Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Posted by Sam Bowring

Welcome to the blog for the Mission 2017 Terrascope trip to South Africa.  This trip is the result of  a relationship between the Terrascope program and the Earth Stewardship Science and AEON programs of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in South Africa. Students and staff from MIT and NMMU will engage in discussion and debate that will hopefully lead to new ideas about how to deal with water issues in southern Africa and the world as well as a deeper appreciation of our different cultures and recent histories, especially the apartheid legacy of South Africa and the role of Nelson Mandela.

The blog will follow the experiences of MIT and NMMU students as they interact, educate one another, and delve into the issues of water issues in southern Africa and the world.  MIT students will arrive in Port Elizabeth South Africa, Saturday evening, March 22 and a week of cultural exchange, development of new friendships, and intense learning experiences will begin.    We hope you will enjoy following us as we deepen our understanding of issues related to access to water in the context of South Africa.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Now that we have returned from South Africa, one of the ways to extend our trip is to remember where we were, and what we were doing just a week ago! Here is a map of our final day.

It was a wonderful day with many views of our present, the ancient past, and, in our minds, the yet-to-be-written future.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Preparation for the Millenium debate - a mechanism for change

Engaging with people from different parts of the world has always been a very enchanting experience for me. My time with the Terrascope team was all the more fascinating, as the focal point of our association would envisage poverty alleviation. The mechanism in which this collaboration took route was what resonated with me most. To illustrate...

Last Thursday night at 9 pm we were told that 6 MIT students would be competing against 6 NMMU students the following day in a debate about whether the Millenium Villages were helping Africa or if they were instead just a means to import/export American goods. The MITs mobilized into action. I observed a brilliant convergence of coordination and cooperation. It was the manifestation of Terrascope - it was beautiful.

I sat there in awe, trying to take in the experience, but also trying to participate and learn the content of the discussion. It was not easy. Hours passed of what felt like minutes. There was so much going on. Malte at the front on his super fast tablet connected to a projector capturing relevant arguments and drawing up the pros and cons. Francesca, the orchestrator, on her feet, democratically selecting the next hand to bring forth their point. And then the UTFs. Oh man these people gave their all to help facilitate their freshmen counterparts… and as we were there too.. so we benefited. They would fill our glasses with water, regulate the temperature of the room and making pretty ornaments keeping us creative and captivated. Everyone worked together in unison. Like a super brain with each student a super charged firing neuron.

This continued until 1 am. I hear these discussions would go on for much longer, but we were on “vacation”.

The following afternoon we had our debate. Which was more of a blur to me. But I remember it being exciting and realizing that we were designing a common path, one where we could together assist in building a desirable future for Africa.

The outcome of our debate, as I remembered it, was that the Millenium Villages were a failure. That we needed more cooperation between the aid givers (or investors) and the community receiving the aid, that is, as coordinators of such a project you would need to be open to the community and be vigorously adaptable. A local perspective was paramount. I think that was the take home message for me.

If we as NMMU students can take what we observed from Terrascope, we can make a difference.
I look forward to designing our proposal for Missionvale together and hope that our collaboration continues to build as we go forward.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Humans of Soweto On Sea and the Larger Struggle: South Africa, Day 2

[re-posted from my blog in 2 parts]

Monday morning.

