Friday, August 21, 2009

And so it ends, and keeps going...

I am now an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer). One week ago, I boarded a plane and left South Africa. When I arrived in the U.S., it was the first time I had set foot in a developed country since July 2007. The last week has been jam packed with America but South Africa still runs through my veins. I have barely finished unpacking and I am packing again. Tomorrow I’ll begin yet another adventure as I move to Boston and start work on a PhD in Applied Physics.

Two weeks before I left my village, I threw a party to say thank you to all the people I’d befriended and worked with over the past two years. It ended up morphing into my farewell party. I slaughtered a sheep (with my leatherman), much food was cooked (thanks to the teachers and other PCVs that came), and speeches were made. All I had done was set a date and buy the sheep. In the end it came out better than anything I could have planned myself. Sometimes, it’s better to let the village do its thing.

After the party I was left with two weeks to finish the individual good byes. Having so much time made it much easier and allowed me to gradually fade away rather than suddenly disappearing. I spent less time at the schools, pushed others to do things themselves, and let go of ownership of my past projects. I am quite satisfied with the library and hope it will continue to flourish and expand. My other projects also closed or transitioned well but the results may be less tangible.

With the extra time freed from my projects, I took time for myself and for the people that were closest to me. I had meals with my priests, gave gifts to various people, cleaned up my room, did a final bike tune-up, and put together a box and binder for the next volunteer that will come to my site. I also took some time to wander. One day, I wandered among the thorn bushes, picking out the yellow flowers between the claws and then I went to lay them on the grave of Mma Thati. One day, I packed lunch and wandered up into the hills until I could see over all of Heuningvlei. I found a perch in a tree and ate naartjies, journaled, and just sat with my thoughts.

When the morning came to leave, I sipped rooibos tea on the porch with my host mother as the sun rose. Fr. Tarimo came and we loaded my bags for the trip to Vryburg. Our goodbyes were filled more with smiles than with tears. Then we took off down the dusty road for the last time. On the way, we passed at least three random dancing people – standing by the side of the road or in front of their house, busting out some fine moves. Another volunteer pointed out that, African’s aren’t necessarily genetically born to be better dancers but they dance because no one ever tells them they can’t. When baby Kitso hears some tunes and starts shaking his stuff, we may laugh, but we are also clapping and cheering him on. Sometimes people will get out of their chair and dance with him. Fr. Tarimo rightly pointed out that I wouldn’t be seeing so many random dancers in America because they’d be taken to see some kind of psychologist.

In Vryburg, we met up with Kelee, the lovely former PCV that is now married in South Africa. I said my good-byes to Father and soon was joined by many other PCVs. That night, we cooked a nice meal, watched movies, and just chatted for hours. More good-byes came the next day as I got ready to bus up to Pretoria.

The last week in Pretoria went quite smoothly. I passed all my medical exams, finished all my paperwork, and had some productive exit interviews. I got some new clothes, saw the G.I. Joe movie, and ate at some of my favorite restaurants in the area. I got to spend some time with volunteers from all the training groups. It’s nice to look back over time and see the differences and improvements that have been made since my group arrived.

When Friday night came, I ran around the airport, buying a South Africa soccer shirt, flag, candies, and biltong (which I consumed on the spot), and made my final SA calls. The flight itself was quite nice, Boeing 777 with a sweet entertainment system. I think Emirates’ system is slightly nicer but it was still pretty nice. I watched; Body of Lies, Star Trek, He’s Just Not That Into You, and Gran Torino. And yes, I enjoyed every one of them and am not ashamed.

We arrived in Atlanta about 30 minutes early, which was fortunate because I was detained at immigration for about 45 minutes and questioned about what I had been doing for the last two years. My passport and immigration documents had been taken away in a mysterious red folder and I was led to a locked room. Inside I found an interesting assortment of people. There were a disproportionate number of people like me – young men of color, but there was also a family, an older woman, and a few middle aged white dudes. We weren’t told anything except to wait until our name was called. It was not too bad though and I was quite impressed with the CBP officers, who I felt were quite professional and considerate. The only annoying thing was one of those middle aged white guys, who was quite exasperated and kept complaining. Welcome to my America, buddy.

Soon enough, I was on my way. I got to make a detour in customs because I had said yes to “has been in contact with livestock”. I could not in good faith say no to that while my jacket was still stained with the blood of the sheep I had slaughtered… But that too was quite painless and I got through with all of my luggage.

