New normal: The Sustainability Institute

It’s 07:40 and the morning chill seems to hang around longer here than in the city. I’m just arriving at the Sustainability Institute in Lynedoch, a small community 10km outside Stellenbosch. This mixed-income eco-village has seen many wonderful things happen to it in terms of inclusiveness and respect for other humans and other than humans. Their history is here, but I’m writing about the now of my SI and how quickly this place, its routines, its coffee, its people and its teachings have become my normal.

It’s too early still for any knowledge acquisition so the obvious thing to get is coffee. The Green Café is open even if it seems like no one else has truly woken up yet. The beans are Fairtrade, naturally. A moment with my coffee in the bleak morning sun on the porch that wraps around the front of the building. Steam rises from the cup. The air is clean. The crooked tree around which the stoep‘s wall was built is shedding dry leaves.

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Inside the tables and chairs are mostly occupied by the kids from the community school who get their porridge here every morning, spooned from a giant steel pot. The kids bring balance. You’d think when you do your masters you’ll only see professors and students, but then you realise that no place is really complete if there are no kids hanging around, fixing their hair in the bathroom and listening to music from their phones, shirts hanging out until the teacher sees.

Just across the passage from the Green Café’s coffee hatch, another group of kids are starting their day. This is the Spark private school’s morning assembly, if you can call it that. Their morning routine involves exuberant singing and dancing and it’s enough to brighten even the darkest of mornings. You’ll often see members of staff and other students peaking into the doors and smiling at their enthusiasm.

Soon it’s also time for the SI students’ morning routine. We gather yawning and half-shivering still in the sandy amphitheatre under two massive trees. Someone, anyone with something to share, reads a poem or a quote or a part of a speech to inspire. Then we spread out and do breathing and stretching for 15 minutes. It’s a way to get the body moving, the energy up, but also to practice a few minutes of mindfulness. In this space their are no assignments or to-do lists. We greet the day with respect and we acknowledging the breath that keeps us alive.

At 08:30 it’s not yet time for lectures, but rather for community work. The best way to truly respect all the humans who keep a place operating day in and day out is to spend an hour a day in their shoes. So we sweep the passages, we chop the veggies to be served at lunch, we spread peanut butter and jam on the school kids’ sandwiches, we pull weeds from under the new trees in the woodlands, we clear beds in the vegetable garden, and if it’s a really lucky day, we harvest turnips, beetroot, carrots or spring onion.

At 09:30 our lectures start. And each module brings new ways of thinking and an abundance of knowledge to what I soon realised was my very limited frame of reference. It’s easy to stop learning new things once you’re in the groove of your profession. But now I sit for hours learning how solar PV panels and wind turbines work, how indigenous knowledge is often more valuable than our science, how to think in systems and not components, and how software can help us to decide where to intervene in complex issues. There is so much to sit in, to soak up, but also to figure out and ask engineers to explain when you’ve reached your limit.

Now I take a moment back home and I realise that my normal has shifted. It’s not freelance writer anymore. It’s Sustainable Development student. Conversations about renewable energy systems, micro-grids for rural electrification, the implications of introducing all this technology to a traditional community, and the realisation that renewable energy is not necessarily clean, but most definitely a step in the right direction, would sound like a dream to the me of last year. And here I am, sharing biscuits between friends during the mid-morning tea breaks, lunching on plates heavy with fresh vegetables, soaking up both technical and thought-provoking lectures, and rushing to finish group assignments. It may be normal, but that doesn’t make the thought of finally, properly, being stuck into issues of sustainability any less exhilarating.


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