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Eleven Days of Amazing: Penn-in-Grahamstown

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Eleven Days of Amazing: Penn-in-Grahamstown

By David Scollan.

It was a snowy afternoon last December when I walked into Dr. Carol Muller’s office to declare my African Studies major. What I had expected to be a routine meeting of signing a few forms and being added to the majors’ listserv quickly transitioned into a personal information session on Seeing & Hearing Africa (MUSC 056). Class brochures and performance programs from years past were shoved my way as Dr. Muller described without any doubt why taking her class would be the best way I could spend my Friday mornings of spring semester.

Looking back, it most definitely was.

Penn-In-Grahamstown, as the class is better known, is a semester-long seminar offered each spring on the role the arts played in the South African anti-apartheid movement and how, more than twenty years since the end of white minority rule, they are still the most prolific way the people of Mandela’s “rainbow nation” speak truth to power and critique their government. Our class time focused primarily on analyzing and discussing specific examples of anti-apartheid art such as well known protest songs, dance styles, and comedic routines. With a diverse makeup of students from all four undergraduate schools, backgrounds, and fields of interests, our class was enriched with a variety of opinions and often turned from seminar-style discussions to full-blown debates. Nothing was off limits. Race, gender, socio-economic status and privilege, institutional failures, and governmental indifference were not met in passing, but were the central themes around which our historical and artistic analysis focused. All the while, Dr. Muller first-hand accounts of what growing up in apartheid South Africa and of coming of age in the anti-apartheid movement gave the class an invaluable perspective. To my class of millennials who were either infants or not yet born when apartheid fell, let alone when it was at its peak, being taught by someone who was not only there, but was an active participant in its downfall, stands out to me as one of the most meaningful educational experiences I have had at Penn to date.

In addition to the weekly seminar, Penn-in-Grahamstown includes a short term, highly immersive abroad experience, providing much needed context for the art and politics discussed throughout the semester. For the first two weeks of July our class traveled to South Africa to participate in the National Arts Festival, which transforms the otherwise sleepy college town of Grahamstown into the largest and longest annual showcase of the arts on the African continent. The festival brings together South African and international artists in a wide range of disciplines including theatre, music, dance, performance art, comedy, culinary arts, and a variety of craft-making. With so much to do and see (and more importantly eat!) in an all too brief two weeks we had a jam-packed schedule.

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A typical day at the festival goes something like this:

Wake-up at 7:00 a.m.; breakfast at 8:00 a.m.; a brisk walk to the first show at 9:00 a.m. (normally something on the low-budget side like a one man show or local choir); a second show at 11:00 a.m. (maybe a gallery walk or some performance art); by 12:00 p.m. we were ready for a hardy South African lunch of venison stew and dumplings or bobotie (basically lasagna with raisins and bay leaves) to fuel our afternoon adventures; a play at 1:00 p.m.; a dance company performance at 3:00 p.m.; a quick dinner by 6:00 p.m. (when it was my night to pick we’d head to Spur, the slightly confusing Native American themed Chili's / Applebee’s of South Africa); a headlining concert or comedian at 8:00 p.m.; a quick stop at a cafe for coffee and desserts on our way to a jazz performance around 9:30 p.m.; wrap up the day around 11:00 p.m. with our nightly ritual of eating a second dinner from the concession stand.

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Penn-In-Grahamstown is a marathon, not a sprint. Long days fueled by Dr. Muller’s motherly inclination of making sure everyone is constantly fed are to be expected. Your senses are constantly overrun by the sights and sounds of each new and different performance. By the time my head hit the pillow each night I was physically and mentally exhausted. FORTY-EIGHT performances in eleven days will do that you!

The festival’s official slogan is “Eleven Days of Amazing,” and our time in Grahamstown was just that. This is so because of the shear concentration of talent, both amateur and professional, that descends on Grahamstown each year to make their big break or return home as a local “favorite son or daughter.” You will hear Italian arias sung with exacting precision by classically trained performers who hail not from Rome or Florence but proudly come representing Soweto and distant reaches of South Africa’s rural Northern Cape. College a cappella groups, who spend the whole year prior fundraising to be able to make it to the festival, deliver performances that are followed by world-renowned musicians with signed recording deals. The traditional dance, art, and music of South Africa’s various ethnic groups are given the place of honor, not cast aside as remnants of a bygone era. For many of these performers who come from all across South Africa, the festival is their biggest event of the year, and their preparation and dedication to their art shows even greater because of it. The festival brings people together, respecting differences but focusing on similarities. To me, for the “Eleven Days of Amazing,” the festival is saying: We are South Africa and this is our art.

Our educational experience was not just confined to the concert halls and venues of Grahamstown. Following the festival we visited Grahamstown's distant township, a remnant of apartheid "development" in which black South Africans were relocated to black-only settlements, often times far outside major cities. Like townships all across South Africa, Grahamstown's municipal government is only slowly righting the  wrongs of the past through the provision of basic services: clean water, passable roads, electricity etc. We spent the day visiting an art cooperative for local artisans, a home run for vulnerable children, all the while enriching our understanding of the effects of apartheid and tying together the artistic themes expressed at the festival with the realities South Africans live with every day. Additionally, before departing for home, we spent our last day at the Kwantu Elephant Sanctuary outside of Port Elizabeth learning about big game conservation and care. Politics, history, music, art, and elephants, Penn In Grahamstown has it all!

Please take a look at our Penn-In-Grahamstown class blog for more information on our experiences and the art of the festival. To my fellow students: with spring registration upon us, do yourself a favor and sign up for this once in a lifetime opportunity.

David Scollan is a junior from Mahopac Falls, NY, double majoring in Political Science and African Studies. In addition to being an alumni of Penn-In-Grahamstown, he is the president of the Penn Polo Club, an active member of Penn Student Government’s Nominations & Elections Committee (NEC), and a founding member of the Penn African Studies Undergraduate Association (PASUA). This semester he is studying abroad at Ruaha Catholic University in Iringa, United Republic of Tanzania.

Edited by Mariah Macias.