American student Ivy Pepin is about to finish her Creative Writing Internship in Cape Town and reflects on her experience.
It was a grey morning, late autumn in Boston, and I was curled up in a drafty stairwell, biting my nails and talking to my mom on the phone. I’d been offered my dream internship, and it would mean making the decision (within the next 24 hours!) to spend six months in South Africa. Traveling is something that always intimidates me before it happens – the flights, the visas, the prospect of being targeted as a tourist. I always have to remind myself of those realizations I always have, the perspective shifts I can’t even comprehend beforehand.
Joining Greenpop to get active, not anxious about the future
In their own words, Greenpop is a social enterprise planting trees, growing food and educating for action across southern Africa. Researching internships weeks before, I’d clicked through the website and felt each phrase resonate in my mind. “Get active, not anxious, about the future.” “Trees make life possible.” “For people who want to change the world.” I’d subscribed to their newsletter, The Active Citizen, and was thrilled to see it signed by an intern. On the phone, my mom was telling me she’d been at a restaurant with her sister the day before and heard our favorite song playing – “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls. “We felt like it was a sign from you!” she said. “I think you should go.”
The first few weeks flashed by – places became familiar, and faces became friends. As an intern in the Communications department, I was busy with many things. Putting together blog posts, creating content for social media, taking photographs at planting days, and writing the newsletter I’d been so excited about! With the other interns, we were digging holes, discussing campaigns, and waking up at sunrise to hike Table Mountain. We were also growing close. It never got easier to say goodbye to each wonderful human who inevitably went back home to another part of the world.
The contrasts of Cape Town
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that South Africa remains one of the most consistently unequal societies in the world, and you’re reminded of it every time you step outside. Greenpop is unique as an environmental organization because it aims to target this inequality through urban greening – planting trees at community spaces across the Cape Flats. I remember my first day going monitoring at a few different schools to check on the trees that had been planted over the last months and years. In my journal, I wrote: “It is so shocking to leave a city with huge shiny banks and restaurants and apartments with elevators, and to suddenly be in a place where the difference in living standard is so incredibly stark.”
I felt this inequality most acutely one day in February, when we had a planting day at Vulamasango, an orphanage with a name meaning “open gates.” Everyone worked so hard to plant 60 trees, and once we were all caked in dirt, the students and the teachers (you often couldn’t tell who was who) ended the day with beautiful songs and drumming that nearly brought me to tears. It was a Friday, and later that night I went out with a friend. We stopped in at a bar with trendy mirrored walls, crimson cushioned stools, and expensive cocktails. The name of the bar was “Orphanage.”
Changed views of environmentalism
The combined experiences of living in Cape Town and interning with Greenpop changed my view on what it means to be an environmentalist. I used to feel that the earth needed protection from humans and our tangible threats: things like plastic pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions. Now, I think about how humans can interact with their unique environment in the way that will be most mutually sustainable. Before, I avoided single-use items at all costs; now, I feel that throwing out a paper plate might make more sense than creating something else to wash in a drought-stricken country. Solutions aren’t one-size-fits-all. These are the perspective shifts I can only recognize in hindsight.
Somehow the world has gotten bigger and smaller at the same time over the last six months. Things seem more complex, but the ability to have an impact now truly feels within my reach. I’d say that Greenpop’s significance isn’t just in the number of trees they’ve planted or the stretches of land they’ve reforested. I’ll remember this organization for nights spent huddling together with the team to appreciate a starry sky in the Platbos forest. For earnest conversations about how to improve tree survival rates. For a sprint into the freezing ocean on a trip to Gansbaai with coworkers I already felt close to and barely knew. The beauty of Greenpop is how they remind us that we can change the world because collectively, we are the world.
Interested in communications, writing, digital media? Check our Communications and Writing NGO Internships in Africa
Other interesting reads: