Scene 3: Big Day Implementation and Collective Learning


Reblocking Mtshini Wam has driven forward the mindset that continuous improvements to a community is a reality that informal settlements can achieve.  The 500 citizens of this community are willing and able to push for the rights that they deserve as human beings – a safe, healthy, and prosperous home, with benefits even surpassing basic services.  Being so optimistic, they were excited to hear our ideas for affordable and innovative assets we could collectively bring to reality within Mtshini Wam, including vertical gardens on the sides of their shacks, solar bulbs to provide daylight within homes, and a carpentry team to create furniture from the recycled shack wood.  What they were not very accustomed to, however, was the speed at which things came together for these ideas to flourish in their community.  It was difficult for our group to manage this time of production and inclusion of community members in the process, particularly since they had reblocking work that they could not afford to take time away from. With the added pressure to put something physical on the ground, our group felt we had to push the community to proceed with the  some of the gardening and other initiatives. It was not until this exchange with the community leaders that our group was fully able to grasp the intricacies that go into community decision making. Although this presented challenges, it was one of the most powerful learning experiences that came out of our project.

Scene Takeaways

  • With the production of 9 solar bulbs, 4 vertical gardens, and a day of publicity for Mtshini Wam, tensions were also produced between the student group and the community leadership
  • Discoveries of cross-cultural ignorance and community tensions toward the leadership were unraveled in a large meeting between the leadership, CORC, ISN, the Project Advisors, and the student group
  • Moving forward, we are excited to continue on the well-received community improvements while including the leadership on every step of the process, regardless of the timeframe in which they must happen

Cast of Characters

  • WPI Students: Rachel, Sarah, Adam, Steve, Zach
  • WPI Project Advisors:  Scott and Bob
  • Community Leadership:  Nokwezi, Sia, Khaya, Roots, and Kumbza
  • Touching The Earth Lightly’s Steven Lamb, Greencube Landscapes and Gardens’ Arlo Mitchell, and Global Worming Organic Solution’s Stephan Kloppert
  • Media and Politicians from the City of Cape Town, including JP Smith, Head of the Department of Safety and Security
  • Community Organisation Resource Center’s facilitator, Olwethu, a.k.a. “Jack”



Steven Lamb of Touching The Earth Lightly informed our student group on Monday, November 26th, that a vertical garden from Greencube Gardens and Landscapes could be installed on Thursday, November 29th.  He also said that planted crates and solar bulbs could also be provided on this day to show to the media and politicians from Cape Town.  With such a short time frame to provide these benefits to the community, we were hard at work purchasing supplies, installing most of the solar bulbs and shelves for the crates, and getting the community on board with participation from their end.  Several logistical issues on our end held us up from the level of forward communitcationwe were accustomed to in the past few weeks.  Figuring out the method of supply transportation, arranging a cluster in the community for implementation, and physically installing the gardens and solar bulbs were a handful of such issues.  What we did not realize during this period of frantic work was how the community felt toward all of this change happening with little of their say into it.

On the big day of publicity, all of the respective parties involved in the project were ready and excited to tell the story of Mtshini Wam.  Politicians, journalists, and friends of CORC and ISN were very intrigued by what had come out of such limited space in the settlement.  The beginnings of food security, safe shack lighting, and additional economic opportunity were in place.  As the day full of pictures and smiles wound down, the next order of business was a community meeting called briefly, but we understood through the body language and tone of the leadership that it was an important one.

Thankfully, Jack from CORC had said he would be able to facilitate the meeting for us, which meant translation from Xhosa to English and vice versa.  It has been a constant challenge not to lose pieces of the conversation in translation, and convey all of our explanations in full with this barrier.  There was tension throughout the room, although Khaya, the meeting facilitator seemed quite oblvious to the point of calling the meeting. Our group was worried about what would come of the meeting. Would we lose the trust of the community? Are the tensions unresolvable? How will this affect next year’s group coming to Mtshini Wam? With these thoughts, among others, racing through our minds, the meeting began. Nokwezi started this meeting by stating that the community felt as though there was a disconnect since Monday of this week between the students and leadership, particularly because we were working and acting without their help as well.  The students replied in saying that it was not our intention to create this disconnect, but rather the constraints of our situation in helping the community which created the break. The community also pointed out how it seemed as though we were pushing ahead without their consent or moving forward without them. This was caused by our effort to push for the event to happen. In our eyes, an event like this only come along once in a while for a community such as Mtshini Wam, and truthfully we didn’t want them to miss such an amazing opportunity.  We pushed because we knew we would eventually hit a wall and compromise, but we felt it necessary to try. What we learned was that there were deeper cultural misunderstandings and honest mistakes that led to larger issues. Take for instance a trip take to the hardware store with one gardener and carpentry team leader each to buy tools. We taxied and as it turned out, they forgot money and we were able to front the cost. When we arrived to the hardware store, it was closed and we decided to try tomorrow. Instead of taxiing all the way back to Mtshini Wam, the group decided to leave from the hardware store, splitting from the two community members. We later learned that there were community members who were upset with this as we “stranded” the two community memebers at the bus stop. All in all, it was a honest mistake on behalf of our group. After a long day in the settlement, we did not think to provide taxi fare for the way back to Mtshini Wam. Apologies were made for this mishap to both the leaders and the two particular community members, and the issue was put to bed. Through each party giving their side of the story and having Jack facilitate the discussion, we eventually got through to a level of understanding for future work in Mtshini Wam.  Each side wanted to bring about improvements to the community, and in that common goal, we would work through issues in communication and scheduling to make those improvements happen together. By allowing only one member of our group to speak after gathered discussion amongst our group, we were able to remain clear without becoming to emotional about the disagreements. This was by far, the most tense, but the most rewarding meeting we were able to participate in Mtshini Wam, a true example of Shared Action Learning.


Plans, Ideas, and Challenges

Working through these types of challenges in a foreign environment led us to realizations of how much we still have yet to learn about building a relationship with the community.  Despite large amounts of physical and logistical labor, it is of tremendous importance that we always prioritize our communication between all parties on the ground.  Whether on reblocking, community development, or general inquiries, our reasoning behind writing a guidebook for reblocking should be an indicator that mistakes and unforeseen difficulties are abundant in multi-stakeholder projects.  In moving forward in Mtshini Wam, we are going to work on transitioning the community leaders to handling the future of carpentry, gardening, and the Litre of Light projects.  These efforts will take into account the lessons about Shared Action Learning that we learned this week, with the hope that a new sense of trust and respect can be maintained throughout the process. There exisits new sense of trancparency moving forward with the remaining week in Mtshini Wam. As issues have been clarified and voiced, all parties are comfortable exchanging openly about feelings. The idea is to end positively with the community, but truthfully. There was a true raw sense of sharing that occurred in the meeting, one that can only be described minimally. This raw sense of sharing led us to a higher sense of respect in both directions of our relationship with the community members, and we see only lessons learned, but no regrets as our project in Mtshini Wam comes to a close.