Monday, July 23, 2007


(Asset Based Community Development)

Ok. Well. It's about time i update all my faithful readers (Hi Mom!) on my South African activities so far.

So, we (me and 5 American girls, plus two pretty, goofy girls from U of Cape Town and another guy named 'Sir' Elvis Sabelo) have lecture for two hours every morning, except on Fridays when we have a 4 hour "Reflection Session". The lectures rotate between three UCT professors. The first few weeks, we had Tristan George facilitating our discussions. Tristan specializes in Critical Development theory and practice, and used a fabulous combination of interesting texts and excellent question-asking to prod us along and help us work our way through the vast complexity involved in any sort of development practice (which is, in theory and in name, what we're up to when we go out to the townships to teach). Just so you get the right picture, Tristan is about 6'4" and looks a lot like my brother John except for a slimmer jaw and is confined to a wheelchair (something about an accident diving into the ocean a few years back). His laugh is easy as he throws his head back, mouth open in the intense silence of gasping laughter. He's awesome, and has been showing up to lecture this last week even though he is no longer teaching.

This week, class has been passed to Elsa (last name unknown at the moment). She is a tall single-mother of two daughters, with curly dark hair and a passion for sociology, though recently she has become obsessed with early-childhood development and the law (separately, not as they relate, you see). She has been working on the same kinds of issues (to be discussed shortly) that we've been dealing with all along, but coming at it from a sociological standpoint (whatever that means). Anyway, she's been pushing our buttons, playing devil's advocate a bit, just to make sure we don't get too comfortable with our assumptions, which we've found is a very dangerous thing to do when it comes to the realities of the 'developing' world.

Our third professor kind of floats around the other two. Janice McMillan runs our reflection sessions and assigns our papers and is in charge of (one of our) final project(s). She is a sweet middle-aged lady with a thick voice; you can hear the spittle in her mouth as she speaks, but it is soothing as opposed to gross.

These three have guided us through some interesting and extremely relevant readings, and helped us gain some kind of perspective on the work we're doing. I feel that this experience would have been empty in comparison if we had only done the tutoring. The understanding of the complexities of the process and all the considerations that go into it (and why the efforts often fail) has made the tutoring experience much more manageable and enjoyable. Anyway, i'll give a brief summary of the ideas we've been kicking around at another time, it's just too much effort right now, to piece together a coherent, worthwhile collection of ideas. I'll just continue with the overview

We are working with the UCT-based organization known as SHAWCO, which stands for Student Health And Welfare Centres Organization. We are working out at the SHAWCO center in the township of Khayelitsha, which is about 30 km from Cape Town. Samantha Power describes Khayelitsha better than i can in her May 2003 New Yorker article, "The AIDS Rebel":

"Khayelitsha is a sprawling, ramshackle township on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. Most of the settlement's residents live in huts that have been constructed with corrugated tin and insulated with cardboard, plastic tarps, and sheet metal. More than five hundred thousand people live in the township [recent estimates have the number at around one million]; half are unemployed, and the average monthly wage is less than a hundred dollars. The dominant language is Xhosa [pronounced with a click : "click-Osa"]. Although Khayelitsha resembles a squatter's retreat, it was in fact designed by the apartheid government. In 1983, the white regime decided to purge blacks from settlements close to the heart of Cape Town. The authorities dumped the evicted residents in Khayelitsha, which means "Our New Home." Houses were laid out in a grid pattern to help the police control disgruntled inhabitants. Since then, many families have established roots in Khayelitsha, but the crowded, unsanitary neighborhoods have also become home to viruses and germs. Khayelitsha has long had one of the highest tuberculosis rates in the world, and in recent years it has been decimated by AIDS."

So yea, that's where i've been hanging out, playing with little kids, and teaching some 14-16 year olds how to read and use computers and such. It's really fun, and all the kids are happy and energetic and smart and eager to learn, which makes the tutoring a whole lot easier than i expected it to be.

One of the most important understandings we have developed during our lecture sections, is that the term 'poverty' ought to be pluralized (Max-Neef), so that we speak of poverties (which lead to pathologies). This allows for a re-imagining of the role of development. While these people may be financially poor, they have an incredible sense of community and live miraculously joyous lives within their resource deprived world. It changes our goal as volunteers. We need not feel overwhelmed by all the 'problems' these people face. All we can do, is all we can do, which is, give of ourselves and cultivate positive interactions with all the people we meet. By providing the small support we do, we can broaden horizons and show these kids that there is a larger world out there, but that doesn't necessarily mean their world is bad, or wrong. Before we gave poverty a name and a value-judgment, there were only different people living different lives. As soon as we over-indulged in what Foucault defined as Governmentality, we (in the Eurocentric, 'developed' world) saw the condition of these peoples lives and said oh dear lord we're obligated to fix this. Fixing is not what we need to do. Just help.

This is why our program is focused around 'asset-based community development', as opposed to needs-based. We are looking at what the community already has, and how they can employ those qualities to solve some of their own problems for themselves. This is the only possible avenue for sustainable, meaningful change. But it has to come from them. We can provide the arena and maybe some inspiration, but the changes in attitude and action must be organic, otherwise its just more top-down oppression, and the people in Khayelitsha, and all over South Africa, have had quite enough of that for the next couple thousand lifetimes.

That's all for now, the computer lab is closing. More soon.

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