A Journey through South Africa

by Kylie Steele, '15

It's a place full of beauty, pain, peace, reconciliation, and juxtaposition. A paradoxical place where thousands of lives were lost in a struggle against oppression, millions of tears have been shed, and, most important, a place where stories have been shared. It's a place called South Africa, located on the southernmost tip of the African continent. Whitworth students have been traveling there for the past 20 years, participating in nine trips that occurred in 1994, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014. Every time, students have left behind a piece of their heart.

As they step off the plane onto South African soil, each of the alumni of these Whitworth trips feel that their lives will never be the same. The journey will consist of a long road trip up the eastern coast of the country, meeting with politicians, academics, and leaders in the church, media, and business. Since its birth the trip has largely kept to the same structure it had at its beginning and has been influencing student's hearts ever since.

This sentiment was even true for the first trip, in 1994, when South Africa was about to become a democratic country for the first time. Gordon Jackson, a South African native and communications professor, and John Yoder, a political science professor, led that initial trip. The country was in a transition phase as power was changing hands and the liberation movement had defeated the apartheid system.

Reid Zeigler, ‘82, was on that initial trip, as one of two alumni in a group of 16. As the group traveled from the airport to their homestays, one couldn't help but notice what Zeigler described as a "coin toss" of wealth, "A heads-or-tails society," he called it. "People were either very wealthy or very poor" he said, as he recalled himself witnessing a polarizing distinction.

Fast forward just over a decade to 2006 and the juxtaposition remains the same. Nicole Remy, '06, not only learned about extreme poverty and extreme wealth in South Africa, she also experienced the beauty of a new place. With scenery like no other, Cape Town is positioned on the waterfront, backdropped by a beautiful, mesa-like mountain with a smooth top, aptly named Table Mountain.

Remy found herself taking everything in, learning to look, listen, and see all that was around her and realizing she could be changed by what she saw. This is something that still affects Remy today, she said, and has given her an entirely new perspective. She has learned that even in familiar places there are still new things to discover, to find beauty in, and to learn from.

Traveling further up the coastline, it's apparent the beauty of South Africa isn't limited to Cape Town, but as it continues the more South Africa is revealed. Students travel up and over the mountains they marveled at upon their arrival. For their next visit they move inland, to a place called Hemel en Aarde Valley or "Heaven and Earth Valley," just outside the resort town of Hermanus. This is a place where mountains, valleys, streams, waterfalls, vineyards, and farmlands all run together to make for one of the most beautiful settings available to the human eye.

Here, they stay at a retreat center called Volmoed, translated as "full of courage and hope." Volmoed once served as a refuge away from the violence of South Africa in the late 1980s. It was a place where Christians of all races could come together and learn how to live and love alongside one another, likely for the first time in their lives. Ron Pyle, a four-time faculty leader of the trip, recalled being especially struck by a statement from theologian John de Gruchy, one of Volmoed's current leaders, about the center's vision:. "It's not enough to coexist; the Kingdom of God calls us to more than that." This, Pyle said, was a powerful statement at a time when it seemed almost impossible that whites and blacks could ever live side by side.

The next stops are Oudtshoorn, a quaint desert town, known for its ostrich farming, and Grahamstown, a small college town where previous trips have had a variety of experiences.

Emily McBroom's, '13, most memorable experience in Grahamstown in 2012 occurred while visiting a settler's museum. While inside the museum, she was reflecting on the place they were in, a museum representing the conquering of "savages," or the killing of black native South Africans by white settlers. She found herself touching the cold metal banister and seeing a Bible verse carved into the wall of the building. As she touched the cold, hard surface of the banister she was struck by the fact that being white, female, and Christian she felt as if she were a part of (and partly responsible for) the oppression that was represented in that place. She felt, in a sense, that when touching the cold, metal banister she was touching oppression. In that moment she found herself lamenting that the gospel of Jesus can be manipulated into a gospel of oppression, instead of the gospel of freedom that it is.

Learning about these experiences of injustice greatly influenced many students on the trip. Jonny Strain, '13, also in the 2012 group, recognized for the first time that perhaps this wasn't his first encounter with injustice. He considered then and realized later that the blatant injustice he was seeing in South Africa is the same in the United States and, likely, across the world. He saw for the first time that injustice might take different shapes, and he confessed that he just hadn't "been paying enough attention to notice it."

