DASSEL, COKATO, MN Eleven students from Dassel-Cokato FFA recently had the experience of a lifetime when they traveled to South Africa to see how people live and farm half-way across the world.
“It is our duty to become informed citizens, instead of simply judging others because they are different than we are, or come from a different place than we do,” said DC agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Eric Sawatzke, noting the world is so much bigger than just the boundaries of the school district and the US. “This trip gives DC FFA members an opportunity to really be open-minded and view the world from a different perspective.”
The trip was an eye-opening experience for the students, as attested to by juniors Lydia Meredith and Spencer Flood.
“We’re in a bubble here at DC,” Flood said, noting how exciting it was to get out of that bubble, see the world, and see how other kids her age live their lives.
As the plane touched down in Johannesburg, Flood and Meredith were surprised about the similarities to the US. Ironically, the first place the students ate after arriving in South Africa was McDonalds.
Johannesburg looked the same as any US city of similar size, with similar businesses, buildings, concrete, infrastructure, public transportation, and other amenities.
Outside of the city, the students were amazed by the number of mountains and trees in South Africa, admitting they pictured all of Africa as either a dry, barren dessert, or rolling Savannah with few trees.
Although people in the US see pictures of the shanytowns in Africa, it is hard to understand that people really live in such a manner, Flood noted.
“You never really realize that, if you are in [South Africa], you’re either really well-off or really poor,” she said.
In Soweto, DC FFA students stayed in a four-star hotel. However, across the street and for as far as they could see was shantytown.
“This trip gives students a number of opportunities to see how different their lives could be,” Sawatzke said, noting students gain a new appreciation for all the things they may take for granted.
“When the students saw just one of the millions of shanty homes, that is no bigger than a one car garage, but is the home of 15 to 20 family members, they can see first-hand that there is so much to be thankful for,” he added.
“My ‘aha’ moment was touring Soweto,” Meredith said, noting that talking about shantytowns is nothing compared to witnessing it in person.
Many of those one-room homes had a satellite dish on the roof, which surprised Flood.
“Why, if they are so poor, would they have TV,” she asked, noting that, for the very poor in South Africa, it really is a luxury they allow themselves. “I couldn’t fathom being so poor, but still having TV.”
Another impactful thing for Meredith was visiting a children’s home where children her own age and younger lived.
“That’s when it hit me that I’m in Africa, halfway around the world, and these kids are just loving life,” Meredith said.
Despite their impoverished circumstances, the children were happy to have DC FFA students visiting giving high fives and wanting to talk to the Americans.
Meredith noted the children were amazed when they realized DC FFA students were only teenagers the same age as some of them. DC FFA students are the first high school students to participate in the tour led by Fort Hare University.
For Flood, seeing how many families in South Africa live in such poor living conditions put things into perspective and taught her to be grateful for what she has.
“They are so happy for what little they have,” she said.
Many of the things US students may think of as the end of the world, like going over on their data plan, are really not that big of a deal, Flood noted.
Meredith is excited about the international relationships she made on the trip, noting she now has lifelong friends in Africa.
“These students also gained an immense amount of confidence; confidence in their ability to travel, their ability to help others, and confidence that they can step out of their comfort zone and find great success,” Sawatzke said.
While on the trip, DC FFA students embraced the opportunity to experience life in South Africa, learn all they could from the farms and other places visited, and help where they could.
“It was inspiring to watch DC FFA members get excited at the different agricultural schools as they met and talked with young students just like them,” Sawatzke said.
“It was also incredible watching them react so positively to the children at the children’s home and the parishioners during the church service,” he added. “They were completely engaged and in awe of what they were witnessing.”
Flood and Meredith observed that people in South Africa were always singing and dancing, even while going about their work. Often, DC FFA members were invited to join.
Before the trip, DC FFA members contributed their won money to purchase toiletries and other items to donate to the children’s home.
DC FFA also donated 10 each of wheelbarrows, shovels, and brooms, along with eight pairs of boots, to the agricultural magnet school at Phandulwazi. Prior to the donation, the school only had one of each for 250 students.
“More than anything, I learned that these students can far exceed any and all expectations put on them,” Sawatzke said of what he, as an instructor, learned on this trip.
“I was so proud of this group in all the activities that we lined up for them,” he continued. “They researched the history and agriculture of the country before the trip, asked incredibly difficult questions at all of our stops, and tried out nearly every food, dance, and tradition that South Africa could offer.”
A public presentation of the trip is planned for Monday, Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. in the Dassel-Cokato High School agriculture room.
A link to pictures from the trip can be found on the Enterprise Dispatch homepage at www.dasselcokato.com.