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The Alumni of the Month for November are Hannah Rafkin and Meg Robbins, CIEE Study Abroad alumni and recent Bowdoin College graduates who studied in Cape Town, South Africa in 2015. After an amazing experience abroad, the two friends fantasized about returning to Cape Town in a meaningful way. Two years later, they are back in South Africa, working on a documentary about the stand-up comedy scene and how it’s bringing new means of expression for speakers of lesser-known languages in the country. We interviewed them to learn more about their exciting documentary and how study abroad inspired the project:
What attracted you to Cape Town?
We both attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine – a small liberal arts school of 1,800 students. The University of Cape Town (UCT) is a large research university in a major city, so we were excited to experience pretty much the polar opposite of what we were used to. We also both majored in English and wanted an opportunity to study non-European and non-American literature written in English. Beyond that, we were obviously attracted by the beauty of the city. The city/mountain/ocean combination definitely appealed to us. But that was an added benefit –we were definitely looking to broaden our perspectives and learn about the history and the current challenges South Africa faces. We wanted to have conversations that we wouldn’t ordinarily have at Bowdoin, or any other place for that matter.
What did learning abroad offer that you could not have received on campus?
The most powerful learning experiences we had in Cape Town were not in the classroom. We were lucky enough to experience the start of the #FeesMustFall campaign, a student-led protest that took South Africa’s universities by storm and has continued to evolve since. UCT students organized to demand their right to free education and to protest the treatment of black students and workers. This movement was literally unfolding at our doorstep. One of our resident advisors was arrested for peacefully protesting and spent the night in jail. Students held posters with slogans that their parents’ generation used in anti-apartheid protests. Our finals ended up getting delayed, but it was absolutely worth it to be immersed in this political moment. Witnessing political action and dialogue on such a high level was a unique experience that we knew we’d never get in Brunswick, Maine.
About the project:
As longtime comedy fans, we watched a lot of stand-up while we were in Cape Town. It was exciting to listen to comedians responding to current events and the historical context of South Africa. At this time, Trevor Noah was just starting to take over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, so that became a frequent point of connection between us and South Africans we’d meet. We had a lot of discussions with South Africans about the role of comedy in confronting political corruption and difficult histories, and these talks got us thinking more deeply about the comedy occurring in our own nation.
After returning to Bowdoin, we continued having these conversations, and we were constantly itching to get back to South Africa in a meaningful way. Halfway through our senior year, President Trump was inaugurated. As our country was delving into chaos, the comedy was getting very, very good. People were turning to SNL, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee. We were deep in thought about this relationship between politics and comedy and kept returning to discussions about how this relationship works in South Africa. One night during one of these talks, the idea for our documentary clicked. We stayed up until 5 a.m. planning and researching – we knew we were hitting on something important and wanted to make it happen.
As we continued to research and talk to South African comedians, we realized that vernacular comedy was the most fascinating genre growing in South African comedy. That’s what we decided to focus on. Vernacular comedy is doubly political – the material confronts messy politics while the medium of mother tongue languages is itself a political protest against the dominance of English and Afrikaans.
What is it like to experience South African comedy?
South African comedy is a huge umbrella term for a variety of performance styles, languages, venues, and themes. Running through them all is an intense energy between the performers and their audience – comedians often repeat to their audiences that comedy works with energy.
We’ve obviously been going to a lot of vernacular comedy shows, and we often get asked what it’s like to experience those gigs when we don’t speak any of the nine indigenous languages that make up the ‘vernacular’ genre. Of course it can be frustrating at times to not understand everything that’s said, but the combination of the palpable energy in the room during these shows and the way the comedians use other linguistic cues and body language – tone of voice, volume, facial expression, hand movements, an English phrase here and there – enables you to sort of pick up on parts of what is going on. You can feel when something is hilarious even if you don’t understand exactly what that is. And sometimes you realize you don’t need a word-for-word translation. We’ve been able to talk to a lot of comedians about their jokes in English. They won’t translate them for us word for word, but they’ll explain the premises. For instance, one of the comics in our film does a joke about his grandfather who still thinks South Africa is under apartheid. Knowing that bit of background and then seeing the audience react as the comedian performs is enough for us to feel like we experienced his set in a meaningful way.
How is comedy challenging the status quo?
In South Africa, stand up has only been a viable art form since the nation became a democracy in 1994 (with the exception of a few white men who performed under apartheid). Since then, it served as a change-maker, a conversation-starter, and a healing tool. In dealing with such a traumatic history and its continuing legacy (South Africa has been rated one of the most unequal nations in the world), laughter has been crucial.
