Joe’s Reflection


I find it interesting that when people ask me about South Africa, the things we focus on are the fun trips I took on weekends.  The bungee jump, the safari, the shark cage diving, and of course the passing of Nelson Mandela.  (“Wait, were you around for that?”  Insert joke about sign language or Obama’s selfie).  All of that was certainly memorable and enhanced the impossible trip, but that was not the reason we were there.  Those stories barely describe a fraction of our time in Cape Town.  Most of our time was spent visiting the settlement, as well as writing impossibly long proposals, assessments, and working on this website late into the night.  I had more “homework” in Cape Town than I have had in any given term at WPI.  There’s a reason why this experience counts as 3 WPI classes.  What motivates us to work so hard is what makes this project centre different than most.  Grades were the last thing on our minds.  We had an impossible job to do.  And more than that, our job was to bring sanitation services to people living without that basic human right.  Our customers weren’t the government or a corporate sponsor; they were community members who knew more about their problems and opportunities than we did.  Our advisor’s kept crazier hours than us, willing to edit our work at any hour of the night to achieve the impossible.  Their clear passion for these projects was infectious.


So was the passion of the people that we worked with in Cape Town.  For them, this work was more than a job or even a school project.  I am inspired by people like Sizwe and Olwethu, who sacrificed vacation time with their families to work with us.  People like David, Trevor, Alfred, and Nobathembu, who devote their lives to improving their community.  Working with them was a humbling experience.  What we experienced as a fun, educational project is their lives.  As I write this from my apartment with 2 bathrooms for 4 people, I think about them starting their days soon with the nearest toilet facility a short hike away, and shared with many.


Perhaps it is a testament to the culture that I grew up in, but I really do not understand racism, less so after this trip.  When we were in Langrug I did not notice that we were the only white people there until a group of squealing children pointed it out.  I look at the people we worked with, every one of whom has my sincere respect and admiration for their talents and contributions.  How could anyone look at them and consider them inferior?  How did the beautiful land of South Africa, (and America for that matter) ever get divided over race?  When it comes down to it we are all just human.  We are shaped the same, feel the same, and move the same (as evidenced by our sweet dance moves on our last day in Langrug).


It’s impossible to describe the beauty of Langrug to those who have not seen it for themselves.  It’s at shocking sight at first for one has never been to an informal settlement. Yet I see hope in the settlement, and the resilience of the human spirit.  With very limited resources, the people in Langrug put roofs over their heads and created homes and communities from the impossible.


It was very strange for me to come home.  It seemed like one minute I was on top of Signal Hill, watching the sunrise over Cape Town, and the next I was impossibly home at Christmas with my family as if nothing had changed.   As if I had not changed.  But I have.  I cannot look at a toilet the same way again. A fixture so common and mundane in my everyday life, but so important for healthy survival, so valuable where there are none. I sometimes feel like a part of me is still in Africa, in the work we left behind, in the bonds we made, and in the places we travelled.  It’s strange to think that I will probably never see my new friends again, or view with my own eyes the fruit of our work.  I’ve caught the “travel bug”, yet no travelling experience can rival the experience I received in Cape Town.  I am jealous of those who have just found out that they will be going to Cape Town next year, with no idea what will be facing them.  They are going to a beautiful city, perhaps the most beautiful in the world. The have only impossibilities ahead of them.  They are in for long nights, heartache, homesickness, self-reflection, frustration, and 8 weeks I would repeat again if I could.  Because they will also find friendships, hope, adventure, and love on their impossible journey.  For in the words of Nelson Mandela,  “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”


For more of Joe’s thoughts and adventures throughout the project, check out his blog.