Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My two years are nearly over and the goodbyes have begun.

Aug. 30

There are a lot more to do before any of the hellos start and I have to say that it is tough. I can’t believe how quickly the time has flown by and there is still so much to do. By the same token, it would be hard to look around and not see the influence that volunteers have had on this village.

The new volunteer has been to the site to make sure it will work for him...yes, him. A young man will be replacing me and the kids are pretty excited for something new. The boys at least have already started to emulate him and he’s gotten a taste of the favorite Saturday activity—funerals. We had a very busy 3 days here and he will return in a week to begin his service after the group of trainees is sworn in at their graduation ceremony.

I think it is de rigueur at this blog point to say what I’ll miss and what I’m looking forward to becoming reacquainted with. You might think that the thing I’m most looking forward to is flush toilets or running water, but it is pretty easy to become accustomed to pit toilets, bucket bathing, and washing my hair less frequently. Having fewer conveniences makes life much simpler in many ways although all the jobs are definitely harder.

Of course it is always the people that affect me the most and they will be the things that I will miss the most. I said that I was only planning to take home a lot of memories and to that end, the kids have come by to collect all the stuff I’ve accumulated over the two years. I hope I can remember to keep life a little simpler and slower. And although I’m terrible at the practice, I hope I can remember to take the time to greet people before I ask for the thing that I want to borrow or the task that I want to complete. People here will always ask after you, your family, and your friends long before they ask to borrow a cup of sugar. It is nice to say hello to everyone and usually makes me smile as I walk through the village.

Despite it being the same sun, the sunsets here are gorgeous and I’ll miss the sky. At night, all the stars, satellites, planets, shooting stars, and the Milky Way are incredible mostly because there is no light pollution. Orion and Scorpio are upside down and the Southern Cross points the way in the same way that the Big Dipper does. Of course, the Kalahari sands and the smoke from burning fields or trash that gives the atmosphere enough pollution to make those gorgeous sunsets also makes it just a little bit tougher to breathe, but the positives outweigh the negatives for me.

I’ve gotten used to African time, but it will be great when people mostly do what they say they will do on time. The people in my village have mostly gotten used to me saying the things that need to be said and laugh at my directness. There are a few who don’t appreciate it, but usually something positive has resulted.

I love the way people here are friends. People don’t always get along perfectly, but you won’t find any whining, squabbling, or general nastiness from people. Men also aren’t afraid to show friendship to other men. In other words, I haven’t seen what I’d call homophobia that seems to affect American men. Men here hold hands, hug, and share what they’ve got. I like that and mostly feel sorry that the men I know at home mostly don’t have those kinds of relationships. I’m also sure that I’m not going to be able to tolerate kids who have so much stuff and still want more. Kids here really have nothing to call their own and consequently, they share everything.

I’ll miss the taxis. The funniest stories come from the taxi experiences. They break down, they crash, they get stuffed full, they take hours to fill up, they are hot, the music is loud and bad, hawkers bother you or want to marry you, they are cold, your lap is community space, it is easier to crawl out the window, and bunches of other things, but I’ll miss the helpfulness, the queue marshals, the lady who watches the bags, the Cool Times, and the funny stories that we all share about the taxis. If only the guidebooks could give one a crash course on how to ride the taxis because they are truly an adventure.

I’m going to miss my little house and my cheap aluminum pots and pans. Those pots are about the shabbiest pots I’ve ever bought and yet nothing sticks to them and they cook great even on my mostly defective Easy Bake Oven stove. And I’m going to miss my little refrigerator that actually freezes everything. I like the way food is simpler here. If I can’t carry it for a pretty long way, then I don’t buy it. Hence, I’ve eaten a pretty vegetarian diet here. Plus, it turns out that I don’t like meat if I had to feed it or pet it or hold it. I like my meat anonymously packed by the lovely butchers at Whole Foods, wrapped in nice white freezer paper. And I get lots of exercise walking from place to place. I miss swimming laps so the swimming pool is going to be a treat for me.

I’m not going to miss ants or roosters. I think ants are going to take over the world some day. At least they are hardy, but on a Peace Corps stipend, I can’t afford for them to eat my bread or cereal. And they bite. And roosters...let’s just say that they tell all their brothers about their success with women at all hours of the day or night. I won’t miss them.

I’m looking forward to getting back into the music scene in Austin. You’d think that there would be great music in Africa, but House music sucks. It is just cacophonous to me and I’ve mostly banned it from my house. I have to say that I’m also not more enamored of Rap or Hip Hop either. All of it now just sounds like trashy noise to me. So at this point just about anything that might be at Shady Grove or Blues on the Green will make me very happy.

I’m also not going to miss the low expectations that people here have for themselves. I think that shooting for the stars and mostly making it is a better way to go. The low expectations make it awfully easy to get stopped by just about any obstacle. In America, people seem more determined to get what they want and it is much harder to get Americans to give up.

One thing that I’ve always disliked is doing laundry. I have been known to go buy more underwear instead of washing the ones I’ve already got. Laundry here is much worse starting with hauling the water. I’m sure I won’t like laundry any better once I’m in America, but I vow not to complain about it because how hard can it be when you just have to push a button. My hands will be downright happy about it in the winter.

I’m also looking forward to easy access to information. I was always a NPR hound, a big reader, and had a fondness for independent movies. It isn’t easy to get any of those things here except books. Friends have gotten me hooked on The Big Bang Theory and a couple of BBC shows so maybe I’ll watch more television moving forward. Maybe not...But in terms of news here, I’m living under a rock and coming out will be nice. A big thanks goes to my good friends, the Mphumelas, who have been easy enough to convince that we need to drive 3 hours one way to see the Harry Potter movies!

And once again, I’m really excited about seeing friends and family that I haven’t seen in more than 2 years. The Hunter’s have been absolutely fantastic sending me care packages all this time. Mail day is truly a treat for all of us because of their kindness and support. The workers at the post office enjoy packages as I try to remember them with a few treats from Canada. Nearly everyone else has sent something at least once or twice during my stay here in South Africa and I can’t tell you how much pleasure that has given me. It will be great to reconnect with everyone and worm my way back into his or her lives. I’ve got lots of cross-stitched pieces that need framing.

So I’m winding down my time in the village. There is a big party planned and I’ve got my speech in Setswana to give. It is going to be a very difficult week coming up when I say all the goodbyes—the kids have already had me in tears a couple of times. Then I’ll be in Pretoria for a couple of days doing paperwork and checkups before I fly out on Sept. 16th. I’m headed to my brother’s place in Norfolk, VA. I’ll pick up my car and head home with visits along the way.

So this will be the last blog from Africa. Some updates and pictures on FB, but you’ll have to contact me to know more. I’ve got a 10-minute video of my two years here and it just doesn’t even begin to capture the experience I’ve had here in South Africa. A huge THANK YOU to Lorry Arvelo, a longtime friend, who has put all these blog entries onto the web so all could read. I definitely wouldn't have done it without her!

So until we meet again, Sala Sentle!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Happy July 4th America.

I hope you all have had a fun day and that you got in some good fireworks.

It is cold here in South Africa...we are smack dab in the middle of a very cold winter. Inside my house, it is usually somewhere between 40 and 55 degrees depending on how cold it is outside. I generally wear two jackets, my gloves and a hat inside. I can’t complain about that, but I do complain about washing clothes or washing my hair when it is cold. It just takes my hands a long time to warm back up. Only a few more weeks to go though and it will start to warm up again.

