Monday, November 21, 2011

My Year as a Rotary Scholar, In Review

My time as a Rotary Scholar is winding down, much faster than I ever imagined.  Luckily, I will be returning to Cape Town in January but in a way it is still the end of many things. For example, when I return i'm no longer an official rotary scholar, though  I will stay as involved as I can.  Also, most of my friends will be moving on as well so I will be starting over in many ways when I return.  Therefore,  I am stuck between this weird feeling of closure and excitement for returning home and then starting fresh when I return to the Cape in January.  I would like to focus on some highlights of recent events and people i've found to be inspiring during my time here.

Firstly, I've been working with my old spanish teacher at Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Atlanta, GA (my old high school) to form a sister school (a long term relationship with a yearly exchange) with a school here in Cape Town.  I struggled the first few months to find a school willing to spend the time on this, but things fell in to place in July thanks to a Rotary connection.  For the last 5 months or so i've been working with the interact club at Groote Schuur High School in Rondebosch.  The students in the club are extremely bright students, mostly women, from Eastern Cape, Cape Town, Namibia, and other areas of South Africa.  I've had a great time getting to interact with him, giving them access to the blog they use to communicate with students in Atlanta, and scheduling a skype session for them to all interact.  Finally on Monday we had our first Skype session!  I was worried because you never can tell with the internet here, it is barely fast enough to have a decent conversation on skype on a good day let alone handle video for 30 minutes.  But, everything fell into place and we had a great conversation.  It is difficult to explain the positive and exciting vibe that took place.  The students were all so enthralled with each other, and you could see that the young women here took pride in their cultures.  This is often complicated here because of the political history surrounding race and different cultures.  In addition, I think the students were surprised to see how much they had in common.  Another highlight of this conversation was seeing the young girls react to seeing an American boy! They equally delighted to hear that he was in fact an American football player!  Also, it was great to see how impressed the students in Atlanta were to hear the students speaking in Xhosa (one of the 11 official languages here, involving 3 different types of clicks). All in all I think they had a good time and were able to find similarities and differences in their lifestyles and cultures.  These students here only know about American culture from TV and it is nice for them to get to find new pathways of communication with students in America.  Below is a picture of the interact club communicating with the students in Atlanta.  I am hoping that this is just the beginning of many more skype sessions to come! I can see the positive effect it has had already and i'm happy to have been a part of the initial stages.

I've also spent the last month doing research for my thesis.  Again my thesis is looking at how different government departments and levels of leadership interact surrounding flooding issues in informal settlements.  I'm looking at a case study of an informal settlement in a detention pond.  Recently i've interviewed community leaders, and representatives from different city government departments as well as a representative from the disaster risk management department.  I also was able to help my professor and some colleagues with a workshop for various government representatives about risk response.  It has been a good opportunity for me to learn how various government departments function and collaborate around issues of risk and flooding. (pictured below). From my research i've also been able to get multiple perspectives about the various complexities of managing informal settlements.  Working with city representatives and researching in the informal settlement of Graveyard Pond has definitely been a highlight of my time here.  It has also helped me figure out what I might want to do next when I have finished my degree.

One story i'd also like to share is about a women who works on the corner of the street I live on selling the "big Issue".  The Big Issue is a magazine that employs vendors from disadvantaged areas (mostly townships).  I pass Cynthia often as I walk to the bus and we always exchanged casual friendly greetings. Recently I decided to stop and ask more about her.  We talked for a while and it turns out she is in her 40s, is raising children, working at the big issue and has managed to get training in over 10 different areas of social work.  She has certificates from workshops on sexual abuse, drug abuse, leadership, etc.  She informed me that she has been working to get a bursary for the University of the Western Cape so she can study social work next year and get a degree.  Because of her situation growing up whatever it may have been, she never graduated so she even worked hard recently to matriculate (graduate) and get a high school certificate.  Unfortunately she was denied bursary because of her low scores.  It is a tough balance here, well anywhere really when it comes to race, poverty, and education.  But, Cynthia's efforts to get a degree and become a social worker so that she can move out of Khayelisha (one of the larger townships in Cape Town) and make a bigger impact is inspiring to see.