Two flights and several hours later, I finally met up with my family. The last week has been chock full of American-ness; big hamburgers, rare steaks, chicken fingers, real milkshakes, and more. I also learned to fire a shotgun and went clay pigeon shooting with my dad and his friend. Yesterday, we went hiking up near the Finger Lakes.

I’m slowly beginning to settle into this new place that my parents live in. I still get occasional flashbacks of South Africa and have so far had two vivid dreams of myself back in SA. I’ve been able to chat with many old friends though and start catching up with all the changes of the past two years. Overall though, I think I’m doing pretty well.

Looking back over the two years, I feel quite satisfied. The losses and challenges have been significant; deaths of loved ones at home and in the village, burying three students, witnessing corporal punishment and other unethical practices, the end of a serious relationship after more than two years together, dealing with racism on an unprecedented level, random but sometimes disconcerting medical issues, and at times being overwhelmed by the bureaucratic machinery of the South African government, the Department of Education, and the Peace Corps. But all of this honed my skills, tempered my pride, and gave me new perspectives that I hope I will carry with me. And I’ve also had amazing successes and incredible gains; becoming a part of so many new families, getting in touch with the land and farming life, successfully creating a library that people actually value and use, bringing smiles to kids faces during youth camps, seeing kids click as they understood a new math concept, teaching people to use computers, traveling and hiking in beautiful new places, and learning a foreign language well.

Somehow, I made it through the two years without ever being a direct victim of crime in any form. As a guy, I also did not have anything near the level of harassment the female volunteers dealt with either. For my comrades that went through all of this, I really salute and respect you.

If I could go back two years ago and make the choice, it would still be the same. Will I ever do it again? I truly hope so. From the relationships I had with other volunteers, I saw that the experience can vary so much. I think serving again either as a married volunteer with my spouse or as a retiree would be great.

But for now, I’ve got 5-6 years to get myself some higher education (and live a little, when they let me out for air). It’s been a joy to keep this blog for the last two years and I thank all you readers. At some point, I hope to return to South Africa and when I do, perhaps I’ll add an entry or two here. But until that day, this is the end.

Ke a leboga. A go na molato. Salang ka kagiso.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Many Good-byes

This is probably going to be the penultimate installment on this blog. I’ll post one last time once I’m back in the U.S. bringing everything full circle. But for now, I’m very much in South Africa.

The last few months have been intense and full of activity. Mostly though, it’s been full of good-byes. Here is a sampling of some of the things that come to mind.

Peace Corps Plus

In June, I saw two friends take the plunge and choose a life that is sure to be interesting. One took the Peace Corps plunge, extending for a third year as a PCV in China. Another took the marital plunge, choosing a life far from her American family and full of goats and cows. She jokingly says she’s signed up for “Peace Corps for life.” To these two young women who have been close friends and counselors over the past two years, I am very thankful and wish them all the best in their futures.

Journey to the East

In June, I left the African continent for the first time since I set foot on it in 2007. I went to India where I met with my family. Though I’ve been to India several times before, my experience this time was quite different after living abroad for two years. Things seemed to make more sense and I found myself connecting with people much easier. Also, I realized I’ve picked up some good skills for communicating with people that speak broken, heavily accented English. I filled up on food and reconnected with relatives that I hadn’t seen in many years. But the main reason to go to India was to say farewell. After a year, I was finally able to pay my last respects to my grandfather. The end of the trip was filled with more goodbyes as I parted with my grandmothers and other relatives, knowing it may be the last time we meet.

Closing out

Back in South Africa, the last weeks have been a whirlwind. Two weekends ago, I had my farewell party in the village. I bought and slaughtered a sheep. Friends and co-workers gathered and cooked up a feast. The day of the event, some teachers hastily put together a program. In the end it came out more beautifully than I could have planned. Members of my schools, the library, the community, and my host family all spoke. I made a speech thanking them all as well. Twice I stumbled and had to collect myself; once while talking about the ways in which I’d grown and once while expressing my respect for my departed host grandmother. So much has happened in two years. I leave satisfied that I’ve done my best, been thoroughly tested, and seen myself for what I really am. I truly hope the relationships I’ve built here will survive the distance and time that we will spend apart. In the end the only thing that really matters is our humanness, our Ubuntu. Thank you South Africa, for bringing me to my knees, for crushing my pride, for bringing me face to face with the darkness inside me, for giving me the space to pick myself up and prove to myself and those I have grown to love that I can still succeed and do some good. Thank you to all who supported me, near and far. You helped me to never lose faith in myself during the worst times. In turn, I was able to believe in people here and help them believe in themselves. And finally thank you to all of you that have followed my blog. It’s been nice to hear from some of you and know that I’m not writing into a vacuum. I’m glad I’ve been able to share my experiences here and hopefully give a little perspective into life in rural South Africa and one facet of the Peace Corps experience.

