“Oh my god, it’s just like India!”
As much as I wanted to resist the usual comparisons, it was hard not to chime in. The simplistic airport in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the slightly humid, warm, salty night air, and the dusty roads certainly felt similar for those of us who have been to India. Then again, there were people exclaiming that it reminded them of Mexico, Bangladesh or other less-developed-than-the-U.S.-fill-in-the-blank countries, so I suppose there’s not much going for the specifics of those comparisons.
This year, the Terrascope Mission 2017 group has arrived in South Africa for our spring break travels. As I’ve mentioned before, Terrascope is a freshman learning community at MIT, which focuses on self-directed learning and complex, global, interdisciplinary issues. When I was a freshman, Mission 2015 took a look at solving the world’s biodiversity crisis and traveled to Costa Rica. As a UTF (Undergraduate Teaching Fellow) last year with Mission 2016, the trip to the American Southwest tried to understand the physical context of mineral resource management and extraction. This year, again as a UTF, I’m accompanying the 2017’s to the Eastern Cape of South Africa to study water management and security, and even think about solutions to South Africa’s water and development problems.
In conjunction with Prof. Maarten de Wit from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), we have 7 days of jam-packed tours, sessions, discussions, with some time to explore. Our first stop in Port Elizabeth has taken us to a beautiful lodge that sits, quite literally, by the ocean and on the first day we began our introduction to the area’s water context through the landscape, people, and most memorably, animals.
We all knew before even coming on the trip that we would be seeing elephants at the Addo Elephant National Park. Zoologist Prof. Graham Kerley showed us around through the park and told us that the park began in 1931 with only 11 elephants and no adult bulls. All of the elephants in that area had either been poached for ivory or shot for “misbehaving.” It was, as he said, a recipe for inbreeding and genetic drift.
The elephants’ problems were far from over once the park was established, though. There were no fences when the park began so elephants couldn’t be contained, and skirmishes with the neighboring farmers resulted in more deaths. Elephant populations also need massive quantities of water–100 liters per elephant per day– and vast areas of vegetation which require their own source of water. From above the water hole where the elephants congregated, we could see a gradient of elephant impact to the vegetation, with only weak brushes Over time, the various measures implemented have created a population now of about 450 elephants in the park.
We saw elephants twice on our drive through the park, both times within 10-35 feet of the bus– there were the babies scampering after the warthogs, the waddling young adults rolling in mud, and the adults herding the group majestically forward. It was hard to believe that these creatures who look like they are always smiling could be vicious, but they were wild animals, and we were not allowed to get off the bus. Tortoises, warthogs, vervet monkeys and kudu (animals that look a bit like gazelles but with curled horns) were also animals I got to check off on the list from our park map, though unfortunately, no lions or rhinos.
We followed the road through the park past the Golden Dunes, tracking the mouth of the river until it reached the sea. Claps of thunder and lightning suddenly filled the sky, and we were caught in a beautiful rainstorm. As you can probably imagine, the bus ride home, full of dripping, sandy people, smelled anything but great.
The context of what we had received so far was what any tourist could probably do if they were to come to South Africa. What we then got was an inspiring talk by a man who has grown up in the Eastern Cape and who is “colored,” a term used here to mean a person of a mixed race who can speak Afrikaans. The talk truly framed most of the historical, complicated and contradictory questions that governed this area’s history—the pre- and post- apartheid eras, the disappearance of the indigenous population, and the broad lens with which we need to consider our approach to complex problems like the ones we were looking at this week.
The day ended with a traditional barbecue called braai (or lasagna for the vegetarians like me) with buttery potatoes to die for. And a dessert that elicits universal excitement: ice cream!