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Culture, Reality

Litres of Light, Metres of Green

by Bartlett / 03.12.2012

Our man Bartlett bears witness to the first installation in Africa of ‘a liter of light’ eco-friendly ‘bottle light’ in a sangoma’s shack in Joe Slovo township, Cape Flats, along with the launch of the prototype of vertical gardening as a way to prevent township fires. One small step for greenies, one giant leap for the City of Cape Town? Mahala investigates.

Sommer plonked behind the ostentatious Century City and sandwiched next to ‘the opulence of Tableview’ – like some kind of bad design joke on the part of the HNICU (Head Nigga In Charge Upstairs) – squats Joe Slovo township, and beyond, the Cape Flats. I’m headed for the relatively new Umshini Wam settlement which, as it’s name ‘Bring Me My Machine Gun’ denotes, is straight-up gangsta!

Here, barefoot toddlers roam the litter-strewn streets alongside sewers swilling with the stench of shit. The setting is abject poverty with seemingly little hope for a better life. Table Mountain showboats in the background, serving as an alluring reminder of the better life that exists for some. But to romanticize the wretchedness would be to reduce it, plus this is meant to be a story of hope – so, onto better things.

The backstory to how I ended up here involves a certain Stephen Lamb, founder of Touching The Earth Lightly. He is certain in his thinking, he is resourceful in his application, and he is a visionary in his pragmatic genius. Simply put, he wants to create jobs, in the field of conservation, using innovative design.

He’s the cat who’s stand on climate change at COP17, made using recycled milk crates, won the Best Stand award. Since then he’s built the City Bowl’s first rooftop garden atop a City of Cape Town building, on Wale Street. He’s also just overseen an urban food garden outside the Methodist Church next to Greenmarket Square. And that’s just in the Mother City.

A month ago Stephen was in China with his collab partner, Andrew Lord, where they were asked to build the entrance hall for the 9th Shanghai Biennale, a global showcase for contemporary art production that is a very big deal. They pulled off these big-ass hanging-from-the-roof bamboo shoots that had oyster mushrooms growing out of the sides of them, that “blew the Chinese away, my bru.”

On top of the roof they implemented the ‘liter of light’ concept (borne out of the Philippines as a low-cost lighting solution in poverty-stricken areas), which provided enough natural lighting for the mycelium in their bamboo to grow, turning their stand into the world’s first-ever vertical mushroom farm. That shit cray. The liter of light is even more crazy, because it’s so goddamn simple. Take a 2L empty plastic Coke bottle, fill it with water and a bit of bleach to prevent algae growing, cut a hole in your tin roof, whack in the bottle and jam in some silicon glue around the sides, and – BAM! – you’ve just built your own solar roof light.

Which brings us up to now, and the installation of the first solar bulbs in an informal settlement in South Africa, on the corner of Democracy Road and Freedom Avenue (uh huh) in the aforementioned, un-awesome Joe Slovo township. You’re probably thinking that the reason I know all this is because I’m like Stephen Lamb’s praise singer or PR boy or some shit. But the truth is that he’s just a guy I kinda know from throwing frisbee down at Danger Beach in the Deep South. I’ve also checked him catching his own octopus off the walls of Kalk Bay harbour and if you’ve ever been to the Polana bar out that way, he’s most probably bought you a drink. Last time I saw him though (last weekend) was at The Roundhouse where he was doing pushups with a smoking hot foreign babe – loser buys drinks. Stephen arose first, saw me, bought a round for me and the blonde and then asked if he could borrow my van to cart some stuff through to Joe Slovo for this “vertical garden and solar roof light thing” he was going to be installing next week. He’s Cape Town’s MacGyver of green, but the dude rides a Vespa. Which, I guess, is appropriate in this gay-ass city.

So I oblige and now I’m kicking it with sangoma Luthando Klaas in his shack just after Stephen and Andrew Lord have been up on his roof installing the ‘first-of-its-kind-in-Africa liter of light’. Luthando is from Queenstown originally and he’s been living in Umshini Wam for the past six years. He hooks up the locals with traditional medicine, but when patients come to visit him in his shack – the size of three portaloos – the only way that he can give them any privacy is by closing the door. Which then plunges his room into complete darkness, where the tokoloshe likes to play, freaking out him and his patients.

