Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “November, 2012”


Hello world,

This is my 100th post!

Thank you everyone for reading.  A HUGE thank you to everyone who commented.

I’ve never blogged before and it’s been an interesting experience, to say the least.  I want this blog to tackle some complicated development issues, but I also don’t want to bore any readers away.  I’ve noticed that people tend to “Like” the fluffy stories, but not the informative posts – a trend that I’ve found somewhat frustrating.

But I’m learning!  And I hope you’re learning along with me.

I’ll be away for the rest of 2012 exploring South Africa then going home for Christmas (HUGE SMILE), but I’ll be back in Joyburg for the new year.  I hope you visit my page again in 2013 and continue on this journey with me.



Active Citizenship

It is slowly dawning on me that the concept “active citizenship” has different connotations in South Africa than it does in Canada.

At the Development Dinner I attended a couple weeks ago, it seemed odd to me that “active citizenship” would be the topic of conversation.  Aren’t there subjects more relevant to “development” that we could discuss?

Then I read the following article that one of the dinner guests sent us yesterday:

When I think of active citizenship, I think of attending community meetings and public consultations.  To me, all citizens should do these basic things to ensure they have input into their communities.  Otherwise, stop complaining!

In the article, however, the author explains that a group called Equal Education campaigned “for two years to get the minister to set minimum norms and standards for schools, arguing that unequal access to quality infrastructure is a core aspect of inequality in education.”

Yes, I also consider lobbying a form of active citizenship, but not one that I would expect most people to undertake.

I realized that I expect the government to provide effective avenues for people to engage with decision makers if they choose to.

Unfortunately, in South Africa, you can’t trust your government to do that.  Instead, you have to fight to make your voice heard.

As a result, active citizenship is intrinsically tied to development here: citizens must be loud and forceful in their demands or else the government simply won’t deliver.

How Not To Go On Safari

A couple weeks ago, two of my Canadian friends (dubbed “X” and “Y” in this post) and I did one of the South African musts: a safari at Kruger Park.

We had a great time!  We saw four of the big five (the 5 hardest animals to hunt: elephant, leopard, lion, water buffalo, and rhino) and lots of other animals as well.

There are a few lessons, however, that I feel I should pass on.  If you ever go on safari, don’t repeat our mistakes.

My first lesson is limited not only to safaris, but pertains to traveling in South Africa in general:

1.  Don’t trust maps

Within the first 20 minutes of leaving Joburg, the three of us realized we were lost.  It was fine – we turned around and found our highway exit.

Once on the right path, X, our fearless navigator, looked at the map and said, “From now on it should be straightforward.

Y and I both burst out laughing. “You have a lot to learn about South African maps and road signs. Nothing here is ever straightforward.”

And we were right.  We had to pull over and ask for directions a couple times.  It’s a good thing South Africans are so friendly!

2.  All-nighters are rarely a good idea.  Safaris are no exception.

We made a terrible tactical decision right at the beginning of our trip. On Saturday morning we had booked a sunrise drive that last at 4am. How should we deal with such an early morning?  The obvious conclusion: get completely wasted Friday night and pull an all-nighter.

Seriously, what were we thinking?

We ended up passing out at 3am, getting up at 3:30am (still drunk), and being totally obnoxious on the safari drive.  At least, the boys were obnoxious.  I passed out.

It was such a trippy experience. I woke up each time the truck stopped and the guy beside me (who took pity on me) pointed out why we were stopped. Would doze off, wake up and see a giraffe in my face, fall asleep again, wake up and see a lion – repeat for 3 hours.

Needless to say, we were all tired for the rest of the weekend


3.  Don’t approach lone male elephants

And if you do, ear flapping is a sign of hostility; it doesn’t mean he’s saying hello.

Our first “Big 5” sighting was an elephant.  We laughed and cheered as we peered at him in the distance.

Y stopped the car. I urged him to go forward. He told me, “You’re not supposed to approach a lone male.”

The elephant wandered off the road and we couldn’t see it anymore.

I pleaded, “We’re not directly approaching it anymore! C’mon… go forward. Now we’re coming from an angle. Plus there are so many trees, it won’t even see us!”

Y cut the engine and we coasted closer. Always a super smart decision – sneaking up on a wild animal.

The elephant was so close! I hung out the window, trying to take photos, and saying inane things like, “Hey gorgeous. That’s right. Look at me. C’mon, beautiful, turn this way.”

Suddenly it reared up and charged at us.

X: “Y! DRIVE!”

Thank goodness Y was driving the car. I definitely would have stalled it under pressure.

We drive to a safe distance, the boys gasping and swearing while I laughed hysterically.

“See Bethany? That’s why you shouldn’t get out of the car!!”

Me: “We were fine.  You two are taking this too seriously.

After being almost attacked by an elephant, the rest of the trip seemed tame in comparison.  Not that I’m complaining – my life could generally use more tame.

Screen Covers

It’s summer in Johannesburg!  The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and… the bugs are hatching.

