The Cradle of Humankind

As we left the hustle and bustle of the big cities, we entered into the area known as “The Cradle of Humankind” thanks to its rich archeological history.

DSC_2252This was probably my favorite part of the country. It is a wide open countryside with gently rolling hills and a mild climate. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to take deep breaths and be still. The fresh air settles over you like a cloak and you simply feel at peace.

Our first stop in the Cradle of Humankind was the Sterkfontein Caves.

Students listening to our tour guide.
Students listening to our tour guide.

The caves are a current archeological dig site, so there were restricted areas that we couldn’t go into. The tour, about 30 minutes long, took us down into the cave system.

Descending into the abyss.
Descending into the abyss.
Showing us an active dig area, which was restricted access.
Showing us an active dig area, which was restricted access.

There were some portions of the cave system that you literally had to crawl through. This was not an event for the claustrophobic!

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Also, if you aren’t very flexible (or an accomplished duck walker), you may need to actually crawl through the openings like some of my students did. You can tell by one of my students’ hands (on the left) that he spent a lot more time on all fours than I did. I thank yoga for that.

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As you exit the cave system, you come across a bust of Phillip Tobias, one of the most respected South Africa academics, who did extensive research in this region. It is a local tradition that visitors to the cave either rub the bust’s nose (for luck) or hand (for wisdom). As you can see, I chose to go for wisdom although clearly his nose is well worn.

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On the walk back to the main vistor’s center, there are lovely views of the surrounding area.

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DSC_2303From the caves, we went a short distance to Maropeng, the official visitors center for the Cradle of Humankind with a host of interactive displays discussing archeological history.

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The back of Maropeng
The back of Maropeng

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On the way out of the exhibition area, which was particularly a fascinating experience for my students who are also minoring in forensic anthropology, there was a cast of Nelson Mandela’s handprints. I couldn’t resist seeing how my hands “measured up.”

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From there, we drove the scenic route to Lesedi Cultural Village.

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From their website, here is a description of Lesedi Cultural Village.

Lesedi Cultural Village was established in 1993. The vision – to provide an authentic showcase of the traditional cultures of some of the well known African tribes, who have their home in South Africa. Representatives of these tribes facilitated the design of the cultural villages to ensure an historically representative portrayal of the cultures, highlighting aspects of the traditional way of life. Members of these historic communities live at Lesedi and continue to breathe life into their fascinating cultures.

As soon as you walk through the gates, you are treated to traditional African music. Don’t get me know, it’s absolutely a touristy attraction, but it was still very fascinating.

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There were craftsmen on hand selling their wares (and creating them in plain view).

DSC_2307Once our guided tour started, we were taken to a theater of sorts and shown a film about the history of the tribes in South Africa.

DSC_2310From there, we began our walk around the village.

A Zulu "look out" keeping track of the coming and goings of visitors.
A Zulu “look out” keeping track of the coming and goings of visitors.
A married tribal woman weaving a straw mat (with our tour guide standing next to her).
A married tribal woman weaving a straw mat (with our tour guide standing next to her).
Cows! It is a working village and as such, they have their own livestock to tend.
Cows! It is a working village and as such, they have their own livestock to tend.

At the end of our tour (which was in actuality about 2 hours long), we were brought into a meeting hall of sorts and shown traditional tribal dances.

DSC_2318It was also a show that invited audience participation. One of my students engaged in a stick fighting demonstration…

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and another one learned a tribal dance.

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After that we enjoyed a seriously delicious buffet of African cuisine and then we left after dark to head to our accommodations for the night.

DSC_2332I can say with absolutely certainty that when I return to South Africa, the Cradle of Humankind will be at the top of my destinations. What a simply beautiful part of the world.

 

 

 

 

Lexi Is Two.

Our sweet, darling precocious, temperamental little girl is two. Two?! How? What?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those moms who savor every second of babyhood and weep at its departure. I’m not judging those lovely mothers – I’m just not one of them.

If you’ve been reading this little blog for awhile, you know that with Parker, I declared each passing year my favorite. I love watching my kids grow and learn. When they start to communicate and we can share facts, trivia, geography…it fills my soul with glee. It probably has something to do with the fact that I chose to be a college professor and not a pre-school teacher. I just do better with them when they’re older. Perhaps I’m more in my teaching element? I’m not sure, so while I’m thrilled that Lexi is another year older, I still can’t believe that we’re already at two.

Ah, two. I hear that it’s the age of the tantrum. The era of aggressive independence. Since we’ve been living in that place of willful insanity with our little vixen since about the age of 15 months, I feel like we’re well prepared for what’s to come over the next year. What’s amazing is the evolution that her little personality has gone through.

