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Student news: From the mountain to the sea, LeaderShape is off to a busy start

The 30 engineering students participating in the LeaderShape Institute spent their first full day, Thursday, in Cape Town, South Africa, exploring a mountain, a waterfront and the diverse culture the city offers.

LeaderShape students on top of the Castle of Good Hope overlooking
                        downtown Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background.

LeaderShape students on top of the Castle of Good Hope overlooking downtown Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background. (large image)

The day began early; most students were ready long before the student coordinators made their wake-up rounds at 7:30 a.m. Duncan Fraser, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the South Africa LeaderShape coordinator, met them at 9 a.m., and the group set off for a tour of the campus.

Much to their surprise and delight, the tour of the campus was very brief and Fraser guided them instead to Table Mountain, a major landmark in Cape Town and its dominant backdrop. At its peak, the mountain is 3,566 feet, but the group only hiked around the base; the travelers will be ascending the mountain on Friday if weather permits.

Thursday’s hike was intended to help the students fight off jet lag. Sunshine and exercise are the way to beat the fatigue and help the body readjust, according to Fraser. And the students had plenty of both. The late morning was bright and warm, but the summer wind known as the Southeaster kept the heat well checked.

Fraser, who grew up all over South Africa and settled in Cape Town after attending UCT, is very attached to the mountain. “My wife says my foot is tied to Table Mountain,” he says.

The mountain and its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean are what make Cape Town so interesting, he adds.

Over the course of the three-hour hike, the students got a taste of the much longer hike still to come. Alternating between gravelly, rock-hard and sandy, the red earthen path wound past a huge variety of plants; Cape Town lies on the north end of the Cape Peninsula, which is home to its own floral kingdom. After spending so much time sitting still, the students seemed grateful for the chance to wander around and view the city’s unique natural environment.

Downtown Cape Town with Christmas decorations

Downtown Cape Town with Christmas decorations (large image)

After finally returning from the mountain, the group hopped on a bright blue UCT shuttle, dubbed a “Jammie” shuttle, to spend the rest of the afternoon at Cape Town’s Victoria & Albert Waterfront. Considered a top tourist destination, the cluster of shopping malls and restaurants has an atmosphere of high-end consumerism, and many famous fashion designers are present.

Though some students took advantage of their first opportunity to buy souvenirs, many opted for a boat ride around the marina. They had the chance to learn about the historic buildings around the waterfront and spotted a few seals sunbathing. Like Table Mountain, the waterfront is another Cape Town attraction the group will return to in the coming days; it serves as departure point for those visiting Robben Island, the famous prison in which Nelson Mandela spent 20 years.

Duncan Fraser

Duncan Fraser, UCT associate professor of chemical engineering, at the base of Table Mountain on Thursday's hike. Fraser's wife says he has his foot tied to the mountain, and he doesn't disagree. (large image)

The waterfront also served as the group’s first taste of Cape Town culture. A variety of indigenous performers sang and danced in front of shops and restaurants. From an a capella group (whose moves looked like a South African can-can, according to one student) to a talented jazz quartet with a significantly sized audience, the waterfront was a lively introduction to the city. Students also learned to handle rands, South Africa’s currency, and the engineers had plenty of math practice in interpreting what a rand price equaled in dollars.

After a full day of walking and sightseeing, many students began to feel the jet lag. However, the night wasn’t over, and social worker Jonathan Hoffberg, who spent many years advising international students, came to perk the group back up and talk about South Africa’s history and Cape Town’s environment. From a UCT balcony that provided a panoramic view of the city, he pointed out the different neighborhoods and the boundaries between them. He provided tips for staying safe in the city—first and foremost was to show “hutzpah” (or gumption) while walking around. He also explained that Cape Town is a layered city with many social complexities, and even contradictions. “Few Capetonians even know the whole of Cape Town,” he reassured the group.

Map of South Africa

He offered insight into the differences students might notice between themselves and the UCT students they will pair up with Monday for the LeaderShape Institute, including different academic backgrounds and conceptions about race.

Jera Pashouwerand Emily Andrews in a drum circle

Jera Pashouwerand Emily Andrews in a drum circle (large image)

And then the highlight of evening arrived: the drum group, Drumming South Africa, arrived to teach the group African drumming. For the next hour, seated on chairs in a large circle, the students held a small traditional drum between their knees and mimicked the three drum-group members. Each member had his own method of telling the students what to play; one told them to hit the drum every time he took a step, and after a while, he hopped very fast. Another member sang a Ugandan dance song, which required the students to sing a couple of words in addition to beating the drum. At several points in the song, students flapped their arms, a gesture that resembled the Chicken Dance.

The night ended on an extremely upbeat note, with a couple of students saying they needed to go buy a drum.

Overall, the first day in Cape Town offered the group a look at the many pieces of this layered city. The natural and cultural elements the students experienced today are only the beginning, with more to come tomorrow: an intense hike to the top of Table Mountain.