Thohoyandou, South Africa

Olivia Jones

For eight weeks, I worked on the MadiTrial Project where I studied access to clean water and its relation to childhood pathogen prevalence in Thohoyandou South Africa. We were partnered with the University of Venda and this collaboration shaped much of my work experience. Our work was a continuation of the MadiTrial work that was conducted in previous summers. Also the two year time period of the study was coming to a close so we were tying up some loose ends. I gained some valuable lab experience and confidence in my physical skills. Beyond that I learned how to collaborate with new people in spaces where I am not privy to the way everything works. I interacted with participants in the field and saw firsthand their interest and enthusiasm for the study. These conversations truly made me understand the importance of this study to the communities with which we worked.

What in the Botanical Garden: Piper, Sarah, LaChrisha, Merly, and I sat at the Thohoyandou botanical gardens with Kelly early in the summer. We had seen a sign for Botanical Gardens but had no idea if it was the same kind found at home. To our surprise it was a park where groups were having cookouts and birthday parties.

Thohoyandou is a smaller city about five hours away from Johannesburg and very close to the Zimbabwe border. The landscape is breathtaking, as it is in the tropics region of South Africa. This unique location brings the University a ton of students from Zimbabwe and other countries nearby. I was able to have a great group of friends that attended Univen and was not limited to South African students. Everyone we met was extremely accomadating. I worked in two Univen labs alongside students on different projects. From these peers I learned about other research efforts and personal goals that mirrored my own. Outside of work I was able to connect with one of my hobbies back in the states, volleyball! The Univen volleyball team became close friends to my group, and I attended their practices regularly.

In the Lab: Merly, Marc, and I took a selfie after a long day in the extraction lab at Univen.

I was extremely fortunate to see multiple regions of South Africa during my summer. I went on every weekend excursion that my schedule allowed. These experiences allowed me to bond with other students who worked on different projects and to appreciate more of South Africa. I visited Kruger National Park twice and had some quality time with elephants, giraffes, and hippos. I explored the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. I even checked off all of the big five when I saw lions on a game drive in Hammanskraal. I loved seeing different regions because of the diversity of people and landscapes that I could easily identify as belonging to one place. I remember the sigh of relief I always let out whenever I returned to Thohoyandou and saw our familiar home mountain range. After an incredible eight weeks, it was difficult to leave Thohoyandou and I was brought to tears at the end.

Summary quote: My experience in South Africa has changed me for the better, and I I absorbed everything I could to carry it with me. I now know how to identify common links across cultures that has helped me make lifelong friends.

Malaria Research in South Africa

A lot goes on behind the scenes of a study far before even the first data point is collected. Lab techniques are perfected, questionnaires are developed, permission from community stakeholders is obtained, and sometimes an entire platter of cheetos is reluctantly but politely consumed. These were some of the goals I achieved this summer (winter) while working on a Malaria research study in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. Piper, a fellow UVA student, and I worked together with Mukhethwa, a microbiology PhD candidate at the University of Venda, to prepare a study determining the prevalence and genetic characterization of Malaria in the Ha-Lambani region.

Working on the preliminary stages of a research project allowed me to understand the realities and logistics of implementing studies in low resource settings. Many moving parts are involved during this important stage, from university ethics committees to village chiefs and from local clinics to major hospitals. No two days were the same, as our team juggled various aspects of laying groundwork for our study. Some days were spent driving around to local clinics and collecting informational pamphlets on Malaria while others comprised of many hours in the lab hood, perfecting our DNA extraction from dried blood spot protocol. Other days were spent entering data from the Lambani clinic or meeting with Village chiefs to explain the study. One particular morning found us in the head chief of Lambani’s living room where we spent what seemed like hours chatting with his family while continuously being encouraged to eat more and more of the endless cheeto platter they had graciously prepared for us. The great diversity of goals and the challenges that came with them made me more patient, flexible, and resourceful. Resilience and determination are key whether you are facing difficulties in the lab or a ginormous platter of cheetos.

MHIRT and CGH students with the Univen Volleyball team. During our down time in the evenings we went to volleyball practice and made many incredible friends that we will never forget.

“I will always cherish the lifelong friendships formed with the incredible people I met in South Africa. Despite vastly different cultures and backgrounds, similarities always trump differences. Connections like these serve as a reminder that humanity is the greatest common denominator.”

What really made my experiences in South Africa as rich and beautiful as they were was the many amazing people I connected with. Most mornings would start with a simplistic but heartfelt Tshivenda conversation with Mama Mavis, one of the employees at Vevisa lodge. She often walked me around to other employees, holding my hand and laughing. I later found out she thought I resembled another employee’s daughter, justifying my frequent tours around Vevisa. Then we would head to the lab at Univen, where Piper and I would share stories and joke around with the many intelligent, witty, and incredibly kind members of the HIV/AIDS and Global Health lab. The lab even threw us a surprise party on our last day! In the evenings we went to practice with the Univen volleyball team, who became our second family. They showed us how to have a Braai, a traditional South African barbeque, and taught us how to cook many traditional dishes including pap, a staple food made of maize meal, and mopane worms. We all got Univen Volleyball club jackets to remember the time we spent together. I will always cherish the lifelong friendships formed with the incredible people I met in South Africa. Despite vastly different cultures and backgrounds, similarities always trump differences. Connections like these serve as a reminder that humanity is the greatest common denominator.

