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Student news: LeaderShape travelers labor and learn in Cape Town communities

Shantytowns: Students find rich lives in poor Cape Town communities

Samora and Philippi are dusty, littered shantytowns outside the main city of Cape Town, South Africa. Wood, brick and metal shacks are pressed close together, leaving no room for grass or any greenery. These are not the poorest townships in Cape Town, but they presented a different world for the 2008 Wisconsin LeaderShape participants staying on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus.

The morning of Day 13 (Sunday, January 13) of the trip, the 52 University of Wisconsin-Madison and UCT students pulled into Samora on a bright blue shuttle. Their visit began at a small church set deep within the township. About 100 people crammed the pale-yellow one-room building, and many more people gathered outside under the window. Inside, the decor consists of religious banners made of fabric, plastic chairs, and a keyboard. There is no pulpit; the pastor speaks from a small podium set on a table that is moved aside whenever the choir steps in.

Children in the Philippi township

Children in the Philippi township swarmed LeaderShape participants, eager to have their pictures taken. (large image)

As soon as the students left the bus, they could hear the singing. Rich, vibrant hymns amplified loudly via microphone greeted the group as the students entered the church and settled into every available corner.

Music was at the heart of this Christian service and helped put some at ease. Michelle Lyle, a UW-Madison industrial engineering student, says she expected the service to be different from the one she attends at home, but right away she realized that wouldn’t be true. “It was really amazing that everything I thought was so unique to one specific place isn’t unique at all,” she says. “Here I am on the other side of the globe experiencing the same thing I would at home.”

Many of the songs were not sung in English, and the lesson itself was translated in Xhosa every few lines. Even the unfamiliar language didn’t throw off Lyle, who sang along in English to the songs she knew. “I felt right at home,” she says.

After the service, the students shook hands with many members of the congregation and met the two men who would guide them through the townships that day. They left Samora and traveled the short distance to Philippi. This time, however, the students walked through the dirt streets, flanked by young kids at every turn. The group of almost a dozen boys and girls first took interest in the LeaderShape participants when they spotted one student’s tattoos.

They stroked the design on her arm and, when others pulled out cameras, the boys began yelling, “Shoot me, shoot me!” They crowded together to pose and then begged for their individual pictures to be taken. They took great pleasure in seeing their faces on the digital camera display screens.

Their antics helped lighten the mood for the Wisconsin students, who in the towns saw tiny, desolate homes with no plumbing. They visited an orphanage where some of the children lived; one woman provides for eight children without any significant support from the government, and she does so in a small house with only two bedrooms.

The students came here to see the communities they hope will benefit from the service project—cleaning a retention pond in a nearby wetlands park to prevent winter flooding—they started during the week. JP Leary, a LeaderShape facilitator and doctoral student in the UW-Madison educational policy studies department, says the trip to Philippi helped to personalize the project. “I wanted to see the people and the place,” he says. “I wanted to try to get a sense of what this project would mean to them, because I know this will be hot, sweaty, mucky, nasty work.”

The disparity between the townships and the rest of Cape Town was difficult for some UW-Madison students to grasp. “We came from the mall and went to Philippi. It was a five minute bus ride,” Lyle says. “You can’t pretend to be ignorant to the fact that people live this way.”

Lesego Mosime, a UCT construction management student, is originally from Botswana. She says it was good for the American students to see that not all South Africans are wealthy and that Cape Town is home to a variety of lifestyles. Mosime says she was also taken aback the first time she saw a Cape Town shantytown. “I wasn’t shocked at the townships themselves, but at how many people are there and how big an area is covered by townships,” she says.

However, she advised students to look beyond the poverty to the individual people living in these communities. “There are beautiful people who stay there, people who need to be appreciated in many ways,” she says.

“I have been at school with people who are from the townships.” Mosime adds. “They are making it work in their world, and they are striving to be successful. I admire that so much.”

Restoring balance: Pulling invasive weeds, LeaderShape students help to revitalize a wetlands ecosystem

LeaderShape participants at the Edith Stephens Wetland Park.

LeaderShape participants pulled water hyacinth from the pond and threw it onto massive piles on the banks at the Edith Stephens Wetland Park. (large image)

Over the course of their stay on the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa, campus, the UW-Madison LeaderShape participants have survived everything from emotional discussions to a strenuous mountain climb. But the trip’s final task—clearing a pond of water hyacinth—was by far the group’s greatest challenge. Variable weather and very physical labor made the three-day project an intense test of the 52 UW-Madison and UCT students’ commitment to community service.

The project also was the group’s opportunity to be part of something that truly makes a difference in the poor townships outside of Cape Town. The Edith Stephens Wetland Park (ESWP) is an almost 100-acre stretch of land bounded by five poor communities. Originally set aside by botanist Edith Stephens in 1955 (who took out a second mortgage on her home to buy the land), the park protects a rare, indigenous fern. The fern, Isoetes capersis, is so rare that only nine specimens remain in a secret part of the forest at ESWP.

However, the plant the students tackled needs no help with survival. Water hyacinth, a species not native to South Africa, is one of the most invasive water species in the world. With no natural predators in Africa, the plant has become a nuisance throughout Cape Town, clogging rivers and drains. At ESWP, the plant appeared four years ago in the park’s retention pond, and when the students arrived, the entire surface of the water was covered with hyacinth. The area looked more like a grassy field dotted with purple blooms than a pond.

