Becca Cohen’s Blog


It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from here

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of studying, partying, reminiscing and leaving. I cannot believe how quickly this semester has gone by and how much it has surpassed my expectations, and I am so sad to leave. Cape Town is a city like no other, in a country so diverse and interesting, with some of the best people I have ever met.

Fortunately I do not have to say goodbye to this place just yet, because I am traveling for three weeks and then have a few days in Cape Town. I’m leaving on Sunday (June 14) and will be back in Cape Town July 6, and for these three weeks I won’t have any means of communication. Pictures and more blogging will follow upon my return to the States.

Hope everyone is enjoying summer!

Cape Town from the Waterfront.


School’s out till… exams

While everyone at home is done with finals and has begun summer vacation, it’s exam time at UCT. Luckily for me, I don’t begin until June 4, which gives me some nice free time until I have to start studying…. or not studying (don’t worry, Mom, I’ll pass).

The last week of class was consumed with writing a paper for my South African politics class. Grades here are different from at home: 100-74 is an A, 73-50 is a B, 51-59 is a C, 50 is a D and below 50 is a fail. They are also much more public with marks, posting them on the department walls or sending them out in word documents with everyone’s names and grades. I recently received back the grades for my South African politics test— marks in the class ranged from a low of 12 to a high of 92 (only 8 people scored higher than a 65). I can’t imagine the uproar in the States if everyone in the class could know everyone else’s grades.

Last week I discovered one of my favorite places in Cape Town— Kalk Bay. This quaint beach town is filled with antique shops, galleries, bookstores and cafes, the kinds of places I could browse in all day. There is a fish market and a boardwalk that juts into the sea, making it picturesque. A highlight of the day was hearing “Boee,” by Idan Raichel’s Project, one of my favorite Israeli groups come on in a gallery, making the world feel smaller than ever. Another highlight was the delicious focaccia and hummus we got from a bakery for our train-ride home. Probably the best (and funniest) highlight was when my friend Julia fell crossing the street— so gracefully that she didn’t even spill any coffee.

While everyone here is getting ready to pack up to go home, I’m getting ready for a three-week trip. After exams end, my good friend Ellen and I are going to Botswana, Swaziland, Mozambique and Kruger National Park in South Africa with a tour operator called Nomad Tours. After the trip ends we’re spending a few days in Cape Town saying goodbye, and I’ll be back in Boston on July 12. Sadly, this means no camp reunion (or camp), but I will definitely be up for visiting day and go down to Maryland to say hi there.

That’s all for now. I hope everyone at home is enjoying the start to summer. Today is 61 and pouring, but we’re still getting our share of beautiful days— yesterday was a gorgeous sunny and 73. Love to everyone!

Latest pictures (the first 30 or so aren’t new). Enjoy!


Fall in May.

Each day I cannot comprehend how fast the time has gone. It’s also hard for me to believe how happy I still am here in Cape Town. While there certainly are better and worse days (like last week when I had an assignment in every class, I hate doing work here!), every day I am here I am so grateful and am still in disbelief that I am actually here in Cape Town, South Africa. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was moving into my house and sweating like crazy everywhere I went. Even though I still have at least a month here (still working on travel plans and when exactly I’m coming home, but as soon as I do I’ll let you all know so you can plan your trips to Boston to visit!) I am already freaking out a bit about leaving this life behind.

I’ve been super busy and haven’t had a chance to write recently, but here are some highlights from the past few weeks:

• Day out in Bo-Kapp. Bo-Kapp is a Muslim neighborhood in Cape Town where all the houses are painted bright colors (residents have to get the paint color registered and approved so no two houses are the same color). We met a resident who stopped to tell us the history of the neighborhood, and what it was like getting kicked out of the neighborhood and living during apartheid. People here are generally very willing and eager to tell stories of what it was like. The most interesting thing this man said is that he does not like to teach his (fourteen) children about apartheid because he does not want them to grow up to hate whites.

• South Africa Cheese Festival! We drove out to a farm in wine country, where there were tables and tables filled with different cheese and wine vendors offering unlimited tastings. It was a beautiful day and delicious food— not much more to ask for.

• Art at Heatherdale Children’s Home. It’s still pretty disorganized every time I go— figuring out which kids are free and what room to work in, but once we get going the kids have a great time. I had been hoping to develop a routine with them, but I can tell they have fun just doing art, which is fine with me. It’s fun for me too, seeing what the kids draw and drawing with them.