So speaking of a few more—I am scheduled to return to the U.S. on Sept. 16th and I’m starting to get excited about seeing friends again. Our ‘class’ of volunteers had 40+ to start with, about 1/3 of them went back early for various reasons which is common. Now people are starting to return home at the end of their service. Our group is an education group so many of the volunteers are teachers by profession. It is an odd time to end service in the middle of September if you are a teacher because school starts before that in the U.S. So if you have a job teaching, generally you want to be back before mid-September. The same is true if you are planning to go to grad school or any further education program. So already some of my fellow volunteers have started heading back to the states and more of them will go in July and August. Those of us still here are looking for jobs back in the U.S. or whatever we will do next...so if you know of something that I’d like, let me know!

I was the guest of honor at a young man’s birthday party last month. The birthday boy turned 9 and he wanted an ‘American party’. Where he got this idea, I have no clue, but he goes to an international boarding school so maybe there. We had hot dogs, punch, and cake so that part was good. There was a jumping castle—one of those inflatable things that the kids like so much. Then we played games: pin the tail on the donkey
(see my donkey that I drew!), pass the orange along a row of kids without using your hands, and then a game that I didn’t know about whereby one must find sweets buried in a bowl of flour. Very funny. It was a fun afternoon and I hope he got his wish.

One of my least favorite things to do is go on road trips. South African road trips are a challenge to say the least. I’ve been on two since I last wrote. The first was a trip to an educational seminar. Originally it was to be 5 of us, but the number just kept growing and once a koombie (large taxi van) is involved, you can bet that you will be at least 4 hours later than you planned, it will be loud even with your ear plugs, and absolutely nothing will be organized. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened. The seminars were very good though. I attended the leadership talks and realized how much I missed the more technical aspects of work. The speakers I heard were fantastic and there were plenty of applicable things to take back to school. I also showed the teachers who were with me how to cook beef stew and chili. We had a great time doing this and comparing notes on dishes. AND I saw a Prius in the car park--the guy said that you could only get them in SA starting last year and that they were hard to come by.

The second road trip was with the grade 7 kids to an environmental camp about an hour away. It was 5 days and I think the kids learned a lot. The area was nice and was right next to the game reserve so we took a bus through the game reserve and saw a lot of antelope, buffalo, many rhino, and other assorted non-predators. The kids were great and did everything that I asked them to do without complaint. I was proud of them.

Our second term of school is over and our primary school almost got report cards issued by the end of the term. I’ve been pushing them to take responsibility for this as it is on the computer now and they’ve got to learn it sooner or later. There are several who are fantastic now and I’m sure they will be able to manage without me.

I’m still working with the teachers and kids on the computers and trying to transfer as much knowledge as I can through practice. I’m working to get them online so that they will find reasons to use the computer and at least one is pretty happy on Facebook. Email is coming so we’ll be able to keep in touch once I leave. I hope to get to the point where they can upload pictures on FB so I can still see what is happening.

I’ve got a couple of projects still going on. I’ve applied for two different lottery projects and probably won’t hear about the success of either until after I’m gone. I also applied to get 40 fruit trees from Trees For Africa. My application has just been approved so planting should happen in the next 6 weeks or so. That should be perfect—just in time for warmer weather. I'm still making paper beads and making necklaces out of them--I showed them to a community organizer so we should be able to get a project up and running by the time I leave. I still haven't finished War and Peace or Crime and Punishment...no time! But several of my friends are pretty fair cross-stitchers now if only the supplies were easier to come by.

We are just getting ready for our annual birthday party. I hope to have some great pictures to put on Facebook from that party—the kids are always such hams when the camera is out. And I’m hoping for some good pictures for a video project that I’m working on...everyone can see that when I get back and then we can move on to the next phase of life!

So Happy 4th of July and I’ll see you all soon! Karen

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Delinquent Easter Post...

May. 14, 2011

Wow! I last wrote in February and time is flying by so quickly. It doesn’t seem that long to me, but when I look at it on a calendar—4 months. The scary thing to me is that I’ve only got 5 months left until I’ll be doing something new, whatever that may be.

So it hasn’t exactly been business as usual. With less than 6 months to go, I’ve been trying to transition from being the lead on projects to being in a more supportive role and having my friends from the village take the lead. It hasn’t always been happy or easy—I refused to type in the marks for the last term report cards and one teacher didn’t talk to me for two days. Nevertheless, my middle school got their report cards out on time with only one question (a very good one at that) and the primary school wasn’t far behind. This necessitates everyone using the computer so I’m proud of everyone since many are not really comfortable with this technology. I’ll also add that the program that the schools are forced to use by the National Department of Education is very poorly programmed and not intuitive. Nevertheless, we are making progress and I’m confident that the next volunteer who serves in Thutlwane village will not be doing some of these basic things unless they want to.

I’ve put together a project proposal to get funding from a national lottery system for a computer lab. We are waiting for the application approval process to wind it way out, but I’m confident that if there is money available, we will get some of it. I also finished a sports project at the school that saw me working with the owner of a sporting goods store in my shopping town. The family is of Indian descent and I’ve enjoyed talking to them throughout this whole process and learning about another part of South African culture. This country is so varied and yet so similar in so many ways. All that project management and building construction experience has come in handy.

Speaking of building construction...during a severe rain/windstorm, the roof on the local high school was blown completely off. I wondered if it were poor construction or poor maintenance since both are a distinct possibility here. Nothing is really maintained all that well although if something is about to fall down on someone’s head, it is usually quickly repaired. After going to the high school, I’ve decided that it was poor construction to start with. I’m not sure how old the building is, but I think it has been here for quite some time. The kids were initially sharing classrooms with another school, then they brought in some tents set up on the lawn, and then they used an old classroom building for the grade 10 kids that is about another 2km walk farther down the road. Amazingly, the roof has been repaired in what I’d call record time and I think the kids will be back in the schoolrooms in a week or two. And I’ve got to tell you about a little project we did with the local crèche that is like a day care for little kids. There is a group in America called Mother Bear. They hand knit or crochet teddy bears, put a heart on them, and then donate them to kids in Africa. The heart symbolizes awareness for AIDs. I got their information from another volunteer and got bears for the 80 kids that are served by the crèche. My idea was just to hand out bears to kids, tell that they are hand made by people in America and that the heart is to remember people who have gone before us. These are pretty little kids so the concept of AIDS is pretty tough to grasp. By the time the day came around, it was a full community presentation with the chief and everyone. It was still fun, but not really what I had originally talked to the crèche director about. It is funny to me still how big these things become when they would be small in America. It was fun and I underestimated how many grown ups want a bear. Amazing!

I’ve had some really non-routine things to do since I’ve last written as well. During our school break, I attended a Health Symposium that the Peace Corps sponsored. I was asked to co-facilitate the Life Skills workshop and despite having no knowledge of the manual, I worked with some great co-facilitators and we had a fantastic workshop. That just goes to show how easy the Life Skills manual is to use, but I’ll also add that the participants were very willing to be engaged. There is a common belief here in South Africa that people won’t talk about sex or HIV/AIDs, but we worked with a group of Peace Corps Volunteers and their counterparts who were mostly South Africans from the rural areas between the ages of 20 and 40 who were very willing to talk about both. The discussions were fantastic and there really was no desire to cut off the great discussions in order to maintain a schedule.

I should explain that Life Skills are broken down into three areas: Communication Skills, Decision Making Skills, and Personal Relationship Skills. There is something called The Bridge Model that explains the process of having knowledge to lead a successful life without spending too much time in the river of despair. And if we find ourselves in the river, exactly what we need to get out of it. Very often in using the manual to discuss the skills or knowledge necessary, the discussion ends up being about sex and topics related to sex. So we spent a week with volunteers and counterparts working through some of these topics and issues. I must say that it was a lot more fun than most of the workshops that I’ve been to and I enjoyed working with this group of people immensely.

