The morning haze had settled over the ocean on the beach right behind our lodge. The sand was chock full of treasures–brightly-colored seashells, sea glass, picturesque rocks and even a scary-looking jellyfish. Yet despite being surrounded by water, I realized later, I was hardly thinking about it.
The problem with water, and simultaneously the power of water, is that it creates all-encompassing effects that ripples throughout multiple levels of society, the environment, and the world as a whole. Water is needed for everything you can possibly imagine that contributes to life on the planet– agriculture, geological formations, biodiversity, and survival. As a result whenever a “water crisis” arises, we will always see multiple stakeholders fighting to ensure that their interests are provided for.
This is what Tuesday and Wednesday of our trip was really about. We heard from numerous individuals telling us about different aspects of water usage and human interference in natural water flows. We looked at the trend of South Africa’s management of the public’s access to water since 1994, the end of apartheid, and realized that although the data certainly showed a highly positive trend, the high proportion of missing data and of inconsistencies in defining “access,” meant that the numbers should be questioned. We learned about the “water wars” throughout human history and debated about whether water can be considered an economic commodity.
We actually visited one of the primary examples of the vast number of stakeholders in water-related problems as we drove from Port Elizabeth to our second and final location of the trip, the city of George. The drive along the coast next to the deep blue, sparkling sea gave us a glimpse of the natural beauty of South Africa, as we passed by vast plains of green framed by mountains in the distance. We reached a particular section of beach where the Tauw river, running perpendicular to the sea, naturally flushed into the sea. Dr. Dirk Roux led a discussion there of a few of the many problems surrounding this particular estuary. The climate, the location relative to the beach, and the general scenery made this area prime real estate. However, the natural flooding of the river, caused by heavy rains that either pushed the water above the normal river levels or which accumulated in the mountains and rushed down into the valley, posed serious risks to their property. The government’s solution to that was that when the river began to approach a certain height (2.1 meters), they would open up a channel from the river to the ocean to allow the water to flow into the sea and the water level in the river to drop.
It’s an understandable and by definition, a functional engineering solution. But it’s not a biological one. The Tauw river also connects to three lakes through channels that were dug between them. These lakes have always been freshwater lakes. In recent years, however, people have found marine saltwater species in these freshwater lakes. Why? Because of the artificial connection created between the river and the ocean that has created a backflow of species and ecosystem-mixing. The presence of invasive species in the lakes poses unnatural threats to the native species. The land in the flood plain as a whole is also very fertile, and thus, the community in the area is highly agricultural, one of the largest users of water. And then there are the nature enthusiasts, those who gain from the use of the rivers or lakes for fishing, boating and other recreational activities. So you can imagine a situation in which any solution made affects any of these 4 stakeholders: the conservationists, the homeowners, the farmers and the nature enthusiasts.
“Dirty” water is about much more than pollution. It is about these problems of access, of grappling with natural forces like flooding, of the politics, the economic disparities, the human interactions. It is a complex problem, much more so than any individual engineering or social science discipline. And no artificial construct, channel, or one, easy “solution” is going to change it all.
The smiles in the picture above at the end of our transect walk through the Soweto On Sea community weren’t all happiness. We were certainly humbled by the warm reception, incited by the desire to do something, but also disturbed by the mounds of trash, the broken abandoned houses where rapes and murders frequently occurred.
The community’s struggles reach back to times of apartheid in South Africa. Because Soweto On Sea had been a difficult area for the police to penetrate, the square we were standing in had been the center of the anti-apartheid movement, filled with activists who were hiding from the police, rallying the locals and planning their next moves. “Each week there would be a funeral for those who had died that week and a burial for those who had their funeral the previous week,” one of the NMMU students told us. “It became the basis of the political platform and language.”
The irony of it all, he told us, was that most of these people who fought were now the same ones who were unemployed in the township: “Victory has not served those who were on the frontlines.” When asked why, he struggled a little to answer, ultimately settling on his belief that the current parliamentary was no longer connected to the township. “The people who fought at the time were not being educated,” he pointed out. “They were busy planning attacks, sitting in prison, running from the police. They can’t take part in the system now because they don’t have the education to be on the same playing field. Now their only value to the parliamentarians is a voting majority, nothing else.”