• Weird weather recently. Some days are cold, raw and rainy and others beautiful and sunny. Campus has been beautiful with leaves changing color— red ivy climbing the walls and golden trees along the roads. Over the weekend a significant number of leaves fell, leaving trees mostly barren and the signs of winter everywhere. Regardless, we’ve had a number of beautiful days, and I even had a beach day this weekend.

• Salsa dancing. We had a girls’ night out to a lounge called Cubana, followed with a hole-in-the-wall place called Fiesta where they have salsa on Friday nights. Two of my friends danced so hard they fell and broke the potted plant….oops.

• Mowbray Maternity Hospital. Unfortunately, by the time I can get there the babies have mostly been fed. I mainly help cuddle and put the babies to sleep. Today I hung out with a baby girl who was born yesterday, and I could see the wheels turning in her head as she was taking in the world and figuring out what this new place was. It was incredible and adorable to watch, even when she spit up all over me. It’s sad, though, seeing the babies crying in their incubators, or the four-month-old baby who is waiting for someone to take him home.

• Robben Island. Probably the most popular tourist attraction in Cape Town, the island is where political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela were kept during apartheid. The island is more than just a prison— there is a small town where prison staff used to stay and now is home to many of the guides (who are all ex-political prisoners at Robben Island). The island is also home to many kinds of birds (including penguins), and has an incredible view of the city. The most interesting part of the tour was seeing the lime quarry where prisoners were forced to work. During breaks, they took the “each one teach one” motto, and the educated prisoners taught the illiterate ones to read. This is where they discussed politics and the future South African constitution. The visit sparked interesting conversation among my friends about the degree to which South Africa has actually reconciled and the problems this country still faces.

Classes end one week from today, and then I have two weeks off until my final exams. For now I’m trying to organize my travel plans and making the most of every day.

Pictures of fall in Cape Town.


Back into the swing of things

I feel like real life hasn’t started up again since I got back from break. My friend Ellen’s parents were visiting our first week back, so I got some extra TLC and good meals and family time with them. April is filled with public holidays, so we also have less class than usual.

My friend Sven’s band played in town last Monday night, so we all went out to support him. The band played really well and the crowd seemed to love it. We felt like celebrities since we all knew the band but also like teenage girls in love with their pop idols.

This past Wednesday was Election Day, so we had off from school. This is one of the most controversial elections this country has had, but the ANC managed to secure another victory (the ANC has won every election since 1994). Elections went rather peacefully with only minimal administrative issues. I went to a polling place to see what was going on, and there was little difference from a polling place in America (however, Cape Town generally is very different from the rest of the country). It’s been interesting hearing about the sorts of issues this country is facing, but also sad to see how dismal cycle of the system and how it is filled with corruption and incompetence.

I finally have gotten my volunteering started. The initial project I wanted to work on still hasn’t gotten off the ground, so I pursued other options. I started working at the Mowbray Maternity Hospital in the infant’s nursery. There I help feed and take care of the babies. Some babies are there for a short time, but others for longer if their mothers have abandoned them or if they have other health problems. My first day there was a baby whose mother was on heroin, so now the baby is suffering from withdrawal— shaking and crying nonstop. It was heartbreaking to see. The doctors are weaning it off of morphine, but who knows what kind of later in life effects the baby will experience.

I am also set to start doing art with the kids at Heatherdale Children’s Home. Lara (my friend from camp who has been volunteering here since July just now left) has been working there with the kids and helped me set it up. I’m going to the home once a week to do an art therapy type of program in an attempt to boost self-esteem, create positive self images and get their creative juices flowing. Last week I went to the home for the first time, and the children are adorable. I have a bunch of ideas for the project and am really excited to start working there.

That’s basically all that’s happening here. I’m just cruising, enjoying being back in Cape Town. It’s starting to get cool and rainy since winter is on its way, which is somewhat depressing (especially when I hear how beautiful it’s getting at home). I can’t believe exams will be done in less than two months from now— the time has been going so fast!


Words are really limiting right now

I’ve tried now a few times to sit and write an entry about my mid-semester break trip, but there is simply too much— I would be writing pages. I decided that this is one of those times when pictures really do say more than words. I’ve included here a brief synopsis of my trip, and links to the photo albums.