But unlike most Mondays at MIT, my alarm rang not for a 9 a.m. class but an 8 a.m. briefing with NMMU faculty on their Missionvale campus, Development Studies students and Port Elizabeth community workers.  We were preparing for a transect walk through several communities near Missionvale.  The idea we were all operating on was that without understanding the social environment and historical context of the communities facing water crises on the ground, there was no way a sustainable solution could be implemented.  Together with the community workers who had been through the area and the NMMU students, we began our walk through Soweto On Sea, the largest township in South Africa.  We were told that whenever we wanted to approach someone we could ask them for help with translation, though most of the people there were comfortable with at least understanding English.  We were also told that this was a relatively poor district and unemployment was extremely high, so though the people of the community were known for being extremely welcoming, we should still be careful of our material possessions.
As we walked through the community and asked various people if we could take pictures for our project, I was struck by their observations and their warmth, which often starkly contrasted with their destitute surroundings.  Here are some of the Humans of Soweto On Sea, Brandon-Stanton-style:
The little girl had been standing by the door for quite some time with an ecstatic smile on her face, much like the one in this picture.  When we approached, she ran off giggling to get her mother.  Even as her mother told us about the traditional community gatherings, full of songs, dance, “plenty of meat, and African beer,”  the little girl continued to smile, mesmerized by the microphone. 
“I collect the plastic bottles thrown here and bring them to a woman.  Sometimes she weighs them and tells me they are not enough, so she only gives me 20 Rand.  Other days she may give me 30 Rand.  I have to live that day with whatever she gives me.” [translated]
When we asked her for a picture, this woman ran into her house, and suddenly emerged with a broom to began to dance around the front of the house and mock-sweeping the ground. 
“Hi, what’s your name?”
“My Xhosa name is ‘Noh-mah-soh-mee.’  But my English name is Princess.”
“Princess?  That’s a pretty name.”
She laughs.  “A pretty name? Well, thank you, my baby.”
“What are you here for?  I want a new roof like that one!  Please!” (jumping up and down)
“Do you see those horns on that stick?  This is the traditional, sacred place in the house.  If someone in the family is having problems, with their job, with their marriage, they will get up early and come and hope for a solution.  When there’s a new baby, they might slaughter a goat, or for a big function they might slaughter a cow.  I guess it’s pretty difficult to be vegetarian here.”
“Can I count for you?”
“You take picture of my car wash?  Please? Come here, I show you.  My car wash.  You have to tell everyone about my car wash please!  We get 45 Rand washing 2 cars per day for both of us.  Please tell everyone about the car wash.”
These were a few of the many people who stopped to ask us what we were doing, who excitedly flocked to take pictures with us, or who were willing to tell us about their lives in Soweto On Sea. A couple of the community workers later told us that everyone wanted to know what we were going to help change.  They called us a “beacon of hope.”  It would have been really easy for them to face us with hostility for being “privileged,” for questioning what our presence there could do given that things hadn’t changed for years.  But they didn’t.  And they believed our presence could create that change.
The streets of Soweto.
The streets of Soweto.
MIT/NMMU students and community workers walking down a hill of trash into the Soweto community.
MIT/NMMU students and community workers walking down a hill of trash into the Soweto community.
The group of us students from MIT and NMMU with community workers in Soweto Square, the site of many anti-apartheid protests and struggle.
The group of us students from MIT and NMMU with community workers in Soweto Square, the site of many anti-apartheid protests and struggle.
The smiles in the picture above at the end of our transect walk through the Soweto On Sea community weren't all happiness.  We were certainly humbled by the warm reception, incited by the desire to do something, but also disturbed by the mounds of trash, the broken abandoned houses where rapes and murders frequently occurred
The community's struggles reach back to times of apartheid in South Africa.  Because Soweto On Sea had been a difficult area for the police to penetrate, the square we were standing in had been the center of the anti-apartheid movement, filled with activists who were hiding from the police, rallying the locals and planning their next moves.  "Each week there would be a funeral for those who had died that week and a burial for those who had their funeral the previous week," he told us.  "It became the basis of the political platform and language."
Deteriorating houses in Soweto.
 The irony of it all, he told us, was that most of these people who fought were now the same ones who were unemployed in the township: "Victory has not served those who were on the frontlines."  When asked why, he struggled a little to answer, ultimately settling on his belief that the current parliamentary was no longer connected to the township.  "The people who fought at the time were not being educated," he pointed out.  "They were busy planning attacks, sitting in prison, running from the police.  They can't take part in the system now because they don't have the education to be on the same playing field.  Now their only value to the parliamentarians is a voting majority, nothing else." 