One thing I really enjoyed was seeing a few of the volunteers who are from my class as well as meeting volunteers from groups after us. All the groups of volunteers before my group have left the country that means that our group is the next to leave. Subsequent groups have come into country every 6 months after us. At no time in our service do we actually have all the volunteers from every group together so this was a rare opportunity for me. Plus, as you all know, I’m a very singular person so I don’t interact with others from my group at all really. The last time I saw most of these people was a year and a half ago at a mandatory training session right after our swearing in. The volunteer who was closest to me made a decision to return to America about 13 months into her service; so apart from seeing her, I’ve spent most of my time in South Africa with friends I’ve made here in South Africa. I really enjoyed seeing others from my class and meeting volunteers from other classes, especially the woman with whom I shared a room. We had a fantastic time together and I enjoyed the opportunity to see others without the filter of a stressful training session surrounding us.

One fun thing that I got from another volunteer was the directions to make paper beads which I will in turn use with seed beads to make necklaces. These are really interesting and I’ve seen them in touristy stores and craft oriented stores selling for lots of money. I’ve been busily making paper beads and varnishing them so it is about time to string them into a necklace or three...I didn’t really need another crafty thing to keep me busy, but I enjoy doing them. We’ll see how good they really turn out!

Speaking of my South African friends, I’ve met some people here who have really broadened my understanding of South Africa. As you all know by now, I’m living in the NW province in a predominantly Setswana culture. But, there are a fair number of Afrikaner people living in this area. I was invited to go a church festival in a nearby town by a woman who I know from the area office at school. Church festivals, I can honestly say, are the same the world over. They will have great food, an auction, a kid’s area, and a place where there are handcrafted things that include knitted or crocheted items and jam. I love these festivals as you can see all sorts of things. And this was no exception. I must say that this was the first church festival that I’d been to where there was a shooting range, but I think it would have been quite at home in Texas. The raffle prize was 10 cows and a great looking bull or R40,000 and despite my trick of crinkling my raffle ticket so it stands out in a crowd, I did not win.

I spent the next day with my friends at their home sharing a braai, which is as South African as bar-be-cue is to Texas. We thoroughly enjoyed the day. We went to a local bird sanctuary called Barberspan and we all noted that the water level was incredibly high. It is the middle of May and it is still raining. Usually the rains start in September and stop at the beginning of April. This year, we all complained that the rains were late, not really starting until November, and so far they have yet to stop.

South Africa is undergoing rapid change since instituting democracy in 1994. I didn’t realize the full extent of the changes (and probably still don’t), but knew that there is some land restitution taking place. I knew this policy was a major cause of the Zimbabwean recession, but didn’t realize it was on-going to the extent that it is in South Africa as well. My friends ran a successful working dairy farm when they were told that the land was part of a restitution claim. They could fight the claim, costing thousands and lasting years, or they could move which is what they did. Despite having titles to the land going back 150 years, the claims just said that 151 years ago someone else lived and owned the land. It seems odd to me that there wasn’t much proof required because this was long before apartheid so it isn’t that government took land, but nevertheless, it is incredibly hard to fight. Now the same productive farm lies fallow and unused. I can’t see that the policy of taking a working farm and turning it into fallow land is going to help solve any issues, but I can understand the intent behind it. In the end, I hope it works out better than it has in other countries.

Having said that, South Africa is undergoing local elections in a couple of days and I must say that the process seems quite short-lived when compared with the American election system. I get some American news and hear of all the exploratory committees and such. My thought is that this system of a couple of weeks of campaigning is a better one than the American one of a couple of years of campaigning. At least there is minimal time away from their jobs while campaigning as opposed to what seems like 2 years of not doing their jobs while they campaign. I also don’t have a television here so perhaps I’m not as exposed as others. On the other hand, I didn’t really watch TV in America either so maybe it just is better.

For Easter, we had a week off school so I went with some other Afrikaner friends to the Drakensberg Mountains. I met these ladies in Zambia in December and they were kind enough to invite me to spend some additional time with them on the Easter holiday. I can’t tell you how much fun I had. As you may know, the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere so I had to keep reminding myself that it is April and not October. The trees are changing colors and the crops are being harvested. Everywhere I look, it feels like September and October. The colors are our fall colors. The air is crisp and cool. I don’t remember feeling this way last year.

The Drakensberg Mountains are the highest point in South Africa and the mountain range straddles the border with Lesotho. They are old mountains like the Appalachians so they are worn smooth. Since it is fall, there is a distinct chill in the air at night especially. Heading out of Pretoria for a weeklong break was interesting, as it seems that all of Gauteng Province was also leaving for the long weekend. The road to the Drakensbergs is also the road to the beach so the traffic was heavy. Ilse’s parents live along the road on a farm where we were dropping the dogs off so that was our first stop. One of the things I love most about South Africa is that families here accept people into them without another thought. They are so warm and welcoming—more so than anywhere else I’ve ever been. It was great to feel that I was a part of another family in another part of the world. I hope that I can take this hospitality with me through the rest of my life as a part of Africa that I can integrate into life.

We spent a night in Clarens. It is a little artsy town similar to Fredericksburg or Greune or that place south of Dripping Springs that I can’t remember the name of. The next day, Saturday, was cold and rainy so what a perfect day to spend going into art galleries and specialty shops. There was a farmer’s market type thing on the village common. We ate pancakes in a sidewalk café. And if I had any more wall space I would have spent a fortune on art. Lucky for me, I don’t.

Then we moved on to our base camp so to speak. We spent the night at a hotel on the mountain. It was pouring rain when we got there, but that just made for a perfect evening spent in a fantastic little bar with a couple glasses of Amarula. Ilse’s family has been going there for years so the guys all knew her from when she was little. Each time one of us got up during the night, we’d look out the window at the mountain just to see if we could see the top. At 3am, I can say for sure it was clear, but there is nothing better than a good sleep with rain on a tin roof.

We got up, ate breakfast, and were lucky enough to see some endangered vultures flying around the hotel. The hotel occasionally puts out bones for the vultures, which is credited with helping the birds make a comeback. The hotel feeds these bones to the vultures on the weekends so what better way to spend Easter Sunday morning than watching some vultures come get their bones before we headed to hike up to Sentinel Peak. Koti got some great pictures of the birds landing and taking their bones.

The morning was overcast, foggy, and spitting rain when we set out with our packs on a 7-hour hike to the top of Sentinel Peak and back. The guidebook says this hike is strenuous, but I think I would have called it moderate. It is mostly a gradual hike upwards with only a couple of places that had me huffing and puffing. The fog cleared up after an hour or so and gave us a spectacular view of the peak. It turned out to be a great day for a hike. Although the views along the hike are breathtaking, the most interesting part of the hike is two sequential chain ladders that one must climb to get to the top. They aren’t short ladders either. And after living in SA for almost two years now, I’m pretty sure that the ladders weren’t designed and erected by a reputable engineering firm. They resemble one of those things that are at game places where you are challenged to get to the top of the rope ladder that twists and turns while you climb.