Our journey started out with a fifteen-hour bus ride from Cape Town to Maseru, Lesotho (pronounced Le-soo-too, it’s the tiny country completely surrounded by South Africa). Fortunately I had Lara Levine, a friend from camp, as my seat companion and we found ways to pass the time. We also traveled with four of my friends here in Cape Town. The bus dropped us off on the South Africa side of the border, and we walked across to Lesotho.

We then spent two days on ponies, exploring the mountains and villages of rural Lesotho. Never having been on a horse, I was terrified. Overall I think I did pretty well on my pony, in spite of him always choosing the wrong path, getting stuck on the edge of a cliff (twice), and not knowing how to make him stop running. Our guide, Tumello was really helpful and definitely saved my life.

From Lesotho, we drove to Johannesburg where we spent two nights. We stayed with Lara’s friends, the nicest family we could have imagined. They cooked us huge meals, shared about their lives and saved us multiple times when we were lost at night (exactly what you don’t want to do in Jo’burg). We visited the apartheid museum, an amusement park (it’s in the same plaza as the museum… bizarre), had a Seder, and got super lost.

We then flew to Livingstone, Zambia to see Victoria Falls! When we landed we saw the spray of the falls from the plane, and we all felt that beginning of trip excitement again. We took a sunset booze cruise on the Zambezi River where we saw the sun setting and moon rising at the same time. At the falls we saw a lunar eclipse created by the full moon, got soaked from the heavy spray (since the rainy season just ended, there is so much water going over the falls that at times the mist is so high you can’t even see them), and hiked down through boulders and streams to the base of the falls. We spent a day doing adrenaline activities— abseiling (rappelling), the flying fox (running off a cliff and flying through the air), and the gorge swing (tandem, backwards, freefall off a cliff, swing in the air).

For a total of 14,000 Kwacha each (the equivalent of $3) we bought all our food for the next two days of our trip, which were spent on busses through Namibia. On our first bus ride (17 hours), we had to get off three times to disinfect our shoes for foot and mouth disease (really annoying when it was in the middle of the night, but I saw the best stars of my life). We had one day in Windhoek, Namibia, but everything was closed for Easter Monday (except for Joe’s Beer Garden where we spent the afternoon). After a ticket glitch almost left Sven and me stranded in Windhoek, we were able to bribe the bus staff to let us on to the second bus (never have I been so grateful to be on a 20 hour bus ride).

I feel so lucky to have gone on such an incredible trip. Lara and I planned the entire thing ourselves, so it was fulfilling to see it all work out. I saw and did things that I never have and probably never will do again. It was so interesting talking to all the people we met along the way, hearing their stories and thoughts on South Africa, America, tourism, Africa and wherever the conversations went (building a house in outer space? This was how someone broke the ice with us in Lesotho). It was also eye opening seeing these places that are so different from Cape Town and learning about how diverse this continent is.

Pictures from Lesotho and Johannesburg.

Pictures from Livingstone and Victoria Falls.

The last of Vic Falls and the trip home.


Quick update

I’m leaving for spring (here it’s called fall) break on Friday, going to Lesotho, Johannesburg and Victoria Falls, driving home through Namibia and Botswana. Updates to follow… for now here are some pictures from the past month.


“An ignorant free vote”

On Wednesday, April 22 South Africa will hold its fourth democratic election. While all elections spark debate and controversy, this particular election is unique in that Jacob Zuma, the head of the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) is awaiting an August trial for corruption and fraud charges. Zuma has already been tried once for corruption and once for rape allegations. The ANC has won every election since 1994, but there are some speculations that another party could take power with this election, especially given the creation of the new Congress of the People (COPE) party.

I had the opportunity to attend an election debate on campus yesterday where representatives from the ANC, Democratic Alliance (DA), COPE and Independent Democrats (ID) answered questions that had been submitted by the student body as well as questions from the audience.

The overall atmosphere of the debate was very different from US presidential debates— everything was much more laid back, with candidates making jokes and someone in the audience shouting that people on the balcony had questions and should be called on as well. At one point a bird flew right in front of my face. I also had trouble understanding some of the questions because of people’s accents, something one of the candidates actually made a joke about. After the debate, DA and ANC supporters stood outside the venue singing and dancing at each other in support for their parties.

