The Audacity to Dream

It’s astounding to me that my time here in Durban is nearly up, as I feel that there is so much still that I yearn to accomplish before I pack my bags and travel back to theUnited States. In my farewell post, I want to share some thoughts that I have gathered over my eight weeks here in Wentworth. So without further ado, here they are:

1) I arrived here in Wentworth with distorted perceptions of the South African educational system, as I had been told that the reason why the country’s schools were so poorly rated was because the teachers didn’t care about their students. I was told that they sometimes refused to show up to work if they weren’t feeling up to it, and were only in the industry for the money. This fallacy could not be further from the truth, as each teacher Maddie and I worked with was full of light and dedicated to their jobs. They truly cared about each and every individual that walked into their classroom, and it pained them to see certain children throw away their futures with their unwillingness to learn. Yes, there are indeed institutional problems that inhibit the students from learning, but those problems stem from the government ministers, not the caring, gracious instructors that toil every day to enlighten children at Assegai Primary School.

2) I have truly gained an understanding as to why some individuals are troublemakers at school, something which I never once considered while I was growing up in my hometown of Holmdel, New Jersey. Many kids here in Wentworth live in domestic situations that are far from ideal, and that puts it mildly. Some of their parents are simply uninterested in their lives, meaning that they do not care if they fail classes, receive detentions, or participate in substance abuse. Quite honestly, I have no idea how some of these children arrive at school with such bright smiles on their faces even when their homes are filled with darkness. Before they can even begin to realize their passions and strive to achieve their goals, life kills their dream and sets them on a path towards the shadows. During my time at Assegai, I was fortunate enough to make friends with the biggest troublemaker in the school; he indeed came from a rough family situation, and I only hope that he will continue to use his bright, infectious smile and steer clear of the abyss.

3) There are so many children that dream of a better life beyond the barriers of the old policies of apartheid that still exist to this day, and it pains me to see them realize how the deck is stacked against them. In this area, the coloured people still fight for assistance that was promised to them when the shackles of inequality were supposedly struck from their wrists in 1994. They were promised a better life for all South Africans, but basic amenities are still withheld from the Wentworth community for no reason other than politics. It’s sickening, as government officials are doing nothing else but crippling the leaders of today and demoralizing the dreamers of tomorrow by not supporting their brightest ambitions and providing them the resources they require to succeed. Many of these children long to see the world that awaits them, but will never have the opportunity to live their dreams because of the extensive corruption that exists within the country.

4) It’s amazing how desensitized these children have become to their surroundings in this community, as many of them have been exposed to events that would have surely stunted my development in my adolescence. Quite simply, no child should have to grow up in a community so rife of drugs and weapons, but sadly, the children of Wentworth are exposed to such darkness regularly. At Assegai, several students who grew up in the flats described to me how they have seen their windows being shot out during gunfights, how they have had to grab all of their prized possessions and flee after a bomb was discovered in their complex, and how they have witnessed their friend’s father selling drugs in the unit next door. It is so upsetting that these children wake up every day surrounded by gloom, but even more so that this darkness has become part of their daily life. They were able to tell me these stories as if they were no big deal, as if it was normal for a twelve-year-old boy to witness their neighbor injecting illegal substances into his body. I admire so greatly those students who succeed in the face of all of those inhibitions, as they have the courage to push through the shadows in search of a well-lit passage and the audacity to dream of a better future for themselves.

I know that these observations paint a depressing picture of life in Wentworth, but I have hope that the diamonds hidden amongst the rough will someday emerge and combat the inequality that stunts the growth of their community. The students who work so hard in hopes of attending university give me faith, as these brave individuals are the future of this young nation still struggling to embrace its rainbow identity. Individuals such as the Bassier family giveme faith, as they showed me nothing but love and acceptance during the two months I spent occupying a space in their beautiful home. And finally, the teachers of Assegai Primary school give me faith, as they truly see the potential of the next generation and work every day to aid them embrace their strengths and achieve their dreams.

Thank you for reading,

Travis J. Closs

*Note: Yes, the title of this post was inspired by a speech from one of America’s presidents.



The fantastic teachers of Assegai Primary School

Closing Remarks

[A personal message shared to community members and SDCEA cohorts at their Biennial General Meeting]

Good Morning,

For those of you I have not yet met, my name is Lesley Chen-Young, and I am a third year student at Duke University in North Carolina. Through my school, I was blessed with the opportunity to live and learn for the past two months in Wentworth, most of which has occurred in the company of many here today. Prior to arriving, I researched the area extensively. With a background as an environmental science major, with a concentration in energy economics, I couldn’t wait to learn about the highly industrialized and still residential South Durban area from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.

