The first time Bob Swap heard a lion roar, the hair on his body stood on end. He was a graduate student, camped out in the Lowveld of South Africa, working as an assistant to Professor Michael Garstang, a UVA environmental scientist. It was night and the lions were calling to each other. The primeval sound struck deep into Swap’s body, heart and soul.
“I lay there listening, thinking, wondering why I felt such a strong connection to a land I had not previously visited,” he says. “I realized that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves, and it’s all connected.”According to anthropologists, all homo sapiens originated in Africa. Swap felt a core memory deep within his DNA. He knew he would return.
In the years since, Swap—now a UVA research scientist himself—has traveled in Africa dozens of times to conduct atmospheric research, and, since 2002, to introduce a new generation of students to his passion for this continent. His study-abroad course, “People, Culture and the Environment of Southern Africa,” illustrates how closely people and their cultures intertwine with the environment in which they live.
“When I developed the course, I wanted my students to see what I saw, to feel what I felt, to meet the people I had come to know,” says Swap, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from UVA in environmental science. “There was no other way to do this than to bring them to Africa.”
Joining them are students from African universities. Enrollment is kept small—fewer than 20 students, about a third of them Africans.
Their immersion begins in Johannesburg. The group visits the Apartheid Museum, where they learn in vivid detail of the oppression of the black majority and their struggle for freedom. They stand in Freedom Square, where the resistance became tangible. They visit an AIDS outreach center. They descend into the shaft of a gold mine. They visit the boyhood home of Nelson Mandela. And they stand in reverence in a church where ordinary people began their sometimes violent quest to obtain freedom for all of South Africa’s citizens. Throughout, Swap and his co-instructors teach the power of observation, acting more as mentors and guides than as instructors.
The students meet the freedom fighters, clergy and political and social leaders who birthed a nation. They take in lectures on the history of southern Africa and how the culture and environment shape each other.
Assigned readings completed before crossing the Atlantic provide a foundation of knowledge that is stretched by their experiences and travels. They listen to African music on the radio; they get into the rhythm of the vibrant continent. Each day’s travel culminates in late-night discussion sessions.
“I did not know what to expect before I met my classmates,” admits Lebogang Nthekeng, a recent graduate of the University of Botswana. Before the class, she never had an opportunity to get to know white people or to meet foreigners. “I thought there still would be that difference between black and white that we have in Africa. I thought there would be that line between us. But we didn’t have that. We became friends.”
For the American contingent, the revelations are many.
“I experienced the difference between tourism and learning, exploitation and understanding,” says Zach Best, a third-year anthropology student. “Tourism means to pass through. Learning means forming relationships with people. My interactions with members of the community will last much longer than any pictures on my digital camera.”
A Harsh Landscape
The second half of the course moves out of the city and into the rural areas of the region. In a convoy of vans, the class traces the Limpopo River from its headwaters to its mouth at the Indian Ocean near the crowded, hazy city of Maputo in Mozambique.
In the vast open country they pass umbrella-shaped acacia trees, ancient baobabs, animals both wild and domestic—a landscape whose magnificence seems endless. There is the smell of food roasting on wood fires and aromatic vegetation like sage, but also that of noxious diesel exhaust, body odor, urine and livestock.
The history of southern Africa, like all places, is shaped by its environment. It is a harsh landscape, dry and dusty, overgrazed and deforested. Massive fires burn through the savanna during the dry season as people clear land for crops and housing. It is hard work to extract food and water from baking dirt. The rivers run low even during the “wet” summer season, and are often bone dry during the winter, when the sun blazes from a cloudless blue sky. Animals congregate around shallow pools of water. The vegetation consists of spiky stunted trees, low bushes and brown grasses, all competing for water.
The people, too, compete for water. Villages are located near rivers that are often dry, but also prone to flash flooding. Some villages have been dismantled and reassembled in an ongoing quest for an ample water supply. During apartheid, some black African villages were forced to move away from water sources to areas where the only available water is far underground, requiring deep wells for access.