She started out as the calmest baby.

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Well, she was clearly agitated in the first few minutes after her birth, but after she settled down, she was such a joy. Even with the sleepless nights, round the clock nursing and teething pains, little Miss Lexi was fairly easy as far as babies went. At least I think she was easy – mother nature has a funny way of giving you parental amnesia with regard to the bad stuff.

Then, before we knew it, our little girl turned one.

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She was walking and talking…then running and sassing. With each passing day after that first birthday, Lexi became more her own person and less an extension of me. As we approached her second birthday, it was quite clear that she knew what she wanted and when she wanted it. Interestingly, the last year has been a total blur. I think it’s because it was just so dang busy for us all. Trying to juggle having her home while working; buying a new house and moving;… let’s just say that I’m happy we all survived this past year with at least some of our sanity intact.

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And so here we are. In the land of ballerinas and fairies. I’m trying to withhold both my judgement of these things and my own selfish wish that she would steer clear of all things pink and princess-like. My parental pledge is to support exactly who my kids are, so if that means that Lexi wants tutus and ballet slippers, so be it. I’m not sure what the age of two will bring, but I do know this – wherever our little Lexi leads, we will follow. In Parker’s words, she’s the boss of us all.

Jo’burg! Constitution Hill

On our second full day in South Africa, we headed directly into the heart of Johannesburg (or Jo’burg as it’s called by the locals). Our first stop was Constitution Hill, the site of both the new Constitutional Court and the Old Fort Prison Complex. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but suffice it to say that I was blown away by the visit. In fact, I think I’d rank it as one of my top 3 favorite places that we visited during our trip. I am, indeed, a prison junkie. So long as I don’t end up inside the walls for a…longer visit, I’m okay with having that status.

As you enter Constitution Hill, one of the first sights that greets you is a set of freestanding staircases. These staircases, which formerly lead to the awaiting-trial block, were preserved as a reminder for the price of conflict….and of freedom.

These encased stairwells used to belong to the awaiting-trial block of the Old Fort Prison complex.
These encased stairwells used to belong to the awaiting-trial block of the Old Fort Prison complex.

Let me begin by saying that our tour guide was fantastic (that’s him in the striped shirt below). He was extremely knowledgeable and his tour was very thorough. We began our visit by touring the former women’s section of the prison.

Entering the old women's section of the prison.
Entering the women’s section of the prison.

The history of South Africa is a complicated one. This prison complex housed everyone from a serial killer (I’ll show you her picture later) to political prisoners (Mandela was awaiting trial here) to regular black citizens who were unfortunate enough to be caught violating the segregation laws of Apartheid.

Standing in the courtyard where the women waited upon sentencing.
Standing in the courtyard where the women waited upon entering the facility.
Outside of the solitary confinement wing.
Outside of the solitary confinement wing.
The students in the solitary confinement cells.
The students in the solitary confinement cells.
Sitting in a solitary confinement cell. Behind me is a display of a prisoners uniform.
Sitting in a solitary confinement cell. Behind me is a display of a prisoners uniform.

I want to point out that while we are smiling in the picture below (mainly because I was trying to figure out how to look unobtrusive, but only ended up looking like I needed to use the facilities), we were all well aware of the suffering that took place in this facility. Sadness permeates the entire building.

All of us in a cell to show the size. Just ignore my awkward squatting maneuver.
All of us in a cell to show the size. Just ignore my awkward squatting maneuver.
Church services were held outside - the only bit of sunshine the inmates enjoyed was during this time.
Church services were held outside – the only bit of sunshine the inmates enjoyed was during this time.
The prisons resident serial killer...and ghost?!
The prison’s resident serial killer…and ghost?!

After completing our tour of the women’s side, we headed over to the older part of the prison, or Number Four. In the open air shelter that serves as the dining hall (pictured below), inmates had to eat their food while sitting on the floor and facing forward. What this meant was that they were forced to face the makeshift latrines set up in the same area. With no proper separation between bathrooms and dining, this was meant to humiliate those who had to use the facilities while subjecting the diners to the sights and smells of the bathrooms.

I think this shocked my mother the most during our visit, but truth be told, today’s prisons (at least in the States) still have an utter lack of privacy that would shock most civilians.

The dining area...and latrines of Number Four.
The dining area…and latrines of Number Four.
The cells of Number Four.
The cells of Number Four.
I went inside and closed the door - it was utter darkness.
I went inside and closed the door – it was utter darkness.
My mom and I with a statue of Ghandi - he was imprisoned in this facility in the early 1900s.
My mom and I with a statue of Ghandi – he was imprisoned in this facility in the early 1900s.
Ghandi's words are displayed in an exhibit dedicated to him inside the prison.
Ghandi’s words are displayed in an exhibit dedicated to him inside the prison.