 The man from the car wash came up to our group and emphatically pointed to the square behind him, "This place is the reason we have a black president now." 
 The point of the day suddenly became clear: all of the issues that South Africa faced, just like any other country, were the result of their history.  As we returned to NMMU, the community workers and NMMU students filled in more of the gaps about this connection.  Later that evening we even heard from two activists who were prominent during the anti-apartheid struggles, Bongani Gxilishe and Winky Mgqibisa, both of whom had been involved in the famous student uprising of 1976, in which black students protested against the requirement to be educated in the Afrikaans Bantu education system that had been enforced by the Afrikaaners.
"During apartheid, education was different for different people.  It was meant to keep the blacks in different economic roles than the whites.  That difference in quality has remained stagnant."
"My father was originally in the military before apartheid.  Then he stole their money and left to the North to be trained so he could come back and fight.  Come to think of it, I'm more fortunate now because my father's father was a doctor and my mother's father was a teacher.  So when my parents were growing up in the struggle, my grandparents ensured they were getting their education first."
"I lost both of my parents when I was five.  In the culture of black people, my child is your child and I was taken in by my neighbors.  And it is because of them that I became what I am today, a firm believer in the Black Consciousness Movement.  It's unfortunate that this history of the BC movement is now being distorted and students now don't care.  Back then we were politicized at such a young age by what was happening around us.  You know that building across the road?  It is where most of the activists were tortured and killed." 
The development crises that townships like Soweto On Sea faced today could then truly only be solved sustainably in the long run through education, a theme that came up again and again with many of the community workers and MIT students.  We were shocked to find kids in uniform walking around the neighborhood, not in school.  The community workers told stories of schools with 42 children in a ten-square-meter area, with the teacher not even being paid for the first five years of teaching.  "My child goes to this school," she said.  "How is a teacher supposed to teach if she is hungry and frustrated without electricity?"  Another student stood up and cried, "Is there no over-sight to who is teaching in our schools?  People who are educated just leave the township and there is no inspiration for children who are hungry to go to school because they see no value.  There is not a culture of learning here.  You know this whole host of problems?  Everyone talks about them and how we need solutions.  But no one ever really works out those solutions."
 Indignation started to fill the room, and continued to follow us as we loaded onto the bus.  MIT and NMMU students were talking together, expressing their frustration by the problem, without a viable solution.  So when we arrived at Charles Duna Primary School, the atmosphere of desperation was looking for some answer, for a glimmer of hope.  And Nombulelo Sume, the principal of the school, gave us just that.  She told us the story of how she fought to balance the school's lack of access to water with her fervent belief in placing the education of the children, "the poorest of the poor" first above all else. 
You could hear a quiet awe and empowerment that everyone felt as she told us of the challenges she faced and her ability to rally the community behind her.  Most of us could not imagine parents volunteering their time to carry buckets of water and manually flush the toilets in the school, just to ensure that their child could have an education after the government could not support that change.  Having just seen communities where education was completely disregarded, it was refreshing, inspiring to see how the indifference toward education could be overcome.  Because of Ms. Sume's persistence, a representative from Coca-Cola's rainwater harvesting program heard about the school.  Despite the fact that they had already filled their quota of 100 schools, the representative pushed ahead and listed Charles Duna Primary School as the 101st school.  As of July of last year, thanks to the program, the school finally had water flowing from their taps.
 And her efforts didn't stop there.  "One of our other community projects is a vegetable garden," she said.  "When I started this school, I was burying a child each year.  When I asked their parents what they would eat, it was full of carbohydrates.  No fruits, no vegetables.  So we are using the school as a center of progress for the community.  We haven't had a single HIV-related death now in 8 years."  Nombulelo also talked about giving everything else she could to make the students competitive, like arts, drama, and sports programs ("We have a student who is now playing on the national soccer team!").  
 Nombulele showed us that it is possible to make progress despite the overwhelming sense of complexity in the status quo:  "I ask for the richer schools' old, used uniforms.  I find scraps of boxes and metal for the kids' projects.  I am trying to build a library.  You know, you have to dispel the myth of 'poor me, I can't do anything because I don't have anything.'"
Nombulele Sumo, the principal of Charles Duna Primary School, led the school through the lack of water and other resources while reshaping the community as a whole.
Nombulele Sumo, the principal of Charles Duna Primary School, led the school through the lack of water and other resources while reshaping the community as a whole.

