Though it’s home to roughly 70,000 people, you won’t find Pomolong Township, South Africa, marked prominently on many maps. Set against the backdrop of majestic mesas and dusty plains, the township — a mishmash of multicolored, corrugated metal shacks — is a remnant of the country’s apartheid era.
“In America, when we use the word ‘township,’ I think it is a fairly benign image we have of a close-knit village of friendly people,” says Alvin Wang, dean of The Burnett Honors College at UCF. “A township in Africa is a very different concept. It’s a place where people don’t want to live, and they are there because they are black.”
Off the Grid
Last May, Wang, Associate Dean Martin Dupuis, Burnett Honors Information Technology Director Michael Callahan, ’05, and a group of Burnett Honors students traveled to Pomolong to work with town residents. There they installed a 40-foot-tall wind turbine and sun-tracking solar panels to power the township’s new community center and provide Internet access to the nearby Swinburne Primary School. “[Pomolong] is off the grid,” Wang says. “The only running water is in spigots located about every 50 meters. So houses don’t have any water, and you have to use public latrines.”
The genesis for the project occurred two years ago, when Annamarie Versfeld, mother of Burnett Honors student Zina Versfeld, approached Dean Wang about working in South Africa. Wang says that Annamarie, who owns a large farmstead in South Africa, was familiar with The Burnett Honors College service-learning, study-abroad program on the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. That project, which involved students and faculty in a range of sustainability projects, was one that she hoped the college might replicate in Africa. Annamarie volunteered her farmstead as a home away from home for the college’s first project in Africa.
In 2011, Wang and Dupuis took a fact-finding trip to determine how they could help the town. “We don’t go to people and tell them what they need,” Wang says. “When our students are working toward a common goal with our international friends, that’s when true understanding of other cultures takes place.
“[The township residents] said they would love to have electricity in their community center. Without electricity, there is nothing to do after the sun sets.”
People Get Ready
On an average day, the lobby of The Burnett Honors College resembles a museum, complete with stylish marble floors, glass-encased sculptures, and modern art adorning the hallways. Before heading out for the 17-hour trip to Pomolong, Burnett Honors students turned the lobby into a hardware supply store, says Kelly Cox, ’13.
Cox, now studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University, recalls bringing an empty suitcase to the lobby, where the floor was strewn with equipment for the wind turbine team. She filled her empty carry-on with as much as she could fit. Work on building the prototypes for the renewable energy plant involved 16 Burnett Honors engineering students, who helped devise the wind turbine and solar panel system as part of their senior design project. Seven student representatives from the four engineering teams made the trip to South Africa to install the renewable energy system. Three more students from biomedical sciences, anthropology and international studies also joined the trip.
Callahan helped the Swinburne Primary School gain Internet access. He updated their computers, linked them to a server, and loaded new software, such as Encyclopaedia Britannica. Previously, the 10 government-supplied computers had never been turned on. “It turns out there was one cable missing,” Callahan says. Burnett Honors faculty and staff also trained Swinburne teachers how to use the computers.
At the Pomolong Township community center, Callahan and the students installed a video projector that the college donated. The college also donated a library of DVDs to the township, says Wang.
“The IT was a small piece of what I did,” says Callahan, who earned his M.B.A. and undergraduate degree in computer science from UCF. “Originally, I thought that was going to be the primary piece, but about a month before we left for South Africa, I started to get more involved with the engineering senior design teams.”