What I neglected to realize, however, was that beyond policy, beyond technology, beyond urban planning and every other field of study or class I have taken, is people. People have always been, will always be, the motivation and the means. This is what I’ve learned at SDCEA.

The work of locally grown, still locally based, yet internationally recognized organizations is priceless.

As I corresponded with loved one’s back home, everyone was eager to hear how my anticipated work assignment was going. The first thing I told them was how this humble office felt like the mayor’s office. I had been warned about an office of about 5 employees, but on my first day, at least 30 people were in and out of that office. Over the following 8-weeks, I would begin to understand how SDCEA is a hub for the community, a true collaborating alliance.

I used to believe that my hometown was plagued with two evils – the first was the obsession with economic growth and development, and the second was the idea of temporary fixes. I didn’t realize that South Africa would host eerily similar problems, but one week into my internship, this became ever clear. My generation, as a product of past generations, is wholly vulnerable to the rapidly deteriorating state of the environment. This directly threatens the health of our own bodies, albeit our ecosystems, economic markets, and promise of future prosperity.

All of this is to say, that my experience working here at SDCEA has been extremely transformative. From witnessing work geared towards youth, educators, community members, and leaders, I can say with full confidence that the work of this organization is not only necessary, but it is shockingly robust. In my hometown, we would need about four well-run organizations to complete the work SDCEA does for the South Durban community.

And yet there is so much more to do. With the lurking possibility of the new port, Clairwood Racecourse, and nuclear energy developments, I know the work is far from being done to ensure that profits and political power don’t come before people. For this reason, I leave Wentworth in a few days with a heavy heart. But from the tireless efforts I’ve seen from every staff member, intern, foot soldier, neighborhood alliance, and friendly face in the office, I know that the spirit of the people, however marginalized and ignored, can never be silenced.

I congratulate SDCEA on another two years of amazing work, and I am so humbled to have witnessed two months of it. Thank you for welcoming me and teaching me so much more than I could have expected!

Do You Believe in Santa Claus?

It’s amazing how sometimes the smallest conversations can have the biggest impact. Some of my favorite memories from this trip have come from answering the silly questions we get asked, or even getting mocked by a small child mimicking an American accent (@Jordan). But today, I had an interesting moment where I found myself sucked into a conversation in the middle of a lesson that required a lot more thought than I initially thought was going to be required.

Looking back, I’ve realized I’ve told more than a few white lies during my time as a substitute teacher/ teacher’s aide this past week. For example, when I was asked what I did on a typical Saturday to be an example for the teacher’s point about what was necessary to become “successful” and educated entails, I felt it best not to admit that I normally sleep until noon and then watch television for the rest of the day. Instead, I spun some tale about how I cook breakfast, or my brother will cook it for me, and then I help my dad out with the yard work for the rest of the day. (The truth is that I don’t think I’ve helped my Dad in the yard since early high school and my brother hasn’t cooked a day in his life, and in fact will often call my mom on his cell phone to bring him a tray from from a floor below her, but I really think what I told them sounds better.) Another instance of a question I was forced to answer on the spot was whether I believed in Santa Claus. In the classroom, I am referred to as “teacher Maddie” so as soon as Mrs. Bigger asked me, “Teacher Maddie, you believe in Santa, don’t you?” of course I was going to say yes; and I really didn’t think anything of it.

My answer was not really a lie. I do believe in Santa Claus in the sense that I believe belief in the importance of Santa acting as the embodiment of Christmas spirit and hope for entering the new year. And Christmas is also just not the same without belief that Santa’s sleigh is on its way. But I digress. I certainly did not, however, anticipate this question and my answer to be anything more than a fleeting conversation in the moment.

A week after, however, as I was standing in the back of the classroom ensuring the students near me were paying attention, the girl sitting next to me, out of the blue turned to me and asked, “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” As the three other students sitting around her turned to me immediately and began bombarding me with follow-up questions, I realized that this had apparently been a topic of discussion between them before. First of all, it served as a good reminder that even though my comment didn’t seem particularly important to me, it did stick with the kids, so I should probably be more careful about I say. Second, it posed a bit of a dilemma to me as I was faced with the issue of wanting to encourage their belief in Santa Claus while not setting them up for disappointment.