The man from the small car wash came up to our group and emphatically pointed to the square behind him, “This place is the reason we have a black president now.”
The point of the day suddenly became clear: all of the issues that South Africa faced, just like any other country, were the result of their history. As we returned to NMMU, the community workers and NMMU students filled in more of the gaps about this connection. Later that evening we even heard from two activists who were prominent during the anti-apartheid struggles, Bongani Gxilishe and Winky Mgqibisa, both of whom had been involved in the famous student uprising of 1976, in which black students protested against the requirement to be educated in the Afrikaans Bantu education system that had been enforced by the Afrikaaners.
“During apartheid, education was different for different people. It was meant to keep the blacks in different economic roles than the whites. That difference in quality has remained stagnant.”
“My father was originally in the military before apartheid. Then he stole their money and left to the North to be trained so he could come back and fight. Come to think of it, I’m more fortunate now because my father’s father was a doctor and my mother’s father was a teacher. So when my parents were growing up in the struggle, my grandparents ensured they were getting their education first.”
“I lost both of my parents when I was five. In the culture of black people, my child is your child and I was taken in by my neighbors. And it is because of them that I became what I am today, a firm believer in the Black Consciousness Movement. It’s unfortunate that this history of the BC movement is now being distorted and students now don’t care. Back then we were politicized at such a young age by what was happening around us. You know that building across the road? It is where most of the activists were tortured and killed.”
The development crises that townships like Soweto On Sea faced today could then truly only be solved sustainably in the long run through education, a theme that came up again and again with many of the community workers and MIT students. We were shocked to find kids in uniform walking around the neighborhood, not in school. The community workers told stories of schools with 42 children in a ten-square-meter area, with the teacher not even being paid for the first five years of teaching. “My child goes to this school,” she said. “How is a teacher supposed to teach if she is hungry and frustrated without electricity?” Another student stood up and cried, “Is there no over-sight to who is teaching in our schools? People who are educated just leave the township and there is no inspiration for children who are hungry to go to school because they see no value. There is not a culture of learning here. You know this whole host of problems? Everyone talks about them and how we need solutions. But no one ever really works out those solutions.”
Indignation started to fill the room, and continued to follow us as we loaded onto the bus. MIT and NMMU students were talking together, expressing their frustration by the problem, without a viable solution. So when we arrived at Charles Duna Primary School, the atmosphere of desperation was looking for some answer, for a glimmer of hope. And Nombulelo Sume, the principal of the school, gave us just that. She told us the story of how she fought to balance the school’s lack of access to water with her fervent belief in placing the education of the children, “the poorest of the poor” first above all else. Here’s a glimpse of what she had to face:
You could hear a quiet awe and empowerment that everyone felt as she told us of the challenges she faced and her ability to rally the community behind her. Most of us could not imagine parents volunteering their time to carry buckets of water and manually flush the toilets in the school, just to ensure that their child could have an education after the government could not support that change. Having just seen communities where education was completely disregarded, it was refreshing, inspiring to see how the indifference toward education could be overcome. Because of Ms. Sume’s persistence, a representative from Coca-Cola’s rainwater harvesting program heard about the school. Despite the fact that they had already filled their quota of 100 schools, the representative pushed ahead and listed Charles Duna Primary School as the 101st school. As of July of last year, thanks to the program, the school finally had water flowing from their taps.
And her efforts didn’t stop there. “One of our other community projects is a vegetable garden,” she said. “When I started this school, I was burying a child each year. When I asked their parents what they would eat, it was full of carbohydrates. No fruits, no vegetables. So we are using the school as a center of progress for the community. We haven’t had a single HIV-related death now in 8 years.” Nombulelo also talked about giving everything else she could to make the students competitive, like arts, drama, and sports programs (“We have a student who is now playing on the national soccer team!”).
Nombulele showed us that it is possible to make progress despite the overwhelming sense of complexity in the status quo: “I ask for the richer schools’ old, used uniforms. I find scraps of boxes and metal for the kids’ projects. I am trying to build a library. You know, you have to dispel the myth of ‘poor me, I can’t do anything because I don’t have anything.'”
When we passed by a room under reconstruction, she said, “It’s going to be my future science lab. You have to dream, right?”
