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.