A common theme running throughout the debate was corruption and the issue of the rule of law. Phillip Dexter, the COPE representative said: “Even after you’ve been convicted you’re above the law if you know the right people.” The candidates all spoke about the need for people to take responsibility for their own actions, whether it is rapists and criminals on the streets or political leaders who weasel their way out of jail. There was discussion of the general lack of morals that has taken over the country, and how once South Africa was an inspiration and moral beacon to the rest of the continent, but it no longer is. DA representative Ryan Coetzee stated that the prominence of rape is not surprising given the kind of role models the government provides, referring to Zuma. This sentiment was also present in the discussion of HIV/AIDS policy, and how there has been a lack of strong leadership in the prevention campaign. Lance Greyling, the ID representative quoted an ANC leader saying that “teenage pregnant girls should be sent away to boarding school,” demonstrating this lack of leadership.

This is a list of the questions and issues that were raised:
• What do you think were the main causes of last years xenophobic attacks in South Africa?
• What is your party’s view on refusing to let the Dali Lama come to the peace conference in Johannesburg this weekend?
• At least 40% of South Africans live in poverty. What should be done about this?
• What is the most important contribution to South Africa’s high level of rape (one of the highest in the world), and what should be done about it?
• What is your party’s view on policies of protectionism given the current global economic crisis?
• What should be done about all of the corruption and cronyism?
• How does your party propose to revise a new criminal justice system? (To which COPE responded: “If you get a parking ticket they’ll hunt you down for seven years, but if you’re a rapist they’ll lose your docket.”)
• Since 1994 the government claims it has been trying to “democratize education,” what is your view on the outcomes based education program? Currently only 50% of students reach matriculation year. How should the government improve the education system?
• What should be done about climate change, especially given how hard Africa is expected to be hit and the influence South Africa has on the rest of the continent?
• What is your party’s view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
• How can voters distinguish COPE from the ANC when so many members of COPE come from the ANC?
• Why does the ANC allow so much corruption?
• Why are there so many farms that aren’t being used and what should be done about land reform and agricultural policy?
• Please address the issue of government services to rural areas and sanitation.
• How do you plan to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air?
• What should the government do about HIV/AIDS— access to prevention drugs, treatment, the strong stigma associated with it, and the issue of South Africans not perceiving their own risks.

As I sat and listened, I thought about how different the issues facing South Africa are from those in the US— Iraq, the economy, Afghanistan, healthcare, terror, gay marriage, abortion, border control, mavericks, climate change. The debate also gave me a greater appreciation for my South African Politics course, where we’ve spent the past six weeks talking about identity politics— ethnicity, gender, class and HIV. I had not really understood why we were focusing so much on these social issues, but I now realize that these are the pivotal matters here.

The debate ended without any formal closing statements, but fitting with the theme of accountability and responsibility, Dexter closed his argument by saying that “the government lives in state of denial about its problems,” and that only when it confronts the real issue will the country improve.

South Africa Elections homepage.

New York Times article “Waiting to Helm South Africa: President or Convict? Or Both?”

New York Times article “Peace Conference in South Africa Is Canceled”


Playing in the clouds

After climbing through shadows and the shade of the cliffs, skin moist from the clouds surrounding me, I finally emerged into sunlight. Two and a half hours straight uphill, climbing stone stairs and rocks. The entire way up I was surprised at how little visible damage there was from last week’s fire, however it’s possible there was on other side of the mountain.

Since I got to Cape Town two months ago, I had been itching to see the top of this mountain that is the backdrop to my life here. It is the first thing I see when I walk out of my gate in the morning and it guides me through town as my compass. We climbed for three kilometers through Plattenklip Gorge to the top of Table Mountain, 1050 meters in the air.

Walking around on the tabletop felt like walking on another planet— the rocky surface was filled with craters and little vegetation. The clouds that blew by us created a surreal fog blurring our vision so much that at points we couldn’t see the other side of the mountain.

The view was unbelievable— the city and water below me with clouds rolling in to obscure the scene. My hands were numb and I was shaking from the cold. After warming up inside, we took the cable car down the mountain as the sun set over Cape Town. On our drive home we saw three little lights descending the mountain, probably the irresponsible climbers we had seen on our way up; they decided to walk back down one hour before the sun set. I got home feeling fulfilled, exhilarated and utterly exhausted.
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Fire on the mountain

All day I’ve been hearing helicopters thundering overhead, carrying buckets of water over to the mountain. Last night as I drove into town for dinner and the St. Patrick’s day celebration, in the distance we saw huge flames coming from the Rhodes Memorial area of Table Mountain— our side of the mountain. Throughout the night I received numerous SMSes about the huge fire that spread on the entire mountain. Driving through town on the way home, there was low smoke everywhere. The mountain looked like a molten-covered volcano. Here are some pictures and a link to a news article. Fortunately the fire is mostly under control and only a small number of people were injured. Huge fires like this do happen from time to time, but I’ve been told that a fire this large is rare. I’ve heard stories about past fires and families having to pack their cars and evacuate. Fortunately  the fire did not come close enough to my neighborhood of Mowbray, although houses closer to the mountain did have to leave.