Friday, June 19, 2009

If Sisyphus could Juggle

In exactly 8 weeks and one hour, I’ll be on a plane, taking off for America. Now, 3 of those weeks will be spent in India with my family and 1 of those weeks will be spent in Pretoria taking care of all my exit interviews, check-ups, etc. So a grand total of 4 weeks left in my village. I’ve already begun the process of wrapping things up and trying to make sure I can leave my counterparts with as smooth a transition as possible once I’m gone. Here’s the round-up:

Maths Class

I finished up my last lesson last week and mid-year exams are well underway. On Monday, my kids will write the last maths paper. Then on Wednesday, I’ve promised them a Math Party to celebrate finishing exams and surviving my teaching. Those that have earned enough points for behavior and their work will be able to purchase goodies and I plan on taking lots of pictures. As I closed up teaching, I had a few moments I wanted to share.

Six months can’t undo 11 years. It seems obvious but it’s a hard pill to swallow. I think about half my kids have a fighting chance of passing mathematics at the end of the year. It’s up from about ¼ that I believed could pass at the end of the first quarter but it’s still disappointing. After drilling, Mad Minutes, handbooks, all sorts of tricks and explanations, most of the kids still struggle with mental math and handling fractions. However, some of them can take the derivative of polynomials now. Go figure.

Carrots and sticks really DO work (figurative sticks).
The point system in my class rewards good work and behavior. It also punishes lateness and disrespect. Last quarter, two of my kids ended the quarter with negative points. One was a real troubled case. Malebogo (name changed) was obviously a bright kid. I would glance at her notes as I walked around the class and saw her picking up things others did not. Frustratingly, she refused to apply herself: never turning in homework, refusing to participate in class discussions or group work. I said very little to her the whole quarter and at the end handed her report with her negative point tally. Her forehead wrinkled in anger. We had a small class party and I told them that their points carried over to the next quarter. Those with negative points though could have their debt forgiven for good faith efforts to turn their work around. Honestly, I didn’t believe it would amount to much. Come the new quarter, Malebogo was on fire to rack up points: Answering questions, pushing her group forward, and perhaps most shockingly doing her homework (at least some of the time). Passing her on a path in school, I stopped her to say I’d noticed her efforts and thanking her for it. She looked at me awkwardly waiting for me to dismiss her and went on her way. Awkwardness really is my way of life here. Later I learned that other teachers were still struggling with Malebogo and pulling teeth to get her to do anything. Though this was bad news, I couldn’t help but feel a little good inside. How many of them had come up with a fair and consistent discipline system and also given her positive feedback? I’d done something that worked, that the teachers with their certification and years of experience still failed to do. A few of them noticed. I can only hope that some of them will actually adopt some of these practices themselves.

Despite frustrations, tardiness, and incomplete work, some of the kids really gave it their all, no matter how it looked to me.
This came to light when I was walking home with one of my boys, let’s call him Tebogo for his privacies sake. Tebogo has struggled a lot in the class. With a big smile on his face, he struck up a conversation with me in English.

“Unfortunately KB, you can never forget South Africa!”
Tebogo’s English is patchy at best, so I quickly figured out that the “Un” was unintentional.
“No, Tebogo, I will never forget South Africa or all of you.”
“And unfortunately, I can never forget you!”
“Unfortunately not,” I replied grinning.
“I will always remember, I had a teacher that came from America and we called him KB. And he taught us maths.”

I have a collection of conversations and events from the past year that I store away in my head to pull out on the really terrible days. As Tebogo grinned from ear to ear, I returned his smile and carefully tucked away his words in my head.

Computer Classes

In my three primary schools, I’ve been training six individuals once a week on computers. We’ve gone from, “This is a monitor and this is a mouse,” to “Make sure the printer port is configured properly and the driver is correctly installed.” This past week, I gave my six students their final exams. The exam included a theory section with questions ranging from “Label the mouse in the picture” to “Give six things to try or to check if a printer is not working.” There was a practical that included installing hardware, running virus scans, and such. There was also a section in Microsoft Office to create various files. Lastly, there was a typing exam. The test took an average of 3 hours to complete. All but one student passed (50% was the cut off). At two of my schools, I can say there was somebody that could do basic troubleshooting on their own. At the third, at least one person had a few ideas on where to start. At my high school, I’d already trained a few people to do most of the tasks.