That’s how I found myself in the middle of a conversation where I was running by the seat of my pants. As I wove a tale about my childhood and the many Christmases where I have encountered Santa, I chose very purposefully to stick to the aspects of Christmas/Santa that a) the kids could control and b) required little to no activity by another party. I talked about how I always write a letter to Santa every year and leave in either in my mailbox or a special Christmas mailbox my mom puts out by the chimney. They then asked me how Santa knew the letter would be there and, for the record, the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is not a thing here, so telling them that “he sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake” led to horrified stares as opposed to the dawning understanding I had hoped to see. I talked about how every Christmas Eve my brother and I leave food for the reindeer outside where it is either eaten or blown away by the wind depending on how you look at it. Gift-receiving proved to be a bit challenging to explain as well, as setting them up for disappointment was the last thing I wanted. But I tried my best to stress that Santa knows what he’s doing and even if he doesn’t give you exactly what you asked for, it might be because in previous years he gave you something bigger or in future years he has big plans. I walked through all the things I have received that I wanted versus what I asked for and didn’t get (which were only about 30% made up on the spot); I hope it was enough to convince them to be excited but also reasonable but also who knows with 11 year olds. My crowning achievement came when the girl asked me about parent involvement and my solution was that you have to tell your parents about what you’re asking Santa for to make sure that there’s no crossover and they don’t buy you similar things. I really hope they bought that, but only time will tell there.

And that is the very long story of a very short conversation I had about Santa Claus with four skeptic Grade Five kids. It was interesting to hear their conceptions about Santa Claus (we all agreed that mall Santas were just weird) and also very cool to see their eyes light up with the possibility of being able to write letters to him. I hope that this Christmas they do put out their reindeer food and leave their letters in the mailbox for the mailmen, but I guess we’ll have to see!

Finding Pride in Imperfection

A few weeks into my Duke Engage experience, I was tasked by my work supervisor to develop and plan a youth week program hosted by our organization. I was excited and honored to be given a large scale project, and I felt ready to create a program that would make all of my co-workers proud.

Shortly after receiving the assignment, I realized this task would be monumentally more challenging than I had expected. Not only did I lack the local contacts to be able to organize food, guest speakers, and activities, but my background as an outsider of the community meant that my ability to connect with youth of the area was diminished. From small things like saying “Fall” instead of “Autumn”, to large things like expecting that our published age bracket for the event (14-25) would be upheld, I began to feel less and less capable. To add on to these barriers, my supervisor often articulated new visions of the programming, and I would find that my planning over multiple days would be quickly disregarded for the youth week to take a new direction.

The weeks leading up to the event were stressful, and as we got closer and closer to the start date, I began to understand how little control I had in executing the event. Our programming was subject to change minutes before, we were expecting hundreds of youth to attend, and the team that would be available to run the event seemed to get smaller and smaller.

To make a long story short, I was starting to dread the program I had so anticipated. I felt that it had become out of my control. I was worried that the program wouldn’t live up to my standard of perfection, and that the success of this week would speak to both my ability and credibility as a volunteer.

While the week was long, extremely taxing, and 60% of the time did not go as planned, the entire team and youth involved cited the week as a success. The following weekend, I was still struggling to comprehend their excitement. On the final day of the programming, we were kicked out of our rented community hall, part of our electronic equipment was stolen, we had over 200 people waiting on food that was cooking slowly, and young children from age 3 to 13 wreaked havoc inside and on the grounds. Yet as the crowd left, the tattered team stood behind to clean up, and everyone (myself included) was smiling and laughing.

We joked about the crazy kids and the condescending hall supervisor. We enjoyed the amazing taste of the “braai” (barbeque) that took 2 hours longer than expected to cook. We even spoke with the older youth that hung around and kept asking ‘so, when will you have another youth week?’

It took me until I was walking home from work on Tuesday to understand what I had failed to see. I was two minutes into my five-minute walk, and I passed the primary school I’ve seen every day. After training myself to block out most noises due to the incredible amount of cat-callers on the street, I was jolted to hear someone scream “Lesley!!!!” I quickly turned around, trying to plan my escape route in the event that this person was an aggressor, and I was greeted by the toothy grin of one of the most disobedient young girls at our youth week programming.