MIT Terrascope is setting up a Principal’s Discretionary Fund. We would like to raise at least $1000 or about 10,000 Rand for Nombulele to continue the amazing work she has done for the children. Please contact me if you would like to donate!
But unlike most Mondays at MIT, my alarm rang not for a 9 a.m. class but an 8 a.m. briefing with NMMU faculty on their Missionvale campus, Development Studies students and Port Elizabeth community workers. We were preparing for a transect walk through several communities near Missionvale. The idea we were all operating on was that without understanding the social environment and historical context of the communities facing water crises on the ground, there was no way a sustainable solution could be implemented. Together with the community workers who had been through the area and the NMMU students, we began our walk through Soweto On Sea, a township outside of the Missionvale campus. We were told that whenever we wanted to approach someone we could ask them for help with translation, though most of the people there were comfortable with at least understanding English. We were also told that this was a relatively poor district and unemployment was extremely high, so though the people of the community were known for being extremely welcoming, we should still be careful of our material possessions.
As we walked through the community and asked various people if we could take pictures for our project, I was struck by their observations and their warmth, which often starkly contrasted with their destitute surroundings. Here are some of the Humans of Soweto On Sea, Brandon-Stanton-style:
The little girl had been standing by the door for quite some time with an ecstatic smile on her face, much like the one in this picture. When we approached, she ran off giggling to get her mother. Even as her mother told us about the traditional community gatherings, full of songs, dance, “plenty of meat, and African beer,” the little girl continued to smile, mesmerized by the microphone.
“I collect the plastic bottles thrown here and bring them to a woman. Sometimes she weighs them and tells me they are not enough, so she only gives me 20 Rand. Other days she may give me 30 Rand. I have to live that day with whatever she gives me.” [translated]
When we asked her for a picture, this woman ran into her house, and suddenly emerged with a broom to began to dance around the front of the house and mock-sweeping the ground.
“Hi, what’s your name?”
“My Xhosa name is ‘Noh-mah-soh-mee.’ But my English name is Princess.”
“Princess? That’s a pretty name.”
She laughs. “A pretty name? Well, thank you, my baby.”
“What are you here for? I want a new roof like that one! Please!” (jumping up and down)
“Do you see those horns on that stick? This is the traditional, sacred place in the house. If someone in the family is having problems, with their job, with their marriage, they will get up early and come and hope for a solution. When there’s a new baby, they might slaughter a goat, or for a big function they might slaughter a cow. I guess it’s pretty difficult to be vegetarian here.”
“Can I count for you?”
“You take picture of my car wash? Please? Come here, I show you. My car wash. You have to tell everyone about my car wash please! We get 45 Rand washing 2 cars per day for both of us. Please tell everyone about the car wash.”
These were a few of the many people who stopped to ask us what we were doing, who excitedly flocked to take pictures with us, or who were willing to tell us about their lives in Soweto On Sea. A couple of the community workers later told us that everyone wanted to know what we were going to help change. They called us a “beacon of hope.” It would have been really easy for them to face us with hostility for being “privileged,” for questioning what our presence there could do given that things hadn’t changed for years. But they didn’t. And they believed our presence could create that change.
As much as I wanted to resist the usual comparisons, it was hard not to chime in. The simplistic airport in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the slightly humid, warm, salty night air, and the dusty roads certainly felt similar for those of us who have been to India. Then again, there were people exclaiming that it reminded them of Mexico, Bangladesh or other less-developed-than-the-U.S.-fill-in-the-blank countries, so I suppose there’s not much going for the specifics of those comparisons.
This year, the Terrascope Mission 2017 group has arrived in South Africa for our spring break travels. As I’ve mentioned before, Terrascope is a freshman learning community at MIT, which focuses on self-directed learning and complex, global, interdisciplinary issues. When I was a freshman, Mission 2015 took a look at solving the world’s biodiversity crisis and traveled to Costa Rica. As a UTF (Undergraduate Teaching Fellow) last year with Mission 2016, the trip to the American Southwest tried to understand the physical context of mineral resource management and extraction. This year, again as a UTF, I’m accompanying the 2017’s to the Eastern Cape of South Africa to study water management and security, and even think about solutions to South Africa’s water and development problems.
