Cities - the map

I love maps. Here are some I have drawn for fun recently (and edited in photoshop).

Though none of these maps depict an existing urban location, they are each influenced by a real city somewhere the world... see if you can guess which real city goes with the drawing!

built on a marsh and named in honor
of a general with wooden teeth

most of a medieval city was demolished by
an emperor to make way for a new
metropolis with wide, radial boulevards

settled by the dutch and later the british
 hint: not in the USA

every city in italy. choose your favorite.

I have been thinking about cities a lot lately. South Africa has a bizarre history of urban planning, ranging from the beautiful mountain-oriented axial layout of Cape Town to the gridded streets of Joburg, to the hilly assemblage of homes in Durban, to the mazes created for suppressing movement and assembly of Africans in many apartheid townships across the country.

I will be blogging about cities for the next few posts - what brings them together? what breaks them apart? and what role do architects have to make them better for everyone?

The city is all right. To live in one
Is to be civilized, 
Stay up and read
Or sing and dance 
All night and see sunrise
By waiting up 
instead of getting up.
—Robert Frost, A Masque of Mercy


Muezzin and Me

A local man speaks to me every day. He greets me when I get out of bed each morning, and he always has his piece of advice for me before I go to bed.  I can never understand what he says, but his words always ring loud and clear.  He and I have never been formally introduced, and no, he is not some creepy house watchman or homeless vagrant.  He is the muezzin at the local mosque, and his voice, broadcast five times each day, has been one of my good companions here in Cape Town.

Ramadan starts tomorrow morning, and I am not sure what to expect.  I know every Muslim is meant to fast from Sunrise to Sunset during this holy month, but I have also heard stories of communal potlucks and acts of charity.  For some reason I find those last two points hard to believe.  

the hilly cobble-stoned streets of the bo-kaap
bo-kaap literally means "upper cape" in afrikaans

Ramadan is Islam's holiest month, set aside as a time during which Muslims are expected to fast, and in doing so put more effort into following the teachings of Islam and avoid obscene and irreligious sights and sounds, but when I think of Christianity's "holiest month," (whether that would be Easter and Lent or December and Christmas) "charity" and "community" don't spring foremost to mind.  Maybe it's the commercialism that gets associated with both seasons, but I believe that physical restraint and service toward others are much more admirable and Christ-like characteristics than the widespread routine celebrations and Western cultural gluttony that comes during commemoration of Christian holiday seasons.  

I'm no authority on this matter, but I think that there is a lot of truth in fasting. I have only done it once but I am curious to see what effect this month of restraint and spiritual focus has on the neighborhood.

As I recently read in a national news-paper article entitled "What's the Point of Ramadan Anyway", journalist Khadija Patel offers some perspective on the matter:

Will power, psychologists say, is a lot like a muscle - it needs to be burdened before it is built, but once built, the whole body benefits. And, in my view, that is the thinking behind Ramadan. Abstaining from food and sex during the daylight hours is meant to jumpstart your ability to resist temptation through the rest of the year. This month is an acknowledgement of human beings as not merely physical creatures, it admits our physicality, but also shows we are so much more than the pleasure of our own flesh.

My neighborhood at a glance
According to City of Cape Town statistics, the Bo-Kaap neighborhood is 90% Muslim (although I speculate the other 10% are international students looking for a cheap place to crash!).  Pursuant of this religious demographic, I assumed that everyone in Bo-Kaap would be speaking Arabic. Granted, a few do. But everyone? Boy was I wrong! I have heard very little Arabic spoken besides the adhan call to prayer, as everyone here relates in the lowest common linguistic denominator- usually either English or Afrikaans.  After making a few Muslim friends here I have found within many homes intricate calligraphic posters and weavings in Arabic.  From my inquiries, these are usually Qur'anic texts that have been emblazoned on fabrics and parchments for their religious significance, but also for their graphic appeal as Islamic law prohibits depiction of the human form in art (although, to be honest, Arabic calligraphy is very beautiful).