I was so surprised. The same girl that our team had struggled to control the entire week – that frustrated me since she was 8 years younger than what we planned for – told me that ‘her day was made’ by running into me on the road. I immediately thought of how terrible it would have been if we turned her away at the door, a prospect we had considered as our program became overwhelmed with tiny tots. I thought of how, instead of spending her school break roaming around her neighborhood unattended, we were able to feed her twice every day. I became confident that although she might not have internalized all 5 days of our organization’s message, she at least left the program with one new piece of knowledge. Finally, I remembered my goal of this trip; it wasn’t to show off my talents or even deliver amazing content for my organization. My goal of this trip was to be a positive force in at least one person’s life. I can say with confidence that I actually achieved that.

I was annoyed by the messages at the Duke Engage Academy, repeating “it’s not about you.” This theme was meant to engrain in our heads that our time abroad is centered around serving our community, not serving our own interests. This claim was true. And still, no family member or site coordinator or Duke administrator could have relayed this message clearer than my tumultuous week. My expectations were challenged, my usual abilities diminished, my standards compromised by all metrics I would have used just 2 months ago. But writing now, I know I am proud.


**Please find below our program mission and overview from our post-event report.

Program Mission

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) saw a premier opportunity in the holiday season for youth of the area, and we prioritized creating programming to engage the youth in discussions of critical issues. Our mission was to involve all youth from different South Durban communities in interactive educational experiences throughout the week to promote stewardship and youth empowerment. SDCEA also aspired to provide a safe environment for these youth to spend their days while they were released from school.

Program Overview

The program ran from Monday to Friday, from 10.00AM to 14.30PM, and our target age was 14 to 25. Nonetheless, our program attracted large groups of small children below the age of 13, and we allowed them to participate in the program. Each day had a different theme, allowing us to plan activities, speeches, and the like in a cohesive and comprehensive manner. Additionally, each day was led by a member of the SDCEA team to introduce the youth to our various staff members, interns, and community volunteers. Out of approximately 500 paper invitations, as well as electronically shared invitations, we averaged just above 150 participants each day. We fed all participants and organizers each day with fruit and a snack, as well as juice and a lunch meal at the end of the day.

Throughout the week, we engaged the youth in competitive games and activities to capture their attention and generate excitement for the content of our program. About 13 South Durban communities were represented each day. Details of the attendants of our program can be found in the “Daily Attendance” section of this report.

SDCEA team members thought that the week was an achievement, especially due to the growing numbers of participant’s day to day. However, it was noted by all members that the influx of young children somewhat derailed the efficacy of the program for the older youth that we had targeted. Overall, the team was glad to see that we could provide a safe, learning environment for the youth of many areas for the entire week. We are all positive that each participant left our week-long programming with at least one new piece of knowledge about being a guardian for the community and environmental stewardship.

The participants were excited to meet other youth from different areas and engage in discussion and activities, and SDCEA found the program to be a positive and rewarding experience. Many on the SDCEA team would enjoy seeing more events of this nature, especially with the wisdom acquired by this first venture. Planning and organization are an absolute must, and we know these are areas in which we can improve tremendously. Overall, the week was educational and fun, and many youth inquired about when the next program would occur. We believe this speaks volumes to our success, having excited the youth about participating in community building.

But guys remember…at least the door’s still locked

It was a tough week, not gonna lie. I witnessed incredible displays of community, strength, support, and love that were nonetheless tainted by incredible distress, incompetency, and devastation. On Monday June 27th, my host mom’s home was severely damaged by a ruptured water pipe line outside the walls lining her property. And by severely damaged, I mean the entire front yard is now a giant gaping hole in the ground and the bottom level of the house is open to the public by nature of the fact that the interior rooms of the house are, in fact, entirely exposed due to the lack of wall currently located in that position. Even my description of the location of the water main is no longer valid, seeing that there no longer exists a front wall demarcating the lines of the property. I really hope that I can figure out WordPress well enough to include a picture with this post because I really don’t even have the words. The real kicker of the whole situation, however, is that it was 100% completely and totally avoidable.

Running through a timeline of Monday night is extraordinarily difficult, just because so much happened and it’s hard to choose which details are important enough to include. But I’ll do my best. Monday night was supposed to be a big dinner party, including many of Auntie’s friends from around Wentworth, family members, friends from Church, as well as a few people from the program. At around 4:30 PM, we were alerted by the shouts of the neighbors that a water pipe had burst just outside the wall lining the property. At first, we all were laughing as water about two feet deep rushed down our street and onto the main road. It reminded me of rainstorms we used to play in as kids, with people lining the street to watch the water and all laughing together at the absurdity of cars trying to maneuver their way through the flooded street. After a while of soaking in the sight at hand, Dhara went back inside with Auntie Joyce to begin calling the proper authorities while Sierra and I stayed outside to continue watching the mayhem. About an hour after the pipe first burst, Dhara and Auntie Joyce were still trying to get a hold of someone who would respond to the incident, ranging from the many departments of the municipality to the water department itself to private water companies. Meanwhile, Sierra and I watched as a man who was walking by attempted to wade through the water and ended up falling waist-deep in a hole right next to the initial spout. Again, at the time it was comical to see the man who had taken such great care to remove his boots before crossing the flooded sidewalk in order to keep his work uniform clean fall clean through the ground, but the newfound existence of said hole should have been a clue as to what was coming next.


