Mike’s Reflection

Looking back on my Cape Town experience I can’t help but think of one song that sums it all up.  (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life as made popular by the movie Dirty Dancing was not only a karaoke favorite among the Cape Town Project Center at Mitchell’s on Tuesday nights, but also accurately describes the type of experience that we had.  Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes sing the chorus, “I’ve had the time of my life and I owe it all to you”.  But who exactly is the ‘you’ in our case?  For me it can mean a lot of things.

First off ‘you’ means the City of Cape Town.  The experiences I’ve had here from surfing, seal snorkelling, seeing the sunrise over the city, to climbing the mountains, to Robben Island, to Cape Point and more have been unforgettable, many of which I don’t know if I’ll ever get the opportunity to do again.  My free time was filled with different places to go and things to do.  I could list every activity that I did and what it felt like and meant to me but rather than do that I’d rather say what doing every activity did to me as a whole.  Getting the freedom to experience as much of Cape Town as I wanted made me yearn to see as much as I could, sometimes stretching the fabric of the basic outline of activities that is followed year in and year out by WPI students.  By living those two months under that principle I not only appreciated Cape Town on a deeper level but also hope to bring back that mentality and appreciate where I live and where I visit in the future on a deeper level.

‘You’ also means the relationship between our team and our government liaisons from the Informal Settlements Management department.  For me personally it was exciting working with the city because of my background working for a Department of Public Works.  It was interesting observing the similarities and differences between the two.  One difference was the caution that had to be taken when in certain areas of the city, something that Reggie, Anneline, and Estralita all were aware of and kept us safe throughout our project.  The bond that we formed with our liaisons was greater than either party initially thought it would be.  They treated us well bringing us to see different informal settlements and other parts of Cape Town (and brought along two valuable co-researchers in Carin and Mekyle) and in return we kept them entertained.  Going into work was something I looked forward to in Cape Town and is something that I’ll miss but also something that I hope I can eventually find someday, a job that I look forward to go into.

In addition to working with the government, NGOs such as ISN and CORC shed light on the inner workings of reblocking.  Through working with Melanie and Terrence from ISN we learned the importance of the community’s contribution to a project.  That wasn’t really something I had thought about before I got to Cape Town but now I understand the importance of the community contributing to upgrading projects so that they take a sense of ownership with it.  Through that sense of ownership, once upgraded the community will take care of the recent upgrades rather than take from it.  Certain social aspects of reblocking and upgrading such as this really demonstrate the importance of NGOs in the upgrading process.  Sizwe from CORC was also a great help to us, both for the project and outside of the project.  Sizwe helped us understand the relationship between the government and NGOs better.  He had an excellent grasp on what the Cape Town Project Centre was about and what we were capable of.  His help outside of the project was also notable helping us learn the culture, and he even went so far as accompanying us to Mzoli’s and Mitchells (and the occasional game of FIFA).

Working with the community could be the most challenging, but was also the most rewarding.  After some initial success in 7de Laan, frustration soon followed.  We arrived in Flamingo Crescent with our heads down, but came out with our heads raised high.  Working closely with Elizabeth, Mark, Lenrika, and Auntie Marie was not only fun but a learning experience.  Although we were from very different backgrounds, it didn’t take long to form a partnership that left Flamingo Crescent in a better place than they had been only a few months before.   We all wish for the best future of Flamingo Crescent, and although I may not be able to witness their transformation, I’m excited to hear about the progress to be made a year from now when WPI returns to Cape Town.

We also owe it to our advisors, Scott and Lorraine, and to WPI for giving us the opportunity to complete our IQP in Cape Town.  Without our advisors we would never have been able to accomplish as much as we did.  We ran the marathon that is IQP, but they gave us the direction that was necessary to run the best possible race.  Their help outside of the projects was perhaps the most important.  Everyone in the project centre had some outside difficulties during our time in Cape Town at one point or another and Scott and Lorraine made sure we were well taken care of.

Lastly, we owe it to the other students that we got the chance to work with.  From the students on other teams that gave us insight on areas that they focused on to the students on our own team.  Working on a ten person team was not easy, but much like Dirty Dancing we had our ups and downs and I’m glad to say that we ended overwhelmingly on an up.  Hearing from our liaisons that as a whole our group changed their perception on Americans for the better was intriguing.  In our final stakeholder meeting Sizwe spoke of the transformation he observed in us.  We first entered Flamingo with uncertainty and displeasure but by the end of our time we were confident and trusted our surroundings.  Looking back it is truly remarkable at the mental transformation that we underwent over the five weeks that we were in Flamingo Crescent.

It seems like just the other day that I found out I was accepted into the Cape Town Project Center.  Even more recent was all of the preparatory work that went into the project.  Now I find myself saying “I’ve Had the Time of My Life and I Owe it to You ALL”.