Allow me to elaborate with some architectural perspective - Bo-Kaap is the home of Islam in South Africa. I'll try not to get the history wrong here, but from what I've learned when the Dutch settled in Cape Town many many years ago they brought along Indonesian Muslims as workers and fellow immigrants.  The Islamic community grew from this core of "Malay" immigrants in Cape Town to its current state, now with over 400 mosques in South Africa alone.  The first of these mosques is actually located just down the road from my apartment, and was constructed by an exiled Indonesian Prince in 1798.  1798! That's OLD!! (as a comparison, Cincinnati was FOUNDED in 1788, only ten years earlier). There are currently six or seven mosques in Bo-Kaap, each of which put out a call to prayer five times per day, and it is my goal to get to know more about the Muslim community here, especially as Ramadan begins. 

bo-kaap represent. i love great graffiti and there's
a ton of it here in cape town

So, what's a good way to understand this holy month from a Christian perspective? Here are a few thoughts, largely borrowed from Jim Petersen:

Be considerate

I walk through the heart of Muslim Bo-Kaap every day.  I believe that chowing down on an apple in front of fasting Muslims might more disrespectful than wearing high-heels to a midget convention (my analogy, not Jim's), so I must be aware of the people I'm with, the tenets of the belief to which they adhere, and act in kind consideration.

Be worldly (and relatable)

"I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists . . . whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ — but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life."  (1 Corinthians 9:19-22, MSG) 

Relating well with Muslims may not be easy- I'll need to first confront the obstacles of my own cultural stereotypes and my own tendency to consider my ideas and ways as being the smartest approach. But this is a great growing point! I would hope to relate with people wherever I go, and Paul's advice from 1 Corinthians is a bright beacon of guidance on this matter.

Be compassionate

Beyond being kind and adaptive, I want to be action-oriented. Passively absorbing cultural traditions is important, but once I get a sense of how Ramadan works here, I want to respond to it. As Jim Petersen says,

"Love is a verb, a call to action. It calls us not only to seek to understand these neighbors but also to serve them in ways that reflect God’s love. How else will they ever see the kingdom of God?"

And that's about all I have to say for now. In doing some research for this blog post I discovered that the message of the call to prayer begins as follows:
“Get up and pray. To pray is better than to sleep.”

Architecture students don't typically get much rest so I'm cool with the whole no-sleeping thing-- but praying instead of sleeping? I wonder how that idea would go over in the US...  regardless, I look forward to what Ramadan has in store for me, my roommates, and the neighborhood.  Although not technically fasting I'm going to give up a few things that I over-rely on and try to focus more on God.  And fast or no fast, I know that the with the muezzin's voice as my companion I'm going to learn a lot.

at the intersection of buitengracht and rose streets,
the boundary of bo-kaap

"Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality however, is found in Christ."
- Colossians 2:16-17


What makes a good community?

Reproduced from Karen Press's Closer Than This (an open source book for urban planners)

...and architects, too!

Test: would Vladimir and Estragon be willing to wait here?

Test: would a ball kicked along the road roll back backwards?

Test: would a bunch of flowers stay alive all the way home?

Test: would Charles Baudelaire walk these pavements?

Test: how long would a goldfish survive?

Test: would Frida Kahlo find enough colors?

Test: would carrots grow straight in the soil?

Test: would Nawal el Saadawi be able to relax?

Test: would a cellist be heard?

Test: would Elvis be happy here? would Fela?

Karen poses these questions under the auspices of new urban developments in Africa, but it is worth asking the same questions of existing communities and neighborhoods undergoing revitalization - both in Africa and elsewhere around the world!

Just thoughts to consider.


A poem of Bo-Kaap

From Gabeba Baderoon's Three Poems

I walk down Heerengracht,
where pigeons dip their necks
like question marks into the fountain.
Then left at Long, while the sun slips

Toward the sea and the moon takes its place
above Signal Hill.
Above me, starlings clatter
like typewriters.

Higher still, turning right at Wale,
seagulls tilt like white kites
against the wind.

I step on the old silences of the city.

Here is the place on the hill where artists came
for peace and the view of the harbour.
Below, the city reveals itself.
We still walk the neat streets of their paintings.

Under the angled mountain, its blue light,
the starlings are cold but, looking at them,
I see the loveliness
of their chaotic and coordinated hunger.

What can explain
this exact and unjust beauty?

The flock clusters at sunset for warmth and seed.
Poetry cannot be afraid of this.

