Scene 1: Day One in Mtshini Wam


We had spent 7 weeks of A term researching and learning as much as possible about the reblocking process in Mtshini Wam, and after all of this time there was still much uncertainty about what the groups role would be on the ground within the community. The idea was to be as open minded and willing to work on whatever work was presented to us, planning only to be involved in the reblocking process in one way or the other, while providing a model of successful upgrading to others through the story of Mtshini Wam. With these ideas in mind, we knew the bulk of our work would be down on the ground through the shared, action learning process with the community of Mtshini Wam.

After 7 weeks of research our team felt confident and excited as we went into our first day in Mtshini Wam. Although we had done a great deal of research and felt prepared for our first day, all the words like Mtshini Wam, Joe Slovo Park, Reblocking, informal settlement, taps, chemical toilets and formalized housing vs. informal housing, had new meanings upon our arrival to the community. The relationship between the formalized Joe Slovo Park and the informal settlement of Joe Slovo Park came to life as we drove into the settlement and saw the distinct lines that demarcated the informal settlement of Mtshini Wam’s informal shacks and the RDP houses of the formal Joe Slovo Park. On the ground, everything was put into perspective and the reality of the work ahead was in our sights. Regardless we were excited about the prospects!

Summary Notes of Scenes Below:

–          Initial aesthetic impressions of the community

–          Impressions of community progress in the reblocking process

–          First impressions of community leadership styles

–          Lasting impression of community feel

Cast of Characters:

WPI Student Group:

Zachary Hennings, Rachel Mollard, Adam Moreschi, Sarah Sawatzki, Stephen Young

WPI Project Advisors:

Scott Jiusto and Robert Hersh

CORC Liason:

Sizwe Mxobo

Community Leaders:

Khaya – Building Team Supervisor

Nokwezi – Community Project Supervisor

Luthando (Roots) – Compacting Team Supervisor

Klaas – Demolishing Team Leader and Technical Team Design Leader

Sia – Compacting Team Leader

Nonceba – Cleaning Team Supervisor and Savings Head Coordinator

Philasande – Cleaning Team Leader

Sibusiso – Building (Roofing) Team Leader

Hoarmann – Building (Siding) Team Leader


As we head to the informal settlement for the first time, our nerves are buzzing with anticipation. How will we portray ourselves so that these community leaders will see us not as a burden, but as a useful resource in their upgrading process? Jammed into the back of the taxi, we watch as the scenery changes and we turn off the main highway into the larger community of Joe Slovo Park. Exiting the taxi we pull a quick 180, trying to get our bearings in this city we barely know. The street is paved asphalt, leading into the settlement and behind me; Table Mountain and Lion’s Head frame the exit.  

When we walked in to the settlement the first thing we noticed was the uneven dirt roads leading up to dilapidated shacks and tilting porta-potties that reeked of urine. Piles of rubble surrounded the entrance and children were running around everywhere. As we was looking down to avoid puddles of contaminated water and to map my path through uneven footing, we continuously hit our heads on low hanging unofficial power lines draped between the roofs of shacks. We had no idea how anyone could live in a settlement such as this one.

Our party stops by one of the many shacks though this one has been adapted into an office, decorated with pictures of the reblocking efforts, maps of Mtshini Wam before and after, a “Welcome” poster and a map of the world. We were greeted by not only the community leaders, but the howling wind, blowing dust and debris in our eyes. The community leaders greeted us warmly with a new handshake and invited us into the office. What looked like an upgraded shack, inside it had been adapted into an office, decorated with pictures of the reblocking efforts, maps of Mtshini Wam before and after, a “Welcome” poster and a map of the world, with one of the three windows present throughout the entire settlement.

The tour showed the true extent of the reblocking process: starting in Cluster 1 we walked through the 11 finished clusters and then through the 14 clusters yet to be upgraded. I felt overwhelmed by thoughts on this tour. For example, looking at the size of the courtyards I was amazed that so much space could be saved by their reblocking plan but also shocked at how little space my eyes saw. Our brains compared what our eyes saw to what we’re used to in the States. It wasn’t a bias necessarily but a conscience realization of the differences in our lives.

The tour included many stops to pull out the upgrading layout and mark where we were on the design layout so we could better map Mtshini Wam in our minds. We were familiar with this pie-shaped community layout through our research but the actual scale was so much smaller in person than in the drawings. Walking through the settlement it was clear how much work goes into reblocking in a day-to-day basis, demolishing, cleaning, compacting, building and digging out the dirt to create elevated shacks, preventing flooding. As we walked from a finished cluster to areas yet to be completed, the work was worth the organization gained within the upgraded clusters. Pathways were small, made tighter by flooding and grey-water contamination, and fit where they could between the old wooden shacks.

We appreciated that as we walked, our guides pointed out what challenges they face through this process, showing us the physical challenge whenever possible. At each challenge they did their best to explain all of the players involved whether it is other community members, the formal settlement residents, the municipality, and CORC/ISN, etc. Roots, one of the community leaders showed us an example of a formal home moving into the city established land of Mtshini Wam. The extension of the house disrupted the original blueprint plans for Mtshini Wam, making the road plan curve to compensate.

The tour concluded back at the office with a question and answer session going over facts and figures for clarification. Here we felt a little like our research had been useless and we knew absolutely nothing. This wasn’t true but the different names for government departments and acronyms made us all a little overwhelmed and we felt bad – like we had spent seven weeks doing nothing. Of course after we read the enumeration report that night we discovered that we had been thinking of the same things but the language barrier had caused a few points of confusion.

After all questions from both sides were answered we enjoyed the humorous event of learning the different handshakes done by the various community members. The atmosphere was all fun and happiness – that happiness that comes from sharing a piece of your culture with someone who truly wants to understand. Instead of a few community members walking us from Mtshini Wam to the bus stop, the entire group escorted us, including two community dogs. The joking continued the entire 25-minute walk as we laughed and exchanged Xhosa and English words, the 5 members of our group butchering the fairly simple language of Xhosa.

Walking past the entry by the rubble pile the next day, nothing was the same. The wide, pale blue sky was warm on our faces, illuminating the zinc-coated shacks. As the sun shined off the metal, we realized we were watching people’s faces today, not the structures. We couldn’t count the smiles if we had tried. We had wondered why people would ever stay in this quagmire, but those smiles showed us why. Suddenly a destitute land became a land of hope, community and rich friendship. In our minds there was a sudden realization that this project is more than showing we are capable of improving a given process or building something. We are here to connect with these people. Taking the skills we have worked so hard to acquire and combining them with an nuanced understanding of Mshini Wam’s community and upgrading process, we can make these people’s lives better while also ensuring others look beyond the shacks in order to see the people and their amazing capacity for overcoming adversity.

Plans, Ideas and Challenges:

The first day left the group with a sense of hopefulness, but a deep understanding of the work ahead. In our brief exchanges with the community, we were able to form relationships all while learning a great deal about the work yet to be done. In a way, we were overwhelmed by the amount of information we had just taken in, but this feeling also helped us to see the abundance of opportunities for us to help improve the community with their help in the next 7 weeks. The plan for the second day was to brainstorm a healthy list of things that the community wishes to improve and sift through this list to find ways in which our Team could assist.