Nick’s Reflection

So you studied abroad? That’s the question I found myself answering the most after my journey in Cape Town. Sometimes, I would just say “yes”, but in actuality it was not a traditional form of studying at all. We go to a school for technical problem solving, this project was not geared towards numbers and Greek letters but towards solving people problems. It gave a new outlook, that for me got lost in translation. We are people working with and helping other people and communities, no matter our future careers.  Instead of calculating the efficiency of some machine, we looked at opportunities for improvement in both formal and informal settlements.  For me, it was problem solving with a twist. Sustainability is a common topic in the classroom but it has a different meaning when working in communities. It can be easy to come up with a solution to what seems like a basic problem but the real trick is making sure that solution is sustainable. I learned the best way to ensure sustainability is by first making sure the people want your solution, it may solve the problem but if it’s not what the people want, it won’t last. Next, ownership and responsibility is crucial. If you provide and produce a solution that the people want but did not ask for, it is easy to take advantage of it and not take care of it. From my experience, if it is a physical product, have the community help produce it. That way they have not only a sense of ownership but also a sense of pride in it. Finally, teaching and reproducing is the last step. They may have wanted it and helped produce it but if they do not know how to use the solution when you are gone, it may just sit there and the mentality for improvement may be lost. But if the community knows how to use it and upkeep it, the solution can be used to its fullest  and even implemented in another spot.

Although the project is the focal point of the trip, I learned a lot more than just how to work with a community to implement something. There are little cultural differences when traveling abroad and specifically in South Africa I picked up on. One thing that struck me is that when going to a restaurant you have to ask for the bill when you are ready to go, they won’t just bring it to you and try to kick you out. You can stay out to eat as long as you want and there is no issue. Another thing I discovered is the importance of punctuality in meeting times. If you want to have a meeting at 11 AM you might meet at 11AM or  11:15, 11:30, or even noon. Being on time is not always necessary. There were bigger cultural differences too. For example the divide in wealth. On more than one occasion I would see $100,000 cars parked  on a road that had a series of beggars, I found this to be very shocking. The biggest thing that took me aback was working in an informal settlement. At first, it was very upsetting to see how some people live. Once integrated into the community, my guard was quickly brought down and I really began to feel a sense of home, community and love.  It would be impossible to capture everything that impacted me on my journey through Cape Town, however, those are just a few of the major things I experienced.