Personal notes from a field visit – ‘a week co-working in rural South Africa – July 2017’ (Part 1)

By Lindsey McEwen

This is a two-part blog, and the second half will be published on our website tomorrow.

Setting the scene – ‘about Folovhodwe’

My first foray to Folovhodwe, a rural village between Tshipise and Musina not far from the Zimbabwe border, began on the Sunday morning as part of the CreativeDroughts team.  It was my first visit to South Africa, indeed Africa. The landscape was dry and red with scattered trees with green reddened leaves. In scanning the scene, the coned but rivulet-ed slag heap from the magnesite mine (a former supplier of employment but no longer working) sat near the village of scattered houses.

Dominant livelihoods were evident from the goats and cattle that roam the village – with livestock and orchard farmers – both not using any current irrigation.  Down from a dam, farmers on the corridor of irrigated land were growing tomatoes and chillies in between mango trees, and sitting under trees, bagging the produce for urban markets of Johannesburg.

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There was a stark contrast between irrigated and unirrigated parts of village in terms of green-ness.  Current reservoir levels (reasonably healthy at present) were posted on a chalk board outside the neighbouring nature reserve but not apparently in easy view for most villagers.

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We visited the borehole and the water storage tank higher up a slope.  The water pump was not working so villagers were loading several donkey carts (four beasts aligned) with large containers to take water back to houses in the village.

This was in stark contrast to the ‘resort’ at Tshipse where we were staying – 20 km down the road where lawns seemed to be regularly under a multitude of gushing sprinklers.  Elsewhere in Folovhodwe, many groups of women were washing brightly coloured clothes in river and irrigation channels and laying them out to dry on fences.  I was aware of discarded plastics trapped along fences. People (possibly villagers) were selling large bags of oranges, massive avocados and tomatoes along the dirt road back to the main tarmacked road.  A few baboons sat as if sentries on the high poles of the Reserve boundary fence.

During our pre-workshop visit, we spoke to two community elders under huge baobab trees in the Chief’s garden, and then oriented around the village including seeing the apparently new community hall in the centre of the Folovhodwe – the venue for our forthcoming CreativeDrought workshops.  This was a long concreted building without furniture – and of course, a very different workshop venue from my prior experience within the NERC UK-based DRY (Drought Risk and You) project.

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In the workshops we played out a methodology that worked to bring together science and narrative in future ‘scenario-ing’ – focusing on ‘Challenges’, ‘Exchanges’ and ‘Solutions’.  Project DRY is also bringing science and past, present and future narratives together in its methodology, but in very different socio-economic, cultural and environmental contexts.  The workshops in Folovhodwe provided an experience for personal reflection that will resonate with me for a long time.  Our workshops in CreativeDroughts were run with ‘invited’ members of different ‘community’ groups over two further days during my visit – orchard farmers, livestock farmers (day 1); older and younger women with children (day 2).  Stackable seats had appeared and we set these out at both ends of the hall.  The workshops ran for 2-3 hours with a break for refreshments and fruit.  Coca cola was the favourite.  Perhaps I should not have been surprised that bottles of coke were purchase-able from the small village shop across the road – as we under-estimated demand and ran out of hospitality during the first workshop.

Our new interdisciplinary, multi-cultural project team (UK, African) combined academic researchers with expertise in drought risk modelling, narrative and storying approaches, water hazard management, water governance, and participatory skills with those with cultural knowledge and language skills in Venda, the local language.

This gave plenty of opportunities for mutual learning in understanding our different backgrounds, positions and expertise and what was important methodologically and shareable in tailoring an evolving methodology to this socio-cultural, environmental and political setting.

What follows are some personal observations and reflections on the methodology as it played out during my visit.

Check back in tomorrow (or head back to the blog page) to find out more about Lindsey’s reflections on our process. 


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