Hannah Weinronk

"I have learned about resilience, about respect, about strength, and about what sustains us as people and as communities."

CESL Program: Citizens Scholar Program, Service-Learning Abroad

I had the amazing opportunity to spend two months doing research in South Africa as a Water, Society, and Health Scholar. Students from across the country joined a collaboration between the University of Virginia and the University of Venda to address health issues related to water contamination. The Limpopo province of South Africa where we were working has high rates of waterborne illness, which can lead to malnutrition and death, particularly in young children.

The project involved working with a women's pottery cooperative to produce ceramic water filters and partnering with a local village to carry out a study on how the filters are used in households. It was a different model of community engagement than I have been involved in at UMass through CESL. Limpopo is one of the few areas of South Africa to still have a traditional leadership structure (this region is home to the Venda tribe), so everything we did had to be organized through the chief, and many of the people we worked with spoke no English. However, while the culture was very different, I discovered that many of the underlying challenges facing the community are similar to those facing communities I have worked with here in western Massachusetts. It was amazing to create connections with people in the village, as well with the students and faculty from the university and around the United States who were a part of this collaboration.

This program was my first exposure to community-based research, and I have come to understand its importance in addressing health problems. How can we find solutions if we don't first determine what the real issues are and take time to consider all the options? How do we know that a solution works if it is not tried out and evaluated? I have learned that sometimes, in order to effectively create change, it is necessary to first take a step back and make sure you are taking the right step forward instead of jumping in with the quickest or easiest answer.

Throughout the program, it was a challenge to figure out how to create true partnerships—and not just respectful relationships—between the different players (University of Virginia, University of Venda, the village, the pottery cooperative, and our research program). We had to be aware of strong power dynamics related to race, money, and formal education that have historical precedents in South Africa and still influence society today. I have learned so much about how difficult it is—as well as what amazing possibilities there are—to overcome these barriers.

This has been a truly incredible summer. I have been exposed to so much through the research, through living in Limpopo, and from everyone I have met along the way. I have learned about resilience, about respect, about strength, and about what sustains us as people and as communities. I am grateful to have had this opportunity of a lifetime, and I am excited to take everything I have learned forward with me as I return to my service site in Amherst in the fall and continue on to work in the field of public health.