When I moved to my garden suite in the winter, I didn’t realize the garden (and my house) would become an ecosystem of huge creepy crawlies.  They come in through my open windows – which have to stay open because it’s so hot.

I can handle big bugs.  So what if that big beetle keeps me awake, it’s fluttering is so loud?  Was that moth that just flew into my light or a bat?  Omfg is that centipede?  It’s 10cm long!

Even though I don’t like them, however, they don’t freak me out.  I feel like we can coexist inside my place together.

But not the spiders.

I have an irrational fear of spiders.  I can’t even look at a picture of one without hyperventilating.

So when spiders started to move in, I realized I had to do something.  These spiders are big, red, and QUICK.  Too quick for me to approach them.

Not that I can kill spiders anyways.  I might be afraid of them, but I’m also a pacifist; I want them outside, not dead.

My proactive solution would be to install screens on my windows, but it doesn’t appear that anyone here (meaning in my office, which I admit is a small sample size) has heard of putting screens on doors and windows.

So instead, I did the South African thing and bought insecticide spray.  My colleagues told me to spray my curtains and the areas around my windows.  They also recommended which insecticide will kill bugs the fastest.  They told me that if I spray the spiders directly, I’ll see them shrivel and die in front of my eyes.

Wow.  Chemicals that strong are EXACTLY what I want to fumigate my house with!

Someone should start a screen business here.  You’d make millions.


I have a lot of opinions.


And I’ll spout them off to anyone who will listen.

Once I start monologue-ing, though, most people glaze over and occasionally nod their head in agreement.  A few are actually interested and ask me questions.  Some even get excited and we build off each other’s energy, condemning the current global system and complaining about what’s wrong with the world.

Not enough people, however, challenge me and contest my assertions.

But it happened last week!  A friend and I were discussing socioeconomics and I mentioned “the hollowing out of the middle class.”

He’d never heard of the concept before.

I explained that income distribution used to be egg-shaped: a few people earned a lot at the top, a few people earned a little at the bottom, but the majority of the population was in the middle.  Since the 1970s, however, the world has seen a shift from an egg to an hourglass.  Now more people earn either high wages or low wages, but less in the middle.

“I don’t believe that’s true,” he said.


I’ve been hearing about the hollowing out of the middle class since Political Science 100 in my first year of university!  All my geography professors took it for granted that we understood the concept.  I even used my hands to illustrate the egg shape and the hourglass shape!  And he didn’t believe me?

I recovered from my initial shock and explained that the phenomenon had primarily been observed in the United States – not the world as I’d originally said.  Furthermore, it was largely caused by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.  Now the “choice” is between a high-paying professional job or a low-paying service job.

My friend remained skeptical.  He said that maybe the trend has been observed, but that he didn’t believe we are at an hourglass yet.

I don’t have the internet at home, so our discussion moved on to another topic.  I could have showed him my old school notes (yes, I moved my notes all the way to South Africa.  That’s how nerdy I am), but those didn’t seem like an adequate source.

Today I used Google Scholar to find academic articles both for and against the hollowing out theory.  (Seriously, how did we survive without the internet?)  There’s strong evidence supporting the hypothesis in the United States and United Kingdom, but less documented confirmation in other countries.

And now I understand a theory much better that I had previously accepted without question!

Thank you.

Summer Storms

Overcast and over 30°C to hail storm to clear and sunny at 20°C in 15 minutes.

And I thought Vancouver had changeable weather!

Creeps and Weirdos

“People in South Africa associate mass transit with poverty.  Cars are status symbols.  You haven’t ‘made it’ – you’re not successful – if you don’t own your own vehicle.”

I heard the above comment at the HUB sustainability discussion last week.  But this is not a problem that is isolated only to South Africa.

Look at the advertisement that GM ran in a Vancouver, BC, newspaper in 2005:


(Side note: I played with the TransLink Planning Department’s ultimate team last summer.  Guess what their name is.  That’s right! “Creeps n’ Weirdos”)

So how do we try to change the social values infused with transportation choices?




Just like I learned the importance of recycling when I was young, we need to teach our children the importance of public transit.

Unfortunately, that’ll be difficult in a country where many high school graduates can’t even read.

Another suggestion:




My transportation planning professor at UBC, Dr. Jinhua Zhou, told us about a London advertising campaign that he was involved in.  If my memory is correct, they surveyed London residents to determine how people generally felt about cycling/cyclists.  They then ran a long campaign showing hot models with bicycles.  In the follow up survey, they discovered that people’s opinions of cyclists had improved.

Simple, but effective.

Would an advertising campaign work in South Africa?  At this point, I doubt it.  There isn’t enough infrastructure to support cycling.

That being said, I often see groups of cyclists in the affluent areas.  But it looks like they’re cycling for fitness, not commuting, which doesn’t actually cut down on the number of cars.