When we passed by a room under reconstruction, she said, "It's going to be my future science lab.  You have to dream, right?"

"I think we are looking at rocks."

Wednesday's drive west on the Garden Route across the  bottom of South Africa took our travelling caravan past many beautiful views. The Indian Ocean crashed or lapped onto sandy beaches. Ancient rocks, stromatolites, angular unconformities, all these and more geological features abounded. We drove along the Cape Fold Belt and saw very steep canyons sliced into the terrain. I heard the words written above as we pulled across from an area of rusty red conglomerates. Yes, we were stopping to see more rocks, and each time we did, more of this country's landforms became clear and cameras clicked.

Tomorrow we will again take to the rocks, this time to caves at a place called Pinnacle Point. Somehow the week has flown by and the sense of time is strange. We have taken only six days to explore things that happened thousands or millions of years ago. As we explore this site tomoroow, what evidence of Homo Sapiens might we find there with us?

Forest and farms of the George campus of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Vicki McKenna took some photographs on our tour of the forest preserve and farm on the George campus of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Learning about the forest of the Southern Cape.

A Terrascope Radio student recording our guide.

Bastien looking at the recently planted test plot.

Professor Raymond Auerbach showing us the plan for the test plot.

Professor Auerbach talks about the permaculture structure.  This features a partial roof feeds a large rain barrel.  The rain barrel supplies water to the irrigation system, which is powered by solar power (with a solar panel on the roof).  Solar power also powers the electric fence, which keeps out baboons.

All photographs are by Vicki McKenna.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


MIT and NMMU students are working on flooding and other water issues in informal settlements around the Missionvale campus of NMMU.  Yesterday morning, before the debate, students from both schools worked on the projects together.  Vicki McKenna tooks some pictures of the students working together.

All photographs are by Vicki McKenna.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sight 3.24.14

The sun beats down on my hat and garbage crunches under my shoes. Around me are a mixture of shantyhouses and government-built homes. Laundry hangs from lines everywhere, like colorful flags or fruit. Music occasionally blooms outside of the windows of patchwork homes. This is the first time I've ever seen extreme poverty outside of a screen and my thoughts are overrun with questions and people and the smell of sand and dust.

We woke up early in the morning (again) and took a bus to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, where we were given a warm welcome. We got a quick lecture on the history behind the townships around NMMU and then split up into groups. Each group contained some MIT students, NMMU students, and community members to lead us around the township. I joined the group going to the Veenlaar township. Our community leaders gave us a brief overview of where we were traveling on our transect walk. We took a van to just outside the township while one of our leaders pointed out the characteristics of the township we were going to. As we got out of the van and both of our leaders passed out maps, I took out a pen and a notebook and got ready to take notes.

We walked into the township and then continued along the river. As we observed homes made of scrap metal and were greeted by curious dogs, our community leaders answered our questions about the people and the area. Even within the community, we could see income divisions. The poorest had metal shantyhouses, the more fortunate had government issued homes.

We first stopped by a community garden. It was a bright patch of green in the middle of pastel and metal walls and yellow-orange dirt. Two men were looking after the garden and watering the growing vegetables. They told us that about 20 families had gardens in the plot, where they could grow food to eat and/or sell. It was one of the first examples of a grassroots movement that the people of the township had undertaken to improve their situation on their own.

We walked along a section of the river that included a rough “stepping stone” bridge made of large boulders. Workers in red uniforms were dragging trash out of the dirty grey water with only gloves and a rake. They told us of their sense of hopelessness at their battle with pollution. How much could they do to clean the river when people would just toss more trash into the waters than they could ever pick up?

Emma interviewed some of the community members. I followed along to take notes. We kept hearing similar things – people were frustrated with the lack of change. Many had lived in the township their entire lives without any sign of improvement. A combination of community expectation and lack of management had left a sense of hopelessness.

We returned to NMMU to discuss what we heard and saw from the community. We spent several hours conversing about the lack of proper housing, the lack of affordable services, and finally the importance of education in improving the lives of the people residing in the townships. Right on cue, we wrapped up and headed toward a school that had started without water.

It was there that our trip had a high note. Here was a public primary school that was doomed with an unusable water system. Taps would only drip and toilets could not flush. Numerous calls for aid and repairs went unanswered and when an expert did come to analyze the issue, he/she found that the water pipes under the school had collapsed. However, the principle persevered. She saw the importance of primary education for the children in the poorest of townships and was determined to keep the school open. Parents volunteered to manually flush the toilets and proved water through a bucket system. Eventually the school received a rainwater collection system from Coca Cola and finally had running water. A school garden was started to help teach the children about proper nutrition. Here was a place where children were encouraged to learn and go out and do amazing things no matter their background or how impoverished their families were. They were taught not to have their poverty hold them back. And many of them have succeeded. 

A Bad Day for Stage Fright, A Good Day for International Development

Posted by Libby Koolik

I am not the most comfortable person speaking in front of a crowd, so I was pretty nervous going up to participate in the debate today.

A little background: Yesterday, Annie asked me if I would be one of the MIT kids to lead today's debate over whether or not a sustainable solution to water security actually exists.  The debate involved the collaboration between MIT and NMMU (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) students.

Here's how it went down.