There have been multiple waves of change in post-apartheid comedy. In the early years after 1994, black and coloured comedians began taking the stage for the first time. In more recent years, there has been a surge of female comedians. Now, vernacular comedy – where comics perform in their native language(s) – is the next frontier. This is disrupting the status quo for an obvious reason: the status quo has always been English and Afrikaans.
There are eleven national languages in South Africa, and the majority of its citizens speak some combination of the nine indigenous African languages (Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu). However, English and Afrikaans have remained dominant. It is no coincidence that these were the two official languages under apartheid. The nine indigenous languages are often relegated to the domestic sphere, and are not as well-represented in entertainment, commerce, and public life. But now, comedians are taking to the stage and speaking in their mother tongues as a form of empowerment. By putting these languages in the spotlight, they are amplifying the stories, perspectives and cultures of South Africa’s majority. Vernacular comedy is bringing value to mother tongue languages outside of the domestic sphere, and in turn is helping shape how the languages will be spoken in the future.
What impact has vernacular comedy had?
Though formalized stand-up comedy is a recent phenomenon, humor and storytelling are by no means new in South Africa. But now, vernacular comics are making a living doing this. They are performing sold out shows in front of massive audiences without having to conform to industry pressures to speak English or to discuss certain topics.
As evidenced by enormous fan followings, consistently sold-out events, and booming laughter, South African audiences are ready to see their linguistic diversity represented onstage. We’ve even observed this at ‘English’ comedy shows. A comic will go through the whole arc of a joke in English, and then suddenly crack the punchline in Zulu or Xhosa – the audience explodes.
Comedians and audience members alike often describe comedy as a healing tool – a powerful means of grappling with both personal and political trauma. Vernacular comedians in particular stress the importance of relating to their audiences; they seek to provide them with stories and jokes that are relevant to their daily lives. In a country that has historically shunned the life experiences of its majority, this laughter and connection is especially important.
Learn more about the documentary by watching the video below and visiting their Indiegogo page, where you have the chance to donate to this incredible project!
CIEE is proud to have a number of fantastic alumni at the 70th CIEE Annual Conference happening this week in Austin, Texas. The theme of this year's conference is "Born Digital: Embracing Technology to Enhance International Education." The study abroad community, including our alumni, are engaging in thought-provoking conversation around the topic this week to share ideas of how 21st century learning approaches can be incorporated into the innovative global programs and experiences abroad that prepare today's students for the future. These are the alumni that will be taking part in this year's conference as session presenters, attendees, and more:
“Turning to Technology: Emerging Access for Students with Disabilities”
Emma Verrill is originally from Yarmouth, Maine. After receiving a BA in Gender and Women’s Studies from Bowdoin College, she moved to Rennes, France, where she studied abroad, to teach English. Emma participated in the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) from 2010-2012. While living abroad, she worked for the local CIEE office evaluating the physical accessibility of the city and the program. Upon return to the United States, Emma moved to Austin, Texas here she obtained her Masters in Education from Texas State University. She is currently a second grade teacher at Trinity Episcopal School. Emma enjoys live music, warm weather, and the active/outdoor lifestyle Austin has to offer.
“Uncovering the Digital Author Abroad: Reflection, Representation, and Authority in Digital Learning Abroad”
Hannah Milkie is a student at Northern Michigan University, with a graphic design major and double minors in political science and philosophy. She studied abroad at the CIEE Global Institute in London the fall semester of 2016. She's always been extremely passionate about political activism but studying abroad in London helped her begin to take her creativity more seriously. She is unsure what the future holds for her but she hopes to keep developing her skills in design and other forms of media. Additionally, she hopes keep traveling and gaining new cultural experiences at any given opportunity.
“Once More with Feeling: Humanizing Technology in the Study Abroad Space”
Mandi Faulkner is a history major at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2015, she spent a year studying abroad at the University of Amsterdam. She wrote her honors thesis on women’s networks in seventeenth-century Amsterdam and hopes to return there soon.
CIEE Breakfast Presenter
Peiré Wilson is a junior at City College’s Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership, located in Harlem New York. He currently is studying Political Science with a minor in International Studies, with plans to combine his passions for arts, technology, advocacy and law into a career in Intellectual Property Law. He was a member of the first cohort of Frederick Douglass Global Fellows to study at the CIEE London Global Institute, where he studied intercultural communications and leadership. His experience in London was a transformative one – after meeting with the living descendant of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, Ms. Nettie Douglass, he felt a renewed charge to push against conformity and instead fight for unity.