The fire on Table Mountain last night, from http://www.news24.com/News24/Gallery/Home/0,,galleries-1-7438,00.html

The fire on Table Mountain last night, from http://www.news24.com/News24/Gallery/Home/0,,galleries-1-7438,00.html

More pictures can be found here.

News article about the fire.

Completely unrelated to the fire, but highly relevant to South Africa, a country with one of the world’s highest rates of HIV. The Pope is touring Africa and issued a statement saying that distributing condoms “increases the problem” of HIV. (Source:  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/18/world/africa/18pope.html?_r=1&ref=africa)



Weekend in Oceanview

I walked into the Cape Town High School Seminar to hear students discussing the meaning of the words “tradition,” “culture,” and “diversity.” Soon thereafter, the program leader asked the students to separate themselves— those who consider themselves to be black to one side and those who consider themselves to be coloured to the other. I was somewhat shocked how students identified themselves, because by appearance I would have classified some as a part of the other group.

Next he asked the coloured students what they don’t like about black people. Silence. After some encouragement, hands went up and students gave gross generalizations like, “they’re loud,” “they speak Xhosa so we can’t understand what they’re saying,” or “they smell bad.” Next the black students were asked what they don’t like about coloureds. After hearing stereotypes thrown at them for five minutes, these students needed no encouragement to shout out comments about the way coloureds dress, speak and interact. The black students were then asked how it made them feel to hear what the coloured students said, and how they would like to be treated. The coloureds were asked the same questions. Each group’s message was the same— everyone wanted to be treated like a person, the same as anyone else.

The students were then asked to split up again. Those with flat noses and lips and frizzy hair to one side, and those with longer hair and sharper noses to the other. There was a shift from side to side, a visual demonstration how the differences between the groups are simply constructed by society, culture and location. For the rest of the day the students were to work through their problems with the opposing group, with the purpose of destroying the barriers and coming together as one.

“This would never happen in America,” was the first thing flowing through my mind. These leadership seminars for high school students are meant to discuss the issues of race and prejudice and to break down barriers between the groups. They are also meant to discuss other major issues of today— drugs, alcohol, and violence. All the Cape Town high schools are invited, but the white students never come. For me, it was another demonstration of how race is so blatantly on the table here to be confronted by society, rather than swept away and denied as in the US.

I was not expecting to witness such an intense and blunt discussion that day. I spent last weekend staying with a family in Oceanview, a coloured township outside of Cape Town. My host mother’s uncle was taking some students and myself around the area and had to drop a neighbor off at the seminar, and we decided to sit in for a few minutes.

Coloureds are a mixed-race people, descending from blacks and whites. Under the apartheid government, they were given more privileges than blacks but still ranked below whites. When the Group Areas Act was issued in 1950 each racial group was given an area in which to live. Coloureds were forced to leave their homes and were relocated to the barren area that has now developed into Oceanview. Oceanview still does not compare structurally or economically to the still predominantly white towns of Fish Hoek and Simonstown, where the coloureds were forced to leave. However it has developed into a large settlement with a strong feeling of family and community in spite of its drug and crime problems.

I stayed with a family that had two adorable girls ages nine and two-and-a-half. My host father had to work most of the weekend in his job as a security guard, since my host mother has been out of work for health problems. The weekend was filled with braais at various family members houses, with more meat than I have ever seen in my life. We stayed up late playing dominoes and hearing stories about their family. We woke up early to tour the area and go to church.

On Sunday the Cape Town cycle tour came through Oceanview— a bike race around the peninsula with thousands of participants (including my housemate, Scott and Matt Damon riding tandem with his brother). I sat with my host sister for hours, cheering on the bikers and looking for Damon (sadly he came by right after we left). When we left on Sunday it felt like I had been with the family for weeks instead of days, and I was truly sad to say bye. They welcomed me into their tiny home with so much love and openness, and gave me a unique experience that taught me a lot about South Africa’s past and present.

Cape Town Cycle Tour going through Oceanview.

Cape Town Cycle Tour going through Oceanview.