South Africa: Proudly African, Truly International

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Hi! My name is Cynthia Roush, and I am a senior at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Last summer, before my junior year, I went on a short study abroad to South Africa. South Africa is an incredible country filled with rich culture, food, and atmosphere. Though I have experienced richness in my travels to other countries, such as in Europe, the buzz in the air is different in Africa than in any other country I have visited. So, here is a little about my experience and the tips and tricks I learned for all study abroaders.

South African sign outside of the plane

The sign as we stepped off the plane into South Africa

The entire trip was a whirlwind of fun and adventure, but a few of the moments really stood out to me. First of all, you should know I’m a self-proclaimed foodie. In case you don’t know, foodie just means I love food of all cultures and tastes. I get really excited about food, so I loved the cool new food experiences I got to have in South Africa.

South African meal

One of my meals in South Africa, complete with grilled calamari (the whiteish tubes) and antelope steak

Some of the foods and drinks I fell in love with while in South Africa include:

  • Calamari – the calamari wasn’t served fried and like rubber bands like it is in the U.S. Instead, large calamari tubes would be grilled and flavored with spices and sauce. Delicious.

  • Antelope – like venison or buffalo but more wild – maybe I was just excited to eat antelope, but I still thought it was tasty.

  • Miscellaneous fresh seafood – any town near water has higher expectations for quality seafood and Cape Town did not disappoint. From the scallops to the fillets, it was all fresh and wonderful.

  • Wine – South Africa is known for its wineries so don’t miss out! Get a tasting and a tour. Some even have restaurants and fun buffets that should not be missed. The winery we visited was Spier Winery. My favorite that I still hunt for in the States is called a Pinotage.

performers at Spier Winery

Performers at Spier Winery during dinner

Another aspect of my trip that I loved was the people. Being fully immersed in a culture made up of many cultures within itself was, for lack of a better word, so cool. Diversity is the norm. With 11 official national languages, you hear and see a richness everywhere you turn in South Africa. The people are wearing different types of clothing. There are languages upon languages being spoken on the streets and by vendors and on advertisements. For once in my life, I was a minority and what a strange and wonderful feeling it was.

11 official languages of South Africa

The 11 official languages listed on the building at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg

One of the places we visited that I loved was Soweto. Soweto is actually an English abbreviation for South Western Townships. Soweto is an area on the outskirts of Johannesburg, affectionately referred to by the locals as Joburg. Though Soweto has sprawling slums or favelas, the Mandela Family Museum is located there and the people we met in the area were incredibly friendly.

The museum is actually Mandela’s home from when he lived there with his wife, Winnie, and children. It has been converted into a museum that is definitely worth the trip. The house is located at 8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, Soweto. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world where two noble peace prize winners have lived – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

The outside of Nelson Madela's house

The outside of Mandela's house

Overall, I felt that Nelson Mandela had more of a profound effect on my study abroad than I anticipated. I knew he was a big deal. I knew the history lessons. What didn’t know was what an icon he is to every citizen in the country, even today. I didn’t realize until I was there that every time we woke up and South Africa was not a riotous racially segregated mess, it was all because of one man.

Seeing his statue, his jail cells, his home, and his cell on Robben Island, I felt like I was following his footsteps through his tumultuous and passionate life. People drew strength from him, and even all these years later that was truly conveyed to us as American students. Since then, I have been in awe of Mandela and his drive to follow the cause he believed in.

Cynthia standing on Robben Island

Standing on Robben Island with Table Mountain in the background

Mandela’s legacy was not the only thing I learned in South Africa. In fact, as a student, I studied at both Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town (UCT). I am a Strategic Communications major, meaning I study public relations and advertising. Most students on my trip were communications majors, so while in South Africa we studied media systems and journalism. At Stellenbosch, I learned about zef culture and the importance of journalism in society.

At UCT we studied journalism and the role of journalism in South Africa. We toured large media corporations, small counter culture media groups, and studied how media is different in South Africa than in the US and other places around the globe. One of the most interesting ways that South Africa is different is that tabloids are the most trusted media to many South Africans.

Because South Africa was so recently released of its iron fist government structure, a lot of large media was, or is, controlled by the government. Therefore, many citizens of South Africa believe that the tabloids are still more trustworthy.

University of Cape Town

University of Cape Town

As great as the courses were, Cape Town was a city too incredible to miss out on by staying indoors and studying. From Table Mountain to the market in the plaza near our hotel, everything was buzzing with life and color. On a free day, my friend and I hiked Table Mountain and it was so incredibly beautiful. The mist crept over the low sides of the mountain off the ocean as the sun rose and then slowly burned off as we climbed up with the sun.

Table Mountain is one of the new 7 wonders of the world, and deserves its place on the list. With the ocean to one side and the city to the other, it’s a breathtaking view.  You can take an aerial cableway to the top for a less strenuous view from the mountain.

mist at sunrise in South Africa

The mist coming in as the sun rises

view of mountain from a boat

A view of the mountain from the water

Aside from Table Mountain, the cape area complete with aquarium, Ferris wheel, mall, and city markets all make Cape Town the must-see city that it is. I preferred Cape Town to Joburg because of the scenery, safety, and seemingly happier citizens, but Joburg should not be missed either. The history and the culture of Joburg make South Africa what it is today, so go to both cities if you can.

Table Mountain

Ferris wheel and dock in Cape Town

In general, my advice for students considering a study abroad experience is: do it! You won’t regret it. You also won’t always have the chance to travel, whether it’s due to money or schedule conflicts. Being an adult out in the real world after college gets in the way of travel sometimes, so go when you can—especially for credit. Here are a few less general things I learned to make the most out of my study abroad.

  • Be aware that you will not like every person on the trip

    • You’ll need to go in with the attitude to soak in every minute and make it a positive experience for you, no matter what the attitudes of the other people on the trip are like. You will most likely also make really good friends with some of the people, so don’t worry.

  • Have an open mind

    • Try everything – food, restaurants, shark diving, hiking, the language; anything! Try to see the culture as an insider.

  • Unplug yourself

    • Your study abroad experience is about being in the other country and soaking it all in, not how many likes the picture of you in front of a statue gets. Social media will still exist when you get back, I promise. Coming back is the time to post all about your cool experiences, not when you are actually there and you accidentally miss the zebra on the safari because you were looking at your phone.

    • You don’t get to just detach from social media and the web very often, so in places where you don’t have Wi-Fi, accept it and love the lack of pressure. Don’t perpetuate the stereotype of annoying American young adult that whines about the lack of technology.

    photo of Table Mountain

A photo of Table Mountain I captured while focused on what was going on around me, and not on social media or the internet

  • Keep a journal

    • Write whenever works for you. I liked to write either before I went to bed or on the bus back to the hotel so that the memories were fresh in my mind.

    • Write your memories in your journal however you feel you should—like a diary filled with emotion, or like an itinerary that is cut and dry with all the facts. There is no right or wrong way to journal. Just keep one that you will be able to look back on and remember the fond memories from your trip.

  • Find a study abroad option that is right for you instead of ruling it out completely

    • This tip basically means there are a lot of options when it comes to studying abroad. I went on a short, almost 3-week experience. I had a friend who did a 10-day trip. Other options of trip durations include 3, 6, or even sometimes 12 months. There are a lot of options so don’t rule out study abroad completely because you don’t want to be gone for an entire semester.

    • The short experience was perfect for me. I knew I didn’t want to be gone for an entire semester away from family and have classes to catch up on. With this option I got to study abroad and not sacrifice time to experience college experience in the states.


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