Waste to Toys…and a whole lot more


Part 1 of this post can be found here, “Frugal Innovation.”

On Tuesdays I join a group of volunteers who make learning toys through an organization called “Singakwenza.”  We transform waste – plastic jugs and lids, bread bags, cereal boxes- into activities that support the developmental needs of preschoolers.  The matching puzzles, jump ropes, lacing toys, and sequencing sets, along with training in how to use  them, are provided to women who care for young children.  “Singakwenza” means “We can do it!” and believe me, there is nothing these people cannot do!

I still remember the thoughts in my head while driving the first time to this Tuesday volunteer group.  “Are toys made from trash really the best this society can do for poor kids!?   Just like in my country, why is it that teachers are always the ones having to make more with less?  Doesn’t using rubbish to create preschool activities sidestep the real issue – the enormous disparity in quality education that exists between rich and poor children?”

Those were my questions before I met Julie Hay (below right), Linda Hill (left), and the other amazing staff at Singakwenza.


Those questions are still important to me and critical for South Africa (and our own country) to face.  But the fact is, every day there are young children here missing out on the early learning experiences proved to impact a child’s future.  In addition to the “Yes, we can!” philosophy, Singakwenza is also about, “Children cannot wait.”

Julie founded this organization after a long career teaching early childhood education in affluent communities.  She told me, “Why should people feel they need expensive toys for their children to have early learning experiences?” and, “If caregivers don’t understand what and how children are learning, then even the best toys have little value.”  These sorts of observations are par for the course in conversations with Julie, and they are a window into the philosophy behind this organization.

I’ve heard Singakwenza staff refer to their work as a “hand-up not a hand-out” when talking about why they don’t just give out educational toys.  They are deeply committed to mentoring caregivers who are learning the process of teaching in and managing their own creche (what we in the U.S. call a “preschool”).  It is very common for individual women here to provide informal daycare for neighborhood children whose parents are working.  This person is usually poorly paid and undervalued, despite the fact that she can play a pivotal role in the development of the young children in her care.

Singakwenza staff mentor creche leaders over a two-year period as they develop a structured educational program using recycled materials.  Just think- with the templates, the know-how, good scissors and a marker pen, these women are prepared to support early childhood learning even after their participation in the mentoring program ends.  I am captivated by stories of creche leaders who are uplifted by their new identity as professionals when they find they are growing their own sustainable business.

Tuesday morning “Meet-N-Make” gatherings are what I imagine an old-fashioned quilting bee felt like.  Busy hands churn out the day’s “product” while easy conversation flows.  “What are we making today?” is the standard greeting.  Or you might hear the plea, “Please, tell me we’re not cutting out ‘threes’ again!” (referring to the 350 templates of the number three we had cut out for two weeks in a row).  But usually it’s a delightful surprise to discover what we can make materialize from a bunch of trash:


animal matching cards from toy catalog cut-outs and paperboard, or:


pattern sequencing boards from cereal box tops, soda lids, and colored circles cut from old magazines, or:


skipping ropes, ball toss toys, or binding for homemade board books from recycled bread bags.


First we cut loops from the old bags, then connect these into long strands which are plaited together (what we call “braided”).  I can vouch for how time consuming this project is but also how perfectly weighted and durable these ropes are!


The waste for all these creations is collected by schools and individuals.  At my children’s school for example, students bring in clean yogurt containers, bread bags, and cereal boxes to place in collection bins.  Once at Singakwenza, staff sort the materials in this room in preparation for upcoming projects.



We can always count on learning the how and why of the things we make – whether in conversation or at one of the displays.






Most of the Tuesday volunteers never see the faces of the creche leaders or children who use what we make; but we hear the stories, see the pictures, and believe in the people behind this organization.  We grasp the potential for the Singakwenza model to improve early childhood learning needs throughout South Africa, indeed across this continent and our world.

It sounds easy-peasy: toys can be made from trash for free!  But it does take money to run an organization such as this and I know any contributions toward their work would be welcome.  Furthermore, if you have ideas or leads on ways to broaden Singakwenza’s funding base in order that they might respond to the constant requests to bring their program and training to new areas- please be in touch!

And if you’re intrigued by all this, I encourage you to view this video about Singakwenza.