But the people are resilient. The average South African uses only about three gallons of water per day—little more than a single flush of a toilet in the United States, where each American uses about 100 gallons per day.
Swap’s students learn that everything people do is shaped by the resources that are available, and, what is more important, by what is not available. In both urban and rural areas, they see the everyday difficulties people face in acquiring basic resources. They meet women in villages who spend much of their day standing in line to fill jugs from a well. The students gain some understanding of the spiral of poverty, how people can be forced to spend all their time working for life’s necessities with little time left to improve their situation. They come to realize the value of natural resources and infrastructure—things often taken for granted in the U.S.
“I try to put a new wrinkle in the gray matter of my students,” Swap says. “The fact is, our students will someday be corporate, legal and policy leaders. I hope to help them realize that in the future, when they are making decisions, those decisions will have ramifications around the world.”
“Mountains don’t meet, but people do”
Environmental scientists at UVA have been conducting research in Africa for more than 30 years. Swap’s mentor, Michael Garstang, began the work in the mid-1970s and passed it on to younger scientists like Swap. The goal of much of UVA’s environmental science work in Africa is to understand how its atmosphere affects the overall global climate. Africa’s massive industrialization in recent years has resulted in a large-scale increase in air pollution. The increased atmospheric carbon may play a large role in accelerating global warming.
“It is important that we begin to recognize and understand how land use worldwide affects atmospheric change,” Swap says. “What we learn can help policy makers make informed decisions that directly affect people and their problems involving floods or drought or disease.”
Today, research in Africa is multidisciplinary. Dozens of UVA faculty members and students—from medicine, engineering, nursing, public policy, law, business, the arts and humanities, environmental science and anthropology—have made the trek to Africa for a variety of projects and classes. With each endeavor, new friends are made and new opportunities arise.
“In Africa there is a proverb, ‘mountains don’t meet, but people do,’” Swap says. “That has always struck me as a profound observation, that people’s relationships are vibrant and dynamic, that we stay connected, that we’re interconnected.”
Many of these connections are grassroots in nature, launched by undergraduate and graduate students who have taken Swap’s class or been inspired by his example. In 2003, a group of students formed the University Giving Tree, a charitable organization that raises money to support student service projects. The funds have enabled students to dig wells and install rainwater-collection systems at village schools, conduct health studies, and have supported many other ventures that directly benefit the local population.
“The key to keeping projects going for the long term is working with the local community as partners,” says Peter Stapor, a third-year biomedical engineering student. “We enlist the help of local people and they maintain and build on our work throughout the year. We’re reinforcing relationships as well as re-inforcing gutters.”
Stapor and Kathleen McDowell, another biomedical engineering student, have spent the past two summers in South Africa. Their work was initiated in 2003 by Aaron Johnson (Engr ’04), founder of the UVA chapter of Student Engineers Without Borders. Johnson has returned each summer since, helping to establish new projects and motivate new student engineers.
Seven of Swap’s 32 previous students are now serving in the Peace Corps or Americorps—a direct result, Swap says, of their experiences in Africa. “There is no doubt that study abroad produces citizens of the world,” he says.
By month’s end, Swap’s class will have traveled a 3,000-mile loop through some of the most wild, beautiful and impoverished country in the world.
“In America, we see simplified images of Africa, of poverty and disease and hopelessness,” says Kevin Sinusas, a third-year biology major. “But coming here we learn of the complexity of the region, its history—how things became the way they are, and how they are changing.”
Sinusas was most affected by his visit to the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto, a black homeland in the heart of Johannesburg. In the 1980s, Winnie Mandela stood here and preached equality and freedom as apartheid-enforcing police breached the sanctuary of the church.
“So much happened here so recently. A whole new national identity came from within this church,” Sinusas says. “The people were saying, ‘This is our church, this is our country.’ It’s a very moving experience to come here.”