South African Oak Fellow on adjusting to life on the Hill
Zandile Nhlengetwa had never heard of the College until a few months before she arrived on the Hill as an Oak fellow this fall. “I was not aware there was a college called Colby,” Nhlengetwa said. “I was not even aware there was a state in the U.S. called Maine.” Nhlengetwa found out about the Oak Institute’s annual fellowship program for teaching and researching subjects relating to social justice when a colleague urged her to apply.
Before arriving on the Hill, Nhlengetwa was the principal of the Ulusda School in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The school functions not only as a learning institution for children but also acts a safe haven for adults. Nhlengetwa is also a passionate human rights activist. Having been a victim of political violence herself, she founded the Harambe Women’s Forum as a network for widowed women in her unstable home region.
At the College, Nhlengetwa is now teaching a class called “Human Rights in Global Perspective,” a one-credit class listed as “an examination of the struggle for peace and justice in South Africa with close attention to the violence that kills many young men and the patriarchy that subjugates young women” in the College’s coursebook. It convenes every Wednesday in conjunction with a weekly practicum taught by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Gail Carlson in which students execute civic engagement projects of their own design.
Nhlengetwa also spends time gathering research from American teaching institutions to consider their implementation in South Africa. “I hope to take [my observations] home and contextualize them for our community,” Nhlengetwa said.
Though Nhlengetwa has faced life-threatening situations in her home country, she “is known in her community for her ability to bring calm and stability to potentially volatile situations,” according to the Oak Institute blog. As a widow exposed to violence on a daily basis, Nhlengetwa has worked avidly to alleviate tension and promote education. She firmly believes that a child receiving an education is less likely to become involved in local gangs or militias. Nhlengetwa also hopes to see an increase in gender equality in her native KwaZulu-Natal and that, through education, girls will be allowed the opportunity to seek out alternatives to premature marriages.
“Part of the Oak Fellowship was for me to move away from such a volatile situation that was putting my life and my family and other people’s lives in danger,” Nhlengetwa said. “It was…kind of a respite so that I could have some time to reflect on the work that I’m doing and be able to connect with others so I could maybe learn about different approaches [to] enhancing what I’m doing on the ground.”
The differences between her situation at the College and her home in South Africa are abundant. For the first time in her life, Nhlengetwa lives in a two-story house and has access to a washing machine in her home. More importantly, according to Nhlengetwa, the academic resources are overwhelming. “I tell my colleagues how I’m sitting here next to a big computer. And every student here has a computer—something you don’t see in South Africa,” she said.
Despite the culture shock, Nhlengetwa appreciates the Oak Institute’s efforts to “make [her] life and stay more comfortable.” Professors, students and College staff have done everything in their power to extend a helping hand. “When you move away from your comfort zone you actually feel quite vulnerable,” Nhlengetwa said. “But the system that was set has really given me a sense of stability.”
Nhlengetwa’s fellowship ends with the Fall semester, but she is eager to carry her experiences home to her community. “I think one thing that has been outstanding that I’ve seen here is the level of commitment to human rights issues,” she said while describing her favorite aspects of the fellowship. However short her time here, Nhlengetwa feels she has tapped into the College’s character and appreciates “the warmth and the willingness of people to connect with you.”