In conjunction with Prof. Maarten de Wit from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), we have 7 days of jam-packed tours, sessions, discussions, with some time to explore. Our first stop in Port Elizabeth has taken us to a beautiful lodge that sits, quite literally, by the ocean and on the first day we began our introduction to the area’s water context through the landscape, people, and most memorably, animals.
We all knew before even coming on the trip that we would be seeing elephants at the Addo Elephant National Park. Zoologist Prof. Graham Kerley showed us around through the park and told us that the park began in 1931 with only 11 elephants and no adult bulls. All of the elephants in that area had either been poached for ivory or shot for “misbehaving.” It was, as he said, a recipe for inbreeding and genetic drift.
The elephants’ problems were far from over once the park was established, though. There were no fences when the park began so elephants couldn’t be contained, and skirmishes with the neighboring farmers resulted in more deaths. Elephant populations also need massive quantities of water–100 liters per elephant per day– and vast areas of vegetation which require their own source of water. From above the water hole where the elephants congregated, we could see a gradient of elephant impact to the vegetation, with only weak brushes Over time, the various measures implemented have created a population now of about 450 elephants in the park.
We saw elephants twice on our drive through the park, both times within 10-35 feet of the bus– there were the babies scampering after the warthogs, the waddling young adults rolling in mud, and the adults herding the group majestically forward. It was hard to believe that these creatures who look like they are always smiling could be vicious, but they were wild animals, and we were not allowed to get off the bus. Tortoises, warthogs, vervet monkeys and kudu (animals that look a bit like gazelles but with curled horns) were also animals I got to check off on the list from our park map, though unfortunately, no lions or rhinos.
We followed the road through the park past the Golden Dunes, tracking the mouth of the river until it reached the sea. Claps of thunder and lightning suddenly filled the sky, and we were caught in a beautiful rainstorm. As you can probably imagine, the bus ride home, full of dripping, sandy people, smelled anything but great.
The context of what we had received so far was what any tourist could probably do if they were to come to South Africa. What we then got was an inspiring talk by a man who has grown up in the Eastern Cape and who is “colored,” a term used here to mean a person of a mixed race who can speak Afrikaans. The talk truly framed most of the historical, complicated and contradictory questions that governed this area’s history—the pre- and post- apartheid eras, the disappearance of the indigenous population, and the broad lens with which we need to consider our approach to complex problems like the ones we were looking at this week.
The day ended with a traditional barbecue called braai (or lasagna for the vegetarians like me) with buttery potatoes to die for. And a dessert that elicits universal excitement: ice cream!
By special request, this post is dedicated solely to one man who left an impression on our “Big Family” Cancun trip. In fact, he was the one who gave us that collective name. This man is Paco the Tour Guide.
Paco is a special character. On our day trip to Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan ruins in Cancun, and the Ik Kil Cenote, he took great detail to explain not only what we were looking at, but to put us in the mindset of the Mayans who lived here thousands of years ago– things like, how the Mayans counted, how they viewed the natural elements. It’s difficult to put his antics, his jokes, and his passionate character into a few words. So here’s a little glimpse into the fun we had with Paco the Tour Guide, right in the middle of Chichen Itza, as he tried to channel “Mayan spirituality,” thoughts of love and peace, and just got us to let loose a little.
In the last few weeks of 2013, I was lucky enough to do something that most people don’t have the opportunity to do. Yes, this does have something to do with the fact that in these weeks I traveled to Cancun, Mexico, or “MEH-HEE-KOH,” as our extremely enthusiastic AirTran flight attendant insisted on yelling through the intercom. He also took it upon himself to lighten up our travel with the following well-delivered jokes:
We hope you fly AirTran next time, but even if you don’t, please don’t fly Delta– it stands for “Delayed-Even-Later-Than-AirTran.”
Please turn your phones on airplane mode ASAP, unless, of course, you have T-Mobile because your service is so bad you probably won’t even get the text or call before the plane started.
Are any of you feeling too chilly on the flight? Raise your hands if you are! [most passengers raise their hands] Okay great, now just stretch your arm a little further, and you can close that fan right above your seat.
Adults if you’re traveling with children, make sure you put your oxygen mask first and then put it on your favorite child. Children, pay attention, this is how you’ll find out who’s the favorite.