Several months into our stay here, I commented to my husband Scott that what bothered me more than the crippling poverty experienced by so many was that I just hadn’t met people who seemed to care about changing it.  I have since become acquainted with many people acting to improve things here including these humble volunteers who turn up week after week.  I will miss each of you and our regular time together!


P.S.  It has been said frequently at these gatherings, “Why hasn’t Julie done a TED talk yet?”  Maybe nobody has bothered to nominate her!  So I decided to change that and nominated you, Julie, for a talk and for the annual TED prize.  Who knows, their website says “It only takes one nomination…”  Whether in that forum or another, I dream the attention will grow because I can hardly think of better “ideas worth spreading” than those embodied in the work of this organization!






Frugal Innovation

Scott was recently telling the kids about when he first went overseas to Australia long ago. “There was one movie that everyone watched on several screens throughout the cabin,” he explained. “You mean, you couldn’t choose what you wanted to watch?” they puzzled. That was also the time when the smoking section was separated from the non-smoking by a flimsy curtain. Thank goodness, those days are behind us!

On our long flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg last July we all enjoyed the endless media options available to us on the screens at each seat. Video games, music videos, feature films, travel shorts, and television shows that almost, almost, had one wishing for more time on that long plane ride. I watched this Ted Talk, whose ideas have stayed with me this whole year.

Frugal Innovation is right up my alley! It refers to “doing more with less” and though it is practiced by many in developing nations as a matter of necessity, it is only now getting the attention it deserves. Frugal engineers emphasize that innovation in modern, western/northern economies is based on “doing more with more and more.” Not only are there the monetary costs associated with that sort of research and development, there is also the corresponding waste as things are constantly phased out in favor of the latest model. Frugal innovation takes what is abundant to deal with what is scarce and can result in significant economic and social growth.

I’m sure you know frugal innovators; you may be one yourself. Gardeners are classic examples- tying up tomatoes with old stockings or protecting fruit from birds with mesh onion bags.  What about the Little Free Library movement which is circulating books while simultaneously brightening up and strengthening neighborhoods? On a bigger scale, what about the people who came up with Uber, the taxi/ride-share service that has revolutionized travel in many cities?

It was in Tanzania 20 years ago that I really began to notice how people can do more with less. I remember being awed by the entrepreneur at a market who had set up his bicycle with a sharpening  wheel so he could make an income sharpening tools. Another person had a bicycle rigged up with a grinder to make peanut butter.  Children made terrific cars from scrap wood, old flip flops, and bent wire or surprisingly bouncy balls from plastic sacks tied up with banana leaf strips.  Some reduced costly construction materials by building without washers, using nails through metal bottle caps instead. And in some of the most poignant examples, people who were both poor and disabled displayed ingenuity in their handmade platform scooters (in place of wheel chairs), PVC pipes in place of artificial limbs, walkers and canes.

Frugal innovation, upcycling, recycling, reusing – they’re all in the same family. No matter the name, it’s obvious that our planet needs more of it on all levels. I’m so excited to share with you in the next post about an organization where I’ve been volunteering. The can-do spirit and creativity of the people there awe and inspire me.

Next up…frugal innovators meeting the challenge to serve South Africa’s youngest learners!


Outta here!

Kids are still sleeping and I’m drinking coffee, checking email one last time before packing up this computer.  This is it.  In a couple hours the furniture will be moved out and we will be on our way toward Johannesburg!

Didn’t we just do this all this a year ago!?  It feels like yesterday that I was asking, “What to do with the remaining tinfoil?  Can we throw in one last load of laundry?  Shall we save the kids’ school art?”  It was hard to believe we’d arrive at today given that this is how things looked around here for the last week, even up until yesterday:


Scott said last night that he has mixed feelings: sad the year is coming to a close, happy about the next month of travel, excited and nervous for all the details to fall into place.  I know we are all experiencing that same stew of emotions.

It has been a crazy-fast last week too.  I’ll share a few photos:


Simon’s school team participated in the largest Tag Rugby Festival in South Africa here in our city – along with 500 other barefooted kids!



Elsa Ruth finished up with several field hockey matches.


A last violin lesson in Durban with dear Ms. Louise.  Their gold star review sheets only hint at the impressive progress they made under her guidance.


What joy- the last day of school was a “Civvies Day”= no uniforms!


The kids were gifted with cards and other surprises, including beautiful pillow cases signed by their classmates.



