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University of Richmond kicks off South Africa Week: ‘Richmond has much to share and learn from our peers’

RICHMOND, Va. -- More than 50 members of the University of Richmond's international community gathered on campus Monday to kick off South Africa Week. The week is intended to celebrate and educate the greater Richmond community on the cultures and history of Africa's southernmost country.

Each year, the school picks a country to celebrate during International Education Week, a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and Education. Dean of International Education Martha Merritt says that the university chose to focus on South Africa because of a belief that the Richmond community, as well as the United States as a whole, can all benefit from learning about South African cultures and practices.

"South African Culture is about coming together, and almost everyone can find a way to relate," Merritt said. "From contrasting cultures of protest to debates about monuments, Richmond has much to share and learn from our peers in South Africa."

Members of local dance African dance company Ezibu Muntu led a group of chanting and dancing parade-goers on a "Bok Walk" from the University Forum to the Carole Weinstein International Center for a celebratory breakfast and speeches by South African community members. Attendees from a myriad of cultural backgrounds wove around the university's campus, sporting traditional colors, and waving South African flags to the beat of Ezibu Muntu's djembe drums and shekeres.

Named in honor of the springbok, South Africa's national animal and rugby team mascot, the "Bok Walk" brought a burst of energy and music to the otherwise quiet campus, drawing students in and growing in size before finishing with a dance ceremony at the International Center.

Through traditional food, music, art,  film, and dance, the week's programs urge Richmonders to explore the themes of justice, inequality, environmental stewardship, and commemoration that have come to define South African culture. Monday's Bok Walk and Breakfast was just the beginning of a week of educational events, including photo exhibits, an international dinner, and an illuminated tree walk.

University of Richmond senior and South African Mo Coovadia says that deep, human-to-human connections through sharing food and conversation are crucial to South African culture - a concept that is believed to be growing increasingly absent from Western cultures thanks to the rise of cell phones and social media.

Coovadia says that because his extended family lives in South Africa, his immediate family has worked to connect with other South African families in the area to celebrate holidays and connect through their shared culture and foods.

"We maintain our South African connection by seeing each other around once a month, and it's a nice balance between American culture because we're so thankful to be here, but also can have our connection back home."

"I think food in any culture is one of the best ways to bring people together," Coovadia continued. "South Africa is a very diverse country, it's a country within other countries, but what I see when I go there, and what my parents have told me as well, is that regardless of who you are or where you come from you can go to South African and interact with so many different people over just a simple meal."