Weeks 1 & 2 on the ALA campus
Our first three weeks have flown by, perhaps because each one has brought something unique and different: a week of off-campus orientation, a week of on-campus virtual classes (per South African government orders), and finally, our first “normal” week with in-person instruction. For students and teachers alike, most of whom have been operating in a remote school setting for nearly a year, this week was a palpably joyful experience.
Even with certain restrictions, our first week of classes contained classic SEGL traditions. Though we couldn’t meet face-to-face with students for classroom instruction, we could assign them group activities, so Ethics & Leadership class began with the Infamous Skittles Scenario, a hands-on, state-of-nature simulation in which students hunt for small plastic bags of candy they need in order to survive. (We were able to secure Skittles easily in South Africa!) As they search, they receive randomly assigned “chance cards” that complicate their situation and force them to consider what they would prioritize in uniquely difficult circumstances. Each cohort takes a different approach, and it was fascinating to observe how this group attempted to prioritize the survival of the maximum number of people.
In our DC program, we follow this activity with an introduction to classic Western ethical theory: Aristotle, Kant, and John Stuart Mill. We met those philosophers here last week, too, but considering our South African context, we also prioritized a discussion of sub-Saharan Ubuntu philosophy as defined by a group of researchers at the University of Johannesburg and the University of Botswana:
A good starting point for understanding sub-Saharan morality, or the major strand of it that we explore, is the phrase, ‘A person is a person through other persons’ or ‘I am because we are.’ In southern African languages, this would be, ‘Motho ke motho kabatho babang’ in Sotho-Tswana and ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ in the Nguni languages of Zulu, Xhosa or Ndebele. Most people in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe speak either one of these languages or a language related to them. However, the phrase is not restricted to these languages, and many sub-Saharan societies have versions of it in their respective languages. The Kenyan John Mbiti (1969), in his classic survey of African world views, takes the phrase to be a ‘cardinal point in the African view of man’ (pp. 108–109) and a large majority of scholars agree with him on this score.
As Augustine Shutte (2001), one of the first professional philosophers to seriously engage with Ubuntu/Botho, says, ‘Our deepest moral obligation is to become more fully human. And this means entering more and more deeply into community with others…If one harms others, e.g. by being exploitive, deceptive or unfaithful, or even if one is merely indifferent to others and fails to share oneself with them, then one is said to be lacking ‘Botho’ (Sotho-Tswana) or ‘Ubuntu’ (Nguni), literally lacking in personhood or humanness.
You’ll have to ask a current student how much Ubuntu, and other ethical frameworks, factored into their Skittles experience!
Toward the end of last week, our students began to prepare for their first guest speaker deliverable with Hatim Eltayeb, Dean of African Leadership Academy, at the beginning of this week. (Dean is the equivalent of Head of School in the U.S.) Dean Hatim studied philosophy and teaches the African Philosophy course at ALA; what better person to engage with our budding ethicists for their very first guest speaker session?
In their conversation, Dean Hatim shared several of the ethical dilemmas he has encountered at ALA, walking them through his responses and pausing to let them consider and offer what they might have done. And then they shared with him the proposals they had developed for perhaps the biggest ethical leadership dilemma of his career: what to do at ALA in March 2020, as COVID-19 had begun to spread across South Africa. With over 200 students from across the African continent in his care and South African schools required to close, what would you do? Lock campus down? Fly students home? Where do they have the best access to medical care? Is remote education a possibility, given the wide array of backgrounds from which ALA students come? In small groups (composed of both SEGL students and their ALA peers who have joined the Ethics and Leadership class), they presented their recommendations to the very person who had made these key decisions for ALA last spring, incorporating the ethical frameworks they’d studied the week before.
This week, our students have begun a deep dive into media literacy, a topic SEGL has added as a case study in the last few years with the rise of the “fake news” era. Here in South Africa, our primary mode of communication with each other is the app WhatsApp. We began this case study with a session about “What’s Crap on WhatsApp,” a podcast that attempts to debunk fake news and misinformation that spreads like wildfire in WhatsApp groups. And we followed this introduction with a guest speaker session with Simon Allison, Africa Editor at Mail & Guardian and Editor of The Continent, a weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the M&G. This is particularly pertinent to our case study because The Continent is shared intentionally via WhatsApp: as their website explains, “by using the same viral networks exploited by disseminators of disinformation, the publication aims to counter the fake news on people’s phones with real news.” He led an engaging conversation with our students, sharing his conviction that the role of journalists is not only to get the news and report it as accurately as they can, but equally as important, to find a way to get that information to their audience.
