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8/29/11 - "Travel to South Africa" by Darigg C. Brown, Ph.D., MPH

Travel to South Africa

by Darigg C. Brown, Ph.D., MPH

Darigg C. Brown, Ph.D., received an ARC research grant in Fall 2008 for his project entitled "Reducing HIV and AIDS Stigma Among College Students in South Africa".

Thanks to a generous research fellowship from the Africana Research Center, I was able to pursue my doctoral dissertation research in South Africa, which focused on reducing HIV and AIDS-related stigma – one of the most negative and persistent factors of HIV transmission and a constant challenge in fighting the pandemic. I worked with young adults in university settings since this was a population that had been understudied, but whose attitudes and beliefs about HIV/AIDS were influenced very differently from other adults. University-aged students also engaged heavily in risk behaviors leading to HIV. I sought to test and develop a sustainable, culturally appropriate intervention to change stigmatizing attitudes about HIV/AIDS and about people living with HIV/AIDS based on a socio-cultural understanding of the population. Guiding my own research project overseas was both challenging and rewarding work. It was an experience I will never forget.

Fortunately, my time in South Africa was not solely occupied with work. I had many lasting and engaging cultural experiences, including a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. My visit transported me back in time to relive some of the atrocities that the Black and Colored South African majority endured. This cultural experience provided a much better perspective for me on how the events of some 50 years of oppression and injustice shaped the lives of so many who, today, recount that period with vivid acknowledgement and mixed emotions. Walking through the museum exhibits and reading the stories of both the oppressed and the oppressors confirmed much of the fundamental historical background, which I used to argue the relevance of my research study and its contribution to the science of HIV/AIDS prevention in South Africa. The stories chronicled at the Apartheid Museum were very impactful for me. They allowed me to compare, with little firsthand knowledge, what South Africa had been to the truly great nation South Africa has become.

Other experiences I had included visiting the District Six Museum in Cape Town, driving the Garden Route through rolling hills and laid back coastal communities, hiking and camping near Magoebaskloof in Limpopo Province, visiting a mosque for the first time, standing at the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans near Cape Agulhas, and visiting the world-famous Kruger National Park. South Africa is a nation rich in history and natural beauty. Its people are welcoming and inquisitive. This was evident from the numerous individuals who helped me navigate the logistical challenges of conducting my research and made sure I had everything I needed accomplish my goal. Also, I got to know many individuals and a few families who took time to share their stories and lives with me. They were some of the most hospitable people I have ever come across. I was treated like a family member, and therefore, had a much richer experience during my time in-country. I had no problem immersing myself in South African culture from then on.

The most challenging aspect of adjusting to the culture was getting a grip on some of the racial tensions and segregation that still exist throughout the country, despite the end of apartheid. I guess this is no different than the segregation and racism (whether subtle or overt) that still exists in American society. Though we might like to believe that things have changed significantly (and they have in many regards), or that hatred and racism no longer exist, the pure fact of the matter is that they do exist, and they still cut a deep wound when inflicted with the right combination of malevolence, inhumanity, and superiority. I could see it in some of the impoverished communities in outlying areas of South Africa’s major metropolitan areas, in the eyes of many of the Black cleaning staff and other service workers who bent over backwards catering to the needs of ethnic minorities and tourists, and in the opportunistic way that capitalism had strategically left so many individuals out in the cold. I even heard on the local talk radio programs how carelessly some people talk about the ignorance of Blacks, especially those who had immigrated from other countries, as well as the lack of compassion for those who had little more than a hope and a prayer for a better tomorrow.

Overall, I can say that I learned a great deal from my time in South Africa. I hope to visit many
times again in the future. It is certainly a unique and enchanting place that can leave you sad and weary or grinning from ear-to-ear and basking in warmth in the same day. I have developed a great appreciation for the country, as it has certainly solidified its position on the world’s economic, industrial, and cultural maps. Thanks to the fellowship from the Africana Research Center, my life has been enriched and I have been able to further my educational and professional pursuits at Penn State and beyond.