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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Undivided Countries

If someone comes up to you and says “South Africa,” what do you picture? Wild animals, mosquito nets draped in hungry insects, danger and poverty? These are predominantly misconceptions. First, South Africa is a country, not a location. In fact, the capital city of Cape Town is much like Boston. Second, there are students in South Africa. They struggle with exams, find love, fall out of love, and think homework is a pain in the ass — just like us.

Ten students and two professors from UMass Boston went to Cape Town, South Africa to learn to be HIV peer educators with students from the University of the Western Cape (UWC). When our two groups finally met, I was nervous. However, the initial awkwardness quickly dissipated with a series of icebreakers. Yes, icebreakers are lame, but these were effective. For example, I had to sprint to an overturned plastic bucket and pluck a random object from underneath. Whatever my hands touched and pulled from the darkness I had to eat. I picked half an onion.

I must say I did well, and despite my awful breath, my team of strangers cheered me on and welcomed me as a friend within the first 20 minutes of our retreat. This friend-making was crucial because of the seriousness of the topic we were dealing with: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

While HIV is an acronym known to many of us here in the US, it is a distant danger to most of us. Perhaps the greatest difference between the UMass students and the UWC students is the percentage of people in each group directly affected by HIV. For many in the US, the specter of HIV is removed and in the past.

Roberta Villani, one of the UMass students, said, “We live in an area where [widespread AIDS related mortality] happened a long time ago, in the ‘80s […] We talk about statistics, we talk about prevention, and people who are battling HIV… and then to come see this person who is living with HIV, it sort of took me back.”

HIV in South Africa is an entirely different story. When asked, “Have you been tested for HIV?” all but two of the 25 or so UWC students there raised their hands.

Ultimately, for me, the retreat reminded me of one simple fact: people everywhere are basically the same. They are generally good-natured, willing to welcome someone who couldn’t yet raise his hand because he hadn’t worked up the courage to get tested.

My classmates and I took a lot away from our journey. I asked my peer Hannah Carrillo what she remembered from the retreat. Carrillo recounted an instance when she knew a small fact about the area where one of the UWC students lived. Reacting to this seemingly small bit of knowledge, “[The UWC student] was just smiling and beaming and […] she was so happy that I knew this one title from this place she was from,” recalled Carrillo.

The contrast between what the UWC students knew about us and what we knew about them was painfully stark. “They knew about our whole political system, they knew about Boston […] that was really profound. [The UWC students] really didn’t expect us to know anything at all, they were so happy when we knew a tiny thing,” Carrillo added.

Curious to know what kind of impact we had on our gracious hosts, I contacted a few of them to ask what they thought of us Americans.

The same woman who was so happy when Carrillo knew something about her hometown, Palesa Mohale, wrote, “Going to camp I didn’t know what to expect (Americans are presumed to be somewhat ignorant to the African culture). However, during our time together I got to know an amazing group of people and, regardless of where we all came from, I learned that we all have something in common. [… ] Although some Americans are ignorant [of] African culture I’m happy to report that the 12 individuals I met don’t fall under that category.” Evidently, the little that we did know about their culture had a profound impact.

Lavey Mukonza, another student, replied, “[J]ust your presence made things different – in a good way. UMass students, you rock, you guys are really important to me because you own a share of my life.”

Even though over 7,500 miles divide us, even though it’s 90 degrees in Cape Town right now, even though they’re seven hours ahead of us, we’re companion students — and friends.

About the Contributor
Paul Driskill served as the following positions for The Mass Media the following years: Managing Editor: Spring 2012; 2012-2013 News editor : 2010-2011 Opinions: Fall 2011