In this time of unrest and uncertainty, we often ask ourselves how we could build more resilience within ourselves and in our surroundings. Forbes even announced that ‘resilience’ was the word of the year 2021.
Amava Oluntu focuses on the reconnection of people to themselves and each other. We are convinced that we can only become more resilient if we work together and connect with each other’s needs and skills. It is only with the right networks and connections that we can resist struggles and recover from difficulties. Community engagement and building trustworthy relationships is key to creating resilient systems.
‘Community Resilience’ is almost invariably viewed as positive, being associated with increasing local capacity, social support and resources, and decreasing risks, miscommunication and trauma.’ 1
One year after the Covid-19 lockdown, we reflect on how we responded to the virus in the communities around us.
While there are so many challenges around us, people living in South Africa continue to rise above often difficult circumstances. In a “city of islands” it is so important to think across your own parameters and build trust, community relationships and new networks that can mobilize people, assets and knowledge. Our collaboration with Cape Town Together (CTT), the connecting umbrella of the many Community Action Networks (CANs) across Cape Town, has enabled us to find and build relationships with like-minded people and a powerful people-led movement. These networks have shown great resilience over the past months thanks to principles that are based on grassroots developments and bottom-up approaches to community development.
Through knowledge sharing, co-learning sessions and our own engagement in communities, we experienced a lot over the past year and it is through the lens of our work on the ground that we can share four key learnings.
1. Locals know best what they need
The agency of self-help and the mobilization of local and independent resources were crucial in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the hyper-local, decentralized and anti-hierarchical nature of community action that enabled the rapid and bottom-up ways of dealing with a huge challenge.
This ability of problem solving derives from the connectedness of people who trust each other and act in kindness for the love of each other. Community resilience is at risk as soon as new hierarchies, external stakeholders and administration enter the system. The community members-based response to COVID-19 was a testimony for the power of strong communities and localized organizing that is based on different norms and knowledge systems.
As Leanne Brady, a pioneer of the CTT shares in a HSRC article: “The CTT starting point is that local communities are best placed to know what they need. We move at the speed of trust and allow ourselves to sit with complexity, even if it means sometimes slowing down.”
In marginalized communities, stress accumulates generation after generation. Each generation has come up with their own ways of dealing with stress. It is difficult for people outside of these communities to understand how to solve these problems.
Youth play a crucial role in local development in moments of crisis. They are not afraid to make a change and stand up for their rights and a more just future. Our collaboration with young changemakers from Vrygrond including youth from the project Vukuzenzele shows that they are able to resist most oppressing dynamics in a community that is dealing with violence, corruption, poverty and public health issues.
Asanda finds powerful words to express how an open-hearted collaboration among a group of people of different backgrounds can make a difference: “Seeing the people around me – very passionate, who have heart – we are faced by racism and many challenges and when you deal with a certain race it can be difficult, but working with people who have a pure heart of unity and want to make change, it gave me strength to continue, to keep that strength to have that movement for the future.”
2. Food is key
Just as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is showing us how we can only achieve self-activation if our physiological needs are answered, it is not surprising that food is a key element of community resilience. We can only keep going and find solutions, if our bodies are capable of doing so.
Food also has the beauty of connecting people, as Nolubabalo Bulana, a coordinator of the Covid-19 response in Vrygrond explains: “We believe that what needs transforming in the world and in our work, is our ability to connect with each other as humans. In the world today, there is so much division that connecting can be very difficult. The one thing that can bring us together though, is food. We came together to make sure that everyone in our community could get food through these difficult times.”
3. It takes time to become resilient
Complexity and uncertainty have shaped this last year. Not knowing what is going to happen, how this virus is going to spread and how people can be safe in most dense communities created a lot of tension, anxiety and power dynamics. With the trust and patience that everything will be fine, many communities around us kept going without letting themselves be stopped by worries or law.
Many volunteers put themselves at risk by standing in the front-line and ignoring the curfew for the love of others. In these circumstances, we cannot wait for miracles but we need to act rapidly. After all, it is the trust in each other, the belief in us humans and the hope for a good outcome that keeps us going, even if it has been a long and tiring journey.
Being resilient is often connected with the development of new systems. Some developments create division, and bring up community dynamics that are painful and frustrating. It takes courage, perseverance and listening to overcome these moments and to believe in positive outcomes. The reflections and stories collected from our Covid-19 response highlight these challenges.
4. Places of healing and breathing
Caring for your soul, body and mind is crucial in becoming resilient. It is important to make space for healing and breathing: not to think about anything, or process anything, purely to relax and to let go of what we think about.
“The value of nature spaces, safe spaces, clean spaces, beautiful spaces (spaces that feel safe enough to completely relax in) have proved time and time again to have profound effect on the quality of our interactions and observations.” Theresa Wigley
5. We need each other
In times of crisis, we can only survive if we help each other.
Asanda Ndudula from Vrygrond shares: “I would say that what was beautiful about last year is life itself, cos we are still living. I am still strong. And the first call of the building of CANS, seeing communities building groups, it was quite beautiful to see that kind of movement being established. Creating networks, mapping your own community in terms of how you create easy access for resources and knowledge for how to deal with the pandemic.”
Brendon Bosworth, part of the COVID-19 response movement, the Muizenberg CAN says: “The coronavirus [pandemic] has really created a large potential for pulling apart, so you see people divided on politics, on what they think about lockdown regulations, whether they follow them … Within this context of polarisation, being part of something like [the CAN] is the corollary. It’s an opportunity to build, to be part of building and creating something together.”
The spirit of Ubuntu is an important driver of community resilience. The last year has shown us that solidarity, caring and kindness keep us going. We don’t need a government, private sector or superiors to tell us what is right and wrong to do. With their networks and local knowledge systems, communities know best how to respond to challenges with the help of each other.
- Patel, Sonny S.; Rogers, M. Brooke; Amlôt, Richard; Rubin, G. James (2017): What Do We Mean by ‘Community Resilience’? A Systematic Literature Review of How It Is Defined in the Literature. In PLoS currents 9.[↩]