So, as I sit and reflect on my time here I feel as though my work is not done.  I would like to formalize this sister school relationship if possible, continue exploring my research question, and hopefully get some experience doing some teaching next semester.  I am hoping to work with another student to form a society where science departments send students into high need schools (mostly township and informal settlement areas) to do science education.  This is a gap that definitely needs to be filled and I think it would be mutually beneficial to have different UCT students in schools getting kids excited about science. I would also like to help University of Cape Town formalize service learning a bit more through this society if it goes well.  I am not sure what the next step will be for me, but i'd like to finish the work i've started here and then see where opportunities take me.  All in all i'm grateful to Rotary International for sending me here to Cape Town and I look forward to returning after a few weeks home in the U.S.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Winter in the Cape

Winter here has come and gone, so i'm going to try and recap my whereabouts, projects, and experiences and take a bit of time to reflect on these.  Since the last time I posted, classes have started as well as the thesis proposal process of my Master's.  I 've become more involved in a few service projects but have still struggled to get a long-term project on the ground and running.

This semester started off with a bang.  As soon as classes started, the whole thesis process really started to speed up.  I was lucky to have found a PHd student who is helping me with my research.  For those of you that are curious, I will be studying cross-scale collaboration and planning in an informal settlement here under the backdrop of adaptation and barriers to adaptation.  This topic will allow me to be exposed to life in informal settlements, speak to community leaders of informal settlements as well as ward counselors and government officials, and really understand more about how these various actors interact.  It hopefully will also bring positive government attention to this area.  The informal settlement i'm researching was built in a detention pond, an area created for the drainage of stormwater, and therefore it is essentially an area that cannot be lived in due to the extent of flooding.  Yet, there is a community of over 2,000 people living in shacks that constantly flood which results in a variety of issues i.e. health problems, destruction of property, etc.  I have decided to try and have my Master's thesis at least contribute to a solution to this issue by putting a bit of pressure on the government to do something about it.

In terms of service, it has been difficult to go consistently to an organization to volunteer because my class schedule is constantly changing, which can be frustrating.  I manage to go to a SEED garden in Paarl when I have free time (Schools Environmental Education and Development).  SEED is an organization that sponsors gardens in schools around Cape Town in order to educate students about the importance of plants as well as provide some nutritional foods in the schools.  It is a very interesting non-profit particularly for my field and I hope to stay involved with them especially as my time frees up.  Also, in conversing with a friend I met through a study abroad program a few weeks ago i've been trying to increase exposure to volunteer opportunities throughout Cape Town through creating a website where people can go and see what non-profits are available.  I was also looking at doing some workshops for non-profits to utilize short term volunteers with the help of a friend who has relationships with various non profits.  It has been difficult though to tap into the University because there is not one set office for volunteering or really a structure to encourage volunteering outside the few organizations on campus.  Therefore, i'm struggling to decide whether this project will be sustainable if there is not a system already in place.  Hopefully though I will build on it, and someone will take it over in the future.   I would love to see more South Africans volunteering, so i'm keen to at least start bridging the gap.  I recognize though that it will be a long journey and may not end in a "success" right away.

Basically i've realized that things here take time, anywhere really, but here especially.  Although I do want to have a consistent volunteer opportunity, i've also been looking for a way to fill a gap and have a more sustainable project that I can walk away from and feel that i'm not needed anymore but have contributed to a good cause.  This is difficult though because to do this, a relationship needs to be built.  Building relationships takes time, and a consistant schedule which is hard to comeby with full time grad school classes.  Therefore these kinds of changes and projects always take time, and at the moment i've really debated on whether it is worth my time or if I will gain more from a direct project like volunteering for an after school program.  I would like to contribute something that will stay beyond my time here, but I constnatly wonder if maybe direct service will be a better choice.  It has taken me about 6 months to really understand this place - how it works, how volunteering works, the various undertones - in order to even identify the gaps. Now that i've identified the gap I am struggling to find people who will be here beyond me to help me with the project so that I can actually make it sustainable.  I know that students and young professionals want to volunteer but can't find the opportunities.  However, creating the platform for finding these opportunities, if done correctly, is a lot of work.  So, i'm hoping that down the line I will find the right connections to make this work because I think it could really add some value here.

Another project i've been working on is creating a sister school with my high school in Atlanta and a high school here.  I'm happy to say that it is now a work in progress.  I'm excited by the opportunity to work with local high school students on a blog where they get to talk to students in Atlanta.  It has taken a bit of time to lay the framework but things will start moving this week and hopefully the students will have a chance to interact over the next few months.  It is a great project and I love seeing how excited the students are to be able to skype with students in America.  It gives me hope that these young folks are so happy to share their culture, and eager to learn about others!

In other news, My dad came to visit me last week so I was able to have a vacation of sorts.  We went to Hermanus to see Southern Right Whales, which was a fabulous experience.  Then we headed to Knysna along the garden route where we did a canopy tour, visited a cat sanctuary, hiked around Tsitsikamma National Park, and went to the elephant sanctuary.  It was nice to get out of Cape Town and see other parts of South Africa and some wildlife as well. Also, it was a magical trip and reminded me of all of the wonderful things this country has to offer.  It's amazing how many different ecosystems exist here from fynbos to forest to coastal areas.

