Journey to the South

Sixteen KUA students and faculty travel to South Africa for the 4th GAIL Conference


Alexis Liston

A group picture in Cape Town

Australia, China, India, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and the United States. Five continents, seven countries, sixty-five young delegates, one host school and one overarching theme.

Each summer, a select group of private schools from across the globe gather to share resources, experiences, and thoughts on international issues. Kimball Union Academy is a member of this collective of schools, also known as  GAIL (Global Alliance of Innovative Learning), and ten students and six faculties attend the yearly conference, traveling to the host country and participating in immersive workshops.

2017 GAIL family: delegates from all seven schools pose for a picture in their 2017 sweatshirts

This year’s GAIL Conference was held at Prestige College in Hammanskraal, South Africa during the first week of July. Each year the conference sets a theme that is designated by the hosting school, and this year’s theme was “Ubuntu,” which translates to  “I am because we are,” an expression drawn from Afrikan and which highlights an individual identity that relies on a communal sense of bonding.

Besides the week at Prestige, Kimball Union delegates also traveled domestically in South Africa to see the wonderful landscape and experience the unique African culture.


The streets of Soweto are busy and bustling with cars and buses.

“My time in South Africa was certainly an eye-opening experience,” junior Julian Erhard wrote in the reflection paragraph for this trip. The trip started in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. The first two days were designated for sightseeing around Johannesburg. The group toured the township of Soweto, home of Nelson Mandela, and the Apartheid Museum with local guide Simphiwe, who provided “a wealth of information,” according to faculty chaperone Mr. Hunnewell.

Soweto’s streets see all kinds of traffic. Here, performers play music and dance on a main thoroughfare

The Apartheid museum left an impression on the group, particularly the way visitors were initially processed. Admission tickets randomly assigned each visitor an ethnicity, which entrants identified as either black or white. Visitors then had to enter through their assigned entrance — again, “black” or “white” — which immediately created a sense of tension and segregation. All tourists, including the KUA delegate group, experienced what it was like to be categorized based on one’s ethnicity, and the effect was striking.

The Apartheid Museum separates its visitors based on a randomly assigned race to recreate the experience of racial segregation and profiling.

Before the conference had its official kick-off, all the GAIL delegates were introduced to the surroundings with a scavenger hunt. Afterwards, the project assignments (in-line with the “Ubuntu” theme) were delivered to the groups. Each group was given a prompt and asked to come up with a visual and kinesthetic presentation for the end of the conference.

The GAIL conference kicks off with a performance of traditional South African singing.

The official opening featured Prestige’s own song and dance performance that represented the African culture. “I think one of my highlights of the entire conference was the opening ceremony that Prestige put on. The performance began to immerse us into the South African culture, while still being extremely entertaining and lively,” sophomore James Surgenor described after the trip.  

Dr. Bruce Copley, a holistic animator and former university professor, gave his speech and announced that he would be the educational instructor this year. The following days of the conference were filled with workshops and events dedicated to “Ubuntu.”

Dr. Bruce Copley speaks at the opening ceremony

Every night a participant school would lead an “evening entertainment segment”: the leaders would share their traditional or cultural games with the rest of the group. Kimball Union delegates brought ultimate frisbee to the African continent, and, despite a lot of crazy running, everyone had an enjoyable time.

The conference ultimately finished with the visual and kinesthetic project presentations. The kinesthetic part turned out to be breathtaking debates that ignited the audience. Following the visual presentation of the posters from each project group, conference members were invited to take a closer look at the posters now being displayed in the lobby. The closing ceremony ended with an ebullient dancing party; Prestige invited a local band for a live performance.

“During that week, Prestige felt like another home to me. When we arrived, we were welcomed by the students of Prestige with hugs and bright smiles,” junior Natalie Paine wrote in her reflection. “I spent a week with these incredible individuals, and it felt like I had known them my entire life. We tried to imitate each other’s accents, asked about the differences between our countries, and created memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

Zebras are a common sight at Kruger and serve as prey for the local predators

After the week-long conference finished, the group travelled to Kruger, one of the largest game drives in South Africa, in the area of Mpumalanga. Its diversity and high density of animals including the “African Big 5”: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalos. Besides these iconic residents of the savanna, thousands of other mammals make their home there as well, not to mention a plethora of birds, reptiles, and other species unique to the African continent.

One of the “Big Five,” elephant sightings are a rare treat at the nature preserve.


The week to follow was highlighted by a close interaction with elephants and a stop at the Blyde River before heading to Cape Town. Cape Town is famous for its tourism as a former colonial city on Southwest coast.

Delegates were treated to an unparalleled view of Cape Town

While there, the group began with visiting local townships, including some nonprofit organizations like a local preschool, a community center, and a community garden. The group interacted with preschool children and joined in a performance of African culture at the community center.

KUA GAIL participants had the chance to work with children at the nonprofit center

As junior Andy Lin recalled to the experience, “[The aforementioned establishments] exemplify the effort made by the local people to improve and bring themselves out of poverty. I was particularly moved by the joyful and hopeful nature of the locals, despite poor and difficult living conditions.”

Travel offers a chance for connection: Charlie’18 playing with the children


Cape Town’s famous landmark, Table Mountain, proved to be a breathtaking venture for the group. As one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World,” Table Mountain certainly deserves the title. Two experienced guides led the way as the students and faculty climbed; the hike was about two hours long (with breaks), and  the top exhibited a spectacular view of Cape Town from high up among the clouds.

Table Mountain offers stunning views

The following days were all about nature: delegates were treated to “a Cape Peninsula tour with stops to see an island bustling with seals; the southwestern most tip of the African continent-the Cape of Good Hope;  and Simontown, home to South Africa’s navy and a penguin colony 900 strong,” said Mr. Hunnewell.

Penguins abound at Simon’s Town

The group spent the last day of sightseeing on Robben Island; the island had been a prison, an asylum, and a military base at various points between the 17th and 20th centuries. Now, it serves as a museum. It took about forty minutes of boating to get to the island, and the group went on a bus tour that stopped at several specific buildings. Robben Island was famously known because of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment there; the historical significance of Mandela’s time there hit home for the touring Wildcats, and the group spent time exploring and reflecting in the quarter where he was held captive for 18 years.

Recreating the past: the view looking out from inside the prison helps students understand the impact of apartheid

While walking through the prison quarters, the group was joined by their guide, who was a former political prisoner. It was challenging for him to come back, and everyone in the group was impressed with his courage. As the boat departed from Robben island, members of the trip finally began to realize the three-week long trip was almost at its close.

The students’ Robben Island tour guide was one of the former political prisoners

“I’m not really sure what adjectives to use for the South Africa trip,” senior Riley Dole said in her reflection, “[but] It was definitely one of the highlights of my summer.” Similar to Dole’s comment, senior Charlie Myers also described this trip as “one of the most amazing trips I have ever gone on.”

Next year’s GAIL Conference will be held at Kimball Union, and the set theme is “Leadership and Ethical Decision Making.” Any students in grades nine to eleven can apply. For inquiry, please contact Ms. Erin Mellow and Mr. Joshua Hunnewell.