Reflections on History, Culture, and Ubuntu

One of many travel courses at Princeton Seminary connects students with culture and community in South Africa
January 2019 South Africa Travel Course

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The January 2019 travel course to South Africa, “Towards Interpreting Foreign Cultures,” generated unforgettable experiences that fostered “ubuntu,” the African philosophy of community. The 14-day travel course took students on an academic, theological, and cultural journey from Cape Town to the University of Stellenbosch, in the picturesque heart of the western cape winelands, to the University of the Western Cape, about an hour north in the suburbs of Cape Town, to Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, and to Pretoria, the nation’s capital city.

In their reflections, students speak of their travels and their new perspectives on culture and their calling.


South Africa was an incredible experience, I have never engaged my whole self in learning and grappling with the intersections of theology, ministry, culture, ethics, social justice, politics, agriculture, economics, reconciliation, community, and myself the way I did through this immersion trip. The location itself became my teacher as I tasted, touched, heard, saw, felt, and experienced a people, place, and their stories over meals, in the market, and even in taxis that could not be communicated solely through a textbook or lecture. When a people, land, and culture become the very context in which one’s classroom is situated, one cannot help but take on new eyes and new perspectives through which they reinterpret theology and the church’s witness. Through this experience I came to not only know but deeply care about the wounds of this country and the issues of equality it continues to grapple with today, and forced me to wrestle with how my own church and state have dealt with its own storied history of race. Being immersed in this culture did not allow for a barrier of intellectual distance, instead everything I took in became deeply personal as I made connections with similar struggles we are experiencing back home. Through this experience I grew in my ability to seek understanding, listen before speaking, and try to see beyond the filter of my own cultural context in order to try and imagine the world from someone else’s point of view. I learned that stories require more than one perspective and that a history can be told from a multitude of versions. I learned that healing is complicated and reconciliation is painful and messy. I learned it takes the commitment of more than a single generation to repair wounds that have been festering for centuries. And I learned there is much hope, beauty, vitality, and renewal to celebrate as South Africa continues to teach the rest of the world how to work through the trauma of our past into a future that affirms that our humanity and freedom is bound up within the humanity and freedom of another.

Melissa Temple, MDiv candidate

SA2019 Tembo1

The culture of Ubuntu was a recurring theme in the South Africa Travel Course. It made me think about history, power, pain, justice, oppression, and hope. Hope being last because it was not as obvious to me at first. But when our group made a visit to the University of the Western Cape, that was where I truly saw hope alive. In the lectures, in the student body, and in the statue that was at the entrance of the campus. It made me wish that we had a chance to spend more than one afternoon there compared to the couple of days spent in Stellenbosch. Now back in the States I look forward for an Ubuntu relationship with UWC that is as close as the relationship PTS has with Stellenbosch. I say this because PTS as an institution has connections to South Africa and I wish to see that relationship go deeper, especially as we look back at our past and look forward in the ways we explore being a covenant community. As an institution we can seek to see what lessons we can learn from the Ubuntu culture of South Africa.

Lydia Tembo, MDiv ’19

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The trip to South Africa helped me to find something I had lost earlier in the school year; me. After a challenging 2018, somehow the mountains and ocean, as well as the humble and giving spirit of the people of South Africa, helped to center me spiritually. It also helped me reconnect with God on a deeper level and lift some burdens I was carrying.

When the opportunity presented itself, I was able to meditate and work on calmness through breathing exercises and stillness. It was refreshing. One of my many highlights of the trip for me was getting to know my roomy-Rebecca. We shared many late-night sista-to-sista conversations and laughs! I appreciated the special care the entire group gave to help me celebrate my birthday. It’s one I’ll never forget.

—Darcella Sessomes, MDiv candidate

Holderman South Africa

I did not know what to expect from the trip to South Africa. From the moment we arrived at the airport, however, I recognized a country with a deep, rich history that had its own unique culture but was not much different from our own at its core. That being said, I left craving the connectedness of the people through the spirit of Ubuntu and the care and attention the South Africans place on the earth and on relationships. I got a taste of the culture, and I hope one day to return to learn more!

—Kelsey Holderman, MDiv/MACEF candidate

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Our time in South Africa was marked by art, history, delicious delicacies, and beautiful people! This was my first experience abroad and it was wonderful to be with my brilliant peers and inaugurate what I hope will be a lifetime of travel. We learned about the struggles of the past and the aches of apartheid that still remain for many people, such as the Khoisan and the residents of Bo-Kaap. Nevertheless, hope is alive in the hearts of many South Africans as they continue resisting, telling their stories, and embodying a legacy of freedom.

