Hillary Engel - 2015 Program Participant

Students with djembes in White River South Africa

These are some of the students at one of our music hubs in rural White River. As younger students, they started out playing the djembe and learning about rhythm before moving up to the more advanced instruments such as guitar, piano, and drumset.

What inspired you to intern abroad?

I’ve always wanted to meet new people and experience new cultures. For me, just visiting a new place isn’t enough. I need to experience life in the rawest way possible, which is to live it the way the locals do. By interning abroad, I was able to immerse myself in South African culture, while also helping other people.

What made you select South Africa?

My reason for choosing South Africa is kind of a long story, so please bear with me! As a music education major (instrument-percussion), I had to give a final recital. This came in the spring of 2012. One of the pieces that I played, “Apocalyptic Passacaglia on a Theme by John Cage”, by Martin Georgiev, disturbed me more than any other piece ever had before. It is a snare drum solo, with videoscape accompaniment. The video in question consists of split second images of human destruction throughout the world. It showed flashes of Auschwitz, famine in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Twin Towers being struck and ultimately falling.

I was so moved by this piece, especially the images of Africa. I turned my recital into a benefit and was able to donate a few hundred dollars to the World for World organization. But I hadn’t done enough yet. The burning that I felt to be in this place, to see the people of the land that I had become so enamored with, was overwhelming. I researched AIDS in Africa and found that South Africa had the highest percentage of AIDS. So, I decided to try my luck and see if I could work in the country that I had become so attached to.

South African students playing the drumset

This student loved playing the drumset!

Why did you choose Performing Arts Abroad for your international experience?

I chose PAA over other organizations because it was the first organization that I looked into that had everything that I was looking for: location, music, etc…

What were your housing arrangements like in South Africa? What did you like about your accommodation?

While abroad, I lived with a host, Sonya, and one other volunteer, Allison. It was a two bedroom duplex, so Allison and I shared a room. Much to our surprise, and everyone else’s, the living arrangements worked out really well! I think my favorite part about that was getting to know these women and making truly lifelong friends. 

What was a typical day like for you in South Africa?

Each morning, Sonya would take Allison and me to work at the Casterbridge Music Development Center, as we didn’t have a car. Once there, we would usually do paperwork (grant proposals, lesson planning, etc.) in the morning, then head out to the music hubs in the afternoon to teach music.

What is one moment from your trip that you will never forget?

There wasn’t one specific moment that outshines all of the others. For me, the entire trip will forever be embedded in my memory. From stepping off the plane and going directly to Uplands College to teach a class how to play djembe, to spending weekends traveling the countryside and visiting the little places that only locals know, all the way to a quick vacation to Mozambique, getting up early to watch the sunrise while the local fishermen reeled in their nets on the Indian Ocean. The entire trip was memorable.

What was your biggest challenge in South Africa?

My biggest challenge was not have constant access to the internet, as well as being so far away from family and friends. Like most people my age, Facebook and Netflix are part of my daily diet, and I just didn’t have access to them while in Africa. Also, the nine hour time difference between Tucson and South Africa was very troublesome for scheduling time to Skype with family.

South African students playing marimbas

These students are at the other music hub in rural White River. Here, they are working on Amazing Grace on the full set of African marimbas.

What advice would you give to others interested in interning in South Africa?

No matter what, don’t go to South Africa with any preconceived notions of what you will find.  You will be wrong! Keep an open mind at all times, and leave yourself open to experience anything and everything. You’re not at home, so don’t expect the comforts of home to follow you across the world. And no matter what, find at least one morning to climb a mountain or walk to a beach to watch the sunrise over that beautiful land. It is a truly magical experience.

Why would you jump at the chance to go abroad again if the opportunity presented itself?

I have an unquenchable thirst for meeting new people and experiencing new cultures. I believe that the only way our generation is going to improve life for everyone on our planet is to connect on a truly global level. We need to meet each other. We need to experience life in each other’s shoes in order for us to understand each other, which may bring a little bit of peace back to our home.

How has interning in South Africa impacted your life?

Most directly, I have a network of friends across the globe now. While there, Allison and I befriended a couple of Swedish girls, who we now keep in contact with regularly. Beyond that, experiencing the stark contrast in post-Apartheid South African culture has opened my eyes to what we as Americans take for granted. The fact that some people here worry so much about what clothes they are wearing, or what phone they have, etc. it is incomparable to the issues of South Africa. I saw some kids wearing the same clothes every day. Some didn’t have shoes or socks. You could see the hunger in their eyes. Our “First World Problems” aren’t problems at all, but are just inconveniences that momentarily interrupt our flow.

Would you recommend Performing Arts Abroad’s program in South Africa?

Absolutely, yes. The people that I met through PAA and the experiences I had were incomparable to anything else I’ve ever done. I thought Performing Arts Abroad, with the help of the Casterbridge Music Development Academy, organized a wonderful trip for me and Allison.

If you could change one thing about your program, what would it be?

The only thing that I would change is the ability to get around. Not having a car was quite limiting in terms of who we could meet and how much of the area we could explore on our own. We always had transportation to and from the places we needed to be, but having that freedom, especially on weekends, would have been very nice.

Casterbridge Music Development Academy jazz band in South Africa

This picture is of Allison and the Big Five, the Casterbridge Music Development Academy’s in-house jazz band. They were even requested to play gigs throughout the community!

What places are at the top of your travel bucket list?

I would love to visit South America! Ecuador is the next place I would like to visit, so hopefully that happens in the next few years.

Did you experience reverse culture shock?

I did, yes. I had fully immersed myself in the culture of the area and had gotten used to life there, with those people surrounding me. When I got back, I suddenly had access to everything that I didn’t have while abroad--access to the internet at any given time, a Starbucks on every corner, and public transportation that was both reliable and safe. At the same time, these people who had become ingrained in my life were no longer there. While I was in Africa, I never really felt “homesick”, but I did as soon as I got back to America. I was homesick for Africa.