At SEGL at ALA, we also consider how the western media portrays the African continent, examining stories and language with a critical lens in both E&L class and English. Next week, in a continuation of this case study, our students will meet with Johannesburg-based American journalist Ryan Lenora Brown and will participate in an extensive journalism simulation based on the recent Ugandan presidential elections–stay tuned for more!
The sun is finally starting to push through after several unusually chilly, rainy weeks. (We’re experiencing the side effects of Cyclone Eloise in Mozambique.) Despite the weather, our students have been playing soccer, volleyball, frisbee, and other sports, as well as joining the campus a cappella group and other student organizations. Last weekend, they were “initiated” into their halls–a set of traditions that involves very early morning wake-up calls and energetic activities and ultimately left students feeling closer to their hall mates. Two of the ALA students running for co-chairs of Student Government have proposed an “SEGL Representative” role in their student government manifestos, and we can’t wait to see the many ways in which SEGL students will continue to shape their own community and this campus community in the months ahead.
Here are three student reflections on our first two weeks on campus:
Hi! My name is Angie Flocco. I live in Montclair, NJ, a mere 7941 miles away, and attend Montclair Kimberley Academy, an Independent Day School 12 miles west of NYC. On Saturday, January 23, we arrived at ALA from our lodge in Modweil, South Africa. That afternoon and evening, my classmates and I spent the day unpacking, familiarizing ourselves with campus, and getting to know our roommates. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to you that the first weekend on campus was hard. I was very homesick, as were many of my SEGL classmates because we couldn’t see each other as much as we acclimated to a new home. Our hope now is to make ALA our home. As Cecelia Ahern said, “home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.” We spent the rest of the weekend exploring campus and getting to know the more than 200 ALA students, who are all just so nice. We quickly discovered that no matter what you are doing, the students from ALA go out of their way to be kind and welcoming. It’s such a positive community, and I’m excited to be here for these next 4 months! After catching up on sleep Sunday evening, I started my Monday morning bright and early and had a 6am workout session with my classmates. Each morning a couple of us wake up at 5:30 and are outside by 6am. It’s a really nice way to start the morning. We then started our classes. Even though the WiFi was a little spotty because of the surrounding storms the first day, we adjusted well and had a great week of classes and amazing conversations with our SEGL and ALA classmates. In between and after classes, we typically head to the Learning Commons and play games (ping pong, foosball, pool) with ALA students and continue to get to know each other. It has been a week full of amazing experiences and opportunities, and many more await as we continue this transformative experience!
Hi, I’m Natilie Mikhaeel! I’m from Bridgeport, and I’m a junior at Greens Farms Academy in Westport, Connecticut. After quarantining at the lodge for a week, we arrived at ALA’s beautiful campus. After meeting with Dean Hatim and taking a tour of the campus, I got to meet my roommate and explore on my own. Within the first few days, we’ve met hundreds of students from all parts of Africa. I’ve even gotten to speak in Arabic to a few North Africans, as I can fluently speak and understand it. A bunch of us are even joining the Arabic Club! Although we SEGL students have gotten very close to each other within these past two weeks, we’ve also been able to form amazing relationships with ALA students and integrate ourselves into the community through different things such as playing games in the Learning Commons and eating meals together. Chicken and rice has undoubtedly been a fan favorite at ALA! We also started classes last week and met our teachers virtually. We’re so excited to now be in person, which will definitely integrate us even more into the ALA community. It’s been an amazing two weeks here, and we can’t wait for the next four months!
Hi, I’m Ava Hawkins from Milton, MA. Although it’s still early in my time here at ALA, I strongly believe that this community is unique, supportive, and strong willed. I have never gone to a school like ALA before. Immediately after arriving on campus, I was welcomed by groups of students playing basketball, watching soccer games, and relaxing in the quad. Music is constantly played throughout the halls and competitive pool games are a daily occurrence. What is so special about this school is the sense of unity within the campus. There is something for everyone here, so whether you like knitting or playing afternoon football, you will always find your home.
At home, I regularly attend church with my family and it was important for me to continue attending church while on campus. On my first Sunday here, I attended ALA church virtually and had an amazing experience. I was immediately welcomed into the church community, and also joined the women’s prayer group. I now attend women’s prayer three times a week, and I can confidently say that it is the best part of my days here. Finding a group of students with whom I can speak about my faith openly was so comforting while transitioning into such a new environment. I cannot wait to continue to learn more about ALA and begin to plant my roots.