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 Back to SummaryAmy Showen - Student Profile

Stanford in Cape Town, Spring 2010-11

MAJOR: Human Biology


 

“What were your expectations about South Africa?” This was the question most commonly posed to me by South African minitaxi drivers as we careened through the streets of Cape Town, with twenty-plus passengers, strangers perched on each other’s laps, in a small van that literally bumped to its own music. Being embarrassed to admit that my only “expectation” came in the form of a dream on the plane—involving the South African great whites that are always featured on Shark Week, swimming rhythmically to a soundtrack suspiciously reminiscent of Stanford Talisman—I usually mumbled something stereotypical about “a country characterized by extremes,” and changed the subject to the local rugby team.

The Farm is an exceptional place and leaving it for—well, the farthest city in the world—is no easy task. Yet being a Capetonian, if only for a short time, provides an education unlike anything you can find at Stanford.

Those extremes became readily apparent within my first two weeks in Cape Town. During the first week, we explored many of Cape Town’s most beautiful places. We wandered through the romantic cobblestone streets of colorful Bo-Kaap, the historical (and culinary!) center of Cape Malay culture. We enjoyed the sun, sand, and sea (alongside penguins!) on the expansive beaches that border Cape Town’s spectacular peninsula. We wined and dined at the picturesque Groot Constantia, a vineyard estate dating back more than three centuries to the Dutch colonization of South Africa. We trekked to the top of Cape Town’s adventure sports playground, the iconic Table Mountain. Cape Town seemed to be a thriving metropolis, rivaling the celebrated European and American cities in its infrastructure, historical significance, and lively culture.

Yet a week later, we visited Cape Town’s townships for the first time, and I quickly realized that the scars of South Africa’s colonization and apartheid still run deep. The wealth of Cape Town’s elite suburbs contrasts starkly with the poverty of townships in the Cape Flats, where the majority of the city’s residents live. In a country of immense civic activism, political affiliation remains largely typified, de facto, by race. The Real Housewives of Atlanta film off-site in Cape Town’s stylish clubs, while the real housewives of Khayelitsha township confront a patriarchal social system historically rooted in the turmoil of the past 350 years. At once, the “developed” aspects of South Africa are juxtaposed against the “underdeveloped.”

 

Fortunately, studying and living in Cape Town allowed me to discover that these extremes shape but do not define South Africa. Classes such as “The History of Imperialism” and “Western Cape Sites of Memory,” (not to mention having a history-buff roommate) helped me to understand the historical basis of South Africa’s current challenges.

Fortunately, studying and living in Cape Town allowed me to discover that these extremes shape but do not define South Africa. Classes such as “The History of Imperialism” and “Western Cape Sites of Memory,” (not to mention having a history-buff roommate) helped me to understand the historical basis of South Africa’s current challenges. My service-learning placement, at Philani Child Health and Nutrition Project, provided a crucial glimpse into how Khayelitsha’s activists imagine the future of their “rainbow nation.” I learned that there’s much in between rich and poor, black and white, good and bad; and left South Africa with a more nuanced understanding of how Capetonians themselves view their complex and dynamically changing society.

The most meaningful portion of my Cape Town experience was the community-based partnership research (CBPR) that I conducted with Women on Farms Project, which is an NGO that seeks to empower farmwomen in the Cape Winelands, and University of Cape Town’s Learning Network for Health and Human Rights

The most meaningful portion of my Cape Town experience was the community-based partnership research (CBPR) that I conducted with Women on Farms Project, which is an NGO that seeks to empower farmwomen in the Cape Winelands, and University of Cape Town’s Learning Network for Health and Human Rights. As a Human Biology major I had always been particularly interested in women’s health and health policy, and was thrilled when Women on Farms Project invited me to research the impacts that South Africa’s transition to universal healthcare will have on farmwomen. As CBPR is an iterative process—incorporating research, reflection, and action in a cyclical process—the research will be used to inform the development of South Africa’s National Health Insurance scheme to make it responsive to farmwomen’s needs. During our summer in the field, I was both touched by the farmwomen’s willingness to share their stories with me and inspired by their determination to better their health care system and community.

Ultimately, my role expanded from that of a researcher to that of a quasi-chauffeur, babysitter, caseworker, people-manager, and community organizer. From this, I learned a lot about academic research, but even more about cross-cultural interactions, working with people, and that ever-perplexing question, “what do I want to do with my life?” I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to engage in CBPR, as it revolutionized my conception of, and rekindled my faith in, meaningful social change—what South Africans call “ubuntu.”

I learned a lot about academic research, but even more about cross-cultural interactions, working with people, and that ever-perplexing question, “what do I want to do with my life?”

There are so many other stories I could tell about South Africa. I stalked elephants, on foot, in Kruger National Park. My housemates and I had a casual, random breakfast with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I learned to drive stick shift on the wrong other side of the road. I questioned the ethics of public service… are good intentions enough? I rode an ostrich, jumped from the highest bungee in the world, and dived with great white sharks. I danced Sundays away at Mzoli’s braai (a traditional South African barbeque-turned-block party) in the township of Gugulethu. I listened to a member of the Shona tribe tell the comical tale of “how the hippo came to be.” I saw the Southern Cross while sharing national anthems with Namibians and South Africans, on a river-rafting trip down the Orange River. I explored apartheid history, and pondered my own responsibility to challenge destructive social and political institutions… do oppressive cultures function and persist by consensus? I “braai-b-q-ued” with South Africans on Fourth of July (note to future students: throwing things at the electric fence sadly will not make fireworks, but a fire hazard). I found incredible new friends—Stanford students, international students, and native Capetonians.

The Farm is an exceptional place and leaving it for—well, the farthest city in the world—is no easy task. Yet being a Capetonian, if only for a short time, provides an education unlike anything you can find at Stanford and, in addition to everything else, is a whole lot of fun. As I said my good-byes to Cape Town this afternoon, the feisty and affectionate “Mama Z,” (part-time housecleaner and part-time doting mother), yelled after me, “Bye-bye baby, I loooooove you! Come back soon!” No worries, Mama Z—I’ve been gone for only a few hours, and I’m already searching for a way back.

 

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