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Virtual Exchanges Forge Global Connections

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Virtual Exchanges Forge Global Connections
Bullis Global Studies South Africa Virtual Exchange

Lionel Davis during the virtual exchange.

After the first-ever Bullis global studies trip to South Africa planned for June 2020 was canceled as a casualty of the pandemic, trip leader Sherri A. Watkins, Bullis director of publications and design, reimagined components from the group’s itinerary. She transformed the trip to South Africa as virtual experiences, increasing access to international involvement for a greater number of students than the group who would have traveled originally. 

“COVID-19 kept us from boarding that flight to cross the Atlantic last year,” said Watkins, “but I was determined to find another way for our students to have a South African experience during the pandemic, and support from a Parents Association faculty grant made that possible.”

All 6th grade social studies students expanded their worlds with a two-part virtual trip to South Africa’s Robben Island Prison, home to political prisoners during the Apartheid era and beyond. First, they embraced a Robben Island Challenge that included a virtual exploration of the island led by former political prisoner Vusumsi Mcongo, before tackling empathy-building exercises by emulating moments from prisoners’ day-to-day lives. 

For the second part of the exchange, students benefited from an enlightening conversation with artist and writer Lionel Davis. Participating from his home in Cape Town, Davis brought to life the experience of growing up in and later combatting the oppressive Apartheid regime. “We came from a society where we were divided; even Black people were divided—Xhosa separated from Zulu, Zulu separated from Tsonga, and so forth,” said Davis. “Because I grew up being classified as Coloured, I grew up disliking other Black people, because this is what the Apartheid government wanted you to think.”

It wasn’t until his imprisonment that Davis learned to live harmoniously with other Black people. “In jail we learned that if we did not learn to stand together, we were going to have a hard time,” he said.

Whether you are South African or whether you are American... if you just say everything is alright and you don’t stand up and protest, then nothing will ever change. Lionel Davis, Artist and Writer

Whenever he witnessed Blacks being mistreated by Whites, Davis would speak up. “I didn’t know much about politics,” he said, “but I thought this was the right thing to do. We should all be equal and be treated with respect.” The cause took on greater urgency when he enrolled in night school to prepare for better job opportunities and joined a political organization that was prepared to stand up against the White apartheid government. Activism led to arrest; convicted of espionage, Davis was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964-1971 before enduring an additional five years of grueling house arrest. 

Was the hardship worth it? “Yes, to fight is always worthwhile because if you just sit quietly and do nothing, it’s as if you are accepting what has been given to you,” Davis said, sharing this valuable lesson: “Whether you are South African or whether you are American or whether you are in England, if you just say everything is alright and you don’t stand up and protest, then nothing will ever change.”

Along with this enriching 6th grade experience, the PA funded a wonderful and creative way of exposing 9th grade Human Geography students to an immersive and interactive unit on race, ethnicity and institutional discrimination during a Fall 2020 peer-to-peer exchange with students from South Africa’s Muizenberg High School—working asynchronously on a group project before coming together in a live session to share their experiences.

Watkins is thrilled with this year’s successful virtual experiences. “Last year we would have taken 13 Upper School students on an Apartheid themed trip to South Africa, but this year 180 Bullis students interacted live with South Africans—fostering cross-cultural connectivity during a time of global disconnect, division, and separation.”


Take a tour of Robben Island Prison with former political prisoner, Vusumsi Mcongo


Hear Lionel Davis recount his Robben Island Prison experiences


This article is featured in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Bullis Magazine.

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