There are two ladders next to each other. One looks better than the other, but I’ve come to believe that the one that looks less safe is the one to take. They do twist and turn while you climb them and just to make life interesting, they give off little creaks and groans. And I couldn’t help but look down while I was climbing just to sort of dare myself to see if I could. You’ve got to give a little shout up or down before you climb to see if anyone is coming the other direction. And there aren’t any little target splats or crosses to mark less adventurous ends, so off we went. When we got halfway, there was a dog waiting to go down. The guy emptied all his stuff out of his pack, put his yellow lab into his pack, climbed up, and then went back for the rest of the stuff. The dog seemed more sure-footed than the rest of us. All in all, it was great fun and the view from the top was well worth the ladder experience.

At the top, I put a rock on the zen rock pile, we hiked across the mesa to the edge of the peak, had lunch while looking down on the rest of South Africa, and then headed back. The top was boggy and lunch was by a waterfall. We looked down at the place where we would camp that night. Although it was windy, the sun was shining and you could see for miles. I should say here that there is a ranger station at the top now so camping is pretty safe. My friends said that they had camped on the top before and people would hike up in the middle of the night, slit open tents, and then take nice hiking boots or camping gear. Plus, I assume the rangers take the chain ladders up as well so if they were unsafe (or more unsafe than usual) someone would make a report and get them fixed. We did meet people at the bottom of the ladders who were just waiting for their hiking buddies to get back from the top, too afraid to go up themselves.

South Africans take their camping very seriously. Katherine and I have a 4-man tent that we used to take all over the place. It was plenty big enough for 3 or 4 girls and my sister is currently borrowing it for her and my 2 nephews. That is my biggest tent and I’ve got at least 2 smaller ones. I assume the 4-man tent is still plenty big enough for my sister’s family, but it would pale in comparison to the rigs that were at the national campground where we spent 2 nights. These are all tents—no rv behemoths here. But, oh, the choices! Our own humble abode for two nights was a dome tent that is about 1.5 times the size of my 4-man dome tent. Then we had a vestibule that was the same size so we could put our tables, chairs, toothpaste, etc. We took air mattresses, pillows (yes, really), chairs, tables, a refrigerator/cooler thing that I loved, and all kinds of good stuff to use. This is truly camping in style.

The campground itself had a shower and a bathtub, but the thing that I loved the most was a little kitchen area where you could wash up your dishes (6 sinks) with hot water, and a boiling water tap where you could fill your kettle in the morning. Talk about coffee with ease. They had nice dumpsters with recycling—this is big here, really! The sites were beautiful, grassy with trees and a grill area. These were the no electricity sites. Then the trails that they had to walk along were beautifully manicured. All in all, a fantastic place to spend a couple of days.

We got a fantastic local man, Elijah, to guide us to some of the San Rock Art paintings. It was about a 30-minute walk and he was well attuned to my sore muscles from the hike the day before, but I’m so glad we had him. If I had gone myself, I would have missed most of the rock art paintings. There were a bunch of paintings on a sandstone overhang. The sites are numerous in the Drankenbergs, but they are all protected areas so that they aren’t vandalized. He pointed out animals, figures of men and women, and what looked like scenes. He told us how the San people mixed the pigments and indicated how the painted. It was a very interesting hike and I’m so glad that I finally was able to see these paintings. I’ve wanted to see them ever since I first heard about them in Namibia years ago. I thought they were beautiful and it made me think about someone hundreds of years ago and what they must have been doing. Leroy was there!

So I’ve had a mix of things to do in the last 3 months or so. Lots of straddling the first world/third world divides. One thing that really showed me the difference in my two worlds was a recent Facebook posting. I had been working with my grade 7 boys on their homework: STIs. Every teacher and Peace Corps Volunteer knows that STIs are Sexually Transmitted Infections. It is something that we live with constantly and talk about a lot. The kids here often get pregnant in middle school and everyone knows someone who has died of AIDs. Often there are 4 funerals on a Saturday. In another world of which I am also a part, STI is Shallow Trench Isolation, a semiconductor process term. So when I posted that I had been doing STI homework with my Grade 7 boys, a few engineers that I know wondered what I was doing explaining Shallow Trench Isolation and wondered if PBL, Poly Buffered LOCOS, was next. Alas, engineers are not known for their sexual prowess, so imagine their reactions when I explained that the STIs we were studying in school were more along the lines of genital herpes and gonorrhea. And my teachers want to know what PBL is—now how do you explain that except to say that it is a bunch of engineers who are making a joke (even if they were not). Definitely two very different STIs! This dichotomy is what makes life fun, right?

Until the next time...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day

I just got back from a week in Pretoria that became a little mini vacation when I met up with some friends that I met in Zambia last December. It reminded me of our Girls Night Out dinners in Austin and was a much needed recharging of batteries.

First, I’ll cover my business in Pretoria because some of it is interesting. The volunteer who was closest to me, but who I wrote left early is sometimes sorely missed. She was on a committee that required her to be in Pretoria frequently so she did my business there for me more often than not. It is not often that I need to go to Pretoria because a lot can be handled using the postal system. However, there are occasions when a trip is necessary and this was one of them.

In December, I visited the eye doctor who informed me that I was right on track with the ageing process, at least with respect to my eyes. I needed less strength for my distance vision, but unfortunately I needed a stronger prescription lens for close work. So he took my favorite spectacles to replace the lenses. I’ve been using my backup pair, but they do not hold my hair in place as nicely as my favorite glasses. I needed to pick up my new glasses. My hair is happy enough once again. I maintain that I can see more clearly than before, but that constant head adjustment with bifocals is irritating. Many of you know exactly what I mean. The rest of you will find out.

Then, I decided that I would take the exam to see if I have what it takes to be a Foreign Service Officer. Although one can study like crazy (we all did), but there is no real way to study for this test. For example, I knew the amendments to the Constitution, but the only question I had referring to the Constitution was about the document that preceded it, the Articles of Confederation. There were easy questions like the area of a rectangle, but then there were things I’d never heard of like the Maghreb. That is only one part of the test and I guess I probably did fair on it as the other parts were easy to me. There were 5 of us taking the test and 3 of us are Peace Corps Volunteers. It seems that PC service is one way of getting a leg up on others taking the test. I guess we will see as there is a long road after taking the test to become and officer and there are other things that interest me in life besides foreign policy.

The other thing that I do when I’m in Pretoria apart from PC business stuff, is try to get things that I can’t easily get in the village. For example, I needed a new version of iTunes so I went to the Mac store to get it. I also am teaching some people in my village to cross-stitch so I found a store there that has a very limited pattern selection, but enough to get folks going here. The art museum is very near the PC office so I usually check to see if there are new exhibits (for R6 it is hard to beat—great selection of Township Art and this time there was a fantastic photo exhibit). And the cinema is always a major attraction. I had wanted to see The King’s Speech, but alas it has not opened here yet. I saw The Tourist with Johnny Depp instead. Ok, but terribly predicable. Still, for an afternoon when I rarely get the opportunity, not bad. Ice Cream, Indian food, and the always-welcome shower rounded out the fun.

I could have come back on Thursday, but instead I called some friends who I met in Zambia last December. They live in Pretoria and we had talked about visiting The Cradle of Humankind the next time I was in town. They had tried to go one Saturday a couple of years ago, but got lost and gave up. As some will attest, lost doesn’t bother me, but I did pick up a little brochure that had a map. Off we went.

The Cradle of Humankind is a World Heritage Site and, in fact, encompasses several sites (15, I think) within a region. There is a site near to me, 2+ hours south, the area where we were is about 1 hour west of Pretoria, and there are some sites to the north. I was curious about why it is called The Cradle of Humankind when the skeleton fossils that I already knew about, Lucy and Ardi specifically, come from a region much more north and east of here (Kenya/Ethiopia). Similarly, the footprints discovered by the Leakey’s are in Tanzania. So why is this area referred to as The Cradle of Humankind?