Beginning at around 5:45 PM, the water had been rushing for over an hour and the street began to reach its capacity. At that point, the holes in the wall protecting the house which had originally been dripping water began to gush through due to the sheer volume of water stored behind its mass. In the minutes following this event, the ground both in front of and behind the wall began to collapse. Standing behind the gated property, the first thing to go was the majority of the front yard. Beginning in the middle and slowly stretching to both edges, the grass began to tumble in on itself, revealing the red sand beneath that began to run down the hill and underneath the house. Two fences lined the walkway from the driveway to the front porch; as the ground around them crumbled, their weight became too much as they fractured in multiple places and fell into the growing hole. While this was occurring on our side of the wall, on the other side, the hole had apparently been growing as well. This continued erosion finally ate away at the wall lining the front of the property and it cracked directly down the middle, sliding forward into the hole where the front yard once existed. By this time, Auntie Joyce was on the porch watching open-mouthed as all this was happening. Once Sierra pointed out that it looked as if the house was going next, we all screamed for everyone to get out of the house as the neighbors ran to help. We got all the tenants onto street level, as well as Auntie Joyce and her friend down from the porch. We all stood on the driveway as the entire front wall of the bottom level crumbled to pieces, revealing the living rooms of two separate sub-letters. Items such as couches, televisions, dressers, and tables tumbled forward from the cracking floor into the growing hole. When I returned that Thursday, I ran into one of the renters; she showed me the path the water had taken, running directly below the house and dumping the red sediments at the Church down the hill. The floor of the house was a literal shelf at that point and more of their belongings were still being dumped into the hole as their weight cracked the unsupported ceramic tile. But flashback to Monday night, water still rushed under the floor, as piles of sand and debris were whisked away under the house and out of sight. By this time, many neighbors had gathered around to watch the damage the ruptured water line had caused. As things began to fall, the neighbors began to clear the area around the property due to the potential danger of more things falling. As everyone began to gather down the road from the house, almost everyone around was still dialing all the emergency numbers, but no one receiving any further response other than “We have already been notified.” Cars were still speeding down the road in front of the house, not aware of the spreading cracks in the cement. The bystanders on the street had taken to waving their arms wildly any time a car came near, hoping to slow them down before they got too close. Eventually, some of the neighbors who worked in construction ran to pull out their traffic cones and blocked off the road themselves. This proved to be crucial, as authorities did not show up until 6:30 PM, and only after turning the wrong way down the street. Two hours later. It took two hours for anyone to come and turn off the water. By that time, the damage had unfortunately been done. When I returned on that Thursday, the city had promised that an engineer would come to look at the structure of the house either Monday night or Tuesday morning. He still had not come. Auntie Joyce’s renter showed me new cracks in the house that had not been there on Monday, as well as a curtain that had literally shifted outside the perimeter of the house from its position just within the walls in the time the structural engineer failed to show up.