I was honored to provide a workshop on methods for English language instruction to all the teachers at Umsilinga Primary School.  They thanked me with a gift of beautiful Zulu beads.



Elsa Ruth joined me for one last day teaching Grade 4 learners and preschoolers at the creche.





Scott finished things up in his office with just grading and proposal work to take on the road.


And we made the rounds saying farewells to various individuals who touched us throughout the year.


Ndumasani, the super enthusiastic security guard who welcomes us every morning at the kids’ school.


School moms’ farewells got me teary.


Our wonderfully warm and supportive neighbours (Jenny, left, and Anita, right) who helped with Afrikaans homework, praised violin progress, shared news, answered endless questions, and showered us with love all year.

Selfie with Leiseths

Tessa, Jon, Sophia, and Isaac Leiseth, Americans who are residents here but have roots in Fargo-Moorhead.  They have been family to us this year!  We will miss you but take heart knowing our paths will cross again and again and again.


This is it…several hours since I started this.  Furniture is out and car is loaded!  We hope to post throughout this month of travel, but not knowing the internet availability I have “pre-loaded” a couple stories to keep you satisfied, dear readers!  Sala kahle.  Stay well.


Get up and go…

It’s hard to believe that we are barreling down toward the end of this big year.  We don’t actually fly out of South Africa until July 1st; but June will be one big road trip.  We wrap things up here in Pietermaritzburg at the end of this month.  This month!  We’re counting days now as we prepare to move out of our house, sell our car, cancel utilities, and close our bank account along with other things on a list that seems to grow rather than shorten.  There are also goodbyes to say, many of which will be bittersweet – school friends and teachers, children and friends where I volunteer, Scott’s colleagues and students, and our neighbours.  Simon and Elsa Ruth will finish school on May 27th.

Even before we left the U.S. we had a chart listing dreams and ideas for what we might want to experience and when.  It went up on the wall here too and we had fun creating endless combinations and scenarios that would maximize our budget and reach.


What felt last August like an endless string of wide-open months on a calendar is now an amazing list of memories, locations, people, and experiences.  We recently decided to mark on our wall map the places we spent at least one night in South Africa.  Holy cow…look at this… and still another month to go!


Several South Africans have commented to us, “You’ve seen more of our country than I have!” We don’t take that privilege lightly.  It is very humbling to step back and look at all the places we’ve been lucky enough to experience this year.  Considering the standard of living and income level for the majority of South Africans, there is no doubt we have walked a privileged path with our ability to cover so much ground in this country and continent.  When compared with that demographic, even having the desire to travel is a kind of luxury I don’t want to take for granted.

One thing that’s interesting to me though about that above comment, is that most of the people making it are South Africans who do have the means to explore.  While there are plenty of citizens who take advantage of the tourist infrastructure and destinations here, there seem to be an equal number who are simply disinterested in exploring.  Is this any different from America? I suppose not.  Some people just like the comforts and routines of home.  Others are worn out by the pace of life and responsibilities and want to rest.  Fair enough.

I do sometimes wonder why people haven’t visited more of the wonderful, accessible, and inexpensive destinations right in their own backyard.  Scott is a good example of this.  There’s not really any single reason, but the fact is he never made it to  Ellis Island having grown up less than 50 miles from there.  Upon hearing about our visits here to various parks, museums, and monuments some South Africans have said, “Yes, I suppose I’ll get there one day.  Probably when I retire.”

And that proves the “power of the deadline” as we have called it.  It’s a gift in many ways having that end date!  Put that together with the fact that we had the means to travel this year and we’ve got the perfect storm to motivate our get up and go.

It gets me thinking about the region we live in back home.  Have we made reasonable effort to do, see, and appreciate our own area?  Perhaps we’ll be too tuckered out and budget-focused once we’re back that we’ll just want to stay put.  I hope not, because exploring here has renewed my curiosity about our own rich cultural and natural heritage.  Here’s what I have on my radar that I’d like to prioritize before long: seeing the Laura Ingalls Wilder historic sites in De Smet, canoeing the Missouri river in ND, taking our kids to the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, visiting Winnipeg, and getting to the MN Landscape Arboretum next time I’m in the cities.  Anyone care to join me?

What about you?  If you had a deadline, what would be at the top of your list?