Ladies and gentleman, in one of your back-seat pockets we have placed $100. [entire plane begins rummaging through the pocket in front of them] Anyone find it yet? No? Well, just kidding, there is no $100, but now that you’re there you might as well go ahead and take out that safety card that’s right next to your hand and read along!
Yes, he was quite the flight attendant.
And it was also that despite the fact that I am afraid of heights, I impulsively decided to go para-sailing with the rest of the family. After breaking my head over whether or not to take camera in the jet ski to the boat from which we would go up in the parachute, I finally decided to take the risk. I began to question this a little bit as we bounced through crazy waves and I held on to the driver for dear life while all I could hear was my heart pounding in my ears. But when we finally reached hundreds of feet above the water and could see the entire beach below me, the vast expanse of the sea, and the little boat looked like an ant, I had no regrets. Especially when I sat back and suddenly realized the profound silence. The bustle of cars, the motor of the boat, the crashing of the waves, the shouts of tourists on the beach–all of it suddenly disappeared so high above the ground.
But what was truly amazing about this trip was the fact that for the first time ever a huge contingent of my family in the U.S. was taking a vacation–together. That meant 4 families, consisting of a total of 8 parents and 9 kids, were going to finally, after years of planned vacations not working out for some reason or another, have a tropical beach adventure together. Yes, it’s true that as long as we were together, it didn’t really matter where we were, but no one was complaining about Cancun. 🙂
Other than para-sailing and swimming with the dolphins, the most memorable moments of the trip were the ones when we decided to stay and enjoy everything the resort had to offer. That meant jumping into the pool right after breakfast, walking right behind the resort straight onto beautiful white sand and swimming in the ocean, and even jumping onto stage at the hotel’s karaoke night.
On one night after dinner, we all walked outside to enjoy the warm night air and watch the moonlight shimmer across the waves as they crashed onto the shore. On our way back inside we saw two Mexican men at one of the many booths selling various trinkets and souvenirs. One of them was sitting, bent over with paint all over his fingers, the other standing next to him smiling and greeting every hotel guest that passed by. I was drawn toward the table for all of the beautiful paintings of Cancun that I saw on the table and I soon realized that these were finger paintings. Everything–the blending of colors in the sunset sky, the texture of rocks on the beach– was all from his fingers.
The man standing up had a jolly sort of smile and seemed sort of like a Mexican Santa Claus to me. He introduced himself as Alberto and the painter as Freddie. As we ooh-ed and aah-ed over the scenes, one of us asked how much. Alberto told us that the larger tiles we were looking at (“Made in Mexico,” he said with a mischievous smile, turning it over to show us the inscription. “Not China or Hong Kong or Japan.”) were thirty. One of my uncles decided to be facetious and asked, “Dollars or pesos?”
Alberto didn’t even blink. “Euros,” he said.
Everyone burst out laughing, thrilled that he had outwitted my uncle, who is known in the family to have the smart comebacks. Alberto smiled and put his hand on his chest, bowing his head a little. I had seen many of the locals make that gesture when they were greeting each other or expressing any sort of strong emotion. When my aunt told Alberto that she really liked that gesture, he simply said, “It just means that it comes from the heart.”
All this time, Freddie silently continued painting, squirting his oil paints and periodically wiping his fingers to start a new color. As the adults all sat down on the steps next to the booth while us kids continued to figure out which paintings we wanted, Alberto chattered away, asking us what language we were speaking (yes, there was a Kannada/Canada mix-up), what each of our names are, how we are related to each other, where each of the families are from. One of my cousins from Texas had a conversation with him in Spanish which I somewhat followed, realizing it was basically a conversation about why Mexican Spanish was better than Spanish… Spanish. Slowly, we also found out that Freddie had been painting for about ten years now and that the two of them had been friends for eight. They go from hotel to hotel each day and as people buy paintings, Freddie just continues to paint and replace them.
“We try to personalize them, if people want to give the painting to someone,” said Alberto. “Whatever you want us to write, whatever makes it special to you–we work for you, for your satisfaction.” He put his hand on his heart again and grinned.
