Natalie Trono learns through her experiences in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Semester Abroad in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Thursday March 06, 2014

This past academic semester I took time off from traditional high school to attend The Traveling School, based in Bozeman, Montana. Over the course of four months I traveled to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia with my fifteen female classmates and four teachers. 

During my semester abroad in Southwestern Africa, the rushed and chaotic market was a typical scene. Racing around between classes I searched for the perfect souvenir. The material objects were memories of where I traveled and what I had done. However, this was the extent of meaning I could draw from them. With a curriculum based on experiential learning, I soon realized my education did not have to end with a designated assignment or lesson. It allowed me to look past the material items and see the market as a place to make genuine connections with people.

Motivated by my realization and intrigued by innovative paintings constructed with small newspaper scraps, I wandered over to a local artist’s table in Swakopmund, Namibia. “Maskati,” I said, meaning good afternoon in Shona. Somewhere between my greeting and a conversation about politics, the artist Zin, became my teacher. The more I got to know Zin, the less I found myself wondering what souvenir I wanted to buy.

 “Most of our differences are based on ignorance,” Zin stated, “When you get to know someone you realize you are more alike.” 

Zin was well aware of the many misconceptions and stereotypes associated with Africa. Like many tourists, I displayed a perspective skewed by media and my own expectations. To learn about Africa you don’t have to pay for a guided tour through the “living museum” of the indigenous San people or snap a photo of a “traditionally dressed” Herero woman. “There are a lot of things that you can learn without us putting on a show,” Zin explained. 

Similar to a rural village, a side alley market holds a unique culture and story. As people barter and buy they often forget the potential knowledge they could gain. Not only did Zin have a story, but so did his art. 

As a political and economic refugee of Zimbabwe, he channeled some of Africa’s most controversial topics. Many of the newspaper scraps spelled out “Aids” and “Women’s Education”. Buying a painting came with a political conversation and insight into a different point of view. Both Zin’s ideals and art represented more than the purchase of a material item. It was rich in history and extremely complex, just like Africa. 

Gaining knowledge from as many possible sources and keeping an open mind is critical for a true understanding of a culture, a country, or even a market. Past the inanimate objects of the market there are faces, stories and opinions to be heard, connections to be made, and knowledge to be gained.

Experiential learning taught me how to learn in the absence of a text book or the internet. When you learn through experience you gain new perspectives. Dates, details, and facts become relevant as information is relayed through real life anecdotes. Experiential learning goes beyond school. It serves as a model of reading the world. As I enter the second half of my junior year at South Burlington High School I intend to take these lessons with me.

SOURCE: Natalie Trono SBHS, class of 2015