On the topic of computers, I recently started a crusade to make my high school Window’s Free. The library is already Ubuntu based. With about 20 old Windows 2000 machines that were either virus ridden or unused, I decided to start a revolution. Unfortunately, these old machines only had 64Mb of RAM, no CD-ROM drive and a BIOS too old to boot off a USB. After some tooling around, I found a solution using both Damn Small Linux, it’s boot floppy, Puppy Linux, and it’s boot floppy, I have come up with a way to get into the old machines, back up the old documents, repartition and then finally install Puppy Linux and configure it with all the school printers. Using a SWAP partition helps relieve the low RAM and voila, new usable computers. So far, I’ve got 5 machines up and running Puppy and plan to get the rest next week. I see this as one of the most sustainable solutions to computing out here as no matter how much I’ve tried to teach the schools about anti-virus programs, scanning USB sticks, and updating, every Windows computer in my village, save my laptop, has a virus.

Literacy and Numeracy

I haven’t done much this quarter with the Primary School teachers on these fronts, but I feel like some of my earlier projects are still living on. There are at least two teachers using Numeracy methods I taught them in their classrooms and two schools seem to be using the English songs I taught them as kids are always singing to me in the village in English. This was probably one of my weakest areas and I hope that any other volunteers that get to my site will be able to boost this area.

School Management

After a lot of time and work, two of my four schools are still implementing some of the Development Plans we created. There are simple changes (like weekly staff meetings at my high school) that are small but still significant changes in the culture. Bureaucracy will always continue to be an enigmatic and unmovable beast against which I can only make incremental improvements. It’s an open question to me whether the amount of time and energy I spent on this front would have been more useful in other areas.


Read Children Read!

The children’s corner has been completed and opened. We completed an introductory workshop at one Primary School that brought 180 kids to the library. Now over 100 of them are registered users. High school students regularly study in the library. Books are slowly starting to be checked out. But we are far from over. In the pipeline we have introductions for a second Primary School, a program to include the Adult Basic Educational Training students, and more. The library committee itself had started to flag and I made some impassioned pleas/guilt trips that seem to have paid off. Reinvigorated, members are chipping in again and taking ownership of different aspects of the library. I’m nagging the school on one side and the government on the other to get either of them to create a full time position to hire some of my library staff. Before I leave, I hope to see the committee apply for book donations on their own and also use some of the funds we’ve raised to make their own purchases. The possibilities and extensions are endless and I could literally work forever on this project. But then last week, a couple of little fourth grade girls came to me at the library desk and asked, “Where are the math books?” As the girls sat at the tables excitedly reading out loud from their math books, I took a mental snap shot and tucked it away. I can move on.

And the rock rolls down the hill again...

Despite all the advances and changes of the past years, it can still seem tragically pointless. This evening, I found myself again sitting at the memorial service for a student. This one had been struck by a car at night. She had been at a tavern and ran out into the road. She was 15. The last girl that died had hung herself after finding out she was pregnant. Teenage promiscuity and pregnancy along with alcohol abuse seem like they claim all the kids that HIV/AIDS doesn’t get. True, there are those that escape and make it somewhere in life. But no matter how many life skills camps, pep talks, and guidance you can give, people make their own choices and unfortunately, with the only alternatives being boring or hard, irresponsible use of sex and alcohol get chosen a lot. And then there is the other stuff. Sick stuff. Teaching beating or hurting students. Adults taking advantage of children sexually. On these fronts I’ve had a few precious victories but many more humiliating defeats. Outside of the village, violence dominates so much of South Africa. Terrible things have happened or almost happened to friends of mine and realizing your own impotence to protect those you care about is a big slap to the ego.

Pick Up Sticks

It’s clichĂ© to talk about the ups and downs of Peace Corps but they are intense. The journey is also uniquely personal. There have been days when I’ve literally woken up in tears, defeated by the sheer reality around me, then ended the day seeing a child light up with a love of reading knowing that it will be rare that I’ll ever feel such satisfaction. I’ve seen myself at my best and at my worst. My views on life, death, religion, good, evil, progress, development, and culture have profoundly changed. And now I find myself filled with trepidation and excitement as I prepare to leave behind this life and jump into the next one. On one side I am writing up manuals for my counterparts and planning how to say good-bye. On the other side, I’m reading scientific articles sent from my graduate advisor (yes, I already have an advisor) and trying to remember how to meet Americans in a socially acceptable way (not “Whoa! You sound like an American! Are you from America?”). I feel like a juggler that is cycling out torches for knives, except that I also have to make sure the bloke that is catching my torches can really juggle... or maybe I can leave that to the next volunteer at my site…

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A map with no compass

The last quarter has been a whirlwind just as surely as my last few months here will be. Sometimes I move forward, full of purpose and seeing real progress. Sometimes, the impossible happens, bringing life where there was hopelessness. Sometimes, the seeming calm of village life is violently ruptured. And just as quickly as the chaos comes, it is gone. We can try to chart some kind of course through it all but really, we have no idea where we are really going because it’s so hard to figure out where we point.