Sketching the streets, the artists stood
on the burial ground of the city’s slaves.
In the paintings is something
of the private grief of their bodies.

In precise patterns the starlings follow one another
and redouble on their own flight-tracks,
slipstream of warmth,
blood-trace of the self.

Nothing to begin with,
and nothing again.

Around me, the air is thick with history.
Two hundred years ago,
slaves could no longer be sold.

Nothing, and nothing again.

I look again at the painted city, falling
silent at sunset, even the birds stilled.
In the last flash of the sun, the city gleams
white and hard as bone.


Week 2 Pictures: Pendo means Love

What do you see?

Trees as green as wild grass on a spring morning; earth as raw and red as if it was the lifeblood of the earth itself; people as passionate and personable as if they were your own brothers and sisters; metal roofs and sun-scorched bricks weathered and worn by years of use-- forget the big five and all those roadside souvenirs - this is Africa. This boundless nature is what makes Africa so special, and was in this world of vibrant life and color that I began my second week of work in Tanzania (check out some pictures below).

The week kicked off, as a week often does, at a local church on a Sunday morning.  As Jennifer and I were waiting for the service to begin she and I became the center of attention for a large group of local children. Before any songs had been sung or testimonies had been tested, the two of us came to attention for the rest of the congregation as the children called out “muzungu! muzungu!

Fortunately this was not the first time I had heard this term used, and as my handy-dandy Swahili-to-English dictionary describes, “muzungu” literally means people who walk in circles, referring to the way in which non-Africans appear to struggle in circles as they drive aimlessly through Africa.

a herd of real-life muzungus in their natural habitat

Although we were not doing any driving in the church that day, by the time the congregation rose to sing a half-dozen Swahili songs, I certainly found myself struggling with a few new extra friends attached to my arms and legs – the little kids were clinging to my clothes like muzungu magnets!

As the service proceeded, the children hardly abated – in fact, after the preacher had summed up his stirring Swahili sermon on Paul’s chiding the Corinthians toward righteousness (Romans 3), Jennifer and I were both overwhelmed with this mass of small children, most of whom were visibly parent-less, and many of whom wanted to learn our names (and wanted us to learn their names as well). This game of name-learning and name-sharing broke out in full force once the service was dismissed, and my conversation with this score of Tanzanian kids turned into a full-blown cultural exchange of words and phrases when I busted out my trusty sketchbook and pens.

handy dandy Swahili-to-English dictionary and trusty
sketchbook. I wouldn't have gotten far without the dictionary
and I wouldn't have remembered much without the sketchbook.
both were great assets. pens not included.

Unlike Jennifer I am a visual, not an auditory learner. While she assimilated easily with the spoken Luo and Swahili, I was confronted with so much input that I turned to my good old sketchbook and handy dandy dictionary to learn the children’s names and phrases by drawing them out in my book and letting the kids write their own stories to go along with the sketches. What follows are the results of several hours of intense cross-cultural sketchbooking:

musilaba means cross

dogi means lips

rangi means red, blue, orange, and yellow?

oh wait... rangi means paint

and of course "ninja" is the same in all languages

The only thing more inspiring than the fact these kids were sketching and visualizing their culture in my sketchbook was that they were sketching and visualizing their culture in my sketchbook in a church – and in Tanzania of all places. It was an unbelievable experience to witness this after also witnessing God’s cross-cultural presence in the same building just a few hours earlier.

Back during the service as I sat listening to the head pastor's sermon, I felt God’s love in the words he was speaking… even though I couldn’t understand a single one of them! Simply listening to the passion of the testimonies, the joy of the singers, and the shouts of the performers brought me close to tears at one point. I felt God saying, “Look at all this love. How can you possibly doubt my presence in your own life when I am clearly present in the lives of these people a world away from Cincinnati.” What a revelation – and what love that God pours out on people to bring them into such a state of joy. I was blown away by this togetherness.  By seeing these Tanzanians growing together and striving to be more like Christ. Even as I write this I’m still trying to process the whole experience and come to grips with how an experience like this can be so simultaneously foreign, and yet also so incredibly relatable!