For those wondering how this clusterfudge of a situation could happen, it is first necessary to explain the organization of the emergency response of the eThekwini municipality. First of all, every person is only recognized by reference number. With every person you call, the first question you are asked is “What is your reference number?” Our reference number was conveniently located next to the landline phone…in the kitchen…in the house…which was currently being destroyed…which was the issue we were calling about. In an emergency situation, it’s hard enough to remember your own address, but having someone resist listening to you speak about an emergency because you don’t have your corresponding administrative reference number is not something that should be happening. The other interesting tidbit about the hierarchy of the municipality is the sheer number of departments that exist. In South Africa, there is no 911 equivalent. Each department has a different phone number you need to dial. And unlike in the United States, it is your responsibility to sort that out. In the time when I personally began calling in earnest, I dialed the emergency police number and was told that this was not their jurisdiction and I should contact the water department. I was then given the water department’s 10-digit phone number, which I had to have her repeat about five times until I remembered. I dialed the number I was given, but turns out the lady had been mistaken and given me the number for the fire department. So the lady for the fire department transferred me to the water department line. Once I finally was able to speak to somebody from the water department, the only response I got was that someone had been notified. When I asked for an estimated time of arrival, I got a simple “I can’t answer that.” When I called back 15 minutes later, I was told that I had called the wrong number and was transferred to an automated operator instead. The third time, I was directly transferred from the police emergency number to the water department, which leads me to question why they made me memorize the number the first time around if there was the capability to transfer. Eventually, we called the local Councilor, which as far as I’ve been able to figure out is the local government official who fixes all the problems that people phone in. The fire department and the Councilor both showed up before the municipality, who is in charge of the water in the first place. In the case of an emergency, it is not the responsibility of the person experiencing the emergency to sort out which department to call. If an emergency number is called, especially with potential danger to human life, it shouldn’t matter which department it is. The fact that the municipality was notified should be enough to get someone from somewhere out there to do something. And again, the municipality didn’t even come until a few hours after the water was shut off. It was the fire brigade who turned off the water in the first place.

The length of time it took for someone to respond to the accident was not a surprise to anyone in Wentworth to whom I’ve mentioned it. I’ve heard story after story about ridiculous wait times for municipality workers, albeit none with such disastrous consequences. I spent a significant amount of my time waiting for the emergency response team talking to a few of Auntie Joyce’s grandchildren. As I was complaining about the wait time, her primary school-aged granddaughter informed me that she wasn’t all that surprised since ambulances can take over an hour to show up as well. There’s been multiple stories I’ve heard since then of violent crime victims who have bled out waiting for emergency medical assistance to arrive. Water is bad enough; medical response is an entirely different ballpark.

This next section I’m hesitant to pen simply because I’ve heard so many variant things from so many different people, but I think it is important to mention because many of the neighbors present did seem to think that neighborhood geography played a role. It’s been amazing to see the many ways that the impact of apartheid still clings to life in South Africa. Wentworth, the area where we’re living, is a historically colored area, and therefore predominantly still considered to be so. The intersections of Quality Street and the nearby neighborhood streets have notoriously bad problems with water pipes; we hadn’t had water the entire weekend before to a water main break in a nearby location and the day after the water pipe outside the corner store 3 houses down burst as well. This bad infrastructure very well could be blamed on the negligence historically given to infrastructure in that area, or, as some have argued, still given to that area. Many people surrounding the house kept muttering, “This would have never happened on the Bluff.” The Bluff is the historically white neighborhood just up the hill from Wentworth bordering the ocean. The Bluff is also considered to be much safer than Wentworth and just be a generally more preferable place to live. Many people contended that the municipality would have been much quicker to respond to a call of those living in the Bluff; the consequences of that statement are rife with implications of both economic classism and racism, which can be traced back to the days of the forced relocation of apartheid. To be fair, however, many people I’ve spoken to have also said that the municipality is just generally incompetent and would not show favoritism to those in the Bluff. Gone are the days when the municipality even had enough resources to play favorites; now, they struggle to meet the demands of their services in every part of the municipality. Personally, I’m not sure what to think. But my inclination is that there is an element of truth to both trains of thought. The municipality might be struggling to provide services across the board, but whose outrage will spur them to action? I can’t imagine the people in the Bluff not having more pull in that situation after seeing the way the following days were handled in Wentworth.

It’s been an unbelievably challenging experience dealing with the aftermath of this event, and I don’t foresee this nightmare of a situation ending anytime soon. Currently, Auntie Joyce and her family are preparing to go to Court to fight for the situation. Newspaper articles are still being published every week in the local papers. The house was only braced recently, and by a family member’s company as opposed to the municipality. There are still cracks growing in the foundation and not a single person staying there has a long-term housing solution. Hearing how the collapse of the house she’s lived in for almost 50 years has impacted Auntie Joyce hits you in the gut every time. Without her incredible faith, I honestly don’t know how she could possibly be handling this. Being helpless to do anything to help substantially after an event like this is what makes an experience like this so challenging. It’s easy to come in as an outsider to the community and criticize the incompetencies of the municipality. It’s easy to forget that we don’t know anything about the government’s resource allocation, or why the high number of departments exists, or why they interact the way they do. I haven’t experienced the attempts to fix the country in the aftermath of apartheid or even been here for longer than a month. And while people here in the community were angry and upset at the municipality’s response to the water main break, no one was surprised. It’s hard to take action against events that people have already accepted as the norm. Throughout this whole process, I’ve been reminded of something I read one time about inventions. It was something to the effect of how the best inventions happen when someone stops accepting the things that we consider inevitable and decides to create a new solution. Although not a perfect analogy as the idea refers to a physical invention as opposed to infrastructure of a government office, the principle of the dangers of accepting unacceptable things as a norm still is directly applicable. In order for change to happen, the people must mobilize. But how to accomplish that is the challenge. And how, and if, I can help in any way is something that is still to be determined.

