Category Archives: Africa

Race in South Africa: Colonialism, Segregation, and Apartheid.

Ah, the issue of race. It’s kind of a loaded topic. Not only is it a big issue in America, but a big issue everywhere, especially in South Africa. The impact of the topic is so significant, it is one I absolutely feel the need to touch upon while I am here.

As we know, race does not have any biological basis, it is a socially constructed classification our society has created. Perhaps that is the reason the issue remains so problematic. However, the method in which we classify race varies from state to state. For example, in America there are 5 common race classifications: White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and Native American. While in South Africa, the racial categories are as follows: Black, White, Coloured, and Indian. Note the race category ‘Coloured.’ In the U.S., not only is this NOT a race classification, but it is a derogatory word notoriously only used as a racial slur. Americans hear the word ‘coloured’ and our minds automatically think, ‘racist.’ However, in South Africa the word is so common it’s used everyday. Why is that?

The answer to that is a bit complex.

A Concise History Lesson

Alright so to answer that question I will have to go on and teach you guys a quick lesson in South Africa’s History.

If you’re anything like me you’ve definitely heard of Apartheid, but how much do you actually know? Before my journey here, all I knew about it was that it was some sort of racial injustice that involved segregation. In my mind, I compared it to Jim Crow laws in the United States. I didn’t really know what it entailed, it was more an unclear subject I knew the general idea of, but nothing specific. This is 100% the reason why I was so excited for this trip. I yearned to know more! I could finally get down to the nitty gritty details. What was Apartheid?

So here you have it, ladies and gentlemen! I give you the South African tea! Ready to be spilled for your reading pleasure. 

kermit tea

Here goes my attempt at a concise history lesson.

It begins with British Imperialism. Doesn’t it always?

South Africa’s Colonial Era reigned from 1652-1910, the first to invade were the Dutch. However, as my teacher put it, “it was the British who were responsible for South Africa’s misery.” Ultimately, it was the British who conquered over the land, took charge over Parliament (government), and they who would go on to write the constitution.

And so South Africa’s constitution was written by the colonizers. The laws within it reflected the White agenda, as they were designed to preserve White identity and maximize their opportunity. Unfortunately, this would be the demise for the Black people of South Africa. In order to ensure a thriving economy, Parliament would implement laws to extract cheap labor from the Black citizens, as well as enforce a migrant labor system.

What’s a migrant labor system and why did the White people need to create this? Money.

Diamonds and Gold were found in South Africa in the late 1800s. White people in South Africa needed cheap labor for the mining industry and got this from Black South Africans. But there was the problem of theft: what’s to prevent workers from sneaking a couple diamonds into their pockets in order to make a profit? Loss prevention, among other reasons, was the reason for the migrant labor system. This system provided very basic housing, comparable to that of prison. Workers were constantly under surveillance and given a pass that granted them permission to work/live there. Can you believe that? Permission to work and live within their own land. This sent a message from the White community to the Black community: you are no longer the ruler of this land, we are. Black South Africans were only here to work; the entire system had been engineered to enforce White supremacy.

This ideology of White supremacy was one that would remain dominant in South Africa for years to come, even after it’s Colonial Era. This would lead to the Segregation Era in South Africa, lasting from 1910-1948. Ultimately keeping separate the Whites from the Blacks by placing the Coloureds in between. Sounds like laundry, but no, we are talking about people. Real people with real injustices done to them; real trauma, real heartache, caused simply by the colour of one’s skin. Black Africans kicked out of their homes, banished to far away lands which would come to be known as Townships.

In order to make sure they wouldn’t return, their homes were bulldozed to the ground, leaving nothing but rubble. Many times families watched as their homes were reduced to nothing. One place in particular is known in Cape Town for this particular atrocity, District 6.

District 6

And so they left with only what they could carry, forced to build homes of their own, distant from the White oppressor. Communities known as Townships were built during the Segregation Era, separated by race as well. There were Black Townships which were the most impoverished and Coloured Townships which were less poverty struck.

White people in South Africa flourished at this time, as they would claim the land that was most sought after. However this era brought much frustration to the Black and Coloured South Africans, rightly so, and they would begin to oppose the system. Black opposition came in forms of organized political movements as well as flight of entire communities from townships to urban areas. This opposition brought anxieties in the White community to an all time high in the 1940s. This fear within them led the National Party to win the Election of 1948, after this time Parliament would implement what we know today as Apartheid.

