Last semester I joined the OU branch of Mary’s Meals, an international nonprofit that builds and maintains school kitchens in impoverished areas across the globe. Not only does this feed hungry children, it also increases school attendance and retention, helping to break the cycle of poverty. The University of Oklahoma branch funds Tabwa Primary School in Malawi.
I was super excited to discover this organization. Throughout my college career, including in the Global Engagement Fellowship class Becoming Globally Engaged, I have learned about “simple solutions” to international poverty. Of course, poverty is not a simple problem, but actions like those of Mary’s Meals have always struck me as innovative and less intrusive than other forms of aid. Mary’s Meals was a way for me to help the way I wanted to.
Over the course of last semester, I attended general meetings and benefit nights. I also fundraised, aiming to raise $19.50 in one day, the amount it takes to feed one child for a year.
Unfortunately, I will not be participating in Mary’s Meals this semester. I have a large course load, and I joined OU Cousins again (more to come on this). However, if you are interested, I highly suggest you check it out.
As I studied abroad in Ireland this summer, I thought this event last semester, “Implications of Brexit for Ireland,” with Consul General of Ireland Adrian Farrell sounded like a must-attend. On April 2, I sat against the wall of the conference room, eating my provided sandwich and listening to Consul General Farrell talk about borders and trading.
He explained the importance of the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border during the Brexit transition. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland must have an open border due to past agreements. However, while Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom is Brexiting, the Republic of Ireland will stay in the European Union. This creates a problem for the UK, who wanted less immigration, as their only land border with the EU remains open.
Brexit also worries the Republic of Ireland, as a nation that relies on trade, especially to the UK. Ireland, with its small domestic population, has built its economy primarily on agriculture exports, though it exports other products as well, such as medical technology. With the UK threatening Ireland’s open trading, Ireland’s economy could suffer when Brexit takes full effect.
At noon on March 9, Jenny Erpenbeck, this year’s Puterbaugh Fellow, gave the festival’s keynote speech, “Blind Spots.” This was the only Puterbaugh Festival event I attended this go around, and I must say I chose well.
Erpenbeck, a previous citizen of the German Democratic Republic a.k.a East Germany, spoke about the current refugee crisis. She brilliantly incorporated her own history as a European refugee to highlight the biases against modern refugees, most of whom come from “shithole” countries.
One of Erpenbeck’s main themes throughout her presentation was the value of life. By making a distinction between her and her fellow East Germans and, say, present-day Syrian refugees, the West decides which lives are worth something and which nothing. Modern refugees are often only viewed as asylum-worthy, life-worthy if they have useful skills. Erpenbeck proclaimed that people do not need to be useful to be valuable.
Honestly, this post does not do Erpenbeck justice. Her address was so moving, it brought me to tears. The German writer ended her powerful speech with, “We are from shitholes, too.” The crowd gave her a standing ovation.
The University of Oklahoma’s university exchange partner in South Africa is the University of Pretoria. Located in Hatfield, Pretoria, UP’s main campus is like OU’s in many ways–comparable size, similar classroom and office buildings, same through-campus transportation methods.
UP, however, has an enclosed campus. A fence runs around the campus’s entire perimeter with guarded turnstiles for pedestrians and gates for cars. Students, faculty, and staff must use their identification cards and fingerprints to access the campus.
This is evidence of the high crime rate in South Africa–something to consider when thinking of going there–but Hatfield is one of the safest neighborhoods in Pretoria. I had no problems walking among campus, my residence, and local stores by myself during the day. After dark, my friends and I walked together to restaurants and clubs without issue.
UP assigns most exchange students housing in Tuksdorp, one of the univeristy’s off-campus postgraduate residences. They reserve limited spaces, though, so some students end up in other international housing or non-university accommodations. This was not the case for me, but it is a reason to submit application materials as soon as possible.
A community of differing small houses enclosed by a fence, Tuksdorp is quaint and cozy. It has a free laundry room, computer lab and TV lounge, and pool. Exchange students of the same gender are grouped together. Each resident has their own room with a sink and access to a shared toilet and bathroom. Each house floor has a fully-equipped kitchen. A housekeeper comes every week day to clean the communal areas.