First, we met up in the hotel bar at about 10PM last night.  The MIT kids discussed our personal views on the issue and tried to see if we could pick sides.  By some stroke of luck, we actually fell three and three on the issue, so it was super easy to split up.  Later, the six representatives from NMMU showed up and we started a super riveting discussion on the future of water security, particularly in South Africa.

The discussion was so captivating.  It was really interesting to hear the perspectives of the NMMU students on things that I - as a naïve American freshman - had never even considered.  They made me really think about a lot of issues that I didn't even know existed.  It also was really riveting because we were constantly incorporating the inspirational activities that we did that day.  Particularly, we discussed the elementary school and Missionvale (which hopefully another Terrablogger is going to write about).  The students we worked with were all masters and higher degree seekers, and they all had personal experiences with the water crisis here in South Africa.

The next morning, we met up really early to solidify our teams and get some good team opinions set in stone.  My group bonded really well because we totally allowed ourselves to get off-topic and I was able to see some crazy similarities between me and the NMMU kids.  By the end, we were all on a first-name basis, making inside jokes, and having an incredible time.

Finally, it was debate time.  Cue the butterflies.  I actually felt sick to my stomach! Luckily, my team was so awesome that they all cheered me on and made me feel comfortable.

And thus began the debate.

The debate was not what we had prepared for.  We had prepared to defend why we believed that a sustainable solution existed, but we were actually supposed to just answer any question on sustainable development that the facilitator and the audience could come up with.

We had to be super quick on our feet, and our group totally was. We got 120 seconds after each question to come up with the best answer we could.  Our team was so good!! When my turn came to talk, one of my NMMU friends shoved a microphone in my hands and pushed me forward to talk.  Oh boy...!!

All in all - despite the horrible nerves - the debate was a ton of fun.  I really enjoyed every aspect of it - from hanging out with the NMMU kids to coming up with stressful responses to joking around on stage when no one was looking.

I'm so glad that I had this opportunity! I can't wait to reach out to my new NMMU friends as soon as I'm back in the states! (Shout out if you're reading this!!)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dung Beetles Have The Right Of Way 3.23.14

After our geology excursion, we headed straight for Addo Elephant National Park. We were faced with the sight of two elephants skulls when we pulled up to the gate.

And when we passed through the gate, we saw a sign that declared “Dung Beetles Have the Right of Way”. Um… what could that possibly mean?

It turns out that there is a population of dung beetles in the park. These little critters run around and roll balls of elephant dung and lay eggs in them. The sign warned drivers against running over the rolls of dung to keep up the population of dung beetles in the park.

But we didn't come to gape at the adorable creepiness of dung beetles. We stopped by to learn more about the big guys – the elephants.

Zoologist Prof. Graham Kerley gave us a history of the park and its native elephants and we quickly got around to actually seeing the animals. While usually we consider a large population of elephants to be solely beneficial to their environment, elephants actually are a threat to plant diversity in the park. Large gathering of elephants around water holes have started to convert the surrounding bush into large grassy areas, decreasing the number of plant species that would flourish near a water source and in the shade of the bush. What can we do about it? People are not too sure.

And while you are contemplating that fact, here are some photos of those beautiful giants.

The Jet Lag Series: A Photoset

An early morning wake up, three plane flights, and several bus rides later, we were finally in South Africa! I was also part of the Simmons group that met up and took the shuttle to the first bus and Libby described the whole trip pretty accurately.

But maybe not ALL of the 17 hour plane ride from D.C. to Johannesburg.

While Libby was catching some zzz’s, Joseff and I barely got any sleep on that flight. How were you supposed to sleep comfortably? Curl to your side? Sleep sitting up? Put your pillow on the fold out table in front of you and hope that the top of your head won’t be squished by the seat in front of you? So we were awake for every single one of the selfies.

Here is a set of photos of MIT students – faces vs. time.

0hrs YAY! We are going to be in South Africa! 

2hrs They serve dinner? This is awesome.

7hrs Okay… kinda tired… at least we get a break when the plane is refueling.

8hrs That. Break. Was. Refreshing. We can do the next 7 hours.


11hrs … Libby… how?


Last plane flight! YAY!

