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The Albin/Juliars in South Africa

Letter from Susie

1 April 2001

Dear Friends and Family,

Wednesday (March 21) was a national holiday, Human Rights Day. Michael and I tried to figure out what was being celebrated - we understood the human rights part but why March 21? Usually primary schools are very busy with holidays - George Washington and the cherry trees and all that. But Anna and Noah could not enlighten us about this holiday.

Human Rights Day seemed just the right day to visit Robben Island. This is the place where Nelson Mandela and other leaders in the struggle were imprisoned. Nelson Mandela was here 18 out of his 27 years in confinement in this cruel concentration camp.

To get to Robben Island, you take a boat ride out of the Cape Town Harbor for about 30 minutes. There are great views of the city. When you arrive on Robben Island you get onto a bus and a tour guide describes the island. In the seventeenth century it was a refreshment station for sailors going around Africa; it was a leper colony for a time; during World War II it was an army installation. In the early 1950's it became a prison - for political prisoners and some others. But only black prisoners - others were sent elsewhere. You see the limestone quarry where Mandela was in forced hard labor with no protection for eyes or skin. This part of the tour was a "soft" introduction. We also learned why the holiday is celebrated on March 21. This is the day of the Sharpeville Massacre when 69 protestors of the pass laws were shot in the street. The pass laws made it impossible for non-whites to move around the country - one couldn't travel a long distance or even a short distance to visit friends or relatives or go to a wedding or anything.

Then you get to the prison. The first tour guide leaves you and another takes over. The tour guides in the prison were political prisoners themselves. Our guide was imprisoned in Robben Island for 15 years for his political efforts to gain the vote for black people and for democracy. We saw the terrible stuff, the torture, the tiny cells, and we heard the terrible personal account of the guide. There is no limit to cruelty, is there?

Three details about Robben island resonated with me: The first is that the reason for Human Rights Day on March 21 was largely unknown by South Africans. The second is that the former government sanitized Robben Island before turning it over to the current government. There are murals painted in the prison giving it the look of a very weird day care center. Paint experts were called in from abroad to remove the fresh paint to try to uncover the desperate messages and calendars prisoners had written on the walls. The experts determined that paint remover was used to erase these before the walls were repainted. The third detail is that it costs 100 rand to visit Robben island. That is ten hours of pay for a typical cleaning lady.

Noah and two of his friends went with us on the trip. The three boys asked many questions and the tour guide was very impressed and pleased with them. The boys didn't really understand. But a seed was planted and they will understand and remember the trip when they get older.

Even with all this bad stuff I am telling today, what is so great about this place is that there is hope. And I believe things will get better. This country is rich in resources - there is good land, there is energy, there are diamonds and other minerals, there is great weather and beauty - and there is good infrastructure. Excellent roads, communication systems. There really is enough to go around for everyone.

Early in March we toured the Garden Route which is a drive on the Indian Ocean east of Cape Town. The Garden Route starts after about 4 hours from Cape Town and continues through breathtaking mountain passes, fabulous deserted beaches, lagoons, semi desert areas, and charming towns for about 4 more hours to Knysna.

The first night we stopped in an old country inn, arose early the next morning, had a big breakfast on a vine covered patio, and went for a tour of a private game reserve. We were all in a 4 by 4 vehicle and we found many exciting animals including elephant, cheetah, rhino, springbok, and more. The guide let Noah "steer" the jeep and Noah loved that. Up until this experience the only real African animals I had seen were baboons in the parking lot at Cape Point, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.

Slightly off the Garden route (about 1 hour inland) is Oudeshorn, the ostrich capital of the world. We stopped at an ostrich farm and learned about this very dumb, beautiful, and tall bird. (Note: they do have very long eye lashes just like in Fantasia but they do not wear toe shoes.) Did you know that for an ostrich farmer, 65% of the profit comes from the hide, 25% from the meat and the rest comes from the feathers. Feather dusters and costumes for Las Vegas show girls are where the feathers go. Ostriches are a domesticated farm animal here. For me it is hilarious to see ostriches standing next to cows as you drive through farm country.

We went on this long weekend trip with Patrick Mclaren and his family. Patrick is the moving spirit of this whole South African adventure. He is a faculty member at Pentech and came to study at Rutgers for two years on a fellowship. He is the person who put South Africa into my mind, heart, and life. He is a dear friend.

Patrick has a time share at a lovely resort along the Garden Route. We shared the house together with his delightful family during the trip. The house had a large brick braai (barbeque) and to Noah's delight - it had a stereo system and tv. We watched Bill Cosby on TV. The resort is on the shore of a large and fabulous lagoon. There were catamarans to sail, kayaks and canoes. There were also two beautiful crystal clear swimming pools where I did some of the loveliest laps of my life.

I have figured out the secret of making each day a holiday with an evening full of enjoyment - the secret is to come home by 4:00. Unfortunately, the way I figured this out is because that phase of my sabbatical has come to an end. I drive over the kloof (mountain pass) to get to Camps Bay just in time to pick Noah up from the after school program at 5:30. Then we usually have to buy some food and by the time we have cooked, eaten and clean-up and done homework, it is time for bed. So I am still having a wonderful experience but the work has become more intense and my life here resembles my life in New Jersey a bit more.