Needless to say, this church experience was the high-point of my week - maybe even the entire trip. The rest of our second week was spent much the same as the first; while working with other University of Cincinnati students, I continued taking measurements and sketches of the Roche Health Center.  I love sketching and mapping, and being able to draw and measure on site and away from the confines of studio was a nice break from typical desk-based architecture work.

hard at work at the RHC...
...Stanley Black and Decker style

the not-so-glamorous side of architecture:
as-built drawings!

Later in the week the men from our UC team got to play futbol with some of the locals (sorry, no girls allowed!) It was one of the special instances during the trip when, paradoxically, while we were fiercely competing in sports we muzungu foreigners felt more like we were on the same team with the native Tanzanians while competing together with them than if we were simply there.  Outright competition seemed more relevant and relateable than simply being there and culturally competing against them through inaction.

This brings me to a central point of my blog, which I haven’t spoken about enough, but which is crucial to life here in Africa. I haven't found a good word for the quality I'm trying to describe here, but something about the people in Tanzania (and in South Africa too, to a degree) speaks to an uncanny sense of optimism, positivity, and full-blooded life. I don’t know if there’s a word for it other than the African “CAN-do” spirit that I’ve named this blog after. Playing soccer with the local kids and experiencing the love of the local church church community brought on this feeling of hope more than just about anything I’ve experienced here so far – although in our soccer game we competed against each others, we competed together by working in teams to accomplish a goal.

futbol in Shirati

I guess I’m just a sucker for that team spirit, and I’m sure that I will revisit this un-named theme plenty more as the summer progresses.  But for now, let me leave you with one last image.

It may be idealistic, as it is something I've been thinking and dreaming about for quite some time, but I'm dreaming big for Africa.  I'm dreaming of an Africa in which every person has hope for life, a means to live their life fully, and a physical place to call home. Is that too much to hope for?  Like Abram believed God's covenant in Genesis, I want to believe that God has a great legacy in store for the people here, and great plans for all of Africa. It's a big world but it is full of hope.

And that is what I see.

-quote of the day-
"'Do not be afraid Abram.
I am your shield, your very great reward...
...Look up at the heavens and count the stars - if indeed you can count them... so shall your offspring be.'
...Abram believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness"
Genesis 15: 1, 5-6


Greetings from Cape Town!

Groete uit Kaapstad! (Afrikaans)

Today instead of an update from Tanzania and Kenya I'm jumping ahead to give some perspective on life in South Africa.  Over the past ten days a lot has happened, and although there's no way I will be able to fit it all into one post I hope you get a sense of how exciting things have been here lately.

Taking a step back, let me first of all set the stage for how I even got to South Africa.  It all starts back in Cincinnati, Ohio.... *cue sepia colors and midwestern musical montage* As an architecture student at the University of Cincinnati I am required to complete four practical "co-op" work experiences before I graduate.  One of my spring-quarter classes was set to culminate in a travel experience to Tanzania and Kenya, and so I thought to myself "why not stay in Africa for co-op?!"  As I am in fact familiar with South Africa, growing up in the Indian Ocean port city of Durban before moving to the United States in 2000, I have always dreamed of returning back to the country I once called home to try my hand at architecture in Africa (let me know if you want to hear the full story some time).

Hard at work in Tanzania

Fast forward to summer of 2011.  Following two weeks of humanitarian design work with other University of Cincinnati students in East Africa (Tanzania and Kenya-- both which I will continue to blog about... eventually), I spent an full week in Johannesburg meeting up with friends and visiting a wide range of architecture firms in South Africa's largest city.

At the end of that week, however, after all my portfolios been submitted to SA architecture firms, I found myself in need of transportation to Cape Town (where I am co-oping this summer).  Johannesburg and Cape Town may just be names to anyone unfamiliar with South Africa, but they are in fact two of the most culturally relevant and economically active cities in Southern Africa.  Traveling from one city to the other is relatively common, but the distance is significant.

Johannesburg to Cape Town by bus... 17 hours

That doesn't look so bad, does it? Only from one city to the next... right?

Well my friend, consider this trip in terms of the Eastern United States.

St. Louis to New York by bus... 17 hours

St. Louis to New York.  Different continent. Same travel time.  Needless to say, I felt like quite the African voortrekker (South African equivalent of Oregon Trailblazer) heading west across the deserts and savannas in a Greyhound bus packed to the gills with South Africans of all shapes and sizes.  It's an experience I won't soon forget.

