Ode to Joy

13 March 2020 - In the early hours of Wednesday, 11th March, Joy Kistnasamy, groundWork’s chairperson and friend to all, passed away peacefully in her sleep.  Joy, as her name pronounced, was a happy person. Even in times of stress and pain, she was always upbeat, exuding a positivity that was infectious.

My life intersected with Joy’s since 1988, even before we were immersed in the environmental justice struggles in our neighbourhood of south Durban.  Brother John, as her Dad was known was at our side and shared our grief and supported my father and myself during that painful period of my mother’s death.

The early 90s rolled along, and with it democracy and environmental justice.  It was around this time that I got a call from one of the founding members of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, the late Dr Mark Colvin, saying he had ‘this crazy intern in his office’, Joy, the sister of Dr Barry Kistnasamy, and he was blown away by her enthusiasm, and somewhat bewildered by this as well. I guess at one level, Mark had met his match for here was someone who was loving life just as much as he, the party animal, did.  

Between Mark, Barry and Joy, they defined the basis of the environmental justice struggle in south Durban. Barry doing his early research on children’s health and the oil refineries in south Durban, Mark pushing this research to motivate for the creation of the Alliance, and Joy taking Barry’s research, and with an international team of medical doctors and epidemiologists, building upon it, and finally linking, without doubt, the world’s highest recorded rate of asthma linked to industrial pollution, here in our back yard in south Durban.

But more than research, Joy was also the Alliance’s first staff member in 1998.  Her first office was out of my house in Wentworth, overlooking the Engen, Shell and BP oil refineries.  She worked closely with the Alliance’s partner organisation in Denmark to set up the institutional systems of the Alliance, which this year is a quarter of a century.  It was tough working with some staid Danes, but in true Joy style, she eventually got some Danes dancing in the streets.

In groundWork, Joy was a staunch supporter of our environmental justice mission, and also a friend and confidant to us.  She was our chairperson for the past decade and she has been with us during a period of growth, a period we never thought possible when we started groundWork in 1999. 

Joy was always keen to draw groundWork staff into her work, from our annual trek to DUT to deliver our environmental justice and health lecture, to attempting to introduce Zero Waste into DUT and bringing our environmental health work into the faculty.  She was always trying to cook up something.  She was adamant that students had critical thought and needed to experience environmentalism through the lens of environmental justice, through the work of the Alliance and groundWork.

I will miss my annual lunch with Joy, where we would consider the work I and groundWork did, and based upon this, make sense of my own achievements and delivery of groundWork’s objectives, but also recognising that we all work together and make it happen together.  On our Board, as in many parts of her life, Joy was the one that brought a laugh and lightness to the sometimes very difficult work of challenging environmental injustice.  As the Board of Trustees we will miss Joy.

Finally, Joy introduced me to what has become one of my favourite meals, when one day in her parents’ garden she introduced me to the drum stick from the moringa tree which today is one of my favourite meals with dhal.       

This is how I will remember Joy.  A person who shared in our lives in bits and pieces from all aspects.

The groundWork team and board express our heartfelt condolences to the extended Kistnasamy family and friends of Joy. We will miss her greatly.

Bobby Peek - Director groundWork