It was a more cohesive and informed group that embarked on the next and longest leg of the journey north after an overnight stay at a small farm. Stories of deterioration in relations between the farming and fishing communities, along with tales of a rise in substance abuse and crime, had produced an immediate impact on student and staff attitudes evidenced in the earnest discussion back on the bus as we headed north again, notebooks and audio recorders full. Decisions started to be made jointly with all participants operating as a working group with a common set of goals.
Anxiety described the border crossing into Namibia, as officials efficiently rejected any paperwork with questionable detail. One student's papers were rejected once and then again; it was a situation where collective patience and group cohesion allowed us to continue the journey, albeit later than planned. Accommodation for the disappointed student was found, the South African embassy was contacted to send correct papers, and transport for the next day was arranged.
On arrival at the camping lodge, we prepared for the second workshop to be held in Noordoewer, a farming area and home to migrant farm laborers on the banks of one of southern Africa’s largest rivers. This culturally diverse community lives and works for the large agricultural corporations that farm citrus and grapes.
The destination became almost mystical as we had no idea what to expect. Contact had been made with a local community leader well before the planned arrival, but details of who would appear to engage with us were unclear—partly due to a language barrier. The understanding was that we, as a group, would facilitate a social encounter over refreshments that we had brought after the Sunday morning church sermon. Again, with much trepidation considering the unknown territory, staff and students resolved to work with the given situation, and we felt a sense of deep commitment to the overall project. Fiscilla, as the Tigerfish had become affectionately known, was dutifully still attached to the smaller van accompanying the bus, along with the video crew, and students were excited to at last test this conversation mediator—hoping that their hard work would finally pay off. Much discussion around how to engage participation from the community in the evolving installation kept us busy as we readied for the event.
Crisis of conscience
In keeping with the first encounter, the second didn’t fail to surprise. We were hastily and very unexpectedly ushered by the community leader straight into the church, where he insisted that we had to participate in the service. This produced an immediate spike in tensions as many differing opinions on how to manage the ethically challenging situation emerged. It was interesting to note the levels of discomfort amongst senior staff, the support team, students, and also those from religious backgrounds other than Christianity. Again, with a strong sense of working with the unfolding situation, and perhaps due to the common vision and deadline, and sheer curiosity, we managed to adjust as a group and to fit within the evidently very devout congregation’s expectations.
Once it was understood that we were there to hear stories, the churchgoers were more than willing to engage in circular groups with students. One of the startling revelations that surfaced was the account of the community’s struggle in affording the service delivery cost of water to their homes. Even though they resided on the banks of the country’s longest river, they were paying up to two-fifths of their salary on water bills. Interesting to note was that in both contexts we encountered, it was clear that communities have been marginalized by activities beyond their control. The poignant stories told by people who live in Noordoewer echoed the Lambert's Bay counterpoints to the way business was being conducted as usual.
The crisis of conscience was precariously diverted as we then continued outside into the dusty area surrounding the church, where we were greeted by an extremely excited and enthusiastic group of children. An air of curiosity had taken over when Fiscilla’s presence was detected—with the priest correctly identifying the fish as a Tigerfish from the northern part of Namibia and an important food source in the region. He described how this breed of fish was becoming scarce with very few sightings made in recent years. Meanwhile the students playfully invited the children who had approached to make mud handprints on the fish, and the fun interaction brought a richer relationship with the local people to life.
Getting hands dirty
The unexpected turn of events having produced mixed emotions is evident in Hafizah’s reflection: “For me it was also an experience because I hadn’t ever been to a church, so luckily Adam was with me and he’s like, no you do this, you do that…here at home my parents say, ‘We don’t go into a church, no we don’t step into a church,’ but when I was there I thought no, you know what…I’m going to go.”
Once outside the church, Stehan speaks of how the student group adapted to the chaotic environment while remembering the original plan to elicit participation: “The idea of the kids getting involved with decorating the fish…is something we came up with on the fly—the beauty of that, you know, we couldn’t have predicted that—I was almost moved to tears at one point how much the kids enjoyed it and really did feel part of it."
Hafizah comments on the variety of activity that followed the story sharing in the church, how in addition to the mud painting, kids were braiding the hair of some students: “They were playing soccer, everything was happening everywhere…as I stood there I thought, where do I go, what do I do? I don’t know which group to go to, so you go a bit here, you go a bit there.”
These reflections reveal students’ attempts to find their place in the activity as it unfolded; their emotional intelligence was challenged by various cultural and religious comfort zones, and their creativity was required for adapting the plan. These hinge moments of discomfort appear to have created distinct decision points for all, where the consequences became apparent very quickly. Choices were made both individually and within the student group, but very quickly spilled over to include the community as participants. As a rather intense learning event, it would appear that these anomalous hinge moments were productively harnessed for the potential they afforded the group to do what they had originally planned to do, which was to invite participation in the co-creation of the artifact.
At this point of the journey, the whole group experienced varying states of discomfort due to the misunderstanding around the church venue, and some staff were even motivated to start writing an academic paper on the problem of parachute research. From a learning perspective, this event produced some very interesting reactions in students as is evidenced by their reflective comments. The carefully planned workshop around story gathering in a similar format to what had worked in Lambert's Bay quickly became more fluid and chaotic once we had finished with the story gathering sessions inside the church, and due to the non-prescriptive state we found students individually and in groups working nomadically in new ways and configurations that signalled a redistribution of responsibilities across all members (Erstad & Sefton-Green, 2013; Moravec, 2013). All overcame their sense of discomfort and moved through a process of seeing themselves in relation to others in ways that they found to be meaningful. One student seeing others playfully engaging with the fish suddenly found her voice and could see her agentive self within the project in a new light—she would become instrumental during the performative exhibition phase in Windhoek.
Essentially we found that in the new space that had been opened up by the disruptive discomfort of the situation, there emerged a social activity that was less about a pedagogically driven imperative and more about two communities devolving their hierarchies to create something new and different. The something new surprised us in how productive it was—in the ways that the children's interaction with the fish became quite central to both its story and its physical appearance—and also how it mobilised and materialised the pedagogical forces within the activity that enabled Khanya to find her place in the project in a meaningful way.
The second workshop foregrounded the dynamic design interplay between people, topics, materials, processes, and outcomes within the larger project we were journeying through. This nomadic interplay interrogated given positions and practices in the way that the two communities (the student group and the Noordoewer community) interacted around issues of the broadly diverse demographic and psychographic mix, coupled with varying intent and expectations. The dynamic emergence of learning, working, playing, and sharing in various anomalous configurations became the mode of making meaning within this situation, and provided a way forward for us as we gathered our thoughts and shared experiences before traveling the last leg of the journey to Windhoek, where Fiscilla would be completed and exhibited. Rain unexpectedly fell as we journeyed north, washing off many of the muddy handprints made by the children—a further anomaly in a normally dry climate. This strange occurrence fueled the social imaginary and students started to refer to Fiscilla more directly and play metaphorically with the idea of her swimming through the desert.