As we contemplated the pains and sorrows of imprisonment, we next headed over to the newly created Constitutional Court – South Africa’s version of the Supreme Court. The building is so incredibly steeped in symbolism that literally every brick has significance. They had to demolish part of the prison complex to make room for the Court, so they used the old prison bricks to build the facility.

The huge beaded flag seen in the picture below was handmade by tribal women and looking out the windows to the right, you can see one of the preserved awaiting-trial block stairwells. The many windows in the building are meant to convey openness and honesty. So much of South Africa’s struggles were done so in darkness and secrecy and so this Court operates in plain view, open to the public.

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Literally ever design decision has significance and while the building was born out of sorrow, you can’t help but feel uplifted and hopeful for the future. It is a beautiful facility and I think we were all quite amazed by the level of thought that went into it.

 

Standing behind the Justices' chairs in the Constitutional Court.
Standing behind the Justices’ chairs in the Constitutional Court.

For students of justice and the law, the visit to Constitution Hill was such an amazing journey. In the next post, I’ll detail our visit to Soweto and the Apartheid museum.

Visiting Pretoria

Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, was the first stop of our whirlwind South Africa tour. We were staying in the Brooklyn area of Pretoria, so most of our stops this day were relatively close to the guest house. Our trusty driver, Jimmy, was there to pick us up around 10am (I didn’t want to push the jet lagged students too much on this first day) and we were off to our first stop – a prison museum!

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Well, we thought this would be our first stop. My guide book said that the museum was open Tuesday through Saturday from 9-3pm. It turns out that the only person who has the key to the museum was out of town for a long vacation. As our driver said, “Welcome to South Africa!”

While we were waiting around to find out if they could let us in, I wanted to take some photos of the prison. The only problem was that I didn’t know if I was allowed to. Since I didn’t want my memory card to be confiscated by prison guards, I decided to take a test shot…of a feather…with the prison in the background.

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I then counted to thirty and, in the absence of angry prison guards, I took a photo for real.

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We were pretty bummed that we couldn’t get into the facility, but it was still a neat experience going through a prison checkpoint. As a bonus, we did get to see some inmates working in the trench on our way out of the facility.

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It’s probably weird that we were thrilled to see inmates, but as criminal justice folks, we’re fascinated by the different cultures of control in various countries. Once of these years, I’ll plan a “famous prisons around the world” tour. Sounds like fun, right?

After our failed prison visit, we were off to Church Square, the historic center of the city of Pretoria. Church Square had two notable features, the first of which is the statue of Paul Kruger, former president of the South African Republic.

Walking into Church Square with the Kruger statue right in the center.
Walking into Church Square with the Kruger statue right in the center.

Fun fact: When the idea of a statue was proposed to Kruger and his wife, it is said that they thought it was an excessive and unnecessary tribute. When the creators of the statue insisted on creating it, Kruger’s wife requested that his hat be made into a bird bath so that at least it was be somewhat functional and not purely decorative.

Paul Kruger's bird bath hat.
Paul Kruger’s bird bath hat.

Also located on Church Square is the Palace of Justice building. From its website, “The Palace of Justice was the scene of arguably the most famous political trial in South Africa’s history, the Rivonia Trial. During this trial, Nelson Mandela and a number of other ANC terrorists were charged with treason, found guilty and subsequently incarcerated.”

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From Church Square, we headed over to the impressive Union Buildings.

All the gang posing in front of the Union Buildings
All the gang posing in front of the Union Buildings

Here’s a description from their website, “The Union Buildings form the official seat of the South African government and also house the offices of the President of South Africa. The grand Union buildings sit on Meintjies Kop and overlook the city of Pretoria.

View of Pretoria
View of Pretoria

The Union Buildings were built from light sandstone and were designed by the architect Sir Herbert Baker in the English monumental style. The Buildings are over 275 m long and boast a semi-circular shape, with the two wings at the sides. This serves to represent the union of a formerly divided people. The east and west wings represent two languages, namely English and Afrikaans.

Using the sandstone arches as a photo op
Using the sandstone arches as a photo op

From the Union Buildings (are you tired yet?)  we headed to our last stop of the day – The Voortrekker Monument. In a nutshell, the Dutch originally settled in Cape Town. Not long thereafter, the British swooped in and took control of Cape Town. Not wanting to live beneath British rule, the Dutch embarked upon the great trek into the African interior (these were the voortrekkers) and they finally settled in what is now Pretoria. It was a trip laden with strive, skirmishes (lead primarily by Shaka Zulu – nicknamed the ‘Black Napoleon’), but at last, they were victorious. Please forgive me if I got any of that wrong – it was a 3 hour tour of the monument, but that was the gist of the it.