Seeing the Cape Town skyline following this trek was something I had much anticipated.  After being crammed in a bus for the better part of a day, I was more anxious to get out and run than a raccoon trapped in a house full of college students.  After dumping my belongings at an apartment in the Bo-Kaap I made a bee-line for the door to take a run. My goal: Kloofneck, a scenic overlook a few km from my apartment from which the Atlantic and Indian Oceans are simultaneously visible.

One of many cobblestone streets in the Bo-Kaap

Jogging to Kloofneck brought me, unexpectedly, past an architecture firm that I had researched but never  visited in person.  For a nerdy architecture student like me to wander past the office of this well-renowned business by chance would be comparable to, say, a devout Christian meeting Desmond Tutu in a local cafe.  Needless to say, I took the firm's proximity to my own apartment as a sign from God to knock on the door and inquire about a visit.  Not only was the firm gracious enough to provide me with an extended tour the following day, but I was able to meet all their employees and develop some great relationships with several intern-level workers. God provides!

Hot on the heels of this adventure, I took to walking throughout the city over the next few days.  The urban core of Cape Town is beautiful for its compact arrangement of residential and commercial areas, each of which is interspersed with many entertainment venues and tourist attractions, and all of which are set against the stunning backdrop of Table Mountain.  Imagine, if you would, an African city as a medly of San Francisco and New Orleans.  I was hooked.

Walking through Cape Town. Nate is already hooked on this town.

Over the next few days I was able to surf with my roommates in the Indian Ocean at Muizenberg, explore the Atlantic coast along Green Point, and gather together with other Christians at a local church near my apartment.  Cape Town is wonderfully welcoming (and walkable too), and although it's technically winter here, the weather is not much more adverse than a cool Autumn evening in the States.  Capetownians bundle up with scarves and gloves as they weather the coldest days of their year, but in my opinion the weather here has actually been quite favorable.

After staying a few days at the landlord's surgeon house, I moved up the hill to another apartment in which several other international interns live - the nationalities in the house are very diverse, bringing students together from as far apart as France, Zambia, England, and the Netherlands. It has been a great blessing to join in meals and conversations together with these students, as well as their visiting friends and relatives.  In any given hour I hear three or four languages spoken, but it's certainly a beautiful cacophony!

Looking up from my desk

In addition to my apartment-mates, I've also been blessed with a beautiful view out of my window. Glancing up from my desk I see the backdrop of Table Mountain spread out in all its splendor.  I love experiencing new places, and I don't believe there is any other place quite like Cape Town.

The high point of my week came just a few days ago when I tagged along with my friend for breakfast at St. George's Cathedral, the largest (and arguably oldest) Anglican church in Cape Town.  I'm never one to turn down a good breakfast - especially at a church - and so I willingly woke a few hours earlier than usual to join in the festivities.

We had arrived and settled down for a meal by 8am, at which time my friend (who works as a research assistant at the church) whispered to me - "Don't look now, but Desmond Tutu just walked into the cafe." Believing that my friend was having research-induced delusions, I doubted this was true.  But, sure enough, glancing up from my boerewors and eggs I saw that yes, in fact it was Desmond Tutu walking into the cafe, chatting with the kitchen staff and sampling some of their baked pastries.  Who would have guessed!

Archperspective meets Archbishop
Simply serendipitous!

It would be hard to imagine ten better days in Cape Town.  I'm thankful for the experiences, friendships, and communities that I've been exposed to in just over a week, and I'm praying that God will keep providing me with opportunities to interact with locals, as well as architects and designers here in Cape Town who can give me a better professional perspective for my work.  One particular opportunity I want to make the most of is in meeting and getting to know homeless people in Cape Town.  South Africa has a monstrous unemployment rate, and I want to hear what this is like first-hand from Capetownians who either do not have a job or cannot find work.

As my second week begins, please be praying for my relationships with roommates and work colleagues - God is doing great things through the people I work with and it is a blessing to be living here with such a diverse set of friends.

I have dropped the second-person blog concept.  It was fun, but it was also strange to be so removed for all you lovely readers.  To be honest, I am hoping for a little feedback... comments, ya know?!  I'm here in South Africa to work and learn, but I'm also here to provide some perspective.  That's perspective not just for me, but for you too!  So if there's something you'd like to vicariously explore in Cape Town or anything you'd like to hear more about, just let me know (that way I won't have to bring back the creepy second-person blog-review man - see posts below if you're confused).  Comments from you guys = no creepy blog posts.


