South Africa is a land of contrasting landscapes, a country in which travelers can stroll breathtaking beaches, stalk lions on sweeping savannahs and stroll beneath mountains that touch the clouds of its famed cape. It is, too, a land of contrasting living conditions and the opportunities they afford those hoping to forge ahead in a post-Apartheid world.
For visitors who offer their assistance and expertise in the country’s rebirth, emotions can also be a contrast, a mixture of exhilaration and frustration that inevitably instils in them a desire to return, luring them with the potential for improving the lives of South Africa’s people.
Last summer, Lethbridge College’s four-year School-Based Water and Sanitation (SBWS) project in South Africa came to a close in the Eastern Cape province, putting the finishing touches on an initiative, started by Jerry Johnson, a former college instructor, that helped build simple toilets and provide inexpensive, effective water treatment facilities at rural schools. Peter Leclaire, Lethbridge College’s vice-president academic and chief learning officer, and Thomas Graham, instructor of cellular/molecular biology, volunteered on the project in its culmination stage, assisting with construction and helping to train ocal instructors who will hopefully keep the projects alive by showing community members how to build the facilities on their own.
Both men took their families with them to give their children a sense of another country, one transitioning from the confines of Apartheid to the uncertainties of freedom. It was a trip neither will forget.
“If you think you are going there to change their world, you’ll soon discover their world is changing you,” says Graham, who made two earlier trips to South Africa, in 2008 and the spring of 2009. “This work has altered me in such a good way.”
Graham, an expert on bacteria and infectious diseases, went to help teach trainers at the Lovedale College Campus in Zwelitsha in the Eastern Cape Province. This training introduced students to the dangers of water-borne pathogens and showed them how to build bio-sand filters to purify water from contaminated sources and construct ventilation-improved toilets.
It seems, on the surface, an easy enough task, but unless people can adapt to new ideas, introducing concepts to established cultures doesn’t always have the desired impact.
“It’s better to give the people the skills and knowledge and let them work from within their own cultural system to improve their lives,” says Graham, who taught on the Blood Reserve for two years. “To go into these areas you first have to understand the culture to understand how they approach life. The South African Xhosa, like the North American First Nations people, are a proud people steeped in traditional learning. All you can do is help build capacity and let them take it from there.”
Leclaire, too, came quickly to realize the clash of cultures and the frustrations of trying to overlay one on another. But, like Graham, he came away with a sense of optimism.
“There are some shining stars in whom I have the utmost faith to take the investment we’ve made and move it forward because of their own beliefs,” he says. “Canada and the South African colleges involved were committed to the projects; there is a glimmer of hope.”
Still, it was difficult for Leclaire to see water filters in classrooms used as wastepaper baskets while children continued to drink from questionable sources.
“These were simple but sophisticated filters, taking dirty river water and making it drinkable, but history often gets in the way. If you’ve been drinking out of a pond all your life, it’s hard to change. They might not know why they’re getting sick. We understand the obvious, but it’s not necessarily obvious to them. It’s like if we brought this technology to Western Canada in the 1860s.” South Africa, says Leclaire, is far from a poor country.
It’s a modern nation with world-class cities and infrastructure. The problem, though, is the distribution of wealth and power, 90 per cent of which is controlled by 10 per cent of the population. Residential areas run the range from brick homes to tin shanties. “It’s not like India where poverty is all around you,” says Leclaire. “But what we take for granted, such as proper sewer and water systems, while present in the cities, are often missing in the outer settlements.”
The contrasts are most noticeable in rural townships, such as the ones in Lower Ntlaza and Nobuhle where the earlier work on the project was done in 2007 and ’08. Most are poorly educated and living on $1 a day. Many have no access to clean water or sanitation, and appreciated what Lethbridge College was trying to accomplish.
“We went thinking we would do so much good, but it became frustrating when South African government commitment disappeared,” says Leclaire. “You walk in with such high hopes of doing great things. It’s a real reality slap. You leave hoping you’ve put enough kindling in place to keep the fire going. It’s not the latrines and filters, but the capacity for change we’ve left behind. At the colleges and with the trainees, we hope we’ve made a difference in their lives that they’ll pass on to others. We’ve created champions for our projects. That’s the part you hang onto.”
Graham notes the project provided opportunities for students from Lethbridge College and Red Crow College to learn the facets involved in international development work.
“It was a great learning opportunity for them,” he says. “If you create just one Stephen Lewis [head of the Stephen Lewis Foundation] as a Canadian ambassador, you’ve accomplished something.”
The latrine project perhaps had the most resonance for Graham and Leclaire. Prior to their construction, children at the rural schools merely used the surrounding high grasslands, not so much of a problem for boys and younger girls. But once girls reach puberty, they require proper facilities; without them, they stay home during menstruation and miss several days each month. After falling too far behind after several months, many finally drop out. In all during this project nine latrines were built, three latrines were built at each of three schools, one for boys, one for girls and a third for staff and kindergarten children.
“We’re not just teaching them about water sanitation and hygiene,” says Graham. “We’re helping them develop gender equality, which improves their quality of life; construction skills such as carpentry, masonry and painting; and HIV/AIDS and STD awareness. Women and children have to be included in the decision-making process for these projects to reach their full potential.”
In the end, it was a text message Graham received from a rural student that proved the worth of the project. She wrote “God bless you. You are the greatest person I have ever met and you have helped us so much.”
Says Graham: “That makes it crystal clear on why we are there and why we need to keep helping. They do understand the importance.”
Like Graham, Leclaire finds himself humbled and enriched by the experience.
“I’d go back in a heartbeat,” he says. “I read a book on Apartheid as a young student and it had an impact on me; I had the impression South Africa was an impoverished Third-World country. A trip like this helps you understand the reality. Some folks there are not hopeful of the future and are trying to get out, while others believe and have hope it can move forward. The future of the country must be built on both black and white cultures.”