My Connection with HaMakuya: Part 1

erin 1 1Sometime during the end of my sophomore year in college I decided to spend the following fall semester abroad. On a whim, I decided South Africa would be my destination. I applied and was accepted to the Organization of Tropical Studies program on African Ecology and Conservation Biology. The program took an integrative approach to exploring ecological issues in concert with human issues. As my fellow researchers and I traveled from one region of South Africa to another, our fieldwork focused on learning about the ecosystems surrounding us and the cultures we were immersed in. We were introduced to a host of black ethnic cultures, white cultures of primarily British and Dutch decent, and 11 official languages that collaboratively form the rich national ethos of South Africa.

Part of the program involved a homestay in which we lived with families in the rural village of HaMakuya. Situated north of Kruger National Park, bordering Zimbabwe, HaMakuya was part of the ex-homeland of the Venda people during the apartheid era, a period from 1948 to 1994 of legal racial segregation under the National Party of South Africa. As a result of apartheid, HaMakuya suffered extreme levels of underdevelopment.

My homestay mother taught me how to do daily chores and prepare Venda food, like mopani worms and a porridge called pap. When I joined my homestay family for the Zionist Christian Church service, we piled into a tiny, five-by-five-meter mud room to dance around a central pole. The room became increasingly dusty as the pastor read aloud from a Bible translated into TshiVenda, the local language. One of my most lasting memories of that first week in HaMakuya—and one of the main reasons I wanted to return—is of an experience I had during a celebration one night. I was invited to join in a traditional dance where one person is thrown down a row of interlocked arms. I fell into the dancers’ arms as we sang “Shosholoza,” a call-and-response style song originating from oppressed industrial migrant workers. Later, the song transformed into a symbol of the future democratic South Africa when it was used as the national sporting anthem in 1994. I looked at the stars above me and a lasting trust and relationship of reciprocity took root that night.

erin 1 2After my spring semester back in the States, I returned to HaMakuya the next June to conduct independent ethnobotany research. This time I was excited to be going alone and able to devote more time and energy into establishing relationships with people in HaMakuya. During those three months, I established close friendships with many people in the community and furthered my understanding of its complicated sociopolitical aspects. I also tutored individuals who were eager to practice their English conversation skills and review assignments from their 12th-grade English literature class. Many students seized the opportunity to receive extra help in English. I spent my weekends working for hours with many enthusiastic individuals—some of whom walked an hour to the camp and an hour back just because they’d heard I would assist with schoolwork. Three girls in particular joined me every weekend to go over course work and practice speaking English. At that point, I began considering the possibility of returning to the community after my research program was over to initiate a project aimed at improving English-speaking skills in HaMakuya.

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Erin Wilkus

Erin Lynn Wilkus is a recent graduate of Reed College who has spent the past three years conducting research in rural areas of South Africa. As an undergraduate she studied biology and therefore her initial research focused on ecological issues. As Erin’s exposure to South African cultures and rural communities expanded, her research questions increasingly focused on merging social and ecological questions to promote conservation issues and sustainable development. In 2009, she spent three months in HaMakuya, a rural village at the border of Zimbabwe, researching how human settlement and use affects populations of South Africa’s charismatic baobab tree. During her spare time, Erin taught English and math at a local high school and tutored other individuals. Through that work she came face-to-face with the systemic education problems in the community. In 2010, Erin received a Davis Project for Peace award (http://www.davisprojectsforpeace.org) — a grant to fund creative grassroots projects that promote peace throughout the world. She used the award to develop a resource center called Makuya Empowered Voices Resource Center (MEVRC) in HaMakuya focused on communication and environmental action—qualities central to making long-term change in community-based development and conservation. Since English-speaking skills are essential for local residents to transcend the socioeconomic boundaries established during apartheid, a critical reason for establishing the center was training people to use computers and to study English with Rosetta Stone language-learning software. Erin never had a knack for languages, but she learned to speak Latin American Spanish in two months with the help of Rosetta Stone. She introduced Rosetta Stone at the resource center, in large part because of the positive experience she had using the program years before. Erin is currently initiating a volunteerism program based in HaMakuya that will begin in June 2011. The project will work in collaboration with Tshulu Trust (http://www.tshulutrust.org/), a locally run, anti-poverty initiative. Through this program, volunteers from Ireland and the United States will work together with local residents to improve the standard of living in the region.
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