The HIV/AIDS and Global Health research lab at Univen on one of our first days there. We grew to become very close friends with many of the brilliant and supportive people in our lab.


Sisseton, South Dakota

Claire Kirchoff

Picture this: you’re sitting in a field surrounded by plants you’ve never seen, learning their individual names and purposes, while discussing important issues in the environment.

That’s what our first week in Sisseton, South Dakota looked like. Wrapping up week 1 in on the Lake Traverse Reservation felt like a whirlwind. The week flew by, starting on Monday with special talks from Dr. Howard Epstein in the Environmental Science department at UVA, and Jeremy Redeagle, a local Native plant and Dakota language aficionado. Before long, our students were passionately discussing prominent environmental issues facing their ecosystem and creating posters aimed at building awareness of an issue of their choosing. We’ve discussed topics related to health, sustainability, and the importance of bison to the grasslands ecosystem and Dakota community. Our mornings start off with group discussions and reflection time, and quickly evolve into small group discussions, projects, and individual journaling with provided prompts. Afternoons were spent in the field placing plot markers, collecting plant data, and practicing plant identification.

As an ongoing component of the lessons, we incorporate service learning and social justice into our discussions and activities through creating posters of environmental causes, writing speeches about mental and social health, developing plans to encourage recycling, and building awareness of the methods of reducing waste.

Student poster: “This is Earth. On the left side is how Earth used to be. On the right side is how Earth is now. See the difference? This was before and after pollution became known.”

With cultural differences constantly present, our group has learned so much about the history and culture of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe. Over the weekend, we traveled 2 hours south of our home base to an annual traditional powwow. Members of the Sioux tribe from all over the Midwest and Canada were present. Dances and songs were performed, including a tribute to the community of Native American armed forces veterans.

A local family has opened their home to me for the duration of our time here. I have enjoyed getting to know this family, their stories, and the challenges they face. Living with a family and spending time in their home has provided me with a glimpse of their place in time and within this country.

As a student and academic who is greatly interested in cultural differences and similarities, the experiences I have had over the last 7 days have been nothing short of eye-opening. With as much preparation, reading and researching as you can do, you’re never really ready for that cultural shift, even within your own country.

Limpopo, South Africa

Charlotte Brake

I had an incredible experience–thanks to the UVA Center for Global Health–studying alcohol-related sexual risk and intimate partner violence in Limpopo, South Africa this summer. Limpopo is home to the University of Venda, a rural-based university that UVA has collaborated with for years. Dr. Karen Ingersoll–from University of Virginia–and Dr. Angelina Maphula–from the University of Venda–led our team of ten students. Eight of us came from the United States, and two of our team members–Raymond and Tovho–attended the University of Venda.

            I spent each day paired up with one of our South African students in the rural village of Ha-Mangilasi, where we would walk door-to-door and ask people between the ages of eighteen and forty-four if they wanted to participate in our study. Observing Raymond and Tovho greet and interact with people gave me an authentic view of Venda’s traditions and customs. For example, before entering a person’s front gate or fence, they would yell the traditional greeting–”aa” for a woman, or “ndaa” for a man. If no one responded from inside, they would scream it a little louder, and then usually we would just walk in, with Raymond or Tovho repeating “aa”/”ndaa” until someone came out to greet us. Before anything else happened, the homeowner would pull together several plastic chairs so we could all sit down and talk. Tovho told me that was because it is seen as disrespectful in Venda culture to have a conversation while standing.

A giraffe spotted on our drive out of Kruger National Park.

            If someone agreed to participate in our study after we explained the consent form, we sat with them for about forty minutes and administered one or two surveys on our phones. The surveys asked personal questions about things like alcohol consumption, sexual behaviors, and experiences with abuse. Despite the intimate nature of the questions, people were very open. Many participants expressed gratitude, thanking us for opening up conversation about topics that they perceived to be important, and sometimes even offering us fruit from their trees as a token of their thanks. One woman picked me and Tovho eight basketball-sized grapefruits at the end of her interview. Two sisters even invited us back to eat a traditional dinner at their home.

Kelly McCain and Mukhethwa Munzhedzi walking through Leshiba Wilderness in their UVA Center for Global Health t-shirts.

The village we worked in daily–and Limpopo in general–felt very unfamiliar to me, but there were so many times when I was welcomed with open arms, which made me feel at home. For example, one family in Ha-Mangilasi invited us to park our car in their yard every day. When we returned to pick up the car at the end of each day, the grandmother brought out chairs for us to sit down and told Raymond and Tovho stories in Tshivenda–the local language–that they would translate to English for me. The woman’s husband tried to converse with me in Tshivenda each day, telling me how to respond and expecting me to come back each time able to communicate a little bit better. “We learned English and Afrikaans,” he told me, “Now it’s your turn.” He walked me to one of their fruit trees and picked nine or ten clementines for me to take home. They told me I need to come back someday to live with them so I can learn Tshivenda.

This was an amazing experience because I was able to develop true relationships with Raymond and Tovho, the South African students on our team, as well as many of the people I met while working in the village. I felt more welcomed into their culture than I ever could have anticipated, which I am so grateful for.

Megan and Charlotte looking out over the mountains at Leshiba Wildern.