It turns out that in this region, many fossils have been discovered that are classified as Australopithecus Afarensis or Australopithecus Africanus. Mrs. Ples, the Taung Child, and Little Foot are three that are mentioned. In fact Little Foot is still being excavated from the cave we toured and he hasn’t yet been classified further than Australopithecus. From what we saw, he is more complete than Lucy although possibly not as old. So the area, from an archeological viewpoint, is very well known.

We toured Sterkfontein Caves first. This is an old limestone mine where several of these fossils have been discovered. Some were likely lost due to the mining operation, but it can also be argued that they wouldn’t have been found at all if it weren’t for the mining interests. It is about an hour west of Pretoria and despite GPS coordinates, it is somewhat difficult to find. There are misleading signs to a restaurant as well as all sorts of things in the area being labeled The Cradle. Nevertheless, persistence and asking questions eventually pays off and we managed it this time.

The tour into the cave takes about an hour and we all enjoyed it. Our tour guide was a great guy who made the stories interesting. He told of miners cutting their way through the stalactites and stalagmites, divers who went down 40 meters and didn’t resurface, and people
and animals falling through the natural cave openings that have since been fenced. His argument, for example, for man not living in the caves was that fossils of man were found next to fossils of saber-toothed cats and that they couldn’t have coexisted in a cave. Valid enough reasoning, I think. The cave is easy to access, but there are stairs and some tight squeezes if you are a large person. Well worth the visit.

In the same region, there is a good museum about evolution in a visitor’s center called Maropeng. It is about another 8 or 10 km from the Caves. At first, I was prepared to think it a waste of money. We walked in and read a couple of wall posters, but that was all that appeared to be there. It turns out that the real interest is underground. It starts with a little boat ride, but that takes you into a museum that is awfully well done. It covers extinctions, evolution, resources and effects of each. The depictions are artful and thought provoking. For example, there is a graph of world literacy and the graph is done using pencils for each country. I really liked this. There are several interactive demonstrations (listen to Mr. Dodo and the Wooly Mammoth if you go) and the displays will definitely make you think. One statistic that was quoted was that North America and Europe spend $17B annually on pet food while it is estimated that it would take $19B to eradicate world hunger. We also got to put our hands in prints that Nelson Mandela made when the museum was opened. All in all, as long as you manage to get to the basement, this is another spot worth a visit. The views in the area are spectacular, just to top it off.

On our way back, only about another 10-minute drive, we stopped at a Lion & Rhino sanctuary. We had lunch in the pub there and then headed over to the crèche to see little kitties. For R30 per person, you can go into the pen to play with the lion cubs.

The ones we played with were 4-month old white lion cubs. They were frisky in the way that house cats are frisky, but you could definitely see wildness in them. They would stalk people, especially kids, and then pounce. One woman’s skirt was blowing in the wind, which seemed irresistible to the little cub. For us, they would play just like the kittens that they are, but their teeth are big and their claws hurt—a lot. One cat bit my friend on the side and there were definite teeth marks for the rest of the day. Their paws were the size of my hand, just for comparison. It was loads of fun and I’d do it again in a minute, especially if I could hold even smaller cubs.

There are bigger cats in large enclosures and it seemed that they liked to play with the tourists too. If you stared at one directly, they would
sort of charge you. Despite a fence between you and the big cat, you still got a little fright at this. There was one leopard who would play with us like this. He’d hide in the tall grass and then leap at least as high as I am tall and come at us. It was funny to play back. We’d hide and scrape our shoes in the scree—I’m sure he could see us through the grasses, but we still always gave a little yelp when he came flying.

One highlight of the afternoon occurred when a handler brought out a cheetah for a bachelor party that was on the premises. I got to pet the cheetah—they are especially soft just behind the ears while everywhere else is a bit coarse. Cheetahs purr very loudly. We could hear him 15 feet away. I enjoyed it, but I was always conscious of the fact that this purring cat could just eat me if he so chose. Luck was with me that day!

The whole area is a private reserve so you can see all sorts of other animals while driving through the park. One thing that we all wondered about was how these big cats got enough exercise, but we discovered, much to our pleasure that most of the cats are in much, much bigger enclosures and are able to do normal cat things like kill big things to eat. It seemed, at least on the surface that we saw, a pretty good life for the animals and it made them much easier to see up close. We watched some wildebeest frolicking all over the place for quite a while. They were much more fun to watch this way than some of the other times I’ve seen them just standing around with zebras. I enjoyed watching them, and it was definitely a lot easier to see things than in say Kruger Park.

To round out the weekend, we went to a Farmer’s Market that was fantastic. I had the best chai tea that I’ve ever tasted there. We also tried some donut-like things that were filled with cheese or meat. They were good. I bought some souvenirs to send home and another sharp knife for the village. Much thanks to Ilse and Koti for a fantastic weekend. We are planning to meet up again at Easter to hike in the Drakensburgs and I can’t wait!

Try Koti’s Squash recipe:

Get any round squash. We have round green ones that are about the size of a softball. Acorn squash would work too.

Cut them in half and spoon out the seeds.

Fill the spooned out area with creamed corn (just use the stuff from the can).

Sprinkle on top some grated cheese (we used white cheddar, I think).
Then sprinkle on some salt, pepper, and paprika.

Bake in the oven until the squash part is soft and the cheese is melted and browned, 350 F for 30 minutes.

Serve warm. I’ve made them twice now since I got back to the village.

Friday, January 14, 2011

My Only Full Year in SA is Complete

Happy New Year! I can’t believe that I just finished my only full year here in South Africa. In 2009, I arrived here in the late summer and I am scheduled to return to the US somewhere in September or October of 2011. I think back to the summer when I was between second and third grade. I was taking an astronomy class in summer school that year and it seemed like it took forever for the summer break to happen, then a long time studying stars, and then another long time until my birthday and Christmas came. Now, time has just sped up and before I know it, another year has passed. When did that happen?

I spent the festive season, as it is called here, having some fun and spending time with my SA families and friends. I really needed a good break—the end of the school year is basically in November here. 2010 was a fitful year of teaching here. The second term was cut short to accommodate the World Cup competitions. The third term was cut short due to a useless teacher’s strike. The fourth term is mostly exams and preparations for exams to determine progress. So in my mind, very little teaching was accomplished for the year despite an effort to provide extra classes. I’ve said before that there doesn’t seem to be much association here between actions and consequences. For example, teaching a concept, then taking a 5-week break before testing the concept, and then a realization that the kids didn’t actually remember anything and no connection is made. We taught it therefore, the kids should know it. Another example is trying to teach decimals when the kids don’t actually understand fractions. The schedule says that we are supposed to teach decimals today so decimals it is. Hence, now the kids don’t know decimals or fractions.

In my mind, the worst part is a principal who changes grades so that the kids will pass. Naturally, they fail the very next year. The kids who have worked really hard to get their good grades were, in my mind, diminished by the farce of the changed grades. We have been using a nationally mandated computer program to report grades and do report cards this year. Computer skills are weak here so I’ve been teaching the administrators, teachers, and principals how to use the system to get what they need. When I was asked to change the grades, I refused. I did show the administrator how to do what the principal asked, but I myself could not bring myself to put these kids in a worse situation by sugarcoating their lack of knowledge.