Lots of work, a little progress

The library is moving forward. As always the pace is slow but the movement is forward. Thanks to my cousin, Navina’s fundraising, we now have a children’s corner. We are still in the process of completing it, but it’s already seeing a little bit of use. Additionally, the library itself is slowly finding use among the students. Every day, there are close to a dozen kids playing chess and checkers afterschool. A few are studying and one or two people even occasionally borrow a book. Once I get my feet this quarter, I’m planning a last big push to get people registered and educated on how and why to use the library. Administratively, we are in limbo, waiting for the end of the month when the provincial government will make its budget. We’re hoping for a slice to bring a professional librarian to Tsoe and to hire one or two local library assistants, creating jobs and increasing the community buy in. For now fingers are crossed. No matter what happens though, I’m fairly confident that the library will move on without me, in some form.

January to April 2009

Adding Up

Last quarter I began my first real experiment with teaching. I’ve substituted a bit, taught in camp settings, and team taught lessons over last year. But starting in January, I took on a class of my own: Grade 12 Mathematics. It’s a small class of 17 students (9 boys and 8 girls). The content we are supposed to cover includes; inverses, transformational geometry, and the basics of calculus. This is a tall order when the majority of kids are shaky when it comes to adding fractions. 1+1/2 is more likely to get the answer of 2/2 than the correct answer of 3/2. Additionally, most of the kids are unused to the idea of expectations. Homework is a theoretical concept. Studying is looking at the pages in a book that may or may not be related to the content to be tested. Perhaps most challenging though is the language barrier. Although the majority can express themselves in English, advanced concepts and the precise language required for mathematics is rarely grasped. Terms like “at most” need several minutes to dissect. And my Setswana is nowhere near advanced enough to do it on my own.

Stepping into the classroom in January, I came with an armload of ideas and less than a pocketful of experience. At the end of the quarter, I have learned a lot of things that don’t work. I’ve had a few precious though tenuous successes. I’ve gained a huge amount of respect and admiration for teachers and the time it takes to be an effective teacher. My class meets every day, first thing in the morning. I have 35-70 minutes with the kids. In the afternoons, we agreed to have afternoon classes on Mondays and Wednesdays. These generally go between 1-2 hours. Due to the dictates of the national Department of Education, there are only a fixed set of assessments that can contribute to a learner’s overall record for progression. To make sure that my “informal” assessments are taken seriously, I instituted a point system. Kids gain points for performing on homework, good attendance, and participation. They lose points for disrespect or tardiness. At the end of each quarter they can spend their points to purchase prizes or bank them for 10% interest for the next quarter. I think the full impact of the points was only made clear at the end of the quarter when the kids were able to reap the benefits (or watch others). Hopefully that means things will be better this quarter.

At the end of last quarter, only 2 kids passed the final exam. 12 of the 17 passed the class for the quarter based on the overall assessment though. Despite this disappointment, I did note an increase in performance on homework. Still, the lack of study skills and simple math errors are crippling. So this quarter, I’ve introduced Mad Minutes to beef up arithmetic. I’m also designing and implementing “Advanced Mad Minutes” to drill the kids in basic algebra, trig, logs, exponents, and calculus. We’ll see how it goes. June brings a big external examination that will be a good indicator of our chances on the all important final Matriculation exam. Overall, teaching has been a wonderful experience. I can see some of the kids rising to my expectations and pushing themselves. Apart from a few holdouts, I think I’ve won their respect and trust. They’ve taught me a lot as well and the experience has bolstered my credentials with the teaching staff. My next big task is to make sure my replacement teacher will adopt the things that I’ve proven to work and ensure that my lessons and activities can benefit not only this class, but classes to come.