Our group waiting for our tour (with the Monument behind them).
Our group waiting for our tour (with the Monument behind them).

Our tour guide was a very impassioned Afrikaner. You could tell that the history of her people was very personal to her. I’m glad the students got to hear from her. It was very informative.

View from the top of the Voortrekker Monument.
View from the top of the Voortrekker Monument.
Little 'ol me at the top of the monument.
Little ‘ol me at the top of the monument.

Funny story – as we were leaving in the minibus, my mom said, “Look, they have a statue of an animal outside.” As we all stared at it, it moved. We screamed. And then we started snapping pictures like mad. Our tour guide probably thought we were completely nuts!

Pay no attention to me...I'm just a statue.
Pay no attention to me…I’m just a statue.

 

Dang it, they're onto me. I better get out of here.
Dang it, they’re onto me. I better get out of here.

After that we ate, we slept, and we were excited to see Johannesburg the next day…

 

A Journey To South Africa

On Monday, I returned from 12 glorious days to South Africa. It was, without a doubt, a dream come true. You see, in my “other” life (my professional one, that is), I study conflict. Class conflict, racial/ethnic conflict…if there is inequality present, it’s on my research radar. So you can imagine my fascination with a country as complex and diverse as South Africa. The history of that country is intense. It’s raw. It’s as varied as the beautiful landscape.

When I was offered the chance to plan a travel course for my students, it’s obvious what was on the top of my list. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – being a professor is the best job in the world. Thankfully, I found 10 students crazy and adventurous enough to trust me and follow me halfway around the world. Over the next week or so, I’m going to share those adventures with you. So grab a coffee and settle in because I have some stories to tell.

Happy students on the flight
Happy students on the flight

We departed the Atlanta airport at 7:30pm. My students were already groaning about the 15 hour flight, but you could tell that it was just a mask for their bubbling excitement. And me? Well, a 15 hour plane ride without children was the closest thing to a true vacation I’ve had in years! I settled into my seat and started planning the movies I was going to watch, the book I was going to read and the snacks I was going to eat. Seriously, I was in heaven.

With the exception of some crazy turbulence, the flight was great. I watched 4 (!!) movies, took a couple of 2 hour naps and read about 200 pages of a book that I’d been saving just for that occasion. Considering that I normally have a child or two that I’m trying to balance in my lap on the flight, I landed feeling rested and refreshed. Crazy, right?

We flew into O.R. Tambo International airport and breezed through passport control. The airport reminded me very much of the Miami airport – big, modern, busy. At the airport, students exchanged money, we dealt with a lost piece of luggage (no biggie as it was resolved the next day) and we went looking for our driver.

I am not going to lie – this was my biggest concern of the entire trip. Since it was a university planned event, I had to pay for everything in advance and it was a nerve wracking experience to book someone based solely on online reviews and a couple of email exchanges. I went on faith that he would actually show up and I am thrilled to say that booking Jimmy Vlachos of DGV Transport was the absolute best decision of our trip. He not only exceeded our expectations, but he spoiled the kids rotten – more on that later.

They drive on the other side of the street with the steering on the right.
They drive on the other side of the street with the steering on the right.

After we met up with Jimmy, we loaded into the minibus (with an attached trailer for our luggage) and we drove the 40 minutes to Pretoria so that we could check into our guest house – the Brooklyn Guest House. The guest house was recommended to us by our friends at UNISA (The University of South Africa) and the accommodations were fabulous. The guest house was actually a series of small interconnected buildings surrounding a lush courtyard. The students were floored by how lovely and quaint it was and it definitely felt like a good omen for our trip. As a bonus, my friend Melanie (from UNISA) had left all of us an individualized welcome gift. The students were very impressed and loved the thoughtfulness of the gifts.

Here are some pictures from the Brooklyn Guest House.

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Front entrance
Front entrance
Front courtyard
Front courtyard

 

Interior sitting area
Interior sitting area
Dining area - you've got to love bed and breakfasts!
Dining area – you’ve got to love bed and breakfasts!
Looking at the main building from the interior courtyard
Looking at the main building from the interior courtyard
A lovely statue in the courtyard
A lovely statue in the courtyard
The rooms were connected by these private walking paths
The rooms were connected by these private walking paths
This was my room
This was my room
Looking out from my room
Looking out from my room

We piled back in the minibus and we went to a nearby shopping mall to grab some dinner. After we had eaten, we returned to the guest house to get a much needed rest. Our schedule was a busy one and the following morning, we were scheduled to tour some of Pretoria’s sites.

To be continued…