—Laura Fairchild, MDiv ’19

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I like to think about what the trip to South Africa meant to me in terms of a painting. If South Africa were a painting it would include a montage of images displaying its majestic beauty against its problematic past, merged with images showing the ugliness of poverty situated next to portrayals of its people’s remarkable resilience. The painting would be framed in a beautifully crafted and unbreakable frame of hope that was forged and strengthened by South Africa’s perseverance against extreme oppression. Yes, if South Africa were a painting, it would be raw and truthful, but overwhelmingly beautiful.

Michael Madison Roberts, MDiv candidate

Gilmer South Africa

A well-executed travel course can move scholars away from an ethnocentric perspective and towards humbly and respectfully attempting to understand other cultures. During our study in and around Cape Town, Johannesburg, Soweto, and Pretoria, we engaged a breadth of cultures and attending perspectives from indigenous persons, expats, pastors, church leaders, academics, business people, merchants, and a Khoisan Chief. I experienced several sober moments and times of deep reflection, including on the curb of Moema Street where, two weeks after I graduated high school, 10,000 to 20,000 Soweto school children faced police gunfire that reportedly left as many as 700 dead and more than 1,000 wounded.

Africans have much to offer to academic inquiry. Voices from the south provide valuable guidance for the exploration of cultural universals and cultural particulars as we face problems in our common humanity. As University of the Western Cape professor Dr. Demaine Solomons emphasized, one’s “worldview has everything to do with doing philosophy.” Johannesburg Dominican priest Albert Nolan adds, “…all theology is contextual. The difference is between those who are aware of this and those who are not.” I owe a debt of gratitude to PTS, Dr. Adogame, and Dr. Raimundo Barreto for providing space in South Africa designed to expand the context of my theology.

Rebecca Guillory Gilmer, MDiv ’19

SA2019 Green3

I loved all of the lectures presented in the academic program at the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Western Cape, but one of my favorites was Dr. Henrietta Nyamnjoh’s lecture on Cameroonian migrants and the importance of food and hometown associations in their culture. She talked about hometown association meetings being a place of belonging and protection and emphasized the intimate connection between ethnic foods and identity. She said, “The types of food migrants eat, the context for eating, and the company with whom they eat construct crucial aspects of individual and group identity across the lines of ethnicity, kinship, gender, and age.” Dr. Nyamnjoh called food an agent of memory and emotions that reminds us of some of the most significant events or people in our lives. This resonated deeply with me. I grew up in an agricultural community, immersed in a culture dedicated to producing and sharing food. So many of my childhood memories are tied to the sharing of food at the table, foods grown in my community, or “comfort foods” that kept us warm in the cold. When we consider food for the gift that it is, when we recognize the role it plays in our lives, we share stories and cultures and parts of our identity with those we share a meal with. And when we feel out of place or far away from home, as migrants may, we can share pieces of home by sharing the foods that remind us of home. I find this incredibly beautiful.

Kelli Green, MDiv candidate

Webb South Africa

I am still in the process of processing and thinking through all that I experienced. From the 20-hour flight to standing on the top of Table Mountain, I am still in awe of the beauty of South Africa. Overall it was a fantastic trip, but it was challenging at times and various points. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Afe Adogame and Dr. Raimundo Barreto for their leadership, guidance, support, and knowledge. It is difficult to put into words just how much I have been changed by South Africa.

Kerwin Webb, MDiv ’19

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One of the first things I realized once we arrived South Africa was that what I would learn would greatly surpass my expectation. I learnt a great deal about my professors, my classmates, and myself. Most importantly, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to step into the reality of others and attempt to see life as they see it, feel as they feel, and understand as they do. Whether or not that is achievable I cannot say but I would be more comfortable knowing that I tried. All these would lead me to the two major conclusions: First, the story of South Africa is indeed the story of the African continent. Second, travel courses are equally—if not more so—an essential component of theological education and should be treated as such. For through it, theory translates to praxis, theology takes on flesh, and love is let loose to soar among humanity. Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.

Ruth Amwe, MA(TS) ’19

An article about this course was published in April 2019 on The Quad. For additional details about the course, click here.

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“Through my field education placement at Trinity Presbyterian Church in East Brunswick, New Jersey, I discovered my gift to minister to all age groups.”