Apartheid began in 1948, it was a system enforced by the government that allowed racial segregation and discrimination. Now what kind of laws exactly made up Apartheid? Here’s a small list of what I’ve learned so far:

  • The Population Registration Act of 1950 classified South Africans into 1 of 4 groups: White, Black, Coloured, and Indian.
  • Interesting fact: Chinese and Japanese were known as “honorary Whites”
  • Interesting fact #2: Coloureds were made up of those who were of Mixed races or racially ambiguous
  • Interesting fact #3: Within the classification there were sub-classifications, for example: Black: Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Swazi Khoisan, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, etc.
  • The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act prohibited South Africans from engaging in sexual or romantic relationships across racial lines.
  • Apartheid and Segregation enforced even in prison. Prisoners would receive different meals depending on their race classification.

However, the function of Apartheid was different than that of America’s. While it was definitely cruel and relied on the ideology of White supremacy, the intent was not to kill Black Africans, but to preserve them in order to preserve the labour force. Capitalism. They needed the economy to thrive, so the National Party of South Africa utilized racism as an instrument of capitalism. White prosperity depended on the exploitation of black labor. Thus, a low wage system was emplaced and maintained an effective economy in the beginning. However, this was a trap for the Apartheid system, as cheap labor only works in the beginning of a nation.

While I would love to tell a brilliant tale of Apartheid’s cataclysmic demise, there is no such story. The fact is that there was no explosive undoing to this great injustice, rather it just fell apart. The economic system could no longer hold without all race classifications coming together. This brought the National Party to meet with Mr. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC). Parliament showed Mandela the state of the economy and the two began to negotiate. The Nationalist Party agreed to step down and give the ANC political power, while they would maintain the capitalist hegemony. While the ANC would be given leadership in the political sphere, the Nationalist Party controlled the money. And we all know that at the end of the day, the only things that matters is who controls the money. Despite the rather unfair deal that took place, a negotiation was finally reached. Thanks to the peaceful efforts of Nelson Mandela, Apartheid officially came to an end in 1994.

So it can be said that the issue of race has been ingrained in South Africa’s history and furthermore, remains within its culture today. I can attest that it still feels pretty intense. I see the effects of colonialism everywhere. I see it in the buildings, I see it in the townships, I even see it in the workforce. Townships still exist, still separated by race. Not because the laws enforce it anymore, but because the effects of segregation and Apartheid are still prevalent and run deep.

I feel something must be done. As long as Townships remain, so does the segregation. As far as I know, there hasn’t been any major type of integration process introduced to the people who were forcibly removed from their homes. Actually, I might have heard something about Parliament possibly buying land from White home owners in order to give Black South Africans property. However, I haven’t done much research on the topic. Perhaps that’s one I’ll cover next time.

Anyway, I hope this history lesson was accurate, enjoyable, and articulate.

I’ve completely fallen head over heels crazy in love with history and I needed to share that with you all.

Until next time…

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Michelle in South Africa, Uncategorized

The Calm Before The Beautiful Storm!

The time had finally come. The trip I had talked about for months was now along the horizon. I could feel it making its way through. It was the night before departure and it hadn’t hit me yet, largely due to the fact I had not begun packing. “Oh snap, I should probably start packing.”

One by one I added necessities onto a list, which would then make it into my luggage. It was almost poetic how as the list grew, so did my excitement. Packing manifested not only tangible items into my luggage, but also raw emotions that restlessly churned within me. The inside of my mind felt as if there were thick clouds swirling together to compose a cyclical symphony of stirred chaos, the kind that happens when a storm begins to form. Only the clouds weren’t clouds, they were my anxieties whirling around in my head:


  • Don’t forget to pack anything!
  • Please don’t lose your phone!
  • What if you don’t get along with your roommate?
  • What if you get sick?


All these panicked thoughts torpedoed around me, while I stood helpless in the eye of the storm.

But just as quickly as the storm had appeared, it passed. One by one, my anxieties floated away and I was able to transform them back into feelings of excitement. I found myself done packing and the completed task prompted a cool sense of relief. Then it hit me. “Oh snap. I’m leaving.” The next thing I knew my significant other was dropping me off at the airport and just like that I was off. Onto a new journey, an unexplored continent and unfamiliar city.

First thing’s first: any preconceived notion you have of a place you’re traveling to should probably be chucked out the window. When I stepped out of the airplane it was a chilling 58 degrees with a heavy downpour of rain, “Yikes! I probably should’ve packed my raincoat and puffy jacket.” I knew South Africa in June meant Winter, but I was not prepared for just how cold the temperature would greet me. I had a preconceived notion that just because it was Africa it would be warmer in temperature, perhaps something similar to California. Boy, was I wrong. When they say Winter, they mean WINTER. Think California Winters, but colder by at least 15 degrees. The breeze that rolls along with it makes it particularly bone chilling, which proved to be a bit problematic given that I only brought one jacket appropriate for the weather. It also doesn’t help that I brought approximately six pairs of shorts that I probably won’t ever use. So here’s a tip for any of you planning to visit South Africa in June: do not pack shorts because trust me- you don’t need them. Just because the Lion King shows you hot desert planes and the sun always shining doesn’t mean that’s how real life is. Note: life is not a Disney movie!