Rock Mystery Adventure! – A Prospective Course 12’s Dream Come True

Posted by Libby Koolik

            To kick off our first real day in Port Elizabeth, Sam took us on a really amazing geological adventure! As soon as I read about it in the overflowing booklet of Terrascope events for this trip, my inner Course 12 squee’d with joy.  It was so super awesome to get a glimpse of some ground-breaking (literally?) research going on in the geological and geochronological realm of South Africa.
            We loaded into the buses bright and early in the morning with the preface that we were going to be faced with a serious South African puzzle.  The geologists of NMMU – and the other universities here – have been working super hard to figure out how long ago the sea level dropped to its current state, and we had the opportunity to try our best to figure it out!
            The first stop was to a little side-of-the-road spot where we were able to examine this awesome ridge and see if we could figure out what information it gave us.  At this point, no one had explicitly told us that we were examining sea level changes, so we had to piece together the clues available to figure out that there were relics of the ocean.  We were encouraged to climb through plants and scale the sides of this ridge to view it. 
            The sides of the ridge were completely covered in fossilized oyster shell-looking things! There were thousands of these bumpy, rocky, awesome fossil-things covering the entire side of the ridge.  We were all encouraged to take a little piece home, and I know I can’t wait to put mine up on my shelf!
            Sam – in particular – was really encouraged to take some of these home because the scientists of South Africa believe that Sam’s lab has technology and expertise that might be able to actually solve this important geochronological issue! Apparently, Sam has machines in his lab that practically aren’t available for South African scientists, so they need Sam to take them back to America so they can progress forward in their research.  So cool to think that a major scientific discovery pivotal in the progress of South African geology is going to be taken back to the familiar Green Building and solved back at MIT!
             Our next stop was to this unbelievable rocky cliff that we were encouraged to climb around on and look for particular rocks.  No one had to tell me twice!  I jumped on the opportunity to climb all around and examine a ton of different rocks.  Alongside a bunch of my Terrascopers, I climbed all around the mountainside, looking for rocks that had these small “wormlike” (in the words of the wonderfully knowledgable Jessica Fujimori) cracks.  These cracks were evidence that smaller rocks had been forcefully scraped against the larger rocks in a water-based erosion process.  This was yet another clue about the water levels and the changing sea levels.  Awesome how much rocks can tell us!!! (Ok, I’ll make my inner Course 12 calm down just a little).
            With the promise of seeing wild elephants, I made my way back down the cliffside and got back on the bus.  I can’t wait to see what kind of conclusions the future of this research project holds!!

Pachyderms and the Eastern Cape: South Africa (Day 1)

[from my blog:]

"Oh my god, it's just like India!"

As much as I wanted to resist the usual comparisons, it was hard not to chime in.  The simplistic airport in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the slightly humid, warm, salty night air, and the dusty roads certainly felt similar for those of us who have been to India.  Then again, there were people exclaiming that it reminded them of Mexico, Bangladesh or other less-developed-than-the-U.S.-fill-in-the-blank countries, so I suppose there's not much going for the specifics of those comparisons. 

This year, the Terrascope Mission 2017 group has arrived in South Africa for our spring break travels.  As I've mentioned before, Terrascope is a freshman learning community at MIT, which focuses on self-directed learning and complex, global, interdisciplinary issues.  When I was a freshman, Mission 2015 took a look at solving the world's biodiversity crisis and traveled to Costa Rica.  As a UTF (Undergraduate Teaching Fellow) last year with Mission 2016, the trip to the American Southwest tried to understand the physical context of mineral resource management and extraction.  This year, again as a UTF, I'm accompanying the 2017's to the Eastern Cape of South Africa to study water management and security, and even think about solutions to South Africa’s water and development problems. 

In conjunction with Prof. Maarten de Wit from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), we have 7 days of jam-packed tours, sessions, discussions, with some time to explore.  Our first stop in Port Elizabeth has taken us to a beautiful lodge that sits, quite literally, by the ocean and on the first day we began our introduction to the area's water context through the landscape, people, and most memorably, animals.
We all knew before even coming on the trip that we would be seeing elephants at the Addo Elephant National Park.  Zoologist Prof. Graham Kerley showed us around through the park and told us that the park began in 1931 with only 11 elephants and no adult bulls.  All of the elephants in that area had either been poached for ivory or shot for "misbehaving."  It was, as he said, a recipe for inbreeding and genetic drift. 

The elephants' problems were far from over once the park was established, though.  There were no fences when the park began so elephants couldn't be contained, and skirmishes with the neighboring farmers resulted in more deaths.  Elephant populations also need massive quantities of water--100 liters per elephant per day-- and vast areas of vegetation which require their own source of water.  From above the water hole where the elephants congregated, we could see a gradient of elephant impact to the vegetation, with only weak brushes Over time, the various measures implemented have created a population now of about 450 elephants in the park. 