Freddie’s silence perked my interest and I sat next to him. It took a while to extract more than few-word phrases from him, but I soon learned that Freddie had learned how to paint from his grandfather. “My whole family paints,” he said, wiping his fingers on a paper towel. In fact, he had really disliked painting when he was little.
I had stopped asking questions and given up hope that he would strike up a conversation, when suddenly he said, “My son paints too. I taught him.” I asked if his son was as good as him, and he grinned and nodded.
Meanwhile, most of us had picked the paintings we wanted. I had decided on a beautiful sunset painting, but I was wavering a bit because there was a beautiful reddish painting of the lagoon. As Alberto explained, Cancun was a city explicitly built thirty years ago around a lagoon, and both this and the Caribbean Sea provided spectacular views. On a whim, I asked Freddie which painting of all the ones he had ever done was his favorite. And of course, he pointed to the painting of the lagoon. “It doesn’t sell as much as the others. But there is so much detail. More fine detail than any of the other paintings I have done. That’s why I love it the most.”
In the end, I ended up taking both, and though he had given us a group discount, I knew my mom would give him the original amounts. As she told me, it was certainly true that we paid money all the time for things that in comparison were much less inspiring. Here was a gifted talent and two men honorably keeping it alive, a cause well worth it. An hour or so after we first came up to the booth, it was just my mom and me sitting on the steps. The ocean breeze felt warm on our faces as we watched Freddie finish his sunset painting. My mom asked Alberto whether he had any children.
“One girl,” he said, “And that’s enough!” The four of us laughed.
And then Alberto’s face became more serious. “It’s enough for Mexico. It is difficult if you want to support more than one child here. In America, you would get paid by the hour, right? Everyone who works at this hotel– waiters, cooks, cleaners– everyone would be paid some $8-9 per hour, no?” He pointed to the ground. “Here, they get paid that for one day. And so this,” he said, pointing to the two of them, “is much better. We have to pay to be here in this hotel, but it is much better than the markets where there are people yelling, so much pressure.”
I had asked Freddie if he would draw a conch shell on the beach. He seemed unsure, but not wanting to disappoint, he picked up a small brush, the first time I’d seen him use one. He closed his eyes for a good ten seconds, and then slowly traced an outline of the shell on the beach. His lettering in the corner, “Cancun 2013,” was steady and precise. When he finished, he looked up, and I saw that his eyes were bright-red and watering. “They are burning,” he said, laughing as he rubbed his eyes.
And in that moment, everything suddenly shifted into a perspective. The issues we had in the hotel booking 4 rooms next to each other, the lack of a variety of choices of vegetarian food, all of the little things that had been bothering us or caused arguments with hotel staff in the past few days, seemed to come from a completely different world next to this man with a gift rubbing his eyes after a long day of nothing but painting. I was “tired” from a day of frolicking in the ocean and para-sailing. He was tired.
I asked if they had any contact information, an email or something. Alberto ripped off a sheet of paper and wrote, “Jose Torres” on one line and “Policarpio Jimenez” on the second line. “Jose was my grandfather’s name,” said Alberto. “And Policarpio is Freddie’s real name. Find us on Facebook.” Of course. We may live in entirely different worlds, but there was always Facebook.
“Policarpio,” I said, turning to Freddie. “What does that mean?”
“Hmm. Sweet and sexy, I think,” said Freddie, bursting into laughter.
This blog has been a bit quiet recently. This past semester had me wrapped around its little finger and I faced what was probably my most challenging several months, academically and personally. But it’s over, and with a finished semester and a holiday vacation comes time for reflection. Google did a fantastic job recapping the year for the world in Zeitgeist 2013. What has this year meant for me?
2 new countries on my passport (UK and Mexico)
Finishing a year-long endeavor to watch all of the FRIENDS episodes with two of the besties
Putting on the best a cappella concert at MIT this fall (alright I’m a bit biased) with my favorite singers on campus.
The sweetest of friendship
Sweat, tears, success, failure… and so much more.
And now it’s time to welcome the New Year with some of my closest friends and family. Decorations? Check. Dance playlist? Check. Fondue? Check. Champagne/sparkling cider? Check. Anderson Cooper in Times Square? Check. 2014, we’re ready.
Bits of madness, a little rationality, hints of ambition, and a pinch of pixie dust: take a look through my eyes.