Some of my kids celebrating their prizes at the end of last quarter

Just add water

I live in a province that is classed as “coastal” despite the fact that I’m about as far from an ocean as anyone can be in South Africa. We’ve got plenty of rocks and sand, but very little water. This past school break, I decided to spend some time with this ocean thing. But first, I headed north to see a dear friend, her fiancĂ©, and their many livestock. Kelee, formerly one of my closest PCVs, is now living up in Bray and farming with her husband to be, Philip. Along with other friends, we all spent the weekend together, eating lots of meat, catching up, and learning lots about farming/ranching. The highlight was probably the day that I spent helping (mostly watching) Philip brand cattle. After a few fun filled days, I headed south with PCV friends, Art and Adam. The journey itself was an adventure but the destination was a wonder of its own. We spent the week on the garden route. First exploring the lagoon city of Knysna, then hiking the knee bending Harkerville Coastal Trail, relaxing in Plettenburg Bay, and finally bumming in Nature’s Valley. I’ve always been a mountain boy but the week convinced me that the ocean ain’t too shabby. I could write volumes (and have in my journal) about the whole thing, but will leave it to some of the pictures to describe.

Navigating some narrow ledges

Joel across the Scree

Adam and the ocean spray

Boys on the Beach

Zimbabwe Breathes Again

After my post on Zimbabwe, I thought I should make a follow up. My teacher from Zimbabwe went back home over the holidays. When he came back, he was beaming at the improvements since the unity government finally broke it’s deadlock. There is food in stores again. Kids are going to school. Electricity didn’t go out for all the days he was there. There is still a long way to go to recovery. The Zim dollar is virtually non-existent as a currency anymore. Dissidents are still languishing in prison. But things are moving forward. Hopefully all the progress will continue and the election in 2 years will permanently instill these changes in that country.

Loso le Botshelo mo Aforika Borwa (Life and Death in South Africa)

Death has almost become second nature out here so why am I writing about it again? Sometimes, even out here, death comes in such a startling form, that it rocks your reality. Two days ago, a girl from the high school went out to a tree in a field some ways behind the school and hung herself. No one saw it coming. No one seems to understand why. There is a certain desperation to life out here, and perhaps more so in other parts of Africa. But for some reason, people generally still choose to live. On Thursday evening, I was in a daze, unsure what to do. I was not extremely close to the girl, but I knew her more than most of the kids in the village. Her closest friends had been in my camps and her father is a friend of mine. The one thing I was sure of was that I was not going to join the dozens of people rushing to go see a body dangling from a tree. I would not dishonor her family by gawking at this tragedy. Finally, I decided, the best thing for me to do was to think ahead a bit and figure out how the school was going to cope with this event. I talked to a close friend and got some advice and got some sleep.

The next morning, I woke before the crack of dawn, readied myself mentally, and arrived at school early. Some students were already gathered silently at the gate. Others seemed oblivious, coming into the library to play chess and checkers. An announcement would have to be made. We don’t have the luxury of counselors or social workers so I planned to rally the Life Orientation teachers and create some kind of support system for the kids affected. As minutes passed and the assembly siren rang, few teachers had arrived. Finally, some trickled in. For the most part, they were dazed, having gotten no sleep in the night. I had expected the kids to look to me for comfort and leadership, but I had not expected the teachers, some over twice my age, to look to me for guidance. The principal was out of town and it soon was apparent that nothing was planned to deal with the crisis. I called a staff briefing to try to rally the teachers that were there. We had to be strong for the students. We had to be on standby to provide comfort and help for those struggling with grief. We’d need to make an official announcement at the assembly to stifle the rumors already beginning to circulate. There was a mute and half-hearted agreement as we headed to the assembly and brought together all the students. We began as usual with a hymn. No sooner had we started than two students carried a girl out, wailing in grief. Soon two others collapsed in the middle of the assembly. Then five more began wailing. The damn burst.

Students dispersed in all directions. The skeleton staff could do nothing to contain the chaos. A handful of dedicated teachers collected the most affected students into the library. Mr. Sepeng, my reliable ally, helped to move students into some of their classrooms and went from class to class to try and talk with students and lead some prayers. I assembled my class. What do you say to a group of teenagers that have just experienced the loss of a close friend? Some were already in tears. Others were bantering about unrelated nonsense. Others were just quiet. Everyone copes in different ways. I greeted the class and quickly it became clear I was not going to be talking about any new maths concepts. I said what I could in mixed Setswana and English, to reassure the kids that I was available for them and that I understood the grief they were feeling but that we needed to deal with our grief rather than just bury it so that we could heal and move on. By the time I was finished, there was a somber atmosphere pervading the room. Kids that had been bantering were fighting back tears. We sat in silence together for what seemed like ages. One student led the group in a prayer in memory of the girl. And then a student outside called my name, I was urgently needed at the library. I excused myself and quickly descended to the library. When I entered, I felt like I had entered a casualty ward. The air was full of moaning, wailing, and screaming. A handful of female teachers and one mother were moving back and forth, carrying water to students, fanning kids that had fainted, restraining kids that were violently writhing on the ground and screaming in hysteria. The wounds weren’t to the flesh but to the soul.

