Summer 2020

Helping Out

In South Africa, an alumnus seeks solutions to some of COVID-19's challenges.
Photography courtesy of
Douglas Guy

Even in the best of times there are challenges for Witsand, an informal settlement not too far from Cape Town on South Africa's southern tip. Too many who live there are impoverished. And, with job seekers regularly arriving from rural areas, overcrowding has forced many people into makeshift homes.

Twenty years ago, Douglas Guy (A&S ’78) arrived there with colleagues to launch an environmentally conscious self-help model for locals to build affordable, sustainable housing. No wonder that throughout Witsand he is called “Mothusi,” which means “helper.”

Helping is his business, personally and professionally. The southwestern Pennsylvania native moved to South Africa in 1995, cofounding PEER Africa, which plans and implements sustainable development in underserved communities.

His help is needed now more than ever. South Africa's government has locked down movement in an effort to contain COVID-19. But sheltering at home isn’t an option for many in Witsand. The temperature inside shanties can soar to more than 100 degrees in summer and up to 10 to 15 people share two-bedroom spaces. 

Guy has to wait for a travel permit to get back to Witsand but he's still hard at work for the community that calls him Mothusi. He headed online to marshal, virtually, an alliance of researchers, government officials and contractors to address sanitation and water concerns. It’s what they hope will be an international benchmark program to protect lives in Witsand and around the world.

Working with community leaders, he’s also creating and disseminating plans to enable social distancing in a culture where communal living brings people together, not pushes them apart.

In searching for “solutions,” Guy and Witsand’s leaders pray their efforts will save lives: “We cannot just sit at home,” he says, “and watch things unfold.”


This article appears in the Summer 2020 edition of Pitt Magazine.