Watching a house collapse in on itself is not something I hope to ever experience ever again. Watching people become displaced from their home and lose all their possessions to a faulty water pipe is almost indescribable. I don’t even want to know how long it will take to repair all the damage, or even if it will all be repaired. But, as Auntie Joyce’s grandson pointed out after we saw the gaping hole in the side of the house, at least the door was locked.



The Myth of the American Utopia

Amazingly, we have crossed the halfway point here in Durban, and although I was planning to write about the amazing trip to Mnweni, recent events back home have caused me to shift gears and discuss a frustrating mindset that many Wentworth residents have of the United States.

This summer in the United States has been chaotic and tragic, as stories as the horrendous mass shooting in Orlando and the never ending racial tensions within our communities have dominated the headlines of most major news networks. Just recently, three more shootings have taken place which resulted in the deaths of seven individuals, and those are merely the deaths that have been heavily dissected by the talking heads of cable television.

It has been very interesting discussing these events with individuals from the local Wentworth community. For some reason, many citizens here believe that in America, there is no crime, everyone has massive amounts of wealth, and racial tensions are nonexistent. They are all stunned when I inform them of the nonsensical killings, of the widespread poverty, and of the racism that still is a dominant presence in many Americans’ everyday lives. Even though the United States is viewed as a model of excellence with no flaws, reality paints a much bleaker picture of daily life in America for many of its hardworking citizens.

An explanation for this, I suppose, is that compared to Wentworth, the images of America that appear on the TV do in fact seem amazing and so much better than the life they live. In this area, where many people live below the poverty line and are exposed to widespread crime, people watch shows such as NCIS and think “Wow, America is so much better than here”, as the United States tends to not promote its inadequacies to the global stage. So even when I tell local children that the United States has its own massive flaws and not everyone is treated equally, they largely ignore me, as dreams of living in a New York City penthouse and partying with Chris Brown still are alive and well in their minds.

Reflections on My First Few Weeks

Three weeks into my South African journey I can already say I’m a changed person. Some of those changes are physical.  I’ve developed (well, certainly hope I have, at least) a bolstered immunity to the flu strain that is making its way around the Durban area. Thankfully my ailment was short-lived, and I emerged from it with a greater appreciation for good health. Further, my body has nearly made a full adjustment to the six-hour time change. It has also adjusted to the shorter days—I’m easily able to rise earlier and get the most of my daylight hours here in Durban.

Other changes are skills-related. After spending three weeks working at Isiaiah 54—a children’s home—I’ve learned how to correctly hold and feed a stubborn baby, how to read a small child’s non-verbal gestures, how to properly throw a rugby ball (much different than throwing a football), and how to hula hoop, to name only a few (okay, I’ll never be able to truly hula, but I tried).

This one is a little obvious, but the changes have also been locational. For starters, my person is half a world away from where it is typically situated. In addition, my home in this place half a world away has just changed. A week into my time here I left the relatively secluded confines of the Eco-Lodge and moved in to the Wentworth home of Jean and Amin Choudree.  Thankfully they’ve made the move seamless and comfortable, but a move—a change—nonetheless.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what all these changes mean. Admittedly, they’ve made me uncomfortable at times. By Sam terms, I’ve been in uncharted waters. I’ve never had the South African flu. I’ve never been around toddlers for an extended period. I’ve never lived with a family other than my own for eight weeks. But after spending three weeks here, I’m starting to understand that if I let myself be changed by these things, they quickly grow comfortable—even normal—and ultimately I’ll be a stronger, more experienced person for it. I’m happy to say I’ve grown acclimated to South Africa, and I look forward to finding more ways to challenge myself.

What I Don’t Know

I have new knowledge about President Zuma, that soaking your jeans in coarse salt will maintain the color, Zulu words to deter your neighborhood cat-callers, and how incredibly powerful industry, anywhere in the world, has become. But this ‘South Africa knowledge’ probably comprises 10% of the things I’m learning.