Living in Tuksdorp was a great experience for me. My floor housed eight girls–two Dutch, two German, two Mexican, one Chinese, and one American (me!). We ate, studied, relaxed, and traveled together and with exchange students from other floors and houses. Having everyone so physically close made it easier for us to connect and grow friendships.
I walked most places on a day-to-day basis. The Hatfield Plaza, about two blocks from Tuksdorp, provides a grocery store, phone services, clothing stores, and even doctors’ offices. That same stretch of road has multiple American fast food chains–McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC–but several local restaurants are close as well as numerous bars and clubs, if you’re into that.
If I wanted to go farther, Uber is an affordable safe option in South Africa. A Gautrain station is also located just another block past Hatfield Plaza. The rail goes from Hatfield to Johannesburg. It’s a good option for traveling to and from the airport, Pretoria’s city center, and Joburg’s various neighborhoods. For trips, we rented cars or flew.
Sooo I returned from my semester abroad in South Africa a couple weeks ago. I meant to announce I was going in July before I left, but I didn’t. Sorry to let you in on the big news after the fact.
To make it up to you, I planned a series of eight posts. I’ll start with a couple about my life there, then move on to some photo essays about my travels, and end with a bit of South Africa’s history.
I’m doing this in part because it’s a requirement for Global Engagement Fellows (let’s be honest with each other), but I also want to share my experiences in the hopes they inspire others to study abroad in South Africa. I was the first from OU to go there in years, and when I was researching the program, information was not easy to find. I want others to know how awesome South Africa is and to be a resource for those who are interested.
If you’re at all curious, check back in the upcoming days, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below. I’ll answer as soon as I can one way or another.
In the meantime, I leave you with these and, hopefully, anticipation.
Today I am happy to bring y’all an interview with Rob Vollmar, the WLT Book Club’s sponsor. Since I’m not going to be in Norman next semester (more on that to come), I thought anyone interested in joining the club should hear about it from someone who is going to be there. So I asked Rob some questions about the importance of world literature and sharing it with others, and here’s what he said!
Brooke: Tell us about yourself, your work with world literature, and why you sponsor the WLT Book Club.
Rob: My name is Rob Vollmar and I am the book review editor for World Literature Today magazine. I sponsor the WLT Book Club because introducing students to the diversity and power of literature from around the globe is an important part of our unit’s mission. I also enjoy interacting with students and sharing ideas about the world we live in back and forth.
B: Why do you think reading world literature is important – both for students and people in general?
R: Literature is the mirror by which a culture can see itself in development. For the same reason, it is vital for students to be exposed to viewpoints and ideas well outside the American culture. Literature is a way to explore different cultures, locations and time periods without ever leaving the comfort of one’s home. The reader gains so much and, I like to think, develops an identity as a citizen of Earth rather than merely that of the country in which they happened to be born.
B: Why do you think people should join the WLT Book Club?
R: I feel confident in saying that the books we read in the WLT Book Club are quite unlike anything that students have the opportunity to explore elsewhere on campus. We read books by contemporary writers from all over the world, some of which actually come to the meetings during the Neustadt and Puterbaugh festivals to talk about their work. Being part of the WLT Book Club gives students access to people, writing and ideas with which few organizations can compete. Plus, our food game is on fleek.
B: What do you see for the WLT Book Club in the 2017-2018 academic year?
R: We’re going to be engaged in new member recruitment initiatives in the Fall and we hope to expand our meetings to include outreach to the community, perhaps reading to children at libraries or people in retirement homes as a way to share our love of reading with others. We also have a full Neustadt jury coming in the fall, which will feature some very exciting writers that club members will have the opportunity to meet. In Spring 2018, German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck will be on campus for the Puterbaugh festival and that will, again, provide students with the opportunity to meet an internationally recognized author of enduring literature!
On April 21, I attended the opening of the second annual Khayy’am Day. This day celebrates the life of Omar Khayy’am, a prominent Persian poet and mathematician. A statue of him sits outside the newly renamed Farzaneh Hall.
The reception was relaxed and casual. I ate baklava for the first time. I’m not the biggest honey or pastry person, but I’m trying to be a more adventurous eater. I watched a Persian calligrapher write as well. I have no knowledge of the Persian alphabet or language, but his work looked beautiful.