-quote of the day-
"That the urban future should be at once repellent and seductive is hardly surprising, since actual cities have always cast their own double spell. Their crowded streets and cramped habitations induce claustrophobia but also promise new forms of intimacy. The alienation and loneliness that blossom in the midst of crowds are romantic and agonizing in equal measure. City life is subject to all kinds of planning, scheduling, surveillance and regulation, which makes it both efficient and dehumanizing. Its buzzing disorder holds the threat of violence and the promise of vitality."
-A. O. Scott


Week 1 Pictures: Habari means Hello

Habari ya asabuhi Perspective! Eish, you don't sound so good - what happened to your throat?... burned it eating extra spicy chutney?? You don't say! Here, tell you what, try this naartjie, I have an extra few from the Rose St. corner market and it might help your throat - they only cost one Rand each!

How about we look through those photos today... Yes, certainly. You don’t mind if I just use your laptop again do you? Thanks man... Say, is this your family as your desktop background? And you say they are also all off on their own adventures this summer as well, eh?

Yes, I can tell you love them very much. That must be your brother on the left. In California this summer on an outreach mission project... I’m jealous! But this must be your sister right by his side... she’s the one working as a camp counselor this summer, right? Catching fish and going hiking with high school students?! I couldn’t imagine!... Ah, but look over here – yes, your mom and dad... From how you describe them I couldn’t imagine better parents.

I seem to have found the photos from your first week in Kenya and Tanzania. Mind if we just browse through?... Yes, I also know a bit of Swahili, asante sana...  if you like I can make up some stories to go along with the photos when we look through them!

the GREAT Rift Valley - this massive fault stretches all
 the way from Southern Africa to Israel

Kibera... the dirty side of Kenya... Africa's second-largest
slum is home to over 1M Kenyans.

Roche Health Center waiting area

RHC supplies - nothing is thrown away

Cincinnati! The permitting process in Kenya is
quite different from the United States

Typical road. Our drivers are amazing.

Desert dishes in the middle of the Great Rift Valley.
Imagine giant satellite dishes in Yellowstone National Park
or perhaps radio towers in the Grand Canyon.
Is there an equivalent in the US?

Reflect-Sean says: there was a lot of rain

High tide at Lake Victoria

There were a few bugs also

Sunset... and the end of photos for this week
 tune in next Wednesday for week two!

Our amazing drivers pose with Jeff

Fat Joe... the Chuck Norris of our travels

Fat Joe can start his car just by looking at it
Fat Joe can inflate tires with his breath
Fat Joe asks border officials for their papers
When Fat Joe goes on safari, animals line up to watch him
Fat Joe doesn't drive, the Earth rotates beneath him
When Fat Joe was on co-op in Tanzania he built the Shirati Hospital

Thanks for meeting up this morning before work, Perspective. It sounds like you had a fantastic first week in Africa, and what a blessing to have spent it with such guiding professors, passionate students, and excellent drivers too! Sorry for all the Fat Joe jokes.

Take it easy with that throat hey! And here, take another naartjie for the road! Thanks, I hope you enjoy a happy hump day too, see you next Monday!

Naartjies, a great and nutritious South African snack

-quote of the day-
"Given that 90% of the work for humanitarian design is in emerging markets, shouldn’t we be training our future professionals for this scenario and in this scenario? We need to be looking at systems to bridge the global inequalities in design education, while teaching community-led practices that are at the heart of humanitarian design"
-Cameron Sinclair

-listening to: Adelaide by The Ranks-


Humanitarian Design

Good morning Perspective, how was your first weekend in Cape Town? Surfing in Muizenberg and a three-hour tour at Noero Wolff Architects? You don’t say! Tell you what, I’ll order us two cups of Rooibos and then you can get started with your stories... Waiter!

