Dean's Newsletter

A newsletter from Dean Katherine S. Newman

Lessons from the Global Classroom

Last January, I spent three weeks in Cape Town, taking time away from my administrative duties to return to my field research for a book on the first generation to come of age in a democratic South Africa. Central to this period of the country’s history has been a vast increase in forced migration from war-torn regions of southern Africa. Migrants from Zimbabwe, Congo, and Somalia have come across the border in search of safety, only to encounter a South African economic landscape that is suffering, just as we are, from the bite of a devastating recession. Countries that accepted political refugees from the African National Congress during the anti-apartheid struggle are now seeing their most vulnerable citizens flee to South Africa, where the stress of economic downturn is creating a hostile reception.

Lanine, mother of five children, is one of my key subjects. A Congolese nurse living in Burundi, Lanine fled her adopted country when the civil war that erupted in the region threatened their safety. Her husband was stranded with sick relatives, so alone with her children, Lanine careened from one country to another, finally crossing the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa, exhausted, bewildered, and unable to speak any of the local languages. A hard six years later, Lanine is a successful trader in the craft market that serves the tourists in central Cape Town. Her life is a monument to perseverance.

Just outside of Cape Town, South Africa, Bliekkesdorp is a bleak housing settlement for refugees from neighboring countries.

Just outside of Cape Town, South Africa, Bliekkesdorp is a bleak housing settlement for refugees from neighboring countries.

To better understand the refugee world from which Lanine emerged, I decided to spend part of my time last January in Blikkiesdorp, a temporary camp 20 kilometers outside of Cape Town, where 1,500 refugees from Congo, Somalia, and Zimbabwe are stranded, waiting for permanent housing. Most of the children I met have been biding their time in Blikkiesdorp for more than two years now. Their homes are steel cabins, one “room” per family, sitting in the midst of a grey, dusty plain of gravel without a single tree or shrub. Refugee children surrounded me in the company of their teacher, Efua Prah, who has been part of my fieldwork team for some time. Efua is working on her doctorate in anthropology, studying the children of this camp. She has made a commitment to enlarge their horizons, to take their imaginations beyond the confines of this forsaken place. As the dust blew through our hair, into our eyes and ears, coating our clothes with a fine grit, she introduced the children to me as a visitor interested in their life stories.

My presence was a novelty for them, but the real learning was on my side. Spending time with Efua and her students was a profound experience of another South Africa, far from the glory of the World Cup, or even the dire poverty of Khayelitsha or Gugulethu, townships where my field team and I have been doing research for the better part of two years. In those communities there is deprivation but not this profound sense of abandonment. There is a lot of nothing in Blikkiesdorp, and the people who live there believe they have been forgotten. Even the name (which translates to “Tin Cup City”) is a mark of derision. It is a world not unlike the one from which, eventually, Lanine emerged and established herself at the epicenter of the Cape Town tourist trade.

There is no way to measure the impact that spending time in a place like Blikkiesdorp has on one’s understanding of the human toll of conflict. There is no substitute for a long day with Lanine and her children to recognize what global migration costs the innocent. It is my own “study abroad,” a momentary encounter with the extraordinary resilience and despair that surrounds so much of the world.

I was a senior scholar before these kinds of transformative experiences came my way. Today, students at Johns Hopkins seek out these life-changing encounters as part of their worldly education. We are as likely to find Hopkins students in universities in Nicaragua and Bolivia, Turkey and Jordan, Ghana and Senegal as we are to see them bent over their books in the HUT. We have five study-abroad programs sponsored by our own academic departments, mainly in Europe. Another 36 programs are approved by our faculty for Krieger School of Arts and Sciences students. A student who has a worthwhile idea outside of these institutional confines can submit it for vetting, and if approved, there is almost no limit to their opportunities abroad.

Peter Houlihan, class of 2012, living with a family of the Masai tribe in northern Tanzania.

Peter Houlihan, class of 2012, living with a family of the Masai tribe in northern Tanzania.

Students conduct independent research, volunteer in the communities where they are studying, work for local governments or NGOs, find internships, and – of course – study and then study some more. They return to us wiser, more cosmopolitan citizens of the world. Just ask Peter Houlihan, a rising senior who is planning a career as a scientist studying tropical ecology. He participated in the Ecuador and Galapagos intersession program in 2009 and the Tanzania program on wildlife conservation and political ecology in 2010. “When I graduate in the spring of next year,” Peter observed, “I will have spent 14 months out of my four years at Hopkins abroad. Living and working abroad has been the best way to prepare me for my career as a scientist studying tropical ecology, for which there is no better classroom than the field.”

What does this experience mean for Peter? He has learned how to write a grant proposal, complete a case study, survive harsh environments, and work as part of a team. Most of all, though, Peter has gained an invaluable understanding of people whose lives are as far from his own as Lanine’s is from mine. “From the Masai of Tanzania, or the Huarani of Ecuador, to the Dayaks of Borneo,” he explains, “traveling has most importantly enhanced my ability to work and communicate with people from all over the world.” I second the motion.

Sincerely,

Katherine S. Newman
James B. Knapp Dean