It’s hard to recall all that happened in the next moments. At times I was on the phone, pleading with the clinic to send someone to help (they refused), recruiting my priest friends to come over and help; then I was holding a collapsed student, trying to revive her; then I was at a table comforting other kids in their grief; then I was angrily chasing away gawkers that came to watch the spectacle; then I was imploring the remainder of the school management to do something. At one point, kids from my class came in. I was on my knees, supporting one weeping girl under my right arm. I looked up and saw one of the girls from my class with glassy eyes. I gestured to her to come over and she kneeled beside me. As I put my other arm around me she also erupted in tears. Other students came in and fought back tears to help me move the girls to chairs and comfort them as I moved to another student passed out. As I sat fanning one girl on the ground, one of my most dedicated library students came over and took over, freeing me up to move to others. Fr. Amandus came over with his bakkie (truck). A father from the village also came out with his bakkie. We moved the cases that we couldn’t handle onto the backs of the trucks and sent them off to the clinic. The school administrators closed the school at 9am. By nine-thirty we had gotten the worst cases to the clinic and the rest had been taken by friends to their homes. Utterly exhausted, the half dozen teachers who had braved the chaos and myself sat zombie like in the library trying to get a grasp on what had just happened. Soon though, we heard shouts coming from the road, within seconds I was out the door. I saw a large group of student off at the street swarming and I took off sprinting. Mr. Sepeng was quickly behind me. Two students had got into a fight. By the time we got there, others had pulled them apart. We escorted them back to the deputy principal’s office. The fight was over some names they had been calling each other. The random senselessness of the last 24 hours seemed like it would not stop. Finally, it was just the stalwarts of the staff left. I moved between the two groups of teachers left as they talked trying to make sense of what had all happened. Most of them had seen the body last night as the tree was not far from the teacher’s quarters. One told me it was the first time she had seen a dead body. Funerals? Sure, she’d been to plenty but the dead person was more of an idea, hidden in a casket. Teachers were asking themselves if they could have picked out anything out of the ordinary in the week and no one could. As we talked, slowly, the tension in my muscles began to release. By eleven, we finished closing up and decided to take the rest of the day off. Had it really only been just three hours? The hysteria itself amounted to perhaps less than an hour but it seemed like a full day.

I went to the mission and had lunch with Fr. Amandus. We chatted over fried goat meat and mashed potatoes, voicing all the thoughts in our head and trying to get back to a sense of normalcy. Finally, I returned home in the afternoon. Kids were playing outside, music was blasting from the tavern as usual. Goats and donkeys wandered around in their usual quest for food. Life continues.

People always talk about how young PCVs grow up during their service. This was something completely different. I’ve never witnessed anything like that. I’ve never had to think so quickly on my feet with such a sense of urgency. I came out intact but surely will face more challenges next week as we try to return the school to some kind of normal state. Through school and Peace Corps channels, myself and the management team have sent a collective SOS to the Department of Social Services and hopefully when Monday comes, we’ll have professional help, not only to help the students, but the teachers as well.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The biggest and latest post

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A little Elevation

In December, I travelled to Tanzania with my fellow PCVs and friends, Adam S. and Rebekah H. I had two goals, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and to see the home of my close friends, the Tanzanian priests of Tsoe. Both tasks ended up being more difficult than I’d imagined for various reasons and at various points, it seemed like neither might be accomplished. For a while it seemed like we might never even make it to Tanzania. In the end, I succeeded in one and came tantalizingly close to the second. Leading me to believe I will at some point return to Tanzania, to finish my business and explore more of that enchanting country. After Kilimanjaro, I was climbing again, but this time was rock climbing in South Africa with four friends, Ben and Susie BarrWilson, Ronda, and Craig. We had great food, conversations, and climbs for the week of Christmas before parting ways to return to our sites. Physically, mentally, and spiritually, the two trips ended up being just what I needed to rejuvenate myself for the new year ahead.

Schedule, what schedule?

