Q&A with UVA Alumna and Travel Blogger

Check out this Q&A from UVA Today with alumna Heather Mason, who moved to South Africa and developed a career as a travel blogger and writer.



Mason’s photo of her adopted hometown, Johannesburg

Mason recently sampled the food and wine of South Africa’s famed Stellenbosch wine region


Photo Blog of UVa in Cape Town, South Africa: Public Health Sciences

Emily Keeton studied abroad in Cape Town this past summer studying public health.


This picture is from the V&A Waterfront at sunset. This was taken on the first night I arrived in Cape Town, and I was in awe of all of the Dutch-influenced architecture, especially in this area. Although the Waterfront is primarily a tourist area, it represents a lot of the Dutch culture that is so ever-present in Cape Town.


This was taken at the main braai station in Town Two of Khayelitsha. A braai is a traditional South African barbecue, and this woman was grilling beef sausage and pork. This represents an integral part in the food culture of South Africans, and many people receive income through their braai stands in Town Two.

5This picture was taken during our homestay in Zwelethemba, Worcester. We found these girls walking around the neighborhood, and when they saw us they were very happy and asked us to play with them. We played a game called “Chakalaka,” which is named after a signature South African dish, and it is similar in nature to “Ring Around the Rosie.”


This is a street in the Bo-Kaap area in the more urbanized part of Cape Town. Bo-Kaap was previously called the Malay Quarter, and its inhabitants are primarily Muslim and Malay.


A children’s choir on Youth Day in Town Two in Khayelitsha. This year’s Youth Day commemorated the 40-year anniversary of the Soweto uprising of 1976, in which students of Soweto organized a demonstration against the imposition of the Afrikaans language in schools. The apartheid government wanted to implement Afrikaans as the main language of instruction in schools. On this day, we walked around Town Two singing songs and cheers for about an hour, and then the rest of the day was full of performances from the children in the neighborhood.


This is a house at the edge of Zwelethemba, close to where we had our homestay. Beyond the left side of the scene is a small valley of rocks, and beyond that is farmland. Even further from the farmlands surrounding Zwelethemba are the majestic mountains. Earlier this day, we had seen a young man wrapped in a white blanket being led off to his initiation in the mountains. Initiation only happens in June and December, and it is still a very sacred tradition in Xhosa culture that brings a boy into his manhood.


Everyday life of a boy in Town Two: boys playing soccer in the street in Graceland in Town Two. There are soccer teams all over the townships, and they even have tournaments every once in a while. There is not a soccer field close by, and so they just practice in the streets.


Final Reflections on Field School in South Africa

Hiwot Abate is a 3rd year Global Studies and Biology major studying abroad on the UVA in South Africa: Public Health Sciences program.

I did not know what to expect going into my first study abroad experience. After attending the public health field school in South Africa, I believe it has been the most worthwhile educational experience of my life.

This study abroad program was very different from others because it is designed to train public health researchers. Although there were regular language lectures and some discussions of experiences in the field, I spend most of the time learning from interactions with residents of Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa and discussions with fellow students and advisors. All of my courses on grounds at UVA were centered on lectures of theories; therefore, I never had a chance to learn from the Charlottesville community. The study abroad program allowed me to experience other types of learning methods. I immensely enjoyed the freedom I gained from working in the field. Even though the course was structured to fit a certain educational criteria, I felt like I gained more of an objective knowledge than I would have in a classroom.

One of the most exciting things about studying abroad was that I got to wake up knowing that I am in an unfamiliar place. I was happy to be attending courses that take place in the field because I was able to meet new people and learn new things about the community. I was very willing to learn the language because I knew I needed it to have a better relationship with residents. When I am not attending course in the field, I got to explore the beautiful and captivating city of Cape Town. I went hiking to Cape Point and wine tasting in the famous wine fields of South Africa, and took the ferry to visit Robben Island and the cable ride up Table Mountain. I did many fun and exciting things in South Africa that I would not have thought about doing in the United States.