We saw elephants twice on our drive through the park, both times within 10-35 feet of the bus-- there were the babies scampering after the warthogs, the waddling young adults rolling in mud, and the adults herding the group majestically forward.  It was hard to believe that these creatures who look like they are always smiling could be vicious, but they were wild animals, and we were not allowed to get off the bus.  Tortoises and kudu (animals that look a bit like gazelles but with curled horns) were also animals I got to check off on the list from our park map, though unfortunately, no lions or rhinos. 

We followed the road through the park past the Golden Dunes, tracking the mouth of the river until it reached the sea.  Claps of thunder and lightning suddenly filled the sky, and we were caught in a beautiful rainstorm.  As you can probably imagine, the bus ride home, full of dripping, sandy people, smelled anything but great. 

Red-green grasses and the Golden Dunes in the distance

The context of what we had received so far was what any tourist could probably do if they were to come to South Africa.  What we then got was an inspiring talk by a man who has grown up in the Eastern Cape and who is “colored,” a term used here to mean a person of a mixed race who can speak Afrikaans.  The talk truly framed most of the historical, complicated and contradictory questions that governed this area’s history—the pre- and post- apartheid eras, the disappearance of the indigenous population, and the broad lens with which we need to consider our approach to complex problems like the ones we were looking at this week. 

The day ended with a traditional barbeque called Braai (or lasagna for the vegetarians like me) with buttery potatoes to die for.  And a dessert that elicits universal excitement: ice cream!

"...this is an everybody business."

Today was a very full day for Mission 2017, beginning with transect walks through the informal settlements near Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and ending in the South End Museum with talks from those who witnessed the apartheid system first-hand and at personal cost. We also visited a school begun over fifty years ago with no water which became, through the efforts of many, a thriving community school of over 1000 elementary students with water. The principal's words to us: "You are the crafters of your future." "You cannot wait: these kids are not waiting," marked the moment as we stood in her shadow in the African late afternoon sun.

"So what IS an "everybody business" in the town of Port Elizabeth, or any other community with significant needs and limited resources?

Surely one part is to work in some of the ways we heard about today: to relate our science to the practical knowledge and wisdom of those around us; to always ask whose interests are being served; to develop our social competence, political will, and our abilities to engage with each other in ways that respect human dignity; to inspire all our desires to contribute to our families and our societies.

In the words of an NMMU colleague, "Let's act in solidarity and get on with the work."

We are in South Africa!  After a very long day of travel -34 hours – we made it to Africa.  The travel day was long but everything went smoothly and the flight crews did their best to make it comfortable.  After a delay in Johannesburg due to equipment issues, we arrived in Port Elizabeth and made our way to our lodging by bus by 11PM local time.

We managed to pull ourselves out of bed for a mostly buffet breakfast and an 8:30 departure for a geologic and elephant tour.  We were accompanied by our hosts from NMMU, led by Professor Martin de Wit, and a team of videographers.  Our first stop was an old marine platform at 300 meters elevation.  The terrace was marked by easily distinguishable oyster beds.  We could see the white color of the beds all around us at similar elevations.  Martin had talked about how the sea level was markedly different from today’s see level and this was our first evidence of where the sea level once was.  Our second stop was at the site of stream incisions into older rock that is below the marine platform.

Our next destination was the Addo Elephant National Park, where we met Professor Graham Kerley.  Professor Kerley gave us an introduction to the history and current status of the national park and its elephants, including the water issues that the park faces in helping the elephants survive.  His talk was present at a high overlook, with the Hapoor Water Hole below us, with elephants visible (I could see some walking).  We then drove to the water hole.  It was stunning.  There were 30-40 elephants, including calves, along with Warthogs and several zebra.  It was an incidental but exciting mini safari.   We later drove to the see the coastal and while still in the park, we drove past 7 elephants, including 3 calves.  While it was special to see the many elephants at the water hole, we had our first close look at elephants here.

The dunes were lovely although we experienced heavy rains and eventually an electrical storm.  Still, it was beautiful.  Professor Kerley gave us an overview of how the dunes developed and how they affect the river systems in this area.

On our drive we saw the edges of some of the townships we will be walking through today, giving us a glimpse of the life there.  Our host at NMMU told us to be prepared for an interesting and unsettling experience there.  And we are leaving in 5 minutes ...