I think South Africa needs a two-pronged approach: education/advertising and infrastructure improvements.  Even though both solutions are expensive, the problem itself is not insurmountable – it just needs some political willpower behind it.

Like 99% of the other issues in this country.

Like 99% of the other issues in any country.

Hacking for Humanity

Read Renee Black’s informative piece on “hacktivism,” social media, and how PeaceGeeks is utilizing these tools to promote social change around the world.

Then donate to her wonderful organization:

Framing the Question

Last week I went to a discussion entitled “The Role of Design in Creating Sustainable Cities: Opportunities in the Green Economy” hosted by the HUB Johannesburg.

The HUB is a global organization that rents work space to entrepreneurs committed to creating positive change.  It’s a pretty cool idea.  You can read more about it here:

The next few blog posts will explore some of the questions and concepts that were discussed during the evening, but first I want to describe an interesting phenomenon that I’ve encountered during many of my conversations in this country.

South Africans tend to frame issues with the introduction, “In South Africa, we….”

It can be about anything:

“In South Africa, we have a problem with active citizenship.”
“In this country, we need to address walkability and public transportation.
“In South Africa, the universities should communicate more with industry and government.”

Many of these concerns are global issues; I’ve heard people from all over the world ask similar questions.  True, the local context colours each problem (and its solution) slightly differently, but the basic issue is the same.

As I told one HUB member after the discussion, I don’t think that framing the problem in a way that makes it seem only a South African issue is empowering.  In fact, I think the kind of thinking that further segregates this country is actively disempowering. 

South Africa is part of global community.  Its history, though unique, does not isolate it.

As global citizens, we need to engage without each other across national and cultural boundaries.  Yes, there are differences between us, but we shouldn’t let those get in the way of finding solutions.  South Africans can learn a lot from the rest of the world if they look beyond their borders.  Moreover, the rest of the world can learn a lot from South Africa.

EWB Application, Question 2

Another answer from my EWB application:

Choose one thing you feel is important for the process of development in rural Africa. Explain why it is important and please provide an example to illustrate.

Community involvement is enormously important for any development plan in rural Africa.  Even though western researchers and development workers usually have the best intentions, we all have preconceived notions of Africa that can influence our judgements.  For example, environmental research on the forest of islands of Kissidougou in Guinea has had many different narratives.  Various researchers have observed that dense forests surround villages.  The rest of the landscape, however, is savannah.  Western scholars had assumed the “natural” vegetarian must be forest and that rural Africans had degraded the land to cause deforestation and changed the area to savannah.  Two researchers, James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, dispute this conclusion.  Through conversations with villagers they determined that, in fact, the natural landscape is savannah.  Africans nurtured forests around their villages for protection.  Furthermore, some of the forests had grown so robustly they were encroaching into the village areas and “degrading” the savannah.  As a consequence, the forest provided important resources to the villages such as leaves for their dwellings’ roofs.  Every year the villagers would cut down trees and burn them to contain the forests at a reasonable area.  Western scientists had seen villagers doing this and labelled it “mindless destruction.”  These scientists made assumptions based on false ideas instead of asking the local people the reasons behind their decisions.  Without community participation, I believe it is impossible to gain any sort of substantial understanding of a place and the people’s culture.  Without this understanding, development work becomes a top-down approach that could easily ignore the wants and needs of the people it will affect.

In their paper “False Forest History, Complicit Social Analysis: Rethinking Some West African Environmental Narratives” (1995, World Development Vol. 23), Fairhead and Leach argue that many colonial-era stereotypes still exist among westerners.  These are based on four broader assumptions:

  1. African vegetation was once “original”
  2. African society once had traditional functional order in harmony with nature
  3. African rural populations only increase
  4. African society is sedentary and subsistence is anti-commercial

Indeed I recognize these beliefs in my own idealized notion of Africa.  This is why it is so important for me to recognize the limitations of my preconceptions and be open-minded.  Only by listening to African people tell their own stories can I better my understanding of Africa.

My own cultural stereotypes were exposed in 2009 when I went to Honduras and visited the small town of Tocoa Colon.  I was struck by the poverty.  Even though I’d read about slums, seeing it with my own eyes was much different that I imagined.  It was common for three generations of women to live in one mud shack without electricity or running water.  However none of the usual slum descriptions such as “destitute” or “meagre” fit what I saw.  These people had busy lives, which unfortunately were often much more difficult than they needed to be.  Yet I did not feel a giant chasm between them and myself.  Perhaps this is hubris on my part.  Many of the people I met may not have felt as close to me as I to them.  Communication is the best tool for bridging these sorts of gaps.

Community participation is important for fair governance.  Many government structures over the world are based on majority rules-style democracy.  One of this style’s limitations is that it can silence marginalized minorities.  As reflected in recent literature and the Occupy movements, there is a growing awareness regarding participatory democracy.  New strategies are being used to encourage and improve community participation.  Although formal government legislations are generally slow to adopt new procedures, NGOs and community groups offer another communicative avenue for the voice of local people to reach their government.

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