Laundry for All

In Monwabisi Park, a densely packed settlement of 15,000 people on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, women haul five-gallon containers of water from public spigots to the one-room shacks they call home. Outside their small dwellings, the women talk together as they wash the laundry for their families. They make the exhausting trudge to the public water pipes two or three times for each load of laundry, tossing the used water onto the arid soil of the streets because there is nowhere else to dispose of it. The water forms puddles where insects breed.

These poor living conditions—legacies of the apartheid era—are typical in South Africa. In Monwabisi Park, as in many settlements outside Cape Town, five people often share a single tiny shack. Few families enjoy indoor plumbing.

WPI students Lauren Alex ’09, Jessy Cusack ’09, Augustina Mills ’09, and Alejandro Sosa-Boyd ’08 arrived in Monwabisi Park last December to complete an IQP that they hoped would ease life for the people of this close-knit community.

'Through discussions with our sponsor, Dianne Womersley of the Shaster Foundation, and by talking with community residents, we quickly confirmed that a communal laundry facility would serve people’s needs well,' says Scott Jiusto, director of WPI’s Cape Town Project Center and assistant professor in the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division. The project also met the Shaster Foundation’s and the IQP project’s sustainable development requirements, Jiusto says.

The result, a fully functional and sustainable laundry facility, has been wildly successful. 'There has been great celebration from all the women in the vicinity over the new laundry,' Womersley says. 'It is seen as a great labor-saving installation.'

The new laundry facility is just the latest addition to a collection of bustling community buildings called the Indlovu Centre, which was created in 2006. From the beginning, the Monwabisi community worked cooperatively with Womersley to raise funds and participate in building the Indlovu Centre. Today, the Centre’s crèche (daycare center), community clinic, soup kitchen, guest house, and community garden offer the basic services most needed in Monwabisi. The Centre also runs programs that offer productive activities for local children, teach unemployed mothers marketable crafts, improve literacy and professional skills, and promote good personal and environmental health practices.

As it grows, the Indlovu Centre holds to principles of resource conservation and waste management. An earthworm toilet converts waste to fertilizer for the community garden, while biogas digesters collect methane from natural decomposition. Solar ovens made with cardboard boxes and aluminum foil are used in place of gas stoves, and a 5,000-liter tank collects rainwater from the roof of the crèche for use during the dry season.


The WPI team worked with Monwabisi’s Xhosa people to design and build the laundry facility. Using rainwater harvested from the roof of the Indlovu youth center, and a greywater irrigation system that waters the small fruit grove across the street, the facility is designed to operate largely without municipal water and to emit no waste.

Water for the laundry facility comes from two 1,500-liter storage tanks, which stand on a raised platform behind the youth center. Beneath these tanks are two identical containers to catch overflow during winter months when, the WPI students estimate, rainfall will exceed the laundromat’s water needs.

PVC tubing, painted black to make best use of solar heating, carries the stored water along the side of the youth center to the laundry station in front. Four stainless steel wash basins—two sets of two, facing one another—with individual taps and inclined ribbed edge are used for washing. Over the tubs, a roof of translucent corrugated plastic provides shade. As the greywater drains from the tubs, it is carried by tubing that runs under the adjoining street, and waters three banana and three pear trees through slow-drip irrigation.

Throughout the IQP’s painstaking design and construction phases, local liaisons worked alongside the WPI team. In addition to Womersley, these collaborators included Michael Tremeer, owner of the Eco-Beam construction company, Patrick Carrigan, an Indlovu Centre volunteer, community leader Buyiswa Tonono and her husband, Opah Tonono, and his team of laborers.

Children and teens who frequent the Indlovu youth center also pitched in daily during construction. 'About five teenagers helped us almost every day,' says Alex. 'Little kids, too, handed us tools and did whatever they could to contribute to the effort. It was great to hang out with them.'

While only the women of the local Xhosa community do laundry, no such gender roles separated the WPI students. Alex and Mills worked alongside Cusack and Sosa-Boyd to dig trenches for pipes, realign roof gutters for rainwater collection, and build platforms for the water tanks. As Cusack notes, 'It wasn’t two guys and two girls. It was four students trying to do a job.'

Local miracles

'The first time we got water running through the pipes and into the sinks,' Alex says, 'all the kids came running to see what was going on. The women came, too. We were all excited.' 

As part of their final presentation, the students conducted a walk-through of the laundry station. Xhosa women volunteered to wash clothes, demonstrating the importance of using biodegradable soap and turning off the taps to conserve water. 'Everyone seemed impressed and happy with the results,' says Cusack. 'And the kids thought it was the coolest thing ever.'

Cool cash, too, will likely result from the new laundry facility. 'The women love the idea of making money by doing laundry for Indlovu Centre guests for a small fee,' notes Jiusto.

Even more, the laundry facilities will be replicated around Monwabisi Park. 'The students’ plan will serve as a blueprint for all the other areas where we intend to build more community centers—each one with a ‘WPI laundry system’ attached,' Womersley says. 'The WPI students made a significant impact and an invaluable contribution to a poverty-stricken community.'

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Last modified: March 27, 2009 15:13:18