Well, that's life in my shoes at the moment.  Just getting everything set up to start making progress, hopefully next time I will have more to report on!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Camp Hope

Most of my blog entries have summed up periods of time spent in Cape Town with explanations of the various activities i've been engaged in.  This one however will focus on only 2 days of the last 5 months i've been here.  Why? Because those two days happen to be the most influential, amazing, inspiring, and intense two days i've spent here.  For those of you who know me, you know that I have a deep love and passion for camp.  Day camps, over night camps, wilderness camps you name it, i've probably been a part of it at some stage in life.  I dont know if it is the community atmosphere, the way kids respond to camp activities, the songs that are always sung in unison, or that it brings me back to my youthful days. Anyways, this weekend I had the opportunity to volunteer for a camp in Noordhoek, outside Cape Town, called Camp Hope.

Camp Hope was started by a Rotarian and suggested to me by a friend who is also another Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.  The camp is funded by the Rainbow Dreams Trust and is tailored to kids with physical and mental disabilities.  This camp was for children who are partially sighted or fully blind.
I've noticed that camps tailored to children with disabilities or diseases often have names with slightly exaggerated and often cheesy spins, but in this case Camp Hope was deserving of it's title. In only three days I saw transformation in not only the campers but the buddies (volunteers) as well. It was extremely powerful.

Going into the weekend I was told that I would be working with a woman who had been blinded at 18, only two years ago, and has had to readjust her entire life.  She wants to be an accountant, and must relearn everything in order to matriculate (graduate) and also become an expert in brail. I was nervous as I had no idea what to expect.  Putting myself in her situation, I think I would be quite frustrated, reserved, and may not enjoy a camp.  It turns out, she is an extremely powerful and inspiring woman.  She has definitely made the best of her situation, and I enjoyed every minute I got to spend with her.  The activities she accomplished in the weekend alone were inspiring.  She fearlessly tackled challenges such as rock climbing, goal ball (a variation of soccer for the blind), beading, relay races, tug of war, etc.  The best part of the weekend though was seeing her bond with other campers her age with similar challenges.  By the end of the weekend she had such amazing team spirit, it was wonderful to see her enjoying herself.

Another part of the weekend that was defining for me was dinner on Saturday night, not because I was starving by the time the braai was finished, but because everyone had to eat their food blindfolded.  This gesture of course was to honor our buddies and feel what it is like to be in their shoes for a little while.  I found it to be quite humbling, and what I remember the most was the conversation that arose from the activity.  Being blindfolded quieted me down as I focused on finding my food that I had deliberately split up into sections.  My buddy couldn't divide her food into sections, I thought.  I then searched the table for my drink, and decided it wasn't worth it.  I would have to eat my food without water.  Once I got a bit more comfortable, I began listening to everyone around me.  Everyone who was not used to such a disheartening feeling struggled to enjoy their meal.  Though it was funny to hear the other volunteers spit tomatoes out, or pass their cup a direction in hopes of getting juice; I know it struck a cord in all of us.  Not only did I get a small taste of what some of these campers experience on a daily basis, I was able to open conversation with my buddy about it.  Firstly, I heard another camper say "what does it feel like to be me for a change" with an upbeat tone of voice, knowing that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  My camper however began discussing how frustrating it can be, but how you take it each day at a time.  There were so many things I wondered about like how it feels to have to rely on other people all the time, what happens if you end up alone somewhere how do you know who to trust, how do you manage on your own in your house, etc.  Some of the questions she kindly answered, and others I kept to myself not wanting to overwhelm her.  All in all, it was a lesson for me on her strength despite her misfortune and what an amazing person she is.

There are moments of every camp where I remember why I feel so connected to it.  Strangely enough, when I think back through most of my camp memories they mostly have to do with music.  In this case, I was able to witness a fantastic musical camp moment.  For the talent show, one of the women in our group (fully blind from birth) came up with a very catchy tune about her time at the camp.  She then played a few chords on piano to match it.  A few minutes later, our group had written an entire song about Camp Hope.  At the end of camp, we all got together and sang the new campe hope song, written by our camper. It was powerful. Something about this moment, made everything else disappear and I felt nothing but pure bliss.

For a split second I think we were able to make kids and adults who are faced with adversity feel normal, and that is a powerful thing.  I recognize that a weekend at camp doesn't change their situation, and each of them will have struggles with their disabilities that we cannot imagine.  But, there will be times when they can look back at camp and remember what they accomplished, the people they met, and what it felt like to have that community of support and hopefully they will feel lighter. even for a second..

