From Susquehanna Currents, Summer 2009.

Travel Writing in South Africa
For one professor, it will be a homecoming

For one professor, it will be a homecoming. For participating students, it will be a world away from home. Either way, Travel Writing in South Africa promises to be a cultural adventure. Led by South African native Glen Retief, assistant professor of English and creative writing, and Jenna Fredericks ’06, coordinator of residence life for student conduct, this 2 1/2–week study excursion on one of the world’s most diverse and fascinating continents is designed to expose students to cultural similarities and differences, while teaching them the craft of international travel writing. In the process, students will gain a better understanding of their own culture.

“In addition to posing the question, ‘Who am I in relation to this culture and environment?’, travel writing of any depth requires students to ask, ‘How do I feel about these similarities and differences, and why?’ This question in itself requires students to demonstrate critical awareness of their own cultural values and identity,” says Retief.

The trip will be offered for the first time over winter break of the 2010–11 school year. The following semester, students will take a travel writing workshop in which they will read examples of international travel writing and compose their own 3,000-to 6,000-word travel essays. Their preparation for writing will come from the extensive field research they do while in country.

The trip will expose students to various South African cultures, including Xhosa, Afrikaner, coloured (mixed race) and Muslim cultures. In Cape Town, students will visit several sites that provide an overview of South African history and society. These sites include the District Six apartheid museum, a slave lodge and Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. They will go on a “township tour” to experience firsthand urban black South African culture and visit a mosque affiliated with Cape Town’s large Muslim community. A tour of the castle where Dutch colonists first settled Africa and a trip to Addo Elephant National Park to see lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes and other animals in their natural habitat will also be on their itinerary.

The centerpiece of the cross-cultural experience will be their 10-day stay in Mdumbi, a backpackers’ hostel in a traditional Xhosa village overlooking the Indian Ocean near Mandela’s birthplace. The hostel will provide students with the opportunity to learn local farming and fishing techniques, examine Xhosa judicial and political structures, and even consult a diviner.

For about 30 minutes each day, students and program leaders will write in travel journals in an effort to record and reflect on what they have seen, heard and experienced. Their first journal entry will reflect on a series of quotes that define culture from anthropological, sociological and literary points of view. In short, students will examine what culture means to them.

Fredericks, who accompanied Retief on an exploratory trip to South Africa last winter to investigate the feasibility of the program, says: “As an alumna and writing major, I can appreciate firsthand how this unique opportunity will forever change the lives and perspectives of our students. Hearing about Glen’s experiences from recent South African history, seeing the diversity of the country’s landscape, its people and its culture provided me with valuable tools for self-reflection and my writing.”

In the end, the goal is to provide students with opportunities for personal growth and teach them responsibility toward the wider community, something Retief says is critical to creative nonfiction as a genre. “Black South African cultures—encountered in the township tour and the Xhosa village—all emphasize the concept of ubuntu, that we are most human only in our relationships with other people,” says Retief. “It is no exaggeration to say that students will not be able to reflect on their cross-cultural experience without reflecting also on what it means to actively participate in human society itself.”

Travel Writing in South Africa is one of several short-term study programs that will fulfill the cross-cultural requirement of the new Central Curriculum, which takes effect for incoming students this fall. Called GO (Global Opportunities), this distinctive cross-cultural requirement is designed to take students out of their everyday experiences and expose them to cultures different from their own.
Contributing writers to the People & Places section are Victoria Kidd and Billie Tadros ’10.