I’ve been here for about a week now, and I’m happy to report that despite having under-packed, I am successfully living the minimalist lifestyle. While I would have loved to pack more clothes suitable for the warm weather, I am being resourceful by utilizing what I have to the fullest extent. Besides, if I really did need to buy more clothes, I have the convenience of doing so. Cape Town is a city that has first world country vibes in a third world country. It is fairly similar to the environment I left in San Diego, California and for that I was disappointed.

Cape Town is a nicer area, with good restaurants, expensive shops, and pretty views by the water. Initially, I was surprised at how alike it was to La Jolla. However, after learning of South Africa’s controversial history, it became clear as to why this city is the way it is. South Africa is a country that has been deeply affected by colonialism, segregation, and racism. While the same can be said for other countries, South Africa’s case is unique. I could really go on about this subject, but I believe that is best saved for another blog!

I’d like to end this blog on a light note by listing some goals I would like to achieve while I am here. These goals include:

  • Great White Shark Diving
  • Go on a Safari
  • Wine Tasting (Cape Town is big on wine!)
  • Robben Island
  • Hike up Lion’s Head
  • Try a Gatsby Sandwich (Signature South African sandwich)
  • Try Braai (South African BBQ)
  • Walk through a township

By the way, my name is Michelle Thangtamsatid. I’m studying abroad with the Global Seminars program offered by my school, UC San Diego. I’m 26, from Los Angeles, California and this is my first time setting foot in the beautiful continent of Africa! Thanks so much for taking the time to read some of my thoughts so far!


Until next time…




Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Michelle in South Africa

I’m Back and I’m Better

When I first saw the chart titled “Stages of Culture Shock and Reverse Culture Shock” in the Gilman blog-writing syllabus, I have to admit that I was more than a little skeptical. Before my study abroad orientation, I had never even heard of reverse culture shock. My program was only for six weeks, not six months. I thought that it wouldn’t be enough time to change me in a significant way. I thought I already knew myself and what I liked. After all, I grew up in Pittsburgh around people of all backgrounds. I came to East Africa with the assumption that my background as a black woman would enable me to escape culture shock. I went to Tanzania with what I thought was a mind open to learning, but the reality is that Eastern Africa expanded my horizons more than I could have ever imagined.

Culture shock and reverse cultureshock graph


Even though I was learning in a completely new and fascinating way, I found myself becoming fiercely homesick during my program. In the second week, I was already ready to go home. I missed cheese, clear English, and talking to my family and friends whenever I wanted to. I began to count down the days until I would be on the plane back to the States. I found myself stuck in stage 3 of culture shock: depressed, homesick, and hopeless. But by the end of the third week, I wasn’t thinking about coming back home. I was thinking about my independent project, going hiking, and reading for class. I became so tied to my new reality that having one hour of internet access a day and taking cold showers quickly became a part of my normal daily routine. At some point, I adapted to Tanzania so much that I stopped noticing that I was in a developing country and started noticing the potential to keep in advancing sustainably.

At the start of the last week of studying abroad, I began to have a sinking feeling in my stomach every time I thought about returning home. I felt like there was more work that I needed to do before I could be satisfied with leaving. Leaving the Udzungwa Mountains Ecological Monitoring Center was like leaving the best summer camp I never got the chance to attend. I will never forget the phenomenal staff. Even with a language barrier, the amazing ladies that made up the kitchen staff managed to take care of us when we were sick, feed us three times a day, and teach the girls how to wear fabric like they did. The ecologists and field assistants in the National Park always had their doors open for questions. They would drop whatever they were working on to accompany us to villages or act as a translator when our Swahili failed us. Overall, I experienced and witnessed a genuine kindness and willingness to help other people, no matter what their race or nationality, that I want to pass on to whoever I can. The unparalleled work ethic and determination of the people (the women in particular) put my life and problems immediately in perspective. Never again will I complain about a class at Penn State after seeing a woman walk, talk on the phone, and breastfeed at the same time.


The view from my SanjayWaterfalls hiking trip

The view from my Sanjay Waterfalls hiking trip.

Our tourguide was roped into takiing a picture with me on top of the falls

Our tour guide was roped into taking a picture with me on top of the falls.