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Fall in Review

Sorry folks for the two month delay! This post will be a summary of what i've been doing, and some of the things i've learned.  The past few months have felt like a whirlwind of Rotary speeches, homework, and out of town visitors.  It is basically winter here now so the weather has changed a bit and brought the rain and chill.  It is amazing how the grey days can change how I feel about the city or be the perfect compliment to drinking tea and watching movies. The sunny days, though they are fewer and farther between now, always remind me what a beautiful place it is here.

Classwork, Research, and Field Trips!: Classes picked up the last month or so, so I've been researching and turning in assignments.  I have also been working on finding topics for my research.  At the moment, I am looking to work in Imizama Yethu, a township in Hout Bay that is experiencing sanitation issues and hence having issues with water quality.  Other possible projects include working with this livestock farming community, assessing the amount of plastic waste in the creek beds in town, or exploring how townships decrease vulnerability to stormwater and flooding. I haven't figured out specifics, as i'm trying to find a niche within this topic that interests me, but those are some ideas at the moment.  I had the pleasure of going on a field trip for class to the West Coast National Park.  We learned about the issues facing Langabaan lagoon traditional fishers.  The fishers have struggled to maintain their livelihood in the face of a Marine Protected area that prohibits them from fishing in a part of the estuary they have always had access to.  We were able to meet with fishers, and National Park guides to hear both sides of the debate.  IT was a good hands on example of how science needs to be integrated into social sciences.  I am incredibly interested in this interface between science and society and greatly enjoyed getting to see it hands on in a local community.  The place we stayed wasn't too bad either!  We got to stay in a community based project called Duinepos which is a nice cabin style accommodation in the park.  We had a nice braai as a class and got to experience the bush for a night.  We also saw different types of buck and some ostrich, which are always a blast to see.

Rotary Talks:  The past month has been filled with Rotary speeches and meeting different Rotary clubs.  It began with the District Conference presentation which I had a part in planning.  Our task was to present to Rotarians from across the district about who the scholars are, where we are from, and what we are doing here in South Africa.  Our presentation went really well, and exposed me to various Rotary clubs across the country.  Since then I have been invited to clubs and have greatly enjoyed meeting Rotarians.  The opportunity to meet with different clubs has provided me with a great list of contacts for social activities, environmental work, and possible contacts for my thesis work.  All in all it has been a great networking opportunity.

A Piece of Home:  A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of a visit from my college roommate Bonnie and her friend Phillip from West Virginia.  I was able to do some touristy things like wine tasting in Stellenbosch, fish and chips in Hout Bay, drive to Chapman's peak and shopping in Green Market Square (a local market in town).  I was able to take them to a Rotary Club in Paarl and visit a township outside Stellenbosch where Bonnie used to volunteer.  On our way back from Stellenbosch (thanks to modern technology and the lack of real maps in the car I borrowed) we managed to get incredibly lost along a dangerous area at night.  (parents and friends, no need to freak out) This story is all to say that our friend Phillip stayed relaxed the entire time, while bonnie got extremely quiet and I began to freak out.  I was confused that he didn't immediately understand the kind of trouble we could have been in.  I realized later that the extreme wealth discrepancy can be avoided if you stay in certain areas of Cape Town, and therefore it is easy to not see the crime levels and extreme poverty that exist here.  It is hard to explain the complexities and divides of living in Cape Town, and perhaps as I reflect on it more I will be able to describe it in a future blog post.  But, I continue to be in love with the city, and intrigued by these aspects as well.

Speaking of crime, my Rotary Club of Roggebaai hosted a local writer by the name of Andrew Brown.  His book, Street Blues, addresses the complexities of crime here in Cape Town that he has faced as a police man in the Reserves.  He read a portion of a story he had written regarding his experiences responding to calls in various parts of Cape Town, and one township in particular.  He was discussing the ambiguity of police work here, and how he struggles to remain neutral and not recognize the humanity in others.  He spoke about getting to confront criminals and realizing that all of them are human.  Part of his story described an interaction he had with a child in a township that reminded him of the struggles of being a policeman, and the difficulty of having to judge a situation in the moment.

In other news, it is possible that I will be working with UCT to develop a solidified Service Learning structure so that more students are encouraged to participate in service learning and those that do receive credit for it.  At this point it was just a friendly request from my professor who is on the social responsiveness committee, but could be an interest project to take on.  I am also hoping to get to work with outdoor education in some schools with an environmental education non-profit.  In July my roommate and I are looking at traveling with some other scholars and friends in Botswana and Namibia.  I hope to get to spend more time exploring other parts of the country as well as doing fun cultural activities around Cape Town.