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Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Fun physics demonstrations at Ekukhuleni

Ants form colonies, working together to sustain highly organised societies that rely on division of labour, communication between individuals, and an ability to solve complex problems. Found in almost all areas of Earth, their resilience is based on adaptability, resourcefulness and unity.

Pretty soon after arriving in Zithulele last September, long-term volunteer Ant Fry was nicknamed “mbovane” (ants in isiXhosa) by the office. Over time it became clear just how well the nickname suited him. Hard-working, humble, and exceptionally helpful, the senior school physics tutor quietly contributed wherever he found gaps.

Off to undertake a Masters in Sustainability Studies with the Water Research Institute at Rhodes University next year, he leaves a number of little ant-shaped tunnels to fill. There is some comfort in knowing he won’t be too far away as he pursues a research project looking at the power of participatory governance in the management and development of community water resources.

“Living out here and seeing the challenges of living in a rural place has definitely shaped my thinking,” Ant said when we sat down to speak about his experience on his last day of work. “Also just the space for thought has definitely allowed me to get to where I need to get.”

Ant connected with Axium while considering how to move forward after completing his engineering degree. The organisation offered the chance to reflect on his path while developing language and teaching skills as a science tutor. Having grown up in the Eastern Cape and carrying strong memories of childhood holidays swimming along the coast, it also meant Ant could return to his home province.

Ant looking proud in his farewell gift.

While tutoring was his primary focus, being in a small organisation also offered the experience of being trusted, heard, and able to give input in many ways. Being here has helped him think about how theory from a course called Social Infrastructure – which captured his imagination in undergrad – maps onto practice in rural settings.

“It is all about the collective communication and cooperation that allows us to manage our world and keep ticking,” Ant said. “I’m interested in that in specifically rural areas…I’d like to help create the appropriate social infrastructure that will equip rural communities to have some agency over their resources.”

His Masters research is closely aligned with this vision. “My particular project, from what I can gather, is funded by the department of environmental affairs. Within a specific catchment they’ve piloted a project for public participation of the water resources in that area, and the protection of the water catchment,” Ant explained. “My research will be looking at that project and assessing it with the overarching aim of trying to create a plan for scaling it.”

In a final reflection, Ant spoke to those who also find themselves unsure what to do after university. He said that finding a social organisation whose work you believe in and volunteering your time to gain experience allows you to bridge the divide between theory and practice. From there, one is more able to find or propose research projects that are grounded and useful to both universities and organisations. “That for me would be a great possible pathway for someone who has just graduated,” he said.

As a friend, colleague and community member, we know what will be missed about “Mbovs”: the best in solar system maintenance, his legendary vegetarian dinners, and that tall frame leaning in to offer advice on the latest DIY challenge. Kindness, generosity, and humour all round. Go well, Mbovs – we know your ant-like nature will remind all those you come across that alone we may go fast, but together we go far.


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