My goal is to make is to stage 9 on the reverse culture side of the graph: incorporating what I learned from my study abroad into my new life and career. I’m still adjusting to being back home in the States. For instance, I didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable in a room full of white people. I notice how much water I waste brushing my teeth or how Instagram doesn’t have the same appeal that it used to. Fall semester at Penn State should be interesting! I know I will eventually get used to my normal life, but the experiences I had are still fresh in my mind. The lessons I’ve learned are not leaving me anytime soon, so I might as well learn from them and apply them to the future. Now when I look for internships, an international component is a must. Applying conservation in a developing country came with a whole other set of complex challenges. I’m inspired to see how other issues fit in as well. For example, what is the role of environmental justice in a second or third world country? Studying abroad came with the realization that I can weave multiple issues together into a cohesive career. Whether I end up in policy or in a lab, I will always be grateful for my experience in Tanzania for changing my life.


Me in Washington DC the weekendbefore I left for Tanzania

Me in Washington DC the weekend before I left for Tanzania

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Janelle in Tanzania

Travel Tips from a Black Student Studying Abroad in Tanzania

As a black student studying abroad in Tanzania, I find that I have different experiences than my white peers. I assumed that I would be significantly more comfortable in my skin than I was in the States. In a reality dominated by Caucasians, I would finally be in an area with majority black people. The government, the institutions, the culture would all be defined by black people. In my first few days in Tanzania, I realized that that African culture is more diverse and complex than I ever could have imagined. As a result of my experiences, I thought it might be helpful to put together some tips for other black students who may consider studying in East Africa. However, most of these tips can easily apply to other students who aren’t black. These are in no way meant to be a reflection of what every black student will experience, but they might be helpful to consider before studying abroad.

Tips for being an African American student in East Africa

1. Do not assume you will feel at home just because you are in the “motherland.” I thought since I read some books and took some classes about black history that I would step off the plane and immediately get hit with the sensation of being home. In reality, I probably had to adjust to the culture change just as much as my white counterparts did. It never dawned on me that among height and skin color differences, my ancestors most likely came from West Africa. Many black Americans fall into the trap of romanticizing Africa without taking the time to actually learn about its history. I found that I had grouped Africa into one big unit and remained blissfully unaware of the hundreds (maybe thousands) of its various cultures. Tanzania alone has over 100 different ethnic groups. The point is, you might not feel as comfortable as you expected. You might even have a sense of privilege because you were born in the States and not in Africa.  Keeping a journal was a great way to work through my feelings. It might not be a requirement for your program, but I highly recommend using one. Studying abroad throws so many experiences at you that you might not remember the little things if you don’t write them down. I looked back at what I wrote even two weeks ago and was surprised at how much more I’ve learned.

2. Read up on some African history before you leave the States. This tip is an extension of tip #1. It’s not enough to recognize that Africa is a broad and diverse continent; learn about the cultures specific to the place you are going to. At the least, learn the appropriate greetings before you arrive in a new country. I made the mistake of saying “Mumbo” to an elderly man. For those not familiar with Kiswahili, “Mumbo” is the equivalent of “Hey” or “What’s up.” I wondered why the man gave me a very disapproving look and didn’t acknowledge my greeting. It turns out I said the wrong greeting (which is considered disrespectful). If I had done my research, I would’ve known that “Shikamoo” is how you greet elders in Tanzania. This tip is important for every student studying abroad, but it is essential for black students in Africa. Many times, you will be the first African American that local people interact with. You want to make a good impression on people you meet because you represent all of us.

3. Look for similarities between the local culture and yours. As I said in an earlier post about food, I eat a lot of greens here. They remind me of the collard greens my grandmother occasionally cooks. And the beans and cornbread she loves to eat so much is a main staple in Eastern African cooking. As I continue my program, I notice similarities between Tanzanian people and the black people I know at home. It’s so interesting to see how certain widespread aspects of African culture influenced ours. You may read about heritage in a history book, but it is a completely different and humbling situation to experience it firsthand.  You don’t have to analyze every single thing, but pay attention to the little things you notice (and write them in your journal). You will be glad you did.


KODAK Digital Still Camera

A waterfall we hiked to in the Udzungwa Mountains.


4. Speak to as many people as you possibly can. In smaller towns and villages, everyone speaks to each other. If you walk past someone without acknowledging them, it is considered very rude.  This might not be the case in every situation, but still take the time to speak to people. This goes hand in hand with tips #2 and #3.  Besides appearing to care about local culture, speaking to a variety of people is a great way to learn more information about where you’re staying. Most of the people I’ve meant are very open to having conversations. They even try to teach me more Kiswahili when I don’t understand what they said.  It’s a great way to step outside of your comfort zone and get more out of your experience abroad.

