The Land Over the Hills

April 10, 2009

There was a strange dynamic in the “urban planning” used during apartheid. Don’t begin to ask me how decisions were made about the location of “white” versus “native” settlements. The end result today, however, is clear. Wherever the major national and regional roads connect were the European communities, and just over the hills out of sight of the roads were the Bantu communities. Close enough to provide workers, far enough away to be out of mind. While the absolute barriers to locations have changed, the vestiges still remain and are quite obvious if you happen to stray just a short distance from the main roads over the hills.

Such is the appropriately named “Valley of 1000 Hills” located north and west of Durban. 1000-hills

The marketers have cleverly created a driving route (meander in the local vernacular) through the region with carefully chosen quaint stops for coffee and curios–Zulu art, beadwork, carvings, etc. We have not been on the route, but it sounds like it is a couple hour meander through the rural Zulu villages between Durban and Pietermartizburg. We followed David Alcock around this valley last week to learn about his work in Zulu villages delivering water for irrigation and drinking to dozens of communities in rural KwaZulu-Natal. His communities are not along the meander-no coffee and curio shops here.

A beginning to this story might be with the strange calculus that went into apartheid township planning. Here is a picture from atop a hill overlooking a man-made lake (called a dam) in the Valley of 1000 Hills.

valley-1000-hillsThis is located less than 20 minutes from the north part of Durban (University of KwaZulu-Natal at Westville, major shopping center, etc.) A view like this 20 minutes from the third largest city in the US would be premium real estate, even in a down real estate market. Here are the Zulu houses (called rondevals) located on the property where this was taken.valley-1000-hills-rondavelsHere is the view from inside the same rondavel:

rondavel-insideWhy was pristine real estate given to a so-called inferior race? Who knows. The road is too twisty and narrow getting back to Durban? That did not stop multimillion dollar homes from springing up in Santa Barbara, CA, and the more remote the home, the more expensive it is. I don’t understand the logic in either case.

These homes did not have toilets and electricity until recently. In fact, the majority of these black settlements did not have water, electricity, sewer, etc., and only in the last several years has this been changing. Electricity is an interesting story. The neighborhoods controlled by the ANC (African National Congress–South Africa’s ruling party since 1994) were all equipped with electricity several years ago. Those controlled by the IFP (Inkhata Freedom Party–opposition party in KwaZulu-Natal), are only now getting electricity even though these might only be several hundred meters from ANC communities.

The Alcock’s have been working side by side with Zulu’s for the last 130 years, and have made as much inroads into the Zulu community as almost any white family in South Africa. David’s father and step mother were featured in the intriguing book, My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan. David grew up a farmer working and living with Zulu’s in rural KwaZulu-Natal. Zulu is in his blood as it is perfectly on this tongue.zulu-women-workers

David is a tinkerer. He likes to design and build things. Not exactly an engineer, but someone with an engineer’s heart and mind. He has designed a ram pump for delivering water to rural communities. It took fifteen years to perfect. It works on the pressure differential created by drawing water from a higher elevation than the pump. This produces the ability to gain a 10:1 mechanical advantage which can be used to pump water any distance from the pump. The genius of his ram pump is that it is designed and built from off the shelf parts, and the diaphragm in the pump is the only part that needs replacing–it can be made by cutting out a section of a used tire.ram-pumpThis pump is not flashy. It is not something that you will be reading about in an airline in-flight magazine. He has had several taken out by international aid agencies looking for something with a little more glamour. He has also returned the next year after the photo ops were over to replace them when they were too complicated to operate by the locals, or parts broke and they could not afford to replace them. The Alcock Ram Pump does what it was designed to do…pump water, 24/7 with no external power source and with almost no maintenance required. A complete system generally costs less than $3000 to install providing enough water to irrigate (by hand so as not to waste water and irrigate weeds) a three acre farm. The cooperative farm for this particular pump is now supporting over 30 families with their own food and enough to sell to the neighboring grocery stores at a profit.zulu-rondavelHe has partnered with the Johns Hopkins University (Maryland) Engineers Without Borders chapter who has been sending students for the last several years to help install these systems during their summer break and learn about sustainable design in impoverished communities. What he cannot find are South African engineering students, black or white, to volunteer their time and expertise during the other ten months of the year.

Unfortunately, David is growing tired. Tired of the late nights building ram pumps because he is spending his days cutting through government red tape. Negotiating with the local politicians has been endlessly frustrating. He points out that they all sit in comfortable chairs in air conditioned offices twenty minutes away in Durban. They have water and electricity and food whether they deliver the services that they have promised in a timely fashion or not. It does not matter to them whether a deadline is met that means getting the crop in on time or not. The indifference is maddening.

I asked him whether it got discouraging to see so much need and so many challenges facing the rural Zulu communities that he serves. He said that seeing his pumps working day in and day out, knowing that the precious water that he has helped to deliver is literally changing peoples lives keeps him going.

One final observation. There is always beautiful and somewhat haunting Zulu singing to be heard from the dusty rondavels dotting the hillsides. In a people empty of most of the “creature comforts” of modern life, there is an inner peace and beauty to be found in the lands just over the hills.rural-kzn-hills


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