When I thought of studying abroad, I was only thinking about what I would learn from the people of the new country I will be visiting. I actually learned a lot from the students that came with me from the United States. There were 13 other students and shared gender segregated rooms in a hostel. We spent 8 hours in the field during weekdays and the rest of the time exploring Cape Town together. I learned how to manage boundaries on and off fieldwork, and discovered my strengths and weaknesses. I improved my communication skills and approach to conflicts. Most importantly, I was able to venture out of my comfort zone and try new things.

Overall, this study abroad program has made me an adventurous person. The five weeks I spent in South Africa have made as much positive impact as the three years I spent at UVA. I feel very energized and excited about what the future holds for me.

A Tale of Two Cities

Hiwot Abate is a 3rd year Global Studies and Biology major studying abroad on the UVA in South Africa: Public Health Sciences program.

These past two weeks I spent most of the time traveling between Observatory and Khayelitsha in Cape Town. Observatory, a former settlement, is about 30 minutes away from Khayelitsha, a former township. The words settlement and township go back to European colonization of South Africa. Settlements are areas where only white settlers were allowed to live and townships were areas where native black South Africans who were chased out of their lands were forced to reside. Settlements and townships were strategically setup so that black South Africans are able to work in the settlements and return back to their respective townships. Now, twenty years after the end of apartheid, the stark difference in the standard of living between these two cities is very evident.

I reside in Observatory because that is where the hostel for the study abroad program is located. It is a very beautiful and vibrant city. According to Wikipedia, the black and white population of the city is about the same. However, like apartheid, most black South Africans work in Observatory and return home in the townships located around the city. I spent most of the days in Khayelitsha because it is the focus of the public health research course. Khayelitsha is 100% black and almost half of the homes are shacks. It is uncomfortable every time I travel to Khayelitsha to work on my research project and retreat to observatory to spend the night and enjoy the weekends. I worry about the perception of people in Khayelitsha since collecting qualitative data involves speaking with community members.

I am trying to ease this tension by creating relationships with people I am interacting with on a daily basis. I am also learning the local native language isiXhosa. Whenever I visit community members, I introduce myself in isiXhosa and use a local guide to fully explain the purpose of the research project. So far, I feel welcome in Khayelitsha and comfortable working in the community. The densely packed shacks do not define the people of Khayelitsha; therefore, I am exploring the community to have a better understanding of life in the community. I hope to gain a deeper appreciation of the community in the next three weeks.

Field School for Public Health Research in Cape Town

Hiwot Abate is a 3rd year Global Studies and Biology major participating in the UVA in South Africa Public Health Sciences program.

I am both excited and nervous about my first study abroad experience. I will be attending a Field School for Public Health Research in Cape Town and Khayelitsha, South Africa. The first time I traveled to a foreign country was when I immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. I am experiencing the same emotions I felt then.

I am excited to study in South Africa because I love the idea of traveling even though I have not been able to do it frequently. I have a profound desire to learn more about the different cultures around the world. I think this will be a great opportunity given the rich history and diversity of South Africa. I grew up in eastern Africa so I have always been curious about the customs and traditions of people living in other parts of Africa. When I lived in Ethiopia, I was taught about South Africa’s struggle against apartheid and the great deeds of Nelson Mandela. I also grew up listening to the amazing South African musicians and civil rights activists Miriam Makeba and Brenda Fassie. After coming to the United States, I was able to have access to historical documents that deal with the history of South Africa and artistry of my favorite singers. However, this information does not completely depict or represent the everyday lives of the people of South Africa. It is just a snippet of a period of time in history. Therefore, traveling to South Africa and working with local community members will provide me a more accurate glimpse of present-day life in South Africa.

I am very careful about imagining what I should expect in South Africa. I don’t want to make assumptions about people living in Cape Town and Khayelitsha based on the stuff I hear in the news and read on the Internet. I want to have an authentic experience so I am going to South Africa with an open mind and without specific expectations. However, I am nervous because I am a control freak, and a history and news junkie. I have a passion for knowledge: I like reading about things I do not know. But, I am at ease because this is a study abroad program not a tourist experience. It is structured in a way that reduces stereotyping and judgment, and develops critical thinking. I am also thankful that the study abroad course includes ethics of methodologies of public health field research. This will allow me to detect and avoid unintentional patronizing and offensive actions while working with local community members. I believe this experience will be worthwhile in a way that will improve my character and make me a better human being.