.D., has been directing Furman’s Africa study-away program since 2009, but exposing her students to this reality is near the top of the list.
“(They) have had what I call the womb lottery, the luck of where you happen to be born that dictates the condition of your life in a way that I think 19-to-22-year-olds in the U.S. who come from fairly privileged backgrounds sometimes don’t understand,” she says. “It’s hard to walk away from that home stay in northern, rural Namibia and not say, wow, that could have been my life if I was born somewhere else.”
Furman offers many opportunities to travel abroad, but few wash away comfort zones as thoroughly as this biannual trip to the second-largest continent in the world. For nine weeks, selected students are immersed in the countries of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and, briefly, Zimbabwe, air-conditioned cars on smooth roads replaced by hot feet and dirt; squirrels foraging below stately oaks giving way to elephants ambling on vast, shaggy plains.
Instagram reality dissolves back into reality reality, and much of it, like Victoria Falls and Giant’s Castle in the Drakensburg Mountains, is as beautiful as anything there is to see.
Much of it, however, isn’t.
“Lots of people every day watch the latest crisis (on TV) . . . but it’s an entirely different story when you meet somebody that’s actually dying of HIV and drug-resistant TB, because you hear the coughing, you see how skinny they are, you can see their bones through their skin,” says Hilary Taylor ’12, a veteran of the 2011 trip. “It’s not just information. It becomes personal.”
Most of Africa isn’t dying in a ramshackle hospital, of course, but day-to-day life is just as eye-opening. Nothing, in fact, generates more feedback than when the students pair up on three different occasions for home stays with local families.
“The first one is the first weekend there,” Maher says. “They’re in Soweto, and I think they’re probably terrified . . . And they go there, and it’s not what they expected it was going to be. That’s a great way to start the program.”
Soweto is an urban area of more than a million people. The next home stay several weeks later is a 180-degree turn toward rural life in Khorixas, Namibia, where your nearest neighbor is a 15-minute walk away and electricity and running water are ideas as fantastic as anything J.R.R. Tolkien ever dreamt up. That may not sound like much fun to the average American, but it was a profound experience for Taylor.
“You live in a mud hut for four days. There’s not a lot to do, so it forces you to interact with people who don’t speak English,” she says. “You see the stars every night. You help them out with the daily chores, whether it be milking cows and goats, or chasing down a donkey to hook to a cart so that you can run an errand . . . You start to wonder what if our society was like this. Would we be better neighbors?”
Everything was utterly foreign—except for the one thing she realized mattered most.
“It reminds you that there is a common humanity,” Taylor said. “The last night I was there we were presenting small gifts to our homestay mother . . . and we decided to sing “Amazing Grace” to her in English. Around the second verse she started singing with us in Khoekhoe, which is the predominant language in that area. That’s something I think about.”
Political science professor Don Gordon, Ph.D., started taking students to Africa in 1983. Initially they spent three weeks in the eastern countries of Kenya and Tanzania, but over the years curriculum got larger and moved south.
Maher led the latest edition with psychology professor Erin Hahn, Ph.D., history professor Erik Ching, Ph.D., and art professor Terri Bright, who landed on Feb. 3 in South Africa with 20 students. Their first stop the next day was the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, which marked the beginning of a dedicated attempt to expose the group to as much of Africa’s geographical vastness and cultural complexity as possible.
While the former is surprising—the United States, China and India would all fit inside Africa with room to spare—the latter is perhaps more so.
“It’s about trying to break down that single story of Africa, where everybody’s poor or everybody’s got a hand out or whatever it happens be,” Maher says. “We try to say, one, Africa is a huge continent, and, two, it’s extremely diverse in terms of poverty levels or lifestyles or culture or all sorts of things.”
Maher’s work is in medical sociology, and she taught a global health and inequalities course. She possesses other unique qualifications as well.
“My husband lives in Botswana, so I go back and forth between these two worlds pretty regularly. The years I do study away I’m actually on the African continent more than I’m in the U.S.,” she says. “It gives me some advantage, because I have a greater understanding of how the cultures of Africa work.”
The trip was Hahn’s fourth, and she taught a class on poverty and child development. She’s also grown accustomed to the development of her pupils.
“You can see the difference in them from the time they leave here in January to the time they get back in April,” she says. “That’s not a hard sell to get people onto the trip. What’s more difficult is shepherding students through the process of transitioning back to Furman.”
Cassie Chee ’15 was one of those. “You see people living off of nothing, and I came back here and I was going to my sorority formal and all of these things seem so unnecessary once you’ve seen parts of the world where there’s so little,” she said shortly after returning.
A Spanish/political science double major, Chee went on to spend her summer working for Kids in Need of Defense, a non-profit dedicated to aiding children who end up in deportation proceedings, and she is now a victims caseworker at Border Servant Corps. Several other Furman students have returned to work in Africa, including Shelley Martin ’11, a sociology major and poverty studies minor who is currently in Uganda with the International Justice Mission, and Taylor, who was assigned to South Africa as part of her two-year service program as an intern with Global Ministries.
Currently a first-year Master of Divinity student at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, Taylor says she can’t unsee what she saw in Africa—wouldn’t want to.
I found myself in this place where it was all very hard to process,” the Columbia native, who majored in psychology with a concentration in poverty studies, says. “(Philosophy professor) David Gandolfo was really fond of saying after every poverty studies class that he taught, ‘once you know, now you owe,’ and that’s a great challenge.”