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August 24, 2022 5 min read

Just to the north of South Africa’s Durban city is a hilly region called ‘Ndwedwe’. It is populated by mostly poor, undereducated, and unemployed ethnic Zulus. The reasons for this go back to the country’s history of Apartheid, or Separation, where one’s status as White, Black, Asian, or Mixed-race determined one’s living situation. Apartheid was ended in 1991, and shortly thereafter, Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first Black president. It was Mandela’s dream that all the races could live together, enjoying the economic prosperity the country’s vast riches could provide. That dream has not yet materialized, and in many ways, both visible and invisible, Apartheid’s legacy has seen even greater extremes of wealth and poverty. There are a lot of stereotypes and prejudice that are still being worked out, and the Covid pandemic, with its enforced lockdowns and the resulting closure of many companies has not been easy on those who had little to begin with. 
  Our mission team was going over to build a playground and a dome for a community center started by Buhle and Thembe Bhembe. They had been living in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg, with their daughter Lunga and for 15 years, they ran a Christian ministry providing meals and teaching survival skills to the community around them. Buhle is a charismatic woman with a deep faith and when she visited American churches, she would inevitably break out in traditional African songs (often with Thembe beating a drum) and soon the whole congregation would be on their feet, dancing and singing. When their daughter Lunga was 17, she was murdered in Soweto, and Buhle and Thembe made the decision to move to Ndwedwe, where they had title to some inherited land. With the help of some foreign mission teams, they built a community center on top of a hill, and once again, opened it up to anyone who was hungry. They also drilled a well, installed a pump, and provided water for anyone in the village to fill up their containers.
 The community center did OK, but Buhle and Thembe’s status as outsiders and non-Zulus prevented them from making a big impact in the area. Providing a playground was intended to break down some of those barriers. They believed that the children would be attracted to the playground, and their parents would visit the community center and the message of the gospel could be contextualized there in a relevant way. In 2019, with the help of the nonprofit organization, Kids Around the World, a used playground was located, put in an ocean-going shipping container, and sent to Capetown, about 1000 miles from Durban. Plans were made for a team to install the playground in 2020. Then Covid hit, and the mission trip had to be cancelled, leaving the container in storage in Capetown for over 2 years. The mission team wasn’t called back together until late 2021. A new trip was planned for July of 2022.
Buhle and Thembe had seen the Sonostar domes on their most recent trip to California in 2016 and remarked that a dome would be a good gathering place for their community center. It was decided that the team who would install the playground would also install a medium sized dome, using as much local material as possible. A 35’ diameter 4V megadome was configured, and all the hubs, nuts and bolts were put into duffle bags to be carried by the team members on the plane. 
  A locally produced 50 mm (OD) pipe was sourced in Durban by Michael Gounder, a local painting contractor, and work was begun cutting and drilling just before the team arrived. Screwdrivers and small crescent wrenches were brought by the team, and the only other tools needed for building were a 4-meter ladder and an electric drill (in case some of the holes weren’t aligned). A spare hub was sent ahead of time to ensure the inside diameter exceeded the 40.5mm necessary for the pipe to fit around the hubs.
Round living structures are not a new concept in South Africa. Zulu tribesmen have been building Rondavel huts for centuries, using wood and bricks, or mud, and other available materials. The cylinder-shaped building is topped with a conical roof (thatch or corrugated sheeting works well) resting on timbers that all intersect in a central point in the top middle of the structure. 

Typical 'Rondavel' style house in Ndwedwe

  On the day the pipes arrived, a group of local young men gathered to help. Following the assembly maps, they methodically put together the base circle with no problems. As the next level went up,
 everyone became a QC expert and made sure the right color-coded struts were in the right places. For the second level, we found a rickety 3-meter ladder and were able to get about half the dome completed on the first day.
But there was no 4-meter ladder around. Thembe’s brother Clifford suggested that we rent some scaffolding that could get us up to the top heights. When we arrived the next morning, it was there, and the team was able to work all the way up to the 17.5’ top in the center safely. Then we ran out of nuts and bolts. How could that happen? We had added 100 extra, just in case some got lost.
 It turned out that some of the local guys had put them in their pockets while we were building and hadn’t returned the second day. They were contacted, and enough missing nuts and bolts were retrieved to finish the job. That was good because they weren’t available at the local hardware stores. South Africa also has its own supply chain issues

Another wrinkle: the 35’ diameter parachute that was brought to cover the dome turned out to be only 24’ in diameter, and that had to be cut to get it to fit over the upper half to provide shade.

But fortunately, it was winter in South Africa, and by the time it gets hot, the new parachute cover will arrive.

Meanwhile, the playground was completed, and the concrete used to set the poles for the equipment had 24 hours to cure before Sunday morning, when it would all be made available to the community and the kids who had been watching all week with eager anticipation.

The little community center was transformed into a church on Sunday, and it was standing room only. People who had never been to the center were curious about the dome and they had also heard there would be a meal and some celebrations after church, so there was a lot of excitement in the air. Multiple dance groups performed in the dome, and everyone joined in for the singing of some traditional Zulu songs.

It's amazing how many people can fit inside a 35' diameter dome

A youth group prepares for their turn in the dome

Life will continue to be hard in Ndwedwe, but the community center, with its new playground and dome will provide a setting for events that will draw people from a wide area. The dome has already become a significant local landmark, and people are visiting the center just to check it out.

The dome frame only encloses space, but it’s a space everyone wants to be in.


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