The trip journeys on, now reaching the bustling town of Mthata. Here, students like Michael Novasky, '07, in 2006 volunteered at various organizations in the community. This experience, during his group's short stay, helped Novasky better understand what it looks like to serve others. He realized that the best way to help a community is to work directly with the people who live there. "If you're doing that, it doesn't matter what you are doing; it only matters who you are with," he said. This insight inspired Novasky, and, after graduating, he volunteered in Uganda for two years, immersing himself in a local community and getting to know the people he served.

While staying in Mthata they also visited a community called Itipini, translated as "dump" in the native African language of Xhosa. Built literally on garbage, the community was home to nearly 300 families. However, since 2013 Itipini no longer exists, the entire village has been bulldozed and its inhabitants relocated, with nothing left to show for the town that once was.

This community, with a small missionary-run health clinic and a preschool, had a greater impact on alumni than any other place visited, both as an eye-opening and heart-wrenching experience. David Hicks, for example, a retired Whitworth biology professor who went along on the 2001 trip, recalled seeing Itipini's poverty with a sense of outrage. He vividly remembers the sight of children running around with bare feet on broken glass and thinking, "Can't we do any better than this? We're supposed to be intelligent animals!"  

Remy, on the trip in 2006, found herself humbled. Walking through the settlement and its perpetual smell of trash, she remembers distinctly, "seeing the amount of joy that kids [had], thinking, How can that be? I don't think I've ever experienced that kind of joy."

Like so many of the students up to the 2012 trip, Strain felt empowered by the nurse who ran the clinic. From seeing her day-to-day, hard-working service, he realized that living a life of service in reality is long, hard work, typically with little payoff. The woman's dedicated service to this settlement despite her lack of reward struck Strain as beautiful and has inspired him to live in such a way, taking a year after college to serve with the Jesuit Corps of Volunteers.

Similarly, Andrea Saccoccio, former Whitworth chaplain and a three-time faculty leader of the trip, always felt the impact of the visit to Itipini. One of Saccoccio's most distinct memories occurred when they visited an AIDS hospice located in the community.

For Saccoccio, an especially memorable moment involved a woman suffering from AIDS. Someone at the hospice had found out that Saccoccio was an ordained minister and asked her to pray with a woman in the back. Passing by rows of living skeletons, she found a woman in a back room all by herself. With swollen and cracked lips, the woman lay there with desperation in her eyes, longing for any sort of human connection. Saccoccio stayed with her, rubbed her brow and prayed for her. Whether she understood Saccoccio or not, this was a powerful experience for her, understanding that simply holding the woman's hand and being with her was all that she needed — a simple recognition of her humanity.

As the Whitworth students leave Mthata, the cities get bigger. They stay a few days in Durban, a bustling city where in most recent years Muslim families have hosted students. This experience has been eye-opening and a time of growth for many. Strain remembers one of the most sacred moments on his trip, sharing a time of prayer with his Muslim host brother and father.

The trip continues on to Johannesburg, the last long road trip of the month, to the place where the group will conclude its visit, in South Africa's "City of Gold." It's the largest city students stay in, with skyscrapers adding to the two satellite towers that make for a beautiful skyline, reminiscent of Seattle.

On their stay in Johannesburg, many students find themselves staying in more expensive houses, with tight security systems. Security fences are everywhere. To James Spung, '09, a 2008 trip participant, it became normal but was still a strange phenomenon. The omnipresent emphasis on security led Spung to reflect that "You earn your way up to try to protect yourself from what you think is bad, and in reality, [you] are just moving away from the things that scare you." This paradox is something Pyle also noticed and described as a phenomenon of being, in a way, "imprisoned by your own affluence."

The trip's last few days are spent in a game reserve called Pilanesberg, about a two-hour drive west of Johannesburg. The trip participants stay in small chalets just outside of the game reserve, which doubles as the natural habitat of "The Big Five." "The Big Five" are the five most difficult and most dangerous animals to hunt, otherwise known as elephant, rhino, leopard, lion, and buffalo. The next few days seem like a dream, spotting giraffes, warthogs, elephants, impalas, and other animals that trip participants are seeing for the first time outside a zoo. Once their time is up at the game reserve, they travel back to Johannesburg to catch their flight home.

As the trip participants prepare to leave Johannesburg, they recognize they have been forever changed by their experience. They have heard numerous stories, some of people's heartaches and pains, life's joys and laughter, and the history of the land.

For these stories will come to shape these students' thoughts, decisions, and for some, even the course of their lives. They will never forget the stories they learned in South Africa, and they will live the rest of their lives seeking to fit South Africa's story into their own.