Name: Saznin Mehta (@JHU_Saznin)
Year: Class 0f 2012
Hometown: Alexandria, VA
Major: Public Health Studies
For one of my very first Hopkins Interactive blogs, written way back in the stone age that was my freshman year, I mentioned a major life aspiration of mine: to become Anthony Bourdain. The man travels, eats, and says snarky things on camera for a living. Naturally, I have a major case of life envy. But as one of my friends once put it, “What’s there to be jealous about? You do all those things anyway, just without the cameras.”Okay, true, I’ve traveled quite a lot and eaten quite a lot. And come to think of it, I can earn something from my travels Anthony Bourdain can’t (at least not anymore): college credit. So this summer, I studied abroad in South Africa for six weeks as part of a new Hopkins public health program. Needless to say, spending six weeks in a strange country with 13 strangers – while sounding a lot like Real World: Cape Town – was a learning experience in itself.
Our first stop: Soweto, South Africa’s largest township located right outside Johannesburg. We were intrepid young tourists by day – riding bicycles through the township, touring Nelson Mandela’s old house, perusing museums – and a motley crew bonding over a bonfire by night. Our first few days in the world-famous township served as a crash course in South Africa’s history of apartheid, which provided solid background for what we would be learning in class later. After Soweto, it was off to Kruger for a three day safari, which was as fun as it was cliché. We saw our fair share of giraffes and springbok, but finally hit the jackpot when we came upon a couple of lions cuddling by the side of the road. National Geographic material right there. Once our orientation period in Soweto and Kruger was over, we headed to the main attraction: Cape Town.
The way we conquered Cape Town would put most travel hosts to shame. I’m sure our little group hit up every notable restaurant, bar, and local attraction Cape Town had to offer. And when we weren’t stuffing our faces, checking out the nightlife, or partaking in pretentious tea times and wine tastings, we literally put our lives on the line. Some in our group went cage diving with sharks and hiked up Table Mountain, while I and four other friends drove seven hours to attempt one of the highest commercial bungee jumps in the world. Insert requisite apologies to our parents: sorry, but it just had to be done, and now you can brag about us to your friends!
When we weren’t out defying death, we were taking a great class on issues surrounding public health in South Africa and interning at health-based organizations in and around the city. As part of the class, my peers and I had the opportunity to help a small community-based organization in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township. My internship at Ubuntu Africa, a small non-profit that provides comprehensive care to HIV-positive children, was located in Khayelitsha as well. Three days out of the week, I’d be driven away from the beautiful mountainside campus of the University of Cape Town to an expanse of corrugated metal shacks and poverty in Khayelitsha.
My boss, Whitney Johnson, started the organization right out of graduation from Colorado College in 2006 and has been expanding the program’s reach ever since. Working there for six weeks gave me a look into the inner workings of a small non-profit, and having the opportunity to help them with projects related to their growth made for an awesome out-of-classroom learning experience. Children affected by HIV/AIDS face extreme levels discrimination and a severe lack of access to necessary resources, on top of the destructive health effects of their disease. The extreme levels of poverty in the township making living with such a devastating disease that much harder. Seeing as South Africa has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world, UBA certainly fulfills a critical need. Being able to witness firsthand the kinds of struggles HIV-positive kids face every day taught me more about public health than I could ever learn by sitting in a classroom.
The stark contrasts between the developed metropolis and its vastly poorer townships used to bother me, and having to switch between the two every day was extremely jarring. I found it hard to wrap my head around the fact that I could be eating at a fancy restaurant before having to spend six hours working in an impoverished township. The apparent disparities had me asking a lot of difficult, unanswerable questions.
But that’s the exciting thing about South Africa: it’s full of contradictions that are impossible to comprehend in just six weeks. I loved being immersed in country still in transition. Its recent recovery process from apartheid has been complicated by the scourge of HIV/AIDS, but after meeting so many hardworking, enterprising South Africans, I have no doubt that the country will live up to its potential within my generation.
My time in Cape Town played out much like an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Just like Tony, I ate my weight (even more, actually) in amazing food, took advantage of some amazing opportunities (seriously, nowhere else would I have drove seven hours through a foreign country just to jump off a bridge), veered off the beaten path to see those aspects of Cape Town no tourist would ever experience, and come out of it all with more questions than I had going in. Cue really introspective monologue present at the end of each episode.
At the end of the day, I gained a fresh new perspective, 13 new friends, experience at a great non-profit, and close to 10 pounds (but I was never able to master the three different clicks of the Xhosa language. Fail.) I know I’ll make it back some day, but I’m determined to do so with a camera crew to record yet another amazing experience for my loyal viewers at home. Watch your back, Bourdain.
For even more about Saznin’s experiences in South Africa, check out this JHU Gazette article: On the ground in South Africa.