Part of me is thinking, how ironic that I am getting everything I could have wanted out of this trip, yet I am so shocked that what I’m learning most about is myself. And even though 7 out of the 9 Fortin Institute Duke Engage Academy speakers would cringe at this truth, another part of me is thinking, this is the way it’s supposed to be.

Everyone wants to be vulnerable until they don’t. Wants to soak in new culture until the space we allotted has filled. Wants to stay out all night until they miss the comfort of their home, or perhaps the music has gone too far from their mp3 playlist. I learned I’m far from exempt from this emotional disillusionment.

Perspective is everything, that’s been the motto of my highest highs and lowest lows. I feel like I’ve been here for years, and then I feel like I’ve been here for mere minutes. At the moment, I’m trying to make sense of it all, but my mind (and words sometimes) are completely incoherent.

Cheers to life; the one I’m lucky to live, and others I admire greatly. I’m raising a glass to everything I don’t understand and won’t by August 7th. What I’m finding here is having to face everything I don’t know.

*** More stories to come on the lovely people that are with me, the lovely people I will have to leave behind, and the incredible work I’m contributing to.

Kids, Kids, & More Kids

I have now been working at St. Monica’s Children’s Home for a little over a week and already know leaving will be difficult. There are currently 83 children living in the home for various reasons including behavioral difficulties, suffering from abuse and neglect, or deceased parents. Although many of the children do not have the stereotypical family, there is one set up here for them. There are 6 cottages, one of which is for boys aged 3-12, while the others are composed of girls aged 3-19. The older girls are responsible for the younger girls within their cottage and their “Miss” or child care worker is the live-in guardian that is in charge. Each cottage is like its own unit and family, but I have been lucky enough to have entered each one.

So far I have spent the majority of my time at St. Monica’s getting to know the children through playing games, talking, and numerous occasions of hair braiding (or platting as they call it here). I have already learned much about the home’s history, the problems some of the children her have faced, and how to hold a basic conversation in Zulu – sawubona means hello. I have also had to do some administrative work and spoke with the director of the home yesterday. During my time here I would like to work with the children’s forum to discuss their living conditions and how to improve them and the adolescent girls about self-worth, relationships, and their future plans. I also would like to plan some fun educational activities such as yoga, brownie making (they don’t have brownies here!!), movie nights, a day about July 4th and America’s independence, and sleepovers. I am really looking forward to the next 7 weeks here and hope I can get everything I want accomplished.


Monkeying Around

It’s hard to believe that I have already spent one week here in beautiful Wentworth, RSA. Between the stunning sunsets, gorgeous beaches, and amazing scenery, this area of South Africa is more picturesque than I could have ever imagined.

It’s incredible how a country could be so similar to the United States, yet so unbelievably different. For example, instead of having squirrels rummaging through garbage cans, the people of Durban must worry about monkeys stealing food that was left outside or scavenging for scraps amongst the trash. We had an awesome experience at the EcoPark when a squadron of monkeys descended upon the compound in which we were living. I was simply relaxing in my room and minding my own business when suddenly I was told by Lesley not to open my door, as there were four monkeys seated outside my room, straight chillin’ (talk about monkey business, eh?). Yet, if I was to place you in Wentworth and tell you that we were in New Jersey, you would believe it, as there are so many striking similarities.

The Assegai Primary School has been an absolute pleasure to work at thus far. Even though I have only been in attendance for a week, I have been thoroughly entertained by the actions of the kids. Whether it was being asked if we knew Chris Brown (current count: 8 times) or if our families owned robot dogs (apparently they are a thing), Maddie and I have been kept on our toes. We are always included in the daily staff meetings, and it has been really interesting to be in the proverbial room where it happens and hear what the staff talks about on a daily basis. The teachers could not have been more helpful, and I cannot wait to get to know them better after the school holiday.

My homestay family has also been incredible, as Ms. Bassier is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. She has had meetings with both Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, and her mind is an encyclopedia; she knows everything about everything. Needless to say, I cannot wait to learn more from her. Her family members also could not have been more welcoming, and I feel right at home here in Wentworth. Every night we sit around and discuss different issues facing both South Africa and the United States while eating numerous sweets and cakes. I look forward to these talks every day, even if I am gaining 25 pounds in the process!

Tis all for now, but I promise to always keep my devoted blog readers up to date with the latest happenings. It’s been non-stop thus far, but I’m too excited to slow down and take a break. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next!

Travis J. Closs