UM-Flint School of Education and Human Services Interim Dean Bob Barnett, Ph.D., as well as other UM-Flint leaders and students, are in South Africa for a conference on education technology. Over the next several days, they will be writing about the topics discussed at the conference and their experiences in South Africa. This post is by Chris Waters, Associate Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies.
It is a great privilege to be part of the 1st Annual Innovation in Education Durban Summit. The energy, compassion, brain-power, and creativity happening over these days is both impressive and profound. But others on this blog have spoken to that. I want to share some of my impressions and observations of this city in South Africa, though. I have never been to this country before. Heck, I have not been south of the equator before! I am so very glad I came and I can't wait to come back to this fabulous land and the awesome people I have met who live in South Africa.
It is spring here and the city and countryside are awash with lush greenery and flowers are everywhere. Positively everything seems to bloom. Durban appears to be to South Africa what Florida is to the United States. Durban sits on the Indian Ocean and has tourists, beaches, and the hotels and restaurants you would expect in such a place. The wonderful South African friends I have made tell me that during their summer (December-February) this city is hot, humid, and packed with visitors. During winter (June-September), the temperature never falls below the mid 40s and is generally much warmer. The Indian Ocean is warm and inviting all year round and the people are uniformly friendly, it seems. Today I escaped from the gathering for a couple of hours and actually put my feet in the Indian Ocean. That was great! I was also given a tour of the city and surrounding areas and want to talk about that, too.
Durban, and much of South Africa as I understand, is a city of sharp contrasts and still, in lots of ways, reeling from Apartheid, though it ended nearly 20 years ago. Shortly before its end, native South Africans came to the urban areas in droves, looking to better their lives. Many of these people settled in shanty-towns, most of which are connected shacks built randomly and poorly from salvaged materials. Most are unsanctioned and people live there jam packed and usually without electricity or water. They are unbelievable and often spread next to very nice housing. The people are so poor and unemployment is very high. My guide today thought maybe 60% but was not sure of the current percentage. Government support is minimal. The challenges educating the many children are just immense.
Then there are the wealthy. There is opulent wealth evidenced by beautiful mansions protected by walls, bars, wire, and companies like ADT. ADT protects both the absolutely beautiful guest house in which we are staying and my own home in Brighton, Michigan. This seems a bit ironic! Crime is a problem, especially theft. That is not much of a surprise, though, considering the extreme contrast between the haves and have-nots and the grinding poverty of so many people. Anyhow, I am really glad to be here for a couple of more days. My brain and my eyes and my heart are in overdrive. I also hear it is very cold in Michigan, and I am not looking forward to re-bundling myself for that kind of winter. It has been between 60 and 80 degrees here! Also, when I come again I hope I can stay longer than a week and see more of this fascinating country. Maybe I'll go to Capetown next!