The upshot of this is learning that, to me, integrity is something that I hold in high esteem. Africa will take a type A personality and spit it out writhing on the floor. I’ve learned that things will happen whenever they happen and that isn’t always bad. Alternatively, if you want something done, make sure you ask an American. I haven’t spent much time in major cities at major corporations, but I don’t think there are many stress related injuries there. I also don’t have any statistics to back up my opinion, but I think that although there is obesity and associated diabetes, Africans when they are heavy, it is due to overeating starches and vegetables, not fat and sugar.

So after a frustrating start to December getting report cards issued, I took off for Zambia and Zimbabwe to paddle the Zambezi River. Katherine once suggested we canoe the Zambezi. This was after my first trip to Africa and I had seen plenty of crocodile infested rivers. I declined. Now though, the stretch of river just below Victoria Falls is full of white water and most crocodiles do not live through it. Hippos and other water dangers are also farther downstream. So off I went.

The hike down to the river (and back up at the end) is either challenging or brutal depending on how much of your life you’ve spent on the stair master. I found it brutal. I think it took about 45 minutes and it is mostly straight down and then slithering along on slippery basalt rocks. The river is white water is quick succession for the entire first day. After that, the rapids are farther in between, but we got to test our portaging skills over two separate water falls that were probably 30 feet high and at least one of them was also long. Camping on the riverbank is much like other rivers I’ve paddled with sandy camps and plenty of firewood and the food was fantastic. Unlike other rivers, the water was warm and we did see crocodiles. Pitting myself against white water and physical exertion was exactly what I needed to put my mind back in a better frame after report cards.

I spent Christmas and New Years with my supervisor’s family. I say supervisor, but the Mphumelas have become dear friends here in SA. They are near my age and I enjoy their company very much. The two boys are great fun and the extended family (mothers, aunts, brothers, in-laws, nieces, nephews) on both sides treat me exactly like another family member. We drove all over South Africa visiting, going to family reunions, to a local amusement park, to see a museum, and setting off fireworks. In the villages and townships, fireworks are sort of a self-produced venture. I saw just above all the rooftops the same kind of fireworks that you could buy at a roadside stand in Texas provided you are outside the city limits. It really was beautiful. I was thankful that there had been a lot of rain earlier in the day.

I also spent a couple of days in Pretoria and saw two fellow volunteers. It seems that when volunteers go to Pretoria, they get some business done (I had an eye doctor appointment), but then they go to the movies. My days of going to Sundance film festival trained me to be able to go to 3 movies in a day. It is fun and again helps balance the stress of living in a village.

So now, I’m back in the village. The new school year starts this week. Time continues to fly by and I didn’t do some things that I thought I would. War and Peace as well as Crime and Punishment go unread. Shame! I’ll try to get to it before I’m shipped back home.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Goodbyes, Farewells, and Other Celebrations

During the September teacher’s strike, I stayed in my village and had the opportunity to do some things that I normally miss because I’m at school during the day. It was a great time to experience village life more thoroughly and cement some friendships.

One such opportunity came when a close friend of my host mother died. She was the grandmother of one of the boys who comes to my house often and she spent many an afternoon at our house sitting under the shade tree sharing laughter. Funerals here in rural South Africa are sadly not uncommon. Saturday mornings are for funerals and it is not unusual to have 3 or 4 going on in the village each Saturday. No, the village isn’t that big if you are wondering. But there are high rates of HIV/AIDS infections killing people, accidents, suicides, and many older people. A little more than 10% of the kids at school are orphans. I’ve been to two funerals for kids at the primary school, another one for a son who committed suicide, and many more for parents, grandparents, or other relatives of teachers and friends.

Up until this time, my involvement was usually going with the crowd of people to the tent set up at the family’s home. The services start early in the morning, by 7am usually, which avoids the heat of the day and is light during winter. The service is usually a couple of hours long with prayers, songs, and remembrances spoken in front of the casket. Then the people go to the cemetery, the casket is lowered into the grave, and the men shovel the dirt onto the casket finishing by covering the grave with rocks. The women sing, console, ululate, wail, and generally grieve in the truest sense of the word. We help people who are overcome with emotion, pour water and hand out toilet paper for the tears, and sing to help cover the emotional parts when someone has collapsed from either grief, heat, or exhaustion. After this ceremony is complete, everyone goes back to the house where there is a bit more eulogizing and then they are fed a meal.

Every time I participate in a funeral, I am reminded of the sense of community that is evident during this process. But I had never contemplated the amount of work that goes into the preparations for the funerals. Then Mma Kgosi (Mrs. Chief, my host mother) lost her good friend. Our family was able to participate the week leading up to the funeral in a way for which I am grateful to have been allowed to participate.

The grandmother who died sent her grandson to fetch Mma Kgosi when she knew she was ill and probably dying. Mma Kgosi spent a lot of time with her friend until she died. At which time, the body is washed and the rest of the family and friends are all phoned to come following the wishes of the woman. If she ever went to the clinic or the hospital, I never heard about it. To my knowledge, this all happened at home with her friends and family all surrounding her. The funeral home is contacted and they do come to collect the body to prepare it for the funeral that will be held that Saturday or the following Saturday. It depends on how quickly the family and friends can get to the village. Transport is not easy and it truly does take a week or more sometimes.

My host sister, Barbara, another teacher who lives here with us, and I went over to the friend’s house starting on Thursday. We started baking a kind of cookie that is similar to shortbread. The three of us worked with some other women from the village in the deceased home for at least 10 hours that day baking these cookies. I didn’t count them all, but quit counting after 1,000. These are given to the visitors to the house as well as to the people who come to the
funeral. During this week, there are women from the village who come to the house to stay with the family, pray with them, sing with them, etc. There are informal prayer services several times during the week where the ancestors are called upon to look after the soul of the newly deceased.

Friday, the women reassembled to start preparing the vegetables for all the salads that are prepared. In my village, there will always be a beetroot salad (my favorite), coleslaw, something called chakalaka that I love, a potato salad, a cooked cabbage salad, a baked bean salad, and a butternut squash or pumpkin salad. That is the minimum for salads. There will also be pap (think really stiff grits), rice, sometimes samp (looks and tastes a bit like hominy), and chicken and beef, sheep, or goat. The women cook in enormous black pots that are brought from the other women’s houses. They cook over an open fire outside. It takes all night for the preparations.

Women taking a break

The men are not idle while the women are doing the cooking and consoling. They, of course, come in the kitchen to get cookies, but they are mainly outside preparing the yard for the tent which is put up two or three days beforehand.
They also dig the grave and slaughter the cows or sheep. They collect the firewood for the women and are generally helpful. Women slaughter the chickens. The men cook all the meat for the celebrations. Again, it takes all night.

The body is brought back to the house on Friday night. This means interruption in the work for a prayer service, singing, and the women sit with the deceased that entire night. Some men also sit, but it is generally the women. Then early Saturday morning, the part I was familiar with already starts.

If you didn’t know better, you would swear that there was a big party being planned. The sense of community is very strong and I felt honored to be a part of all the preparations with my host sisters and mother while the boys all did their part with the digging and slaughtering. It is hard for me to describe how much I enjoy being in the midst of the families of the village and just pitching in as expected with all the other women. My favorite is to do the beetroot that stains my hands for days going forward. The beetroot is usually mixed with mango chutney and I love this dish. I could and have eaten just that for a day.

A year or sometimes many years later, the entire thing is sort of repeated at something called a Tombstone Unveiling. Everyone gathers again at 6am, there is a shorter ceremony with prayers, songs, and then the tombstone is unveiled at the grave. Then everyone goes back to the house again for the meal. You don’t want to go to these things after having eaten a full breakfast.

