/ 22 April 2005

A degree in the world’s cities

To a group of United States honours students, Cape Town’s Langa township is a home away from home. They have lived and studied there, learned the local lingo and dance routines, visited shebeens and parties, and simply hung out with their local buddies.

These students are the 2003 intake for the International Honours Programme (IHP) on Cities in the 21st Century. Affiliated to Boston University, it is one of three international programmes that send students to study overseas and live among different communities. Each year a broad cross-section of students from US universities are selected to spend extended periods in New York, Chennai and Bangalore in India, and, of course, Cape Town. The final leg of the travelling course, which runs from February to May, is in Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil.

The programme combines an innovative urban studies academic curriculum with fieldwork involving NGOs, grassroots community groups and urban policy makers. Multidisciplinary experts – both local and from the US – provide tuition. In addition to attending lectures, students experience ‘home stays” – living with families in the southern suburbs and Langa.

It’s all part of a new approach to higher learning through the university of life: replacing education’s elitist corridors with a more street-eye view.

This particular course provides students with the tools in urban literacy, enabling them to ‘read” a city and understand what makes an urban environment work, how policy decisions are made and in whose interests.

Although the IHP was formed in 1956, the programme on Cities in the 21st Century is only in its fifth year. The IHP offers undergraduate participants 16 credits which count towards their degree. This year, 30 students were chosen to do the programme.

‘The students have benefited enormously by visiting these cities,” says one of IHP’s South African co-ordinators, Jenny Harris. ‘Not only do they get a crash course in the complexities of urban life in other countries, they return to the US as ambassadors for these countries.”

Urban community programmes included the ‘Men on the side of the road” project – an initiative spearheaded by social worker Charles Maisel to make life more manageable for scores of unemployed men seeking temporary work at the city’s busy intersections. The students observed and sometimes participated in Maisel’s efforts to provide the men with shelter, training and tools.

They also embarked on community-based tourism projects such as Adventure Kalk Bay, which aims to benefit previously disadvantaged fishing communities. Then there was the Invubu project involving Rondevlei nature reserve. During a day tour to the reserve the students explored ways of developing sustainable tourism and conserving urban wetlands.

And the undisputed highlight was Langa. The Jika Ensemble – a Langa-based performance group – welcomed them to the community by teaching them songs and dances. They were then whisked off to the various ‘families” who would host them during their stay. Lectures were held at the Guga Sithebe art centre. But the most enriching lessons occurred at street level.

‘It was such an extreme contrast to the sedate manicured southern suburbs,” recalls Harris. ‘They were immediately embraced by the community, and given gracious access to shebeens, spazas and other aspects of street culture.

‘They discovered more about the city than many who lived here all their lives.”