Clearing the hyacinth proved to be a formidable job, but the pond is an important element in the region, known as the Cape Flats. Set in the middle of the wetlands basin, the EWSP pond alleviates winter flooding in the surrounding communities, including Philippi, a township the students visited Sunday. Hyacinth plants clog the drains leading to the pond, making it harder for water to flow into and remain in the pond.


South Africa has eleven recognized languages, including Afrikaans, a Dutch-based language infused with Malay, Portuguese, Khoi Khoi, German, French and English elements. Although 18 percent of South Africa's population speaks Afrikaans, English is extremely prevalent and the American students have had no real communication trouble. Every version of English is a bit different, however, and South African English is no exception. Here are a few words that students have encountered in Cape Town:

Bakkie: Pronounced “bucky,” this refers to any type of container. It is commonly used to describe a small pick-up with a hard top.

Braai: Barbecue

Finished: Tired, as in “you look finished this morning.”

Faculty: Instead of only referring to the professors of a university, this refers to the entire college itself. For example, the engineering faculty means the same as the college of engineering.

Naartjie: Clementine or small orange, pronounced “nar-chee.”

Jersey: A sweater or pullover.

Robot: A traffic light.

Takaway: Take-out or a carry-out restaurant.

The students plunged in early on the morning of Day 14 (Monday, January 14). The novelty of pulling arm-length stalks of hyacinth and flinging them onto shore wore off quickly, but the students stayed in good spirits. Plenty of laughing and water fights broke out as they wrangled large floating sections of the plant with a rake. The 90-degree weather meant frequent breaks, and the group called it a day in the early afternoon.

Tuesday morning (Day 15) arrived as a complete turnaround from Monday. The day was cloudy, chilly and drizzly. A slight undercurrent of dread ran through the students on the bus ride to the park, but the mood quickly turned to excitement when they pulled in and spotted a large clear patch in the middle of the pond.

“There’s water!” students yelled, and the visual progress prompted students to strategize the best techniques. Use a piece of chicken wire to pile the plant and haul it, some suggested. Other advised the “pluck and chuck” method with one person in the water tossing plants to another on shore, who then flings it onto the tall piles of weeds dotting the banks.

Stacy-Anne Michaels, an ESWP environmental educator, says all this extra manpower is a dream come true for the staff of six. With limited funding, the park doesn’t have a boat to curtail the rapid spread of the hyacinth. To protect the other plant and animal species, the park can’t use chemicals, and volunteers in the depressed area are few and far between.

The LeaderShape service project came just in time for the pond. “Another year and all the species would be gone,” Michaels says. The hyacinth is so dense that sunlight can’t get to the water, and the lack of oxygen creates a stagnant, smelly body of water that can’t support the wetland ecosystem.

“I’m doing this for the environment,” says Jonathan Augelli, a UW-Madison civil engineering student. “I want to do my part to keep the world in balance because there’s more in the world than just people and someone has to watch out for it.”

More than 80 bird species come to ESWP, several of which use the three islands in the middle of the pond to breed. Without easy access to the fish underneath the hyacinth, the birds have left.

However, there is hope. On Wednesday (Day 16, January 16), some students watched a white cormorant swimming in the clearing, diving underwater for surprising lengths of time. Every bundle of weeds they removed makes room for more of these birds to return in the future. “It was kind of cool to interact with wildlife. It was fun to see the fish and birds start to come out at the end,” Augelli says. “It made you feel like you’d done something and that you were appreciated.”

The students attacked the hyacinth by splitting into three groups, dubbed the litchis (a white, grape-like fruit covered in a hard, textured shell), naartjies (a small orange) and the mangos. The naartjies had to pick their way to the shore by clearing a prickly path, sinking at times into waist-high grasses. At the shore, the students quickly “plucked and chucked” to form a high pile of stalks, palm-sized leaves and black, coarse lumps of roots. The student designated to keep moving the pile back away from shore found himself standing on a springy, smelly pile with his feet as high as the heads of the other “chuckers.”

Those who ventured into the water—including Engineering Career Services Assistant Director Kathy Prem, the main UW-Madison LeaderShape coordinator from Engineering Career Services—waded in almost chest-high, murky water. Some students worked in areas teeming with crabs, while others found an occasional fish or harmless snake.

After Wednesday, the group left the pond and worked on maintenance projects for the park’s buildings. There still is hyacinth in the pond, but even more important is the clearing that increased over the three days.

In addition to the improvements in the pond, there is much to show for the students’ work: The hyacinth piles are high, and trucks picked them up and distributed them to the township residents for a variety of uses. The plant can be used as mulch, sold to vineyards to place between rows for fire prevention, or to make items including furniture or lingerie.

If Denis Kow Son Wong, a UCT computer and electrical engineering student, has his way, the project won’t end though the American students have returned home. He is part of a UCT campus committee called Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO), which is aimed at helping the poverty-stricken areas. One way this group contributes is by tutoring children, and Wong wants his organization to take township kids to the ESWP pond. He wants them to see and learn about the wildlife and why it’s important to maintain healthy wetlands, especially by reducing litter.

“If we don’t teach them or educate them on what we did—in this case, taking out the hyacinths and maybe bringing new hope to the wildlife—inevitably the place will end up as it was before, as if we didn’t make any difference at all,” says Wong. “They’d be walking blind past this pond.“

Though the UW-Madison students may never have the chance to see a hyacinth-free pond, for Augelli, the project still was a valuable lesson on the power of motivation. “Look into the clear spots that you’ve done, and don’t look at the overwhelming masses of hyacinth that still lie before you,” he advises. “It’s the same as saying, ‘Don’t focus on the bad stuff; to keep your drive, focus on what you have going.’”