It seems odd to me that many of these families don’t have enough to eat during everyday life, but when someone dies, all this food comes somehow. It costs a lot to feed everyone and often people who come, donate 10 rands to help cover the costs involved.

It seems to me that all the celebrations have the same food and the same type of preparation with lots of people coming to help. One change is that for happy celebrations, bojalwa or a traditional beer is brewed. This tastes to me like yeast and water, but it is a sorghum beer and packs a punch. I’ve never seen this at a funeral, but I have seen it at weddings, anniversary parties, Christmas and New Years, that sort of celebration.

Now when the Peace Corps Volunteers leave the village to return home, a large celebration is held, normally called a Farewell Celebration. Regretfully, I had the chance to participate in one of these recently when the nearest volunteer to me returned to the US early to accept a job with a previous employer. My boys loved Sonja, principally for her iTunes playlists and her video games that are much more to their liking than mine since she is a lot younger than I am. She came to my house along with some of her girls Sonja's girls and my boys

(who like me, hah!) to tell the boys she was leaving early. Their reactions were almost tearful…one told me that “my throat feels like crying” and another said, “sister Karen, can’t you just talk to her and tell her to stay”. They’ve since decided that there must be a way that she can now send them Game Boys and Nintendos from the US. I’ve told them not to get their hopes up.

The Farewell celebration was held at the school where she worked and was lovely. The speeches were particularly moving with her host father saying that he was losing a daughter. That made me cry and I decided then and there that I wasn’t having one of these celebrations at my village. I love them all too much and figured I’d just be crying, as they are all already talking about how much they’ll be crying in a year when the time comes. I said that I’m planning to just sneak out in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. I’m sure there is no way that will happen, but it is what I’d like to do. These celebrations are big with the entire area coming to say Farewell in many cases (I’m known by name in at least a 30km radius to my village). One couple was honored with a slaughtered cow and 100 chickens…like I said, BIG. There are prayers and thanks and lots of hugging and crying. I thought it was very moving to have everyone stand in a circle holding hands, to say a prayer to wish her well in her future. Again, that sense of community is very strong here. I believe I’ll just say au revoir as I know I’ll be back many times and my heart will stay.

Saying goodbye here in South Africa when I’d like to be in the US saying goodbye to friends or family is maybe the only hard thing I’ve had to work through. Since I’ve been here, I’ve lost a beloved aunt who shared a love of cross-stitch, the husband of a good friend who was one of the kindest men I’ve known, and just this past week a coworker that I would have liked to believe was indestructible. Those times would have been easier, at least on me, if I had been there to say goodbye in my own way and to share grief with friends and family. Those have been the only times when I’ve felt like my choices have taken me away from something important or that I’ve felt alone. Somehow, just talking about it to friends here in the village or even to the one or two other volunteers I’d be comfortable sharing my feelings with doesn’t seem appropriate to me. I don’t know why, but it seems easier to me to put a smile on my face and go to school where people make me laugh all the time. Other friends are going through difficult times more or less without me, but I lend support through emails, phone calls, letters, or little packages that I send home. It isn’t the same, but my hope is that the little support I can give from here is enough for now. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything and think this past year has been one of the happiest of a truly blessed life, but there are times when it is hard. I’m grateful that those days are few and far between, but my thoughts are with the US during those times no matter where my body and heart are.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Teacher's Strike and Road Trips

Sept 30, 2010

Teacher’s Strike and Road Trips

We started out the third term at school with a pending teacher’s strike. We were at school for about 3 weeks and during that time it seemed that the major topic of discussion was if the teachers would strike or not. It seemed inevitable to me that they would because the main thing I heard was that they all deserved a pay increase because other sectors had received one. I didn’t hear anything about whether or not the work they did was improving or if the kids were better off now than they had been a year or two ago. Just that they deserved a pay increase because others had gotten one. Sure enough, the strike came and work ground to a halt.

I should say here that the Peace Corps wants us to remain uninvolved and say nothing despite the fact that we are working in the schools so my comments on this are my own opinions and have nothing to do with Peace Corps policy or the US government’s policies.

The terms are each usually about 50 days long. There are 4 school terms per year. This year, our second term was cut short because of the World Cup that was held in June/July. The government didn’t want extra transport on the roads during the games so that they could better facilitate the traffic to the venues. On the whole, I agree with this because SA traffic is horrendous at best. On the downside, there were no games within several hundred kilometers of where a lot of kids go to school and they were adversely affected by not being in school. Couple this now with a strike that wipes out the third term and kids have learned very little this year.

To be fair to the teachers, the government officials earn about R700, 000 per year. They are given a very generous housing allowance and a car allowance. I’ve heard them say “they must drive a Mercedes Benz because their position demands they have that type of status car”. I have yet to hear anyone suggest something like a company car to be driven on the rare occasions when they have to ferry someone who demands to be driven in a Mercedes. There is a fair amount of nepotism and in fact it appears that man can be and are corrupted by power at some point.

In contrast, the often better educated teachers with more experience can earn as little as R150, 000 per year, receive a R600 housing allowance per month, and have no car allowance. This also applies to nurses and most public officials. They often cannot afford to buy a house and sometimes live in poor conditions. Most of the teachers do a fantastic job, but there are many that need to be culled from the herd because of absenteeism, alcoholism, and abuse. Those give the majority a bad name. On strike, they were destroying property and injuring those who chose to go to school and teach.

The disparity provides perfect conditions for a strike. The unions do not solve the problems within their ranks and the government officials do not admit that what they are providing for themselves is unjust. In the end, the kids are not learning what they need to learn to succeed. It is a shame. Our kids went to school at about a 50% rate during this time…I went to one or the other of our schools everyday and did all sorts of things from painting the schools to playing math games. During this time is the first time in 14 months that I thought of going to Canada (it is hot in Texas this time of year!) and telling them all to call me when they get their shit together. I hate seeing the kids suffer because of grownups and their power struggles.

Once we did get back to school, it was time for me to get my mid-service dental and medical checkups. I went to the most advanced dental clinic to have my teeth cleaned. There was a machine there that would image your mouth for a crown, cap, veneers, etc. and it would make a mould that would be ready in an hour. It was really cool to see. The dental hygienist who cleaned my teeth really did a thorough job of it and it felt good to get the gunk off. I’ve got a generally clean bill of health and am glad that part is done. I don’t think anyone likes medical work except the doctors.

At school, I’ve been on three school road trips in 2 weeks. The volunteer before me said it best. I love her phrasing: “I think most Americans would fold on a South African road trip with the kids.” First of all, in 14 months I have yet to be on a school trip where the adults were not all drinking alcohol first thing in the morning on the bus—kids or no kids. It is irksome and dangerous and many volunteers can attest to the fact that the bus drivers will also indulge when they are waiting for the kids to show back up, usually all day. Second, the primary school kids will sing at the top of their lungs standing in the aisles and anywhere else you can imagine—for the whole trip. If it is 16 hours, then there is 16 hours of singing. The buses are always overcrowded and you will not be in the lap of luxury. If you are going with older kids, they will expect a stereo system on the bus and will play music at really, really high volume. They will sing and dance along with the stereo. I used earplugs and my ears were still muffling sound more than 8 hours after I got off the bus. You must shout to be heard even by the person sitting immediately on top of you and you will be hoarse by the time you get where you are going. It is not restful. Third, in SA the gender roles are pretty strongly defined. Men are in charge of barbecues (they call it braai), some cooking (i.e., they will fry eggs), and making sure there is beer. The women do most everything else. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the general trend. It can be frustrating. But, if you are prepared, you can have a fantastic time.

