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From smells to smiles: Garbage dump transformed into children's playground

Children enjoy the new play structure at Itipini.

Jason Schmidt (MCC), John Bergen (hammering), construct the Itipini play structure. Bergen's grandsons, Marcus and Sam look on.
  • Transkei was established in 1959 as a home for the Xhosa people and one of 10 homelands created in South Africa under the system of Apartheid. The homelands ceased to exist in 1994 and have been incorporated into the rest of South Africa.
  • Transkei borders on the Indian Ocean and Lesotho. Today it is home to 7.4 million Xhosa people, most of whom speak English and often several other languages, the main language being Xhosa.
  • Itipini is the site of much activity. A clinic established by British nurse Jenny McConnachie has been running for almost 10 years, and is a focus of activity for the community. There are also a pre-school, after-school program and a craft project.
  • Though known as Itipini, the real name for the community is Titipini. According to Lynell Bergen, the "first person who established a clinic there got the spelling wrong, and it kind of stuck that way among missionaries."

The community of Itipini is situated on the site of a former garbage dump. Play structure builders contended with "the very strong odour emanating from the old garbage, the pigs that were running around freely, the chickens, the lack of wind, and the heat," a part of everyday life in Itipnini.

May 21, 2002
MC Canada release by Amy Dueckman
Photos by Brian Dyck

Abbotsford, BC.- Thanks to Sunday school collections and pie baking in Canada, children in South Africa are happily romping on their own play structure instead of wallowing through manure and garbage.

The seemingly opposite worlds of children half a globe apart were brought together earlier this year with the construction of play equipment in Itipini, a community located on the site of a former garbage dump, with help from churches in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

To some, building play equipment in the poorest neighborhood of Transkei might seem frivolous. But to Brian and Lynell Dyck, Mennonite Church Canada Witness/Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission workers and their friends and family back in Canada, the building project undertaken recently in the home of the "poorest of the poor" was both a way to help the local children, and a way to connect with children in the churches back home.

The idea for the project began when Lynell Bergen's parents, John and Martha Bergen of Drake, Sask., were planning to come for a four-week visit. Lynell and Brian mentioned to their Bible study group that they were wondering how to fill their parents' time for that long period. One friend looked outside at the play area that the elder Bergens had built for grandsons Sam and Marcus on their previous visit, and commented "It would be great if they could build something like that at Itipini." And so the idea grew from there.

The Itipini garbage dump had become home to many residents who established dwellings on the site in order to scavenge there. Even after the dump was relocated, many stayed to find more treasures, or simply because they could not afford to go elsewhere. This means that the children have had no place to play, except among the remaining garbage. "Itipini is probably the smelliest, most run-down place around here, where the poorest of the poor live," says Brian Dyck. Making the environment even more unhealthy are the pig and chicken manure which litter the ground.

Meanwhile, John and Martha Bergen began planning their part of the project, and members of the North Star Mennonite Church in Drake where they attend got involved as well. North Star children were excited to help out and designated their December Sunday school collection and half the Christmas Eve program offerings to go towards the playground project. "The whole situation was something that the congregation naturally and easily connected with," says pastor Ken Quiring.

At the same time, the Arnaud Mennonite Church in Manitoba, where Brian Dyck and Lynell Bergen are members, had also been seeking a way to connect with the family. The children's Sunday school collections and Thanksgiving offerings went to help with Itipini projects, and the junior high youth baked pies and then hosted a soup and pie luncheon as a fundraiser. "The enthusiasm the kids had for this was just amazing," says Dianne Enns, Arnaud Sunday school superintendent. "We could really see the Lord working in each of their lives as they did this project for him."

Adding to the $1,000 from each of the two churches, John and Martha Bergen had also contributed $500 seed money. They arrived in South Africa in January eager to begin building, but with some obstacles to be overcome. The ground was hard and rocky, there was no electricity for power tools, and the weather varied from rainy to very hot. Getting the right materials was also difficult.

"One of the 'overcomers' we had to contend with was the very strong odour emanating from the old garbage, the pigs that were running around freely, the chickens, the lack of wind, and the heat," says John Bergen. But when they looked at the children, they knew they had to keep going. "They were always very welcoming with their 'good morning' regardless of the time of day, and their friendly faces," he says. Eager children who closely watched the progress of the construction sometimes had to be shooed away.

Also helping with the building project were local men and Jason Schmidt, SALT (MCC Serve and Learn Together) worker from Kansas.

The design process of the play structure was ongoing. Realizing that numbers of children would always be a factor and space was very limited, the builders decided to go up. Six-metre-long poles were put up to form the structure, which eventually grew to several levels of platforms.

Before the Bergens returned home, the community thanked them with a program of singing, dancing and speeches. Reflecting on their experience, the Bergens say, "Itipini will always remain a highlight for us. The children are part of our frequent prayers."

The children of Itipini are thrilled to have a safe, clean place to play, and as Brian Dyck notes, children in this part of the world, especially where AIDS claims many lives, have to grow up very quickly. "Maybe this new play area can help postpone the heavy responsibilities these children will face all too soon in their lives. Maybe it will just give them a short respite from the gloom and grime around them. Regardless, I hope that they sense God loves them, cares for them, and wants them to be happy."
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Lynell Bergen and Brian Dyck work in Transkei through Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission and Mennonite Church Canada Witness program. They connect with local churches, teach at Bible conferences, and participate in a women's theology group. Lynell and Brian are planning to return to North America for three months, beginning in mid September, 2002, to visit churches and speak about their experience. They have two sons, Samuel and Marcus. Brian and Lynell can be reached at:
Box 550
Umtata 5099
Rep. of South Africa
011-27-47-532-2169 (phone/FAX)