Grocery 2

Let’s revisit the grocery store observations which began here. Our recent American visitors were surprised to find “Monkey Gland Potato Chips,” which reminded me again of this funny flavor.  I first noticed it in the sauces and marinades section, and I can assure you it has no monkey parts in it.  I’ve asked several South Africans who were equally puzzled about where that name may have originated!  Definitely not likely to garner an American market I’d predict.


Along the lines of Potato Chips, also known as “crisps,” this country excels at producing a wide range of flavors!  It can even be difficult to find the plain old “salted” ones.


We had seen this product on several menus and loved pronouncing its fun name.


Finally, Simon tried it at a restaurant served alongside a burger. Delicious!  We have since bought chakalaka to have at home.  Some lore says it originated in the kitchens of jails or gold mines as a way to use up excess produce.  Now it is a standard in many communities with recipes and seasoning secrets a source of family pride.

It amazes me to see the quantity of feta cheese available in every grocery!  Even the small gas station convenience store near us has plenty of options in their dairy case.   It would be hard to find a salad without feta cheese on it here- even so, this is an impressive selection, don’t you think?


I will never get used to the sight of children barefoot in grocery stores!  No kidding – you can find them shoeless at malls, parking lots, and garden stores.


It would not surprise me in a park, yard, or rural area, but in the pharmacy… really?  It’s not a question of being able to afford shoes.  I have talked with several people about this who had mixed opinions on it.  But there was some consensus that it is a cultural thing, especially among (white) Afrikaners.  I have explained my reaction to people and my ingrained American sensibility, “No shirts. No shoes. No service.”  They find this quite amusing, “Really, you mean you could get kicked out!?”  Less frequently you might spot a barefooted man like this one.


Something else I find interesting is the presence of this bread slicing machine at big grocery stores for shoppers to use.  Yes, shoppers!  You choose your loaf with your bare hands if you like, turn on the machine, pull the handle and the loaf moves through the 30 exposed and pulsing blades.  One of the many things here that reminds us how fixated our own society is on liability.


My awareness of swings in food availability has grown gradually over this year.  The first time I encountered shelves like this I definitely took note.


It was explained to me that because it was the end of the month (pay day), people were able to purchase more items thereby depleting supply.  Made sense… a one-day rush on produce, milk, or meat could be difficult for suppliers to anticipate.  There is a notable cycle of empty shelves towards the end of the month or around a holiday.  Usually it sorts out within a day or two; but if you were hoping to find a selection of lettuces beyond iceberg on this particular day, you would be out of luck.


When I found empty banana bins last week, I watched some other shoppers.  It appeared the absence of this mainstay was cause for a shoulder shrug at best.  People are accustomed to unpredictability.

Our regular grocery store recently put up these signs giving customers another explanation for the lack of options.  Other than an overall increase in food prices, this is the first indication I’ve seen of the effects of the ongoing drought.


One of the best effects of traveling is how it offers insights about where you came from and what you thought was normal.  That we never really see empty shelves in America is pretty astounding!  Suppliers and retailers have it all worked out so that everything is available pretty much all the time; they even know when there will be high demand on certain things.  Thanksgiving comes around and there are loads of sweet potatoes and fresh cranberries.  Perhaps the avocado prices do climb a bit at Super Bowl time.  But isn’t it amazing, have you ever been to a grocery store in the US and not found basics like milk, potatoes, or bread?

The dark side to having that kind of constant abundance can only be a quantity of waste that we’d prefer not to see.  I looked into this a bit and learned that 35 million tons of food is wasted in the U.S. annually; that’s 40% of food produced that is never eaten.  Meanwhile, the data on hunger, food insecurity, and access to nutritious food remains troubling.  Thank goodness so many organizations, foodbanks, and institutions are mobilizing around this issue to change the way food moves through that system.  While it may not be reasonable to expect that 100% of food produced would be eaten, surely our country could get a little bit closer!

One thing we’ve been better about this year is shopping more frequently and more effectively.  With a smaller refrigerator and fewer items in the pantry, we find ourselves buying for the meals we will cook and eat today and tomorrow.  It’s also different to shop for meals based on what is available in the store rather than what we’d like to make.  It’s resulted in less waste overall.   Of course, it also helps to have an enthusiastic “Leftovers Eater-Upper” in the family — thanks Scott!

Maybe the less predictable shelves in South African stores are a more honest link to the cycle of food production than we experience back home.  At the very least, I appreciate the reminder it provides me to examine my assumptions and expectations about our food supply.