Scene iii: The Final Coat


“The whole inside of the house could use a fresh coat of paint…” was what Gershwin Kohler told us over the crackling skype call in the cramped tech suite at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. It was the first time we talked to our liaison, and he was far from hesitant as he piled on tasks to our “to do” list. The first major accomplishment we tackled full-force was this one, painting the house. We proposed the idea and the resident’s eyes lit up. They each chose colors for their rooms and collaborated on choices for common spaces. Olympia paint gave a significant discount for the good cause and delivered 130L of paint. We began by priming three bedrooms, and the endeavor took off from there (see Act II Scene i).

Cast of Characters

WPI Safe House Team

Safe House Residents

  • Th.
  • V.
  • S.
  • T.


We came into the safe house every day in the same clothes, rejuvenated to start a new room and repeat the process: clean and sand walls, prime, let dry overnight, and paint two coats. Over the course of two and a half weeks, our jeans became more and more colorful. Laughter echoed through the hallway and cheerful yells in Xhosa were frequent. We sang, danced, and worked hard with the women as all barriers disintegrated. The staff joined in excitedly, and tangible changes were made as intangible moods evolved. The women got more excited and began to do rooms on their own. Upon returning from a meeting, we returned to find the women eager to show off the entire first coat of paint in a bedroom that they did on their own. The last week of painting, they did not want to take Wednesday off, even though it is a day the team typically spends at the lodge doing paperwork and planning. Although we were not there to work with them, the women painted the whole lounge by noon that day.

Action and Observations

The final day of painting was full of energy. We had all decided that the kitchen should be the last room to paint, as it is always busy with women cooking and cleaning. Clearing it for painting would be the biggest disruption to the house, so we wanted everything else to be finished first. When the day arrived we took to it like professionals. The changes in the women’s confidence and work ethic since the first day were evident. T. no longer stopped and looked at us when she needed more paint, but went to the back yard confidently and poured some for the whole team. V. didn’t hand the extension rollers to Chrissy to reach the top edge of the wall, but confidently stood on a stool smiling from ear to ear and singing as she carefully tried to avoid hitting the ceiling. S. was mindful of dripping paint, and rushed to clean up any spots she saw.

Th. strapped her daughter L to her back and sang church music as she painted. The women clearly had come to take their job painting seriously. Their children’s presence was not an excuse to stop working, and when it was their day for chores, they cooked and cleaned but painted in their downtime. One day, T was baking bread for the house as Mama Pilisani asked, and ran over to grab a brush as the dough rose and the loaf sat in the oven.

The participation and dedication spanned outside of just the residents. The social worker and house mothers chipped in whenever they had a chance, and even Nontembiso checked in once and a while from the offices.

Th. and Chrissy have some fun painting in the living room

Th. and Chrissy have some fun painting in the living room

Reflection and Learning

The energy in the room that day, and for the whole two weeks, was cyclic. When any member was tired of scrubbing floors with turpentine or painting relentlessly, there was another member in the room that  could keep them motivated or step in to help. A network of support was created through the group that was unexpected; a connection through labor is novel. There is something that holds true about the statement that T told us on our second day of work, “We sweat together”. As soon as we were all painting together toward a common goal, there was more motivation to understand one another. We learned more about the women here than we have thus far. Learning about the details of the women’s lives and culture is moving.

They have South African culture consistent with what we see throughout Cape Town, but also a culture in their small family. In the Safe House, they are all sisters and mothers, a close-knit family that has immense respect, love, and support for one another in such a challenging time. Through painting and listening, we have integrated just enough into this family. We are all working not just for the color on the walls or the Safe House itself, but improving the stay of the family members to come. The women note that these projects are bigger than themselves. They speak of the bruised women to come who can be “given wind” and be healed in this family the same way they are. Being in such a community, even for two months, is a blessing. Our motivation is evolving with their deep understanding of the system that they are in.

Notes for Future Scenes

Now painting is complete, but the women are energized, the house is bright and hopeful, and we are eager to move forward with this newfound motivation. While painting, the team worked diligently to order supplies and progress in other areas. The basin and pump for the fountain have been set for delivery, the posts for the fence have been bought and marked, and computer designs continuously evolved for the playground and crèche. Working together with the women, we have motivated them to stay working with us as we move onto projects outside. We have also learned to listen to the women carefully to really understand their lives and opinions.

Act III >>