A landscape architect in East Africa

By Kate Street


1) Kate Street with children from the deaf school
2) Project site in Burundi, Site survey with help from the locals
3) Downtown Kampala
4) Architects and landscape architect master planning together in Burundi
5) Different technology to get the job done
6) The current primary school for the blind
7) Kerekeren School (the next project Kate will be undertaking)

Vibrant, red dirt roads. Zero footpaths. The smell of open fires, assorted meats and popcorn along the roadside. Traffic that flows in some sort of organized chaos. Defying all sense of logic, with the occasional goat or cow meandering across. Warm smiles and greetings from the faces of individuals epitomizing what it means to live in community. Welcome to Africa!

This is my daily experience now, my way of seeing the world through a different lens. At this point I'm far from the "tourist" category, yet equally distant from that of a "local", pointed out daily by my status as a 'mzungu' (white person) by Africans! I'm a slender category of my own; newly-minted landscape architect fresh out of University with a keen desire to work, live and actively serve in this community, my new home for six months.

This topsy turvy, colourful story blooms from Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and home to roughly 2 million people. As a landscape architect graduate from Lincoln University, this is not the career path or stable job I originally had neatly blueprinted in my mind.  However I cannot think of anything better right now than using these skills to serve people and communities, to share true hope for people and the world through design.

I am a volunteer intern with Engineering Ministries International East Africa (EMI EA). EMI EA exists to transform lives by providing hope to the poorest of the poor. We achieve this mainly through the provision of architectural and engineering services to the underprivileged in developing countries. Our work includes facilities like hospitals, orphanages, schools, clean water projects, and many more which directly impact communities by meeting physical needs and communicating God's love in a practical way.  This is achieved through in house staff, long and short term volunteers, and interns from around the world.

Personally I share my vibrant, story filled stint here with nine other interns: eight Americans, one Ugandan, and myself, the sole Kiwi! Each of us offers varied skills and experiences with backgrounds in architecture, construction and engineering. Each intern is assigned to numerous ongoing EMI projects, they intend to complete during their stay in Uganda.

I myself am working on a master plan and detailed design for a school for the deaf and blind in Burundi (one of only two in the country), which I had the incredible experience of visiting and appreciating first hand at the beginning of my internship.  With a team of nine volunteers, I set out to Burundi for ten days to survey the site and produce a preliminary design to present to the school ministry at the end of the trip. Burundi is among the three poorest nations in the world, with 70-80% of the population existing below the poverty line. The country is still picking up its feet in the after effects of a ravaging civil war.

Through my landscape lens, Burundi is verdant and breathtaking, flourishing with 'Dr Seuss' like tropical plants and acres of crops. But the vast effects of deforestation, overcrowding and a lack of planning bluntly plant themselves in the foreground, like so much in this region of stark paradoxes.

It is a rare privilege to work on this project as a team with architects, civil engineers, structural engineers and surveyors. To come together and share skills within the same office is a really unique experience. This adventure has been full of new experiences; including taking on an architect's lens as I adapt my CAD skills to create floor plans and elevations, affording an exceptional sense of the bigger picture and considerably more insight into master planning and construction.

Here in Africa priorities are significantly altered when it comes to design. Basic principles stay the same, but shelter, water and resources become the main focus. To overdesign, for example, would be to render the plans next to useless, or even dangerous, in light of limited education and exposure to Western construction methods. While working here has required a different way of looking at problems, it is clearly evident that the skills we as landscape architects can bring to the developing world are invaluable.

There is such a strong satisfaction that comes from designing for someone's basic needs. Designing for blind and deaf children adds a whole new dimension to the job at hand. Circulation and heightening the senses of touch and smell intensifies significantly. I've been challenged as I carefully consider materials to indicate a change in surface and space. One of my goals for my internship here in Africa was to really be a 'problem solver, not a problem creator': to bring some of that 'no8 wire', kiwi ingenuity to design. This attitude has been crucial in designing for people whose resources and money are limited. It has helped me truly ground my design and streamline it to its purest state for the needs of people and community.

One of the most rewarding parts of this journey has been spending time with and getting to know the people my design serves. The project is not about buildings, or the spaces between the buildings. It's not even about the supply of water, a much needed resource. It's about the people; the community this project is carefully nestled within. It's about designing with and serving these people, in order that they may serve others.

And truly, it is Africa that has served me. I know without a doubt, that I will bring so much back with me to New Zealand: a new lens, a new viewpoint on the world, my place in that landscape- and designing for the poor.


Author's note:

Originally my internship was to be for a duration of three months. However, I have been given the opportunity to stay on for another term, finally returning to New Zealand in November. EMI is a registered non profit organization with all the staff, interns and volunteers raising support from their home countries. Because I have extended my trip I will be gathering approximately $5000 from afar to undertake the next project: a rural primary school in an impoverished community in Eastern Uganda, currently serving 400 children within 3 small shacks (see picture). If you would like to support this work, know more about EMI, or discover more about the work I have been doing please contact me at street.kate@outlook.com, or visit my blog, kstreetkiwi.wordpress.com