Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Design Strategy

Being as expat is an interesting experience.  People constantly ask me what I’m doing in their country (in friendly, interested manner) and I’ve developed an explanation that’s as short as possible yet still answers his/her question: “I’m working with an affordable housing NGO.”

Sometimes that’s the end of it.  Other times, they want more details.

“The NGO is called Madulammoho and it operates in Hillbrow.  Basically we take over formerly occupied buildings and try to provide safe, secure, and affordable housing for our tenants.”

Dropping the name “Hillbrow” usually makes my conversation partner’s eyes go big.  I frequently get responses like, “Whoa… you must be really brave to work in Hillbrow.”

I admit that part of me loves the shock value of my job.  But, at the same time, another part of me is tired of the lectures and warnings I constantly get from Joburg locals.

Last weekend, one man tried to convince me to buy a new kind of pepper spray that spurts in a straight line as a solid liquid instead of as a directed spray.  He told me it was more effective and more accurate than the usual stuff.

I told him if I carried something like that in my purse, most likely I’d end up accidently spraying myself in the face.

He thought I was being too cavalier about working in Hillbrow.  He said, “You might be able to go a couple months, a year, two years, even 5 years without an incident – but eventually something will happen.  You don’t want to be caught unprepared.”

That’s true, but I also don’t want to organize my life around the worst possible scenario.

To explain my attitude, I’m going to tell you a secret: engineers sometimes design things to fail.  On purpose.

For example, storm water systems are often designed to accommodate up to 1/200 year storms. 

What does that mean?

Modern Canadian engineering design is based on probabilities.  It’s too expensive to design a storm water system that will never ever fail (i.e. overflow).  Instead, we look at storm data and determine the “once in 200 year storm” intensity.  This is the kind of storm occurs once every 200 years on average.  Remember – this is a probability.  That means a 1/200 year storm could feasibly happen more than once in a single year.  On the other hand, we could also go a couple hundred years without seeing a storm that big.  The point is that the engineers who designed our current code considered a cost-benefit analysis that took into account cost, safety, maintenance, etc. to see what was feasible for common design.*

That’s sort of how I look at my life.

It’s too costly on my sense of freedom and independence to be 100% safe all the time.  How could I even accomplish that anyways?  Stay at home in Canada my whole life?  Never get in car?  Never fall in love and hence never have a broken heart?

What a boring life!

Instead of planning my life based on the worst case scenario, I plan around the most common scenario.  This doesn’t mean that I’m flippant about my safety.  Au contraire mon chèrie (that’s right.  Pulled out some French.  Just to prove I am actually Canadian), in this country I am CONSTANTLY performing cost-benefit analyses in my head and trying to figure out the probability that I’ll get mugged (or worse) for a particular action.  I take my safety very seriously. 

Furthermore, I take ownership over my own safety.

It seems to me that many people operate on a day-to-day basis simply hoping that nothing bad will happen to them.  A woman will put pepper spray in her purse then avoid every dangerous situation she can.  If something did happen, however, she’d put all her hope into that one little bottle.

To me, that’s not empowerment.  That’s not an effective strategy to be in control of a situation.

Moreover, let’s be honest – if someone was trying to mug you at gunpoint would you serious consider pepper spraying him?  I’d give him my wallet or cellphone or whatever he wanted.  It’s just stuff.  But if he wanted to physically harm me or abduct me, then he better be prepared to fight until one of us is no longer conscious.  Moreover, in a fight like that, my body is my weapon of choice.  I wouldn’t feel comfortable with pepper spray or a pocket knife or a gun (I’ve had some people here actually try to convince me to carry a gun.  Ha!  Can you imagine ME with a GUN?).  Whereas I know what my body is capable of and I know how to use it effectively.

Yes, I laugh when people are shocked that I work in Hillbrow.  I try to explain that it’s a community where people live and that it doesn’t deserve its terrible reputation.  But just because I’m laughing doesn’t mean that I’m dismissive.  I’m fully aware of the risks I take.  I’m prepared for them, but I don’t worry about them.

What would that accomplish?

*Side note: one of the consequences of global climate change has been an increase in intense storm frequency.  As a result, we’re experiencing formally “1/200 year storms” every couple years – if not more.  This means that engineering codes have to be adjusted so that our storm water systems stop overflowing so often.  One more taxpayer expense linked to climate change and energy use.


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