CIEE Breakfast Presenter
Chinwendu “Chi-Chi” Maduegbunam is a junior attending Fayetteville State University. She is majoring in psychology and minoring in biology with hopes to attend medical school afterwards. Chi-Chi was named one of the first Frederick Douglass Global Fellows and plans to use what she has learned to continue on her path to being a successful leader in the medical field. She wants to positively impact the people around her by becoming a pediatrician or pediatric psychiatrist. Later on in her career, she wants to develop a charitable organization in Nigeria to give medicine, clothes, food, and other necessities to impoverished areas. By having this study abroad experience, it has spearheaded her vision and goals.
Mayra “Kahori” Vidana Sanchez a junior at University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), studying to become a math educator. There, she serves as a student ambassador of the university at various events and conferences, is a leader in the UTEP Honors Program, and works at the Contracts and Grants office at her institution. In these capacities on campus, Kahori highlights the importance of study abroad opportunities, by sharing her story from the summer of 2017 in Northern Ireland and at the CIEE Global Institute in London, as a member of the first cohort of the Frederick Douglas Global Fellowship. Kahori’s greatest determination is to give others the accessibility to educational excellence, because to her, education is essential for progress for a global society. Kahori’s personal narrative was featured in The Atlantic.
Katherine Tran is a senior and Distinguished Business Student in the College of Business at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She is currently studying Management with a concentration in International Management, and is also a first-generation college student. She was a member of the inaugural cohort of the Frederick Douglass Global Fellowship at the CIEE Global Institute in London during the summer of 2017. Katherine loves to be involved on campus through many student organizations! Besides her academics, she enjoys going on hikes, trying new food, and hanging out with her family and friends.
Lea Sandoval is a senior at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. She will earn a Bachelor of Science in Middle School Math Education with a minor in Social Work. Lea had the opportunity to study abroad with CIEE in Seoul, South Korea during the spring semester of her sophomore year. Her semester abroad allowed for personal and professional growth, which she has utilized since her return. After returning from Seoul, she gained a newfound passion for study abroad and now aims to become a study abroad advisor at the university level.
This year, we were fortunate to have three CIEE Study Abroad alumni invited to participate as Alumni Voices in the 2017 IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad in Washington, D.C. The Summit, which took place in early October, is part of the Institute of International Education (IIE)'s Generation Study Abroad initiative that aims to double the number of U.S. students studying abroad by 2020. As a partner and luncheon sponsor, CIEE was excited to have these alumni in attendance – sharing their thoughts and experiences about studying abroad and building talent with global experience.
Our alumni reflect on their Summit experience:
“The conference was great - it was so neat getting to meet so many people that work hard on making education easier for all students. A highlight was definitely going to the Norwegian embassy and meeting the ambassador, and getting a selfie with him and IIE president Alan Goodman. It was interesting to me in the sessions I attended that they kept promoting a focus on diversity, but spoke mostly about diversity with different cultures and races, and how important language is for diversity in study abroad. I only briefly heard them speak of disability inclusion with diversity. I was glad to see the people that I met from Ireland wanting to hear about my experience, and wanting to learn about the difficulties. It was interesting to me that several things I pointed out regarding access, they hadn't seemed to notice themselves.”
"The IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad was an amazing experience and I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to attend! I met peers who are creating and accomplishing amazing feats. I had the opportunity to network with trailblazing professionals. I love that IIE is committed to diversity, which was visible throughout the conference. Thank you so much to CIEE and IIE for this opportunity!"
“The crowd was large and purposeful, and it was fun to walk among the goal-oriented without a detailed agenda. In fact, the best way to describe my experience representing students at a conference of industry professionals whose work surrounds students is half celebrity, half specimen. Day one was very hustle-bustle. I got the impression many people were preoccupied with meetings that had been planned far in advance. Day two was more relaxed, and I found it easier to mingle after the crowd had a day to cool down and I had a day to warm up. I ended up meeting some interesting people, exchanged plenty of business cards, and even wrangled some possible work opportunities.
“I'm not a business person. The business side of study abroad never really interested me, so as I witnessed many panels attempting to distill the powerful elements of curiosity, self-discovery and wonder that is study-abroad into concrete figures and language meant for the business world, it crushed me a tad. I see its importance, but I don't play that game, and as a writer, I champion the very opposite: anecdotal evidence. My favorite moments were when I was able to speak to that and use my position as a Summit voice to remind some of the officials that the beauty of study abroad isn't about how much more desirable you are to a corporation after the fact, but rather how much opportunity it allows a young person to grow within themselves in the moment and shake their worldview. In many of the people I talked to, I sensed that appreciation underneath, yet somewhat buried under industry vocabulary and vernacular. I had fun breaking through that and finding real human moments with some very industry-minded people.”