5. Take a moment to appreciate where you are. I realize I have a great opportunity to study in an African Ecological Monitoring Center in a National Park. Not many people can say the same thing. The program is challenging, but I can look outside the window and see monkeys jumping through the trees. I can take a hike up a nearby mountain and see elephant footprints and their markings on the trees. Earlier this week I had the opportunity to go on a three day safari trip in Mikumi National Park. If you get stressed out, take a moment to look around. Remind yourself where you are.


An elephant in the middle ofthe road in Mikumi National Park

An elephant in the middle of the road in Mikumi National Park.


Here’s the last and most important tip: Enjoy yourself!

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Janelle in Tanzania

As I Wait For Lunch

Let me start off by saying that I love food. I don’t consider myself a picky eater. If I did, then I would not have been able to survive in Eastern Africa for more than two days. Since I arrived more than two weeks ago, I have tried food that I’ve never heard of before. I looked at my study abroad as an opportunity to expand my horizons and try as much local Tanzanian food as I could. I ate a fish with eyes in it for the first time (I still don’t know what type of fish it was) and loved it. Indian cuisine was also a first for me. The spices made my eyes water, but it was delicious. I have already developed a few new favorite foods.
While we were still in Dar es Salaam, we visited this restaurant next to the mall. I wanted to try something new, so I ordered a side dish called ugali. I had heard my professor talking about how much he liked it earlier. The waitress set down the ugali and some shredded chicken with greens in front of me. At that moment, I discovered one of my favorite foods. Ugali has the look of mashed potatoes, but it is has much more texture and character. It was absolutely amazing with the chicken. The only problem was how heavy it was. As I kept stuffing my face, the ugali expanded in my stomach. I thought my fellow students would have to roll me onto the bus. I still don’t know how I stayed awake through the afternoon lecture about Tanzania’s rich biodiversity.


Shredded chicken and ugali

Shredded chicken and ugali.


My absolute favorite food would have to be samosas. They are little balls of heaven that I get occasionally for breakfast. Beef is cooked with onions then wrapped in a type of dough and fried in oil. They taste like African tacos, if that makes sense. And I love tacos. I’m so addicted to somasas that I’m trying to find a way to bring some with me to Pennsylvania.
The best thing about the food in Tanzania is its natural taste. There is no extra processed sugar or salt in any of the dishes I’ve had. Everything is grown organically and made fresh. I think I was having sugar withdrawal for the first week of my program, but now I have more energy than I have in a long time. I still can’t get over how much better the fruit is here than in the States. And there’s some type of hot sauce with every meal. These sauces make Frank’s Red Hot taste like water, but they have so much flavor after you get over the heat. I could probably eat hot sauce as a meal.
Now that I’m in the Udzungwa National Park Ecological Monitoring Center, all of my meals are eaten onsite right across from the dormitory style housing. The only thing I like more than the food are the ladies who prepare it. They check up on the students if one of us isn’t feeling well. They teach us a few words in Kiswahili every day. And I could listen to them sing all day.

Breakfast is at 7:30 every morning. It usually consists of bread with jam or Nutella and coffee. Sometimes we get a hard boiled egg for some extra protein. There is usually some papaya, watermelon, or avocado to go with the bread and a smoothie to wash it down with. We have a vegetarian lunch at 1 pm consisting of rice or pasta, lentils, and greens. I find that I’m filled without meat, which I never thought would happen. Dinner is at 6:30 pm, and it is the highlight of my day. We eat fish or chicken, a starch, and more greens. I think I’ve had about 60 different types of greens at this point, but they’re all good. In fact, the greens remind me of the collards that my grandma occasionally makes. I sometimes think about how amazing is that some of African culture still exists in the black community of the United States today. I’m sure my grandma would like these greens too.


Grilled fish and chips at arestaurant on the coast of Dar es Salaam

Grilled fish and chips at a restaurant on the coast of Dar es Salaam.

The best part about all the food is that all the students and our two faculty members eat together at every meal. We make jokes, we have serious discussions, and sometimes we just enjoy each other’s company in silence. As a busy college student, most of my meals are junk food that I eat in a rush before I get to class. Very rarely will I sit down with someone else to share a healthy meal. It’s so nice to be able to sit with students that share the same experiences and interests as I do and just relax. With 9 credits in 6 weeks, the days can get pretty stressful at times.

This experience has inspired me to start making time to eat better when I get to school in the fall. I’m already thinking about making my boyfriend and friends eat with me more often. Food is an essential part of Tanzanian culture, and now it is a central part of mine.



Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Janelle in Tanzania