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!

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