In the last month I gave a talk at Stellenbosch University. I have very mixed feelings about that place. The talk was well attended and It is a beautiful place - but it is the cultural heart of the Afrikaner people. I find it difficult to warm up to Afrikaners though of course there are many that supported the struggle for freedom in South Africa and do try to help. Mostly, though, they are worried about the decline in their lifestyles - one servant instead of five. These people have been in Africa since the sixteenth century - they are really Africans despite their blue eyes and Dutch language. However, they are clearly not thrilled about sharing their home with the original inhabitants. On the brighter side about 30 percent of students at Stellenbosch are non-white, clearly a big improvement.

I also gave a talk at Pentech this month. It was the first I ever gave with Michael in the audience. Very fun. Patrick and I led a conference to initiate the new Master of Technology degree in Quality Engineering at Pentech. I gave two talks at the conference which was attended by 30 participants from various industries in the Western Cape area and several other Technikons in South Africa.

Also this month I gave my class their midterm examination. These tests are given in giant rooms set up for testing, perhaps 250 students from several different classes. The proctors are called invigulators. All the other invigulators were barking and screaming at the students. These teachers are terribly rough! My students did very well.

Quite unexpectedly we visited the Jewish Museum in Cape Town. We dropped Noah off at a friend's house and found ourselves free for about two hours and about two blocks from this museum. As a person who didn't know there were Jews in Michigan until I met Michael, you can imagine how surprised I was to learn about all the Jews here. Basically the Jewish community here is identical to the one in the US. People came to escape pogroms, persecution and poverty. They built businesses and synagogues and prospered. Their children became lawyers and doctors and writers. Some risked their lives for social justice. Others lived with the prevailing situation. The Jewish artifacts were all identical to those found in my house or in my grandmother's house. It was really familiar - no lions, no Africa - just familiar.

I love to hike so much and I have had my first hike here. Between Anna's extensive social life and Noah's fear of snakes I was starting to think we would never have a chance. So Michael and I took a hike together - our first without children in 16 1/2 years. I wasn't sure how it would go but it was great. We chatted, no one complained, no one had needs, Michael complimented me on my hiking skills. The views were great. We scrambled over rocks at the summit. It was so fine.

Last weekend we saw a movie called The Cup. MIchael and I took Noah. The movie was in Bhutanese with English subtitles and it is about Tibetan monks in a monastery who are wild about soccer - the Cup refers to the World Cup. There were a total of 6 people in the audience. Noah was probably the only eight year old in the Southern hemisphere to see this movie but he enjoyed it!

Anna is the belle of her high school. Just this week alone she was on the winning team in a debate with another school. Her position was that it is right to have patents on drugs (like AIDs drugs). Then she played in a concert today. This afternoon she had seven friends over for pizza and then they went to see King Lear at their school. Tomorrow she is going to work for an artist who is preparing an exhibition at the aquarium.

Here are some funny things in this country: People here shop for groceries every day and so it is rare to see a giant load of shopping American style. In fact our credit card needs a special approval for orders over 300 rand (about $40). You can imagine how popular that makes us with all the people standing on line behind us.

There are several English words in South Africa that are different from what we say in America. For example, we got a notice home from Noah's school that said: Thursday is a gala - bring your costume. Michael and I thought it meant a party where you come dressed in something special - a ghost, a king, a cat etc. Well, gala means swimming competition and costume means swim suit.

Since I am describing funny things I must describe our apartment in detail. First, I have to say we love this place - fabulous views, lots of room, lots of light, modern bathrooms (two) and kitchen, across the street from the beach. However the furnishing style is bordello - late nineteenth century. The living room (called the lounge in South Africa) contains two red velvet sofas and two red velvet giant club chairs. There are two chandeliers with curlicues made of brass. Each chandelier has six lamp shades that Anna says look like petticoats. One chandelier has ecru lampshades with fringes. The other has red and beige lampshades with tassels. There is also a dining table with six, red velvet (of course), upholstered chairs.

We have personalized the look of the place by including two networked computers, a printer, and a hub. Also, we have hung Africa necklaces from the chandeliers and sconces (did I forget to tell you about the sconces?) We bought a cloth with paintings of guinea fowl from Zimbabwe and we casually toss that over one couch or another to complete the decoration.

While completing this letter, I just received an email that my sister Joan and her companion Tom secretly got married several weeks ago before their vacation (honeymoon) in Spain! What a wonderful pair! What great news! A new brother-in-law and two terrific nephews and a niece.

I wish you all a delightful spring as I am entering into fall. I appreciate, relish the emails I receive from you. I do love this place but I do miss you.

I have never imagined that I would end an email as follows, but here goes -

Must sign off now. I am on my way to Nairobi.

Love and kisses to all,


© 2001 by Michael Juliar. All rights reserved.
Last updated: 15-May-2001