Luthando is overjoyed with the light in his shack. The spirits are a bit restless, but it’s worth it for the illumination. You have to see the light to believe the light. It’s practically a strobe. Another score is that without having to put in windows, his home is now more secure. Cool design conquers crime. Score one for the World Design Capital 2014 and hustlers like Lamb and Lord for the tenacity they show in trying to make a difference in the city of their birth.

I’m intrigued to see how the vertical garden goes too, so I rock up the next day for the launch. Green Cube nurseries supplied the green wall prototype, and the thinking is that a green wall will be harder to catch on fire. Plus, with just a wee bit of water and sunlight, love and care, it can be used to help feed the family inside.

Representatives from Disaster Management and the City of Cape Town are there, including Alderman JP Smith, who is now the self-proclaimed “mayoral committee member for Safety and Security”. Some people still think of him as the douchebag political aspirant who must’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the story therein about how Rudy Guiliani cleaned up New York’s crime by clamping down on minor offences like graffiti (the ‘broken windows’ theory), and then went out and made a name for himself by giving Cape Town’s graf and street artists a really hard time with regards to permit applications and being arrested for continuing with their art form.

During his time on the soapbox at Umshini Wam, while Whitney Houston tunes belt out from the shack next door, Smith acknowledges that he’s known as, “the hard-arsed person who kicks in doors” and chastises one of his colleagues (“Bruce, you’re being disruptive”) during his candid appraisal of the Mother City’s problems, particularly with regards to fire. Here Smith speaks about the fires of 2005 that swept through the Cape Flats, killing many and destroying the homes of thousands.

The City of Cape Town was ill-prepared for such a disaster and has dropped R200 million since then on doubling up on fire fighting teams and reducing the response time. They even went as far as dishing out fire extinguishers to in some of the township areas with no road access. But as Smith so plainly puts it, you can’t control the candle of a kerosene lamp. Until recently, the City of Cape Town’s firefighting plans have been reactionary rather than preventative.

The bigger picture that is on show here is about ‘re-blocking’: re-designing your townships so as to create space for the basics of road access, water, and sanitation. Of course everything’s gonna go up in flames when it’s all built on top of itself. So then out of the ashes must rise the phoenix of a block of township dwellings that can live up to the lofty ideals of the streets named ‘Democracy’ and ‘Freedom’. And Lamb is asserting that you can pimp this ride on the phoenix one step further by ‘green blocking’ and building the shack walls out of vertical gardens.

The local residents have bought into the concept big time, and are proudly dressed in their reflective neon worker wear to show off their commitment to improving the livelihood of their hood. Local project leader Mziwe Khaya speaks into the megaphone frankly about the fires, the flooding, the suffering, the people that died, the cramped quarters and the low standard of living. The chemical toilets that existed only on the township fringes. But his chest puffs out as he says, “Today I am truly happy.”

Politician that he is, JP Smith also uses his time on the megaphone to offer up a shout out to his boy from the Netherlands, Patrick Muntz, who is out here representing wakawakalight.com, a handheld solar LED light with 16 hours of reading light that can do what the ‘litre of light’ can, but at night. JP Smith is show ponying the City of Cape Town’s mad skills for collabing with cool design kids such as Lamb, Lord and Muntz, but I aint seen the City of Cape Town fronting any cash for stealing the show. Lamb says later in his speech that the whole budget for the prototype garden was R200. A round of drinks if you can’t do enough pushups to beat a girl.

Anyways, JP Smith signed off his grandstanding by commending Lamb and his crew for, “putting design on the road” by creating “resilient, life-saving technologies that make life easier on the ground.” So it’d be nice if JP Smith can put our taxpayer’s money where his mouth is and help local heroes like Lamb roll out these green technologies across the Cape Flats. Maybe then, just maybe, Stephen can one day afford his own ride down roads called Freedom and Democracy, roads that no longer stink like shit.

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