Mulaifa: How a Study Abroad Journey Forged a Meaningful Connection

Wes Wright's picture

During my undergraduate studies in Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University, I was presented with a transformative opportunity to participate in a study abroad program titled "Communities and Conservation" in South Africa.

Mulaifa: How a Study Abroad Journey Forged a Meaningful Connection

Held in a remote village, this program aimed to introduce innovative approaches to community-based natural resource management. As expressed by Choules (2019) about the program, “The idea is for students to return to the U.S. with their new understanding of complex conservation challenges and use their resources at Colorado State University to give something back to the South African communities they had been learning from.”

Financial constraints initially posed a significant hurdle for me to join this program. However, through securing the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship and utilizing my G.I. Bill, I was fortunate enough to overcome these barriers and embark on this life-changing journey.

The experience proved to be profoundly impactful, leaving a permanent mark on my personal and academic development.

Located in the northeastern corner of South Africa, HaMakuya is a community that has grappled with marginalization since the apartheid era (McHale, 2018). Bordering Kruger National Park, the village faces multifaceted challenges, with access to potable water emerging as a pressing concern. South Africa attempted to address these issues by passing the National Water Act in 1998. The Act showcased a goal to ensure equitable access to water resources, promote sustainable water management, and to protect water quality for present and future generations (Madigele, 2018). Despite efforts outlined in the Act, HaMakuya continues to contend with inadequate infrastructure, resource mismanagement, and the compounding effects of climate change.

To address the water crisis, students collaborated on initiatives such as rainwater harvesting, recognizing the need for sustainable solutions in a community largely reliant on traditional rondavel structures. A rondavel is a traditional circular dwelling with a thatched roof typically being made of locally source materials, such as clay or mud. The thatched roof helps to keep the interior of the hut cool by providing insulation from the heat of the sun. The transition to modern housing with steel roofs does not offer as much protection from the sun, but rather facilitates effective water collection, albeit representing only a small facet of a broader strategy to improve water accessibility.

Preparation for the trip was intensive, involving extensive reading, historical research, vaccinations, and language practice. Despite the linguistic challenges posed by the Venda language, I strived to show respect by learning basic phrases such as please, thank you, good morning, and good night. Immersion in HaMakuya's culture, accompanied by readings spanning from nonfiction novels to scholarly articles, provided invaluable context for understanding the community's dynamics and historical backdrop, including the legacy of apartheid.

Upon arrival, the resilience and warmth of the HaMakuya community left an enduring impression. Engaging with local children and adapting to the communal lifestyle within rondavels underscored the interconnectedness of daily life and environmental stewardship. Partaking in traditional meals within the rondavel offered cultural immersion. Here we gathered in a circle on the ground, using our hands instead of silverware, to enjoy staple foods such as maize meal and mopane worms. This experience fostered a rich appreciation for their heritage and culinary traditions. 

Living amidst extreme poverty challenged my perceptions and instilled a profound sense of empathy and solidarity. Inspired by my experiences, I attempted to give back to the community by creating a documentary titled Mulaifa, named after a child with whom I formed a meaningful connection during my homestay. Although the project faced setbacks due to the global pandemic, the trailer produced serves as a testament to the enduring impact of this transformative experience.

Mulaifa: How a Study Abroad Journey Forged a Meaningful Connection

In conclusion, my journey to HaMakuya exemplifies the transformative power of experiential learning and cross-cultural engagement. Through immersion in a community grappling with complex socio-environmental challenges, I gained invaluable insights that continue to inform my academic pursuits and commitment to environmental stewardship and social justice.

Watch the trailer here:


Wes Wright is a dedicated individual with a diverse background. After serving several years as a Marine, he pursued his passion for sustainability and ecosystem science, earning his undergraduate degree from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Now residing in St. Louis, Wes works as an urban planner, channeling his expertise to help improve access to opportunity and create sustainable communities. In his free time, Wes enjoys spending time with his dalmatian, Zion.

Choules, N. (2018). Study abroad program bridges gap between science and action. Warner College of Natural Resources.
Madigele, P.K. South Africa’s water regulatory and policy framework: a new institutional economic review. Sustain. Water Resource Management 4, 129–141 (2018).
McHale, M. (2018). Small, local solutions can crack water crises: A South African case study.