Muizenberg, a fine place to learn how to surf

Say, I meant to ask last time, but you don't mind if I share your thoughts and stories with some of my friends do you? No, no, it won’t be a big show, just some close friends on the internet... What’s that? Sure, I promise not to tell people that you’ve started wearing your shirts a third time since you can’t seem to find a good laundry place nearby. Would you mind if I use your Macbook… just for a bit… OK, I’ll just be taking a few notes as you go through your stories…

So, now that we’re sorted, how about we get started with your first topic – Humanitarian Design, wasn’t it? Ah yes, it looks like our Rooibos is ready, so let me just add a bit of milk and honey here and you can go right ahead with your first story.


Perspective: Humanitarian Design

As broadly defined, Humanitarianism is an ethic of kindness, benevolence, and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all humans, with no distinction made on grounds of gender, tribal, caste, religious, or national divisions.

As a branch of Humanitarianism, Humanitarian Design seeks first to meet the needs of specific demographics by providing goods and services that are unique to the means of the users (such people who may otherwise be discriminated against through generic design services).

rising Humanitarian Designers

Humanitarian Design is almost always conducted with significant restraints – cultural, material, financial, or otherwise – and calls for unique (and often unorthodox) methods of problem solving.

This past spring I participated in a course at the University of Cincinnati that dealt specifically with the needs and constraints of such Humanitarian Design in action. Our professor, in partnership with local architecture students and medical professionals in Cincinnati and a local non-profit organization in Tanzania, led fifteen students to conduct a series of studies on a Health Center he helped design in the village of Roche.

While in the Tanzanian Village, I conducted a post-occupancy analysis of the Health Center, recording the building through a series of as-built drawings and conducting a series of similar drawings and measurements. In honesty, my work was but a small part of the class’s larger goal to discern the various needs of four proximal villages and make proposals for future Humanitarian opportunities in each.

A large part of the analytical study was technical. We spent a good amount of time discerning measurable results and variables from quantifiable elements of the Health Center in Roche, but much of the study was also subjective. For every quantifiable aspect of my study I had to also be aware of many unquantifiable cultural and social constraints.

Maintaining awareness of these factors was at times both cumbersome and enthralling. Obstacles ranged from the purely technical (returning to the metric system, which I have rarely used since moving to the States in 2000) to linguistic (learning Luo and Swahili phrases in order to accurately obtain post-occupancy information) to team-dynamic (operating as part of a team of cross-cultural workers and responding to the team’s diversity as we conducted our studies).

All of these factors play into the role of a Humanitarian Designer. It was an incredible blessing to work with local Tanzanians and experience their spirit of positive energy and optimism. I would have only accomplished a fraction of the work if it had not been for their help and willingness, as well as a great deal of assistance from other UC students who took part in the post-occupancy report and lengthy process of obtaining as-built measurements.

As I’m sure you can imagine, Humanitarian Design is a swiftly evolving field. I remember beginning my studies simply with a passion for Africa, as well as the people and circumstances I knew existed “over there”. However, I came to realize over the course of the project that it is less important where work is being done as why the work is being done. Several neighborhoods in Cincinnati need as much, if not more, Humanitarian attention as we gave to Roche and surrounding Tanzanian villages. What is most important is that Humanitarian Designers, wherever they are, be passionate about the work they do for others.

One last piece of advice I have for aspiring Humanitarians Designers is this – if you are genuine in your approach, you will surely find a means to make the work you do beneficial to your chosen cause. As for me, I am trying to keep the words of Matthew 25 close to heard as I work, treating all people as if they were my own brother or sister. Check it out. Matthew 25: 37-40, it’s good stuff. I would venture to say it's Jesus' own guidance to us aspiring Humanitarian Designers.


Thanks for your insight, Perspective. And sadly it seems we’ve each finished our cups of Rooibos - I’ll have to get us a full kettle next time!

You say our next chat will focus more on your day-to-day adventures in Tanzania and Kenya? Maybe you can bring some photos instead of just talking the whole time. Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.

And yes, in fact I wish I could stay for another cup of tea but I really must get back to my apartment, we have a Fourth of July party scheduled with some other students. Take care on your way back home! Oh, and if you need an extra set of clothes, please let me know, I think we wear about the same size. Totsiens! See you on Wednesday!

Rooibos Tea, proudly South African

-quote of the day-
"Then the righteous will answer him 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothing and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'"
Matthew 25: 37-40

-listening to: Twenty-Four by Switchfoot-