My nearest volunteer is Sonja. She’s a lovely young lady and we share an engineering background as well as work in the semiconductor industry. She and I both lived in Austin prior to joining the Peace Corps and we both grew up in Pennsylvania. Her two schools are huge compared to mine and two of our principals are very good friends. She has invited me to go on several of her school trips and I’ve always enjoyed myself. Her teachers are a lot of fun and I enjoy learning different things with them. This time it was a sports trip to Ottosdal about 2 hours away on a Saturday.

Last year, this trip was Sonja’s introduction to life in the village and she had the best stories hands down when we all rejoined to talk about our experiences—drunk bus drivers, trips to the hospital for injuries, a principal who was freaked out by the hospital, extremely overcrowded

buses, alcohol, more alcohol…I’m pretty sure we all wondered what it was exactly that we had just gotten ourselves into. This year, the trip wasn’t quite as exciting (thank goodness!). The boys lost both soccer matches and the girls won both netball matches. One note about the village matches…soccer is played often with no shoes on rough ground. The “grass” is usually just brown dirt with nettles, stickers, and glass about so it is amazing that there aren’t more injuries. Kids don’t always have a pair of shoes…


I can say that every new place we visit, Sonja and I are the unusual ones in the crowd and generate a lot of questions and curious looks. This trip was no exception and by the end of the day, I had three new marriage proposals. Usually I say my conditions are that I won’t do your laundry, if I cook you clean and vice versa, and I am not having your babies for any reason. That generally is enough to persuade men that I’m not the woman of their dreams. By now, most of the teachers we know get a good laugh out of us. The new people get let down easily and everyone is happy.

The second trip was with my primary school to Gold Reef City in Johannesburg. Joburg is about 5 hours away. These kids are all from grades 1-6 so the little ones are 6 or 7 and the bigger ones are 10 or 11. We had 85 people and I think the
bus officially carried 60. Mr. Segatle and the sports committee who organized the trip made the right call and got another little mini-bus to carry all the kids. The bus driver was not accustomed to driving in the big city so several times I thought we were going to die. He would just stop in the middle of the motorway in Joburg while he tried to change lanes.

One huge plus was that after a year of listening to me gripe about alcohol on school trips and being a responsible role model, the principal got the adults together and banned alcohol. I didn’t know if it would work, but it did and I think the trip was much better without it. The bus drivers were also told of the rule and they didn’t run off and buy their beer while we were at the amusement park. It was a first and I hope it will continue in this vein for future kids’ trips. Maybe that will be one of my Peace Corps accomplishments along with banning the beatings at the middle school!

We also went to the planetarium. The guy operating the show started out asking everyone if they had looked at the sky and talked about Venus, Mars, and Jupiter being in the sky right now. He handed out copies of a star chart and showed them how to use it and then told the kids to look for Venus that very evening right after the sun went down. The minute he turned out the lights, there were loud oohs and ahhs as the show began. The kids learned about the planets, but all 6 of us adults had been up cooking the breakfast that we took with us since 2:30am. (We left the school at 4am.) Naturally, we all dozed from Jupiter to Neptune and laughed about it afterwards.

We then took the kids to Gold Reef City. It is an amusement park that is built around the old gold mines upon which Johannesburg was founded. The tour of the mine had them all donning hard hats, going down the mine elevator to a depth of 225 meters, and then touring the mine tunnels. It was fun, but I don’t think I could be a miner. It was and still is a hard job. In the mine elevator, the kids were all singing Shosholoza that is a song about a steam trains that is used for marches, football matches, and sort of motivational. It is a bit like The Little Engine That Could for inspiration. The kids all rode the rides until we left. It was getting dark as we pulled out of the parking lot, handed them KFC, and braved the big motorway again. We got home after midnight and again the kids stood, danced, and sang the whole way. I was exhausted.

The third trip was with my middle school to Durban on the coast, some 16 hours away. The kids here are all in grades 7-9 so they are aged 12-20. Many of them had never even been out of the village, not even to some of the smaller towns around here, 60 km away. Durban is on the coast and is the center of the Indian population in South Africa. It is the place where Mahatma Gandhi made his first forays into passive and non-violent resistance. Although the kids didn’t sing their own songs the entire way, they did make good use of the stereo system on the bus which was cranked up to concert volume the entire 16 hours—yes, even at night. I used earplugs and my hearing was still muffled 8 hours after I got off the bus. I shudder to think of what will happen when I’m 70.

There were 38 kids, the principal and me. I thought we needed another adult, but when I raised the issue I heard that it was 20 kids each to mind, which is far less than 1 classroom full. Still, I had a sneaking suspicion that I would be minding 38 kids and 1 principal. Turns out I was right. I did ban the principal from drinking alcohol in front of the kids and at least we didn’t have that problem.

Several groups of friends from Austin & Canada sponsored kids for this trip and I can’t tell you all the ways in which the kids’ lives have been changed. One example is Jeff, an orphan in grade 7. We were walking along the beach when they asked questions about things that were far off at sea. I had my binoculars that I showed them how to use to see those things. They noticed oil tankers, cargo ships, oilrigs, buoys, and closer in some surfers. One kid was so mesmerized by what he was seeing that he failed to notice the waves coming in and got his tennis shoes and trousers wet up to the knees. A few days later, Jeff found a pair of small binoculars for R60 in a shop. He came running up to me to see if I’d buy them for him, which I did. He looked at EVERYTHING through those binoculars for the rest of the trip.

The grade 9 boys, some of whom I’ve been hounding to get to school on time and show some responsibility, asked to go off one afternoon to look at other stuff instead of going on the boat. There were 5 of them and they were all really behaving well so I said yes and that I’d see them later at the hotel. The rest of us went off to the harbor to take a little cruise and eat at a burger place. There was a big soccer match on that everyone wanted to see so they watched that.

We got back to the hotel later than I wanted so I was a little worried what my older kids had gotten themselves into while we were gone. When I got back, they were all there waiting and when I asked them how their afternoon was, I was told, “They saw prostitutes, but didn’t touch them as they didn’t want any diseases”. I had already had a talk with all the kids about boys being in girls’ rooms and vice versa saying that I was sure they’d keep the door open when someone was in there. I also said I was not going to explain it to their parents when they were caught pregnant from the Durban trip, but after the snickering died down, they all knew exactly what I was talking about.

The principal and I had several disagreements, all mainly centered on responsibility. After I refused to hold the room keys (including the principal’s), I said that they all looked after all sorts of things at home. Many were orphans and/or took care of younger siblings at home. They are good kids and they can keep track of their stuff. I asked him if they weren’t going to learn this now while they are this age, when are they supposed to learn it? In the end, we didn’t have any lost keys, any lost wallets, or any pregnancies that I know of. The kids were great.

We did have forgotten toothbrushes, one case of seasickness, a discussion about why toy guns aren’t a good idea, a strained muscle, a headache, countless requests for R5 to buy X or to play video games, one kid who needed different food because “hamburgers make me vomit”, kids who were cold, kids who needed an apple or an ice cream to tide them over, a principal who was bored/tired/hungry etc. on the bus (and who got busted for smoking in the back of the bus)…you name it. We had all those normal road trip things. Mainly I doled out hugs, a lap to sleep on, R5 for whatever, explanations from evolution to AIDS and sex, and anything else you can imagine. It was great fun, but I’m so glad to be home!

The kids had the time of their lives and THANKS to everyone at home who helped me out and sent a kid or three! You are my heroes.