Amid this, Persian-language students recited poems by Khayy’am. The poetry reading drew me to the event. I could only stay long enough to hear a few poems, but I think the students did an excellent job. After the recitations, faculty members explained their meanings. My favorite line was something like “I am the ocean and the pearl inside the ocean.” I think the metaphor captures how someone can be both fierce and gentle, loud and quiet.
Unfortunately, I left for class before the day’s lecture about Khayy’am, but I enjoyed the exposure to Persian culture. I also liked the reminder through Khayy’am’s poetry that many feelings are universal to the human experience.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, March 8, I went to the lecture “Revolutionary Women: Gender Politics in 1917 Russia” by Dr. Rochelle Goldberg Ruthchild.
Similar to the Arabic Talent Show last semester, I attended this event because it focused on a culture outside of my usual area of interest. It also incorporated a competent I enjoy, like the talent show. As a Women’s and Gender Studies minor, I have an interest in feminist topics.
Dr. Ruthchild explained how women’s demonstrations helped trigger the Russian Revolution. Despite date discrepancies that result from the Russian use of a different calendar, these protests took place on International Women’s Day in 1917, making them a well-timed topic for the day’s lecture.
Dr. Ruthchild laid out the reasons these women were successful in their endeavors for change, connecting the reasons to their gender. For example, male soldiers who were sent to control and shut down the demonstrations would not fire into the female crowds. They saw men as a threat, but they could not bring themselves to harm their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters – people they were taught to protect. I liked this because it highlighted the particular strengths of women in these types of situations.
Events carried out by women, while important in the moment, are often overlooked by history. Because of this, I’m always glad to learn about them and develop a more true and complete picture of the world.
On December 2, I attended the Arabic Talent Show put on by the Arabic Flagship Program. I decided to attend the show because, as mentioned in the previous post, I enjoy performance art. I have also not had a lot of exposure to Arabic culture, preferring Africa and Latin America to the Middle East and Asia, so I thought this event would be something different.
The program started out with a performance by the OU Belly Dancing Club, which I was delighted to learn exists. Their first dance was folk inspired, though later in the night they performed a more modern dance.
Much of the night’s entertainment came in the form of videos produced by Arabic language students. While some of the videos had English subtitles, many of them did not. Arabic not being my foreign language of choice, I did not fully understand what was happening. Presenters explained the videos in English before the viewings, but I know I missed things. It was strange to have people laughing all around me and not know why.
However, while that was uncomfortable, I think those kinds of situations are important for me to experience as a white, English-speaking American. I am not often uncomfortable around others, at least in that way. I do not often feel alienated or other. But I should know what that feels like since so many others do. I want to be able to empathize with those people and hopefully help alleviate such pain for them.
The show ended with a musical performance entitled “Oud Exhibition” on the program. Two men, one playing a string instrument and one playing some sort of drum, performed. It was a beautiful way to end the evening.
This year the Neustadt Festival took place October 26-28 in honor of Dubravka Ugrešić, a writer from the former Yugoslavia and the winner of the 2016 Neustadt Prize.
To prepare for the festival, the WLT Book Club read an excerpt from Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. The book has a distinct style. The whole thing is composed of vignettes and snippets. Part One consists of 22 numbered pieces, the longest only a few paragraphs. Part Two is split into more conventional chapters, of which we only read one, but they are broken up into similarly short segments. I love books with unique styles. I like seeing something different, a new method of expression.
TMoUS’s style also fits well with its topics and themes. Ugrešić focuses on memory, the small things our brains remember and the way our minds connect them together. She writes a lot about photographs and how they affect our memories. The writing style really shows the reader what she’s trying to say.
I did not make it to all of the festival’s events due to time limitations, but I did manage to attend three: the opening night reception, the performance of ‘Who Am I?’: A One Act Comedy, and the banquet. Both the opening night reception and the banquet were fun events that honored Ugrešić. People made speeches about her brilliance, and she and others read excerpts from her work. During the banquet, she officially received the Neustadt Prize.
‘Who Am I?’ was a surrealistic take on a story from Ugrešić’s book Lend Me Your Character. While literature is my first love, theater is still an art that I enjoy immensely. I am very happy to have been exposed to both forms of Ugrešić’s work during the festival. The set was brilliant. It was built out of dozens of egg cartons and had so many opening and closing compartments. Having two actors play the main character, one to portray inner Alice and one to portray outer, was another great move. All of the cast did a wonderful job.