A passage to Sub-Saharan Africa through the e-STEER programme

Thanks to technology, in-depth experiences of faraway places are still possible despite COVID-19 slowing down international travel – as some 80 NUS students found out. Participants of the latest iteration of the NUS Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment (STEER) programme travelled to Africa, howbeit virtually.

STEER programmes are designed to familiarise students with the diverse socio-cultural-political-economic-business environments of fast-evolving region. Over the past decade, the NUS Global Relations Office (GRO) has organised a myriad of such programmes to countries and regions that are either undergoing institutional transformation, experiencing catch-up growth or have strengthened bilateral ties with Singapore and in the process, enhancing overseas career opportunities for our undergraduates.

However, with the onset of the pandemic, the STEER programme pivoted to a virtual environment, expanding its reach through a series of webinars and virtual lectures, e-networking sessions and vicarious cultural visits.

Held from 6 to 16 Dec 2021, the e-STEER programme focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, which includes countries such as Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa. The two-week programme engaged students with invaluable insights into the political history, economic and social development, management of natural resources, as well as the rich heritage and cultures of the region.

His Excellency Jean de Dieu Uwihanganye, High Commissioner of the Republic of Rwanda to Singapore, delivered an introduction to Rwanda, that gave the students a first look into this “land of a thousand hills”, rich in natural resources and biodiversity, which is also the most densely populated mainland African country.

Colonialism and slave trade are topics which are inevitable in the discussion of history and development of Africa, and students were deeply immersed in several lectures which enlightened them on the history of the slave trade, and its effects on African society and practices to this day. Professor Brian Farrell from the NUS Department of History presented an in-depth lesson on Africa, British Africa and the British Empire.

VR trips into dungeons

Dr Dorothy Takyiakwaa from the University of Cape Coast facilitated an enlightening lecture on the slave trade and slave castles. Her lecture was immediately followed by a virtual tour of the Cape Coast Castle, one of 40 slave castles built in West Africa used to hold slaves before they were loaded onto ships and sold in the Americas. Through the use of virtual reality (VR) headsets, students were able to view the dungeons at Cape Coast Castle, which were often the slaves’ last residence and final memory of Africa before leaving the continent through the ‘Door of No Return’.

Our students were enthused about the VR headsets used for the first-time in the e-STEER programme. Said Oh Jun Ning, Year 4, NUS Science student, “The sounds and sights were realistic, and it felt like we were exploring the place itself with a tour guide. Given that the entire programme was conducted online, the virtual tour was definitely a change of pace and scenery. It would be great if VR was to be integrated into future online programmes especially in the face of current COVID-19 restrictions.”

Norsheena Riyana, a Year 1 student from the NUS Department of Political Science, described the lectures on this topic as “different and personal”, as she “spoke with individuals whose ancestors were personally affected by the atrocities committed during colonisation, the transatlantic slave trade, and the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, instead of reading these accounts through academic articles and social media”. She also highlighted the virtual tour of the Cape Coast Castle as one of the sessions that she was most interested in, as “it was the closest experience to being physically there”.

A number of students among the participants this year had a keen interest in conservation and ecology, and the e-lectures delivered by representatives from the University of Rwanda and Rwanda Development Board further piqued their interest by delineating the broad considerations behind wildlife conservation in Rwanda, particularly on the population of endangered mountain gorillas which reside in Rwanda’s national parks.

The eye-opening sessions explained more on the costs and considerations behind biodiversity management in these precious land areas, and efforts to include and give back to the surrounding communities whose livelihoods are directly influenced by wildlife efforts and ecotourism to the national parks.

Joanna Hioe, a PhD Year 1 student from the NUS Department of Southeast Asian Studies, said, "The e-STEER Sub-Saharan Africa programme gave us the unique opportunity to survey the continent, with a panoramic view of its history, culture, economy, and geography, and literally savour it, with an audio-visual feast of its music and fashion, and tastes of its food. It was a rich buffet that left students of all majors spoiled for choice.

“The thoughtfully curated e-STEER programme opened my eyes to the plethora of ways that deep, meaningful inter-cultural and transformative encounters can still be facilitated through technology.”

Building friendships

The NUS student participants also met and built friendships with peers from Zetech University (Kenya) and the University of Rwanda, through two networking sessions organised for cross-cultural sharing of Singapore and Kenyan/Rwanda cultures and way of life. Schubert Goh, Year 3 student from NUS Computing, also delivered a presentation that shared with the Kenyan and Rwandan students on Youth Culture in Singapore.

On the last two evenings of the programme, students tucked into a delectable meal set from Kafe Utu, an African café and lounge in Singapore, named for the Kiswahili word for “humanity”. Though dining individually at home, it was an experience shared virtually, in appreciation of a varied African cuisine and learning about the history and culture behind the menu. 

Positive feedback

“We’re privileged and honoured to have partnered with many distinguished members of the diplomatic corps, government officials, academics, corporate professionals, entrepreneurs, and leaders of trade associations and chambers of commerce in delivering the STEER/e-STEER programmes,” said Mr Randall Ong, Associate Director at NUS GRO, who conceptualised the STEER programme from its onset.

“The feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive. We’re heartened that the sessions have facilitated tremendous educational value creation, such as in the analyses of social, environmental issues and business models, cross-cultural appreciation and professional networking opportunities for our students.”

Although the planning and implementation of overseas travel continues to be a challenge, NUS and GRO remain committed to providing our students with global opportunities for learning, albeit in alternative ways such as virtual immersions, to enhance the development of cultural understanding and skill sets in relating to a global economy.