South African Sojourn
Wednesday, September 05, 2012 11:00 AM
After spending five weeks abroad and snapping more than 3,000 pictures chronicling her experience, Madison Consolidated High School teacher Denise Corbin will have no shortage of course material to work with this semester.
Denise Corbin with a geography teacher at Fons Luminis Secondary School in Soweto, South Africa. (Submitted photo)
"I know they're probably already tired of hearing me talk about it," said Corbin, who teaches economics and government at the school.
Corbin recently spent more than one month in South Africa after receiving a federal grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
As part of the program, teachers across the nation receive a stipend to travel abroad. In return, they are asked to chronicle their experiences and fill out a survey. Corbin traveled with more than 25 junior high and high school educators.
The group conducted field studies in the cities and small villages and spent one week in local universities studying the country's culture. They also visited coastal lines and animal reserves.
"When I was growing up, I thought it would be neat to go to another country, but I never thought it was possible," Corbin said. "Some of these students that I have, at least they can see some pictures from another country. So, even if they never, ever get a chance to go there, they get to experience it through me, anyway."
Corbin said she became interested in South Africa after she visited Mexico, where she met two teachers who experienced apartheid, which was a time of violence and racial oppression against blacks by the South African government for nearly 50 years.
Now back in the classroom, Corbin said she has developed better sense about the county's economical, political and cultural atmosphere. She said she fields several questions about the terrain and look of South Africa. And she's had to clear up a few misconceptions about the country.
"I had a lot of people ask me what was the weather like and how much rainforest did I see," she said.
It may be hard to believe Corbin escaped this year's unforgiving Midwest heat wave by traveling to the African continent, but that's the truth. During her trip, South Africa was experiencing its winter months, and temperatures were a mild 60 to 70 degrees.
There are rainforests in South Africa, but they are confined to the northern portion of the country. And no, animals do not randomly scurry around in the streets, she added.
"You only see those animals at the reserve," she said, but added that she did see some wild monkeys while studying at a university.
Corbin described South Africa as a modern country, although she noted it does have its struggles economically and in the job market. About half of the country lives in poverty, and the unemployment rate is about 25 percent - 45 percent of 18-to-35 year olds are unemployed.
"I really didn't expect to see that amount of poverty in a supposedly modern country," she said.
Aside from the diversity in the terrain, Corbin said one of the highlights from her trip came while visiting local schools, which included students who sometimes walk five to 10 miles a day just to get an education. On one day at the schools, the group took part in Nelson Mandela Day, a national event developed to spur volunteerism.
During the special day, citizens were asked to spend 67 minutes volunteering. The 67 minutes represented Mandela's 67 years in politics, which included his time in prison. Mandela served as the South African president from 1994 to 1999 and was the first democratic representative for the country. He spent 27 years in prison during Apartheid for what were considered crimes of treason.
This year, Corbin plans to mesh much of what she learned into her teaching at Madison. Not unlike the United States, South Africa has struggled with race and inequality, most notably shown during apartheid, she said. Much like the Civil Rights struggle in the U.S., there are many memorials in place to remind citizens of the struggles that once plagued the country.
"They do want you to know what happened there," she said.
In terms of current events, she said it's important to study the country's different economical and political system. While South Africa is considered a democracy, during elections, citizens vote for a party rather than a specific representative. And when a party is elected - there are three predominant parties in the country - that party then selects a representative.
"That idea is totally foreign to us," she said.
In the future, Corbin would like to apply for the grant program again, although she noted that new applicants typically get the first opportunities.
With her recent trip, she said it's hard to pinpoint one experience that she enjoyed the most. After being immersed in the country's culture for five weeks, she said there was a learning opportunity at every corner and every place she visited.
"To me, anytime I'm learning something new, it's a big highlight," she said.