After months of training and preparation, I was ready to go. Adam, Rebekah, and I met up in Pretoria after school closed for the holidays and we traveled down to the airport to board our flight. We wander the airport looking for the Air Tanzania counter and are told it won’t open for another hour or so. So we patiently stand around and wait for one person to finally come to the desk and tell us that all Air Tanzania flights have been cancelled and he can’t help us. Furious, we storm off to the Air Tanzania office. While haggling with the people there to get some service, I get a chance to check my email to see that they had emailed us late yesterday that we had been rebooked on Air Kenya on a flight that would leave in 20 minutes… I ran downstairs to the check in area again and went to the Air Kenya desk. They had been delayed but we might make it if we went now now, so I called Adam and Rebekah, who grabbed all our bags and booked it downstairs. We stood in line for about half an hour before finding out that the flight had been overbooked because of all the overflow from Air Tanzania so we would have to fly out tomorrow.

Thanks to Rebekah, we were able to land free meals and some hotel rooms. I called our climbing guides and rescheduled. The next day, we got to the airport very very early, only to find that our connecting flight might not leave until the following day. So I again called our guides and tried to work out the logistics so that they would pick us up from the airport and we’d go directly to the mountain. As we board our first flight we are handed our next boarding pass, leaving the same day. Confused we ask what is going on. Apparently so many people needed to get there that night, that Precision Air had added another night flight. So before we took off, I again called our guides to signal the last change of plans. We arrived in Moshi at around 10pm at night. As we drove to the hotel, the plains were illuminated by the moonlight. A white crown shined in the distance high above us; the snows of Kilimanjaro. I felt a smile creep over my face.

The Mountain

We spent 6 days on the mountain; entering through Machame Gate and leaving through Mweka Gate. We went with a great local travel guide group: AfriGalaxy Tours. Due to regulations, everyone must hire guides and porters. This is great for the local economy but makes you feel odd as a climber if you have any self-respect. Still, you take it for what it’s worth and I ended up really enjoying the company of our guides and had some really great conversations with our head guide, Alex.

Several groups were going up the route at the same time as us. There was one other American, Ryan, a marine, who quickly became friends with us. I had some great chats with him and we did a small day hike around Shire Plateau after one of our shorter days.

Each day, we’d wake up, have tea and breakfast, pack our bags, fill our water, and hit the road. After a few hours we’d stop for lunch somewhere and then continue to our camp. At the camp, there’d be hot tea, popcorn, and nuts waiting for us. We’d have a few hours to relax and then have dinner with a briefing for the next day. We’d pass the time chatting, playing Scrabble, and writing. Each day took us to new climate zones and breathtaking views. The hiking itself was not difficult at all. A little bit of rock scrambling but nothing strenuous. On the third day, we climbed higher to over 15,000 ft. Higher than I’d ever been. I finally started to feel the altitude in the form of a headache. I had been feeling good before which had me confident that the slow pace was working. On quick ascents in California, I’ve felt the headache start anywhere between 12-13,000 ft. After some sleep, my headache was gone though and I felt good about the rest of the ascent. The day before the summit attempt we climb to about 16,500 ft. My head was pounding and I took some Ibuprofen. After a few hours, the headache was gone. We rested up and went to sleep early, ready to begin the final ascent at midnight.

As we awoke, I felt fine. I could definitely feel some altitude but thought I could make it up the next 3,000 ft. We set off in the moonlight going very slow. One foot in front of the other. It was cold. Very cold. My camel back started to freeze up. I started to slow down. My head was not doing what I wanted it to do. Each step was becoming an ordeal of concentration. Rebekah and Adam went ahead with two guides and I went slower with Alex. After a little while longer, things became worse. The headache even started to come back and it hadn’t even been four hours since my last Ibuprofen. I talked to Alex and decided that it would be unwise to continue further. From previous experience, I knew that the next phases would be extreme disorientation, hallucination, and possibly worse. I was not going to put a fellow climber, Alex, in the position of having to take care of my bad choices. While I still had some clarity of mind, I needed to make the right choice we began to descend. Alex estimates we were at roughly 18,000 ft and would have taken about 3 more hours to summit at our pace. As we descended, my disorientation set in more strongly. At one point though, pride got the better of me. I stopped, turned around, and told Alex I could handle it and wanted to finish it. Fortunately, while I had still been cognizant, I had told him clearly that I needed to go down so he held me to that and convinced me that going back up was not the right decision. He was right as my earlier self had been right. The headache got worse. I stumbled a bit and at some points Alex had to hold my arm to steady me as we descended at a rapid pace. By 5am, we were back at camp. I collapsed into my tent, downed some water and got a few hours of sleep. At 7am I awoke feeling completely better. Physically, I was fit. Mentally, I was experienced. My body just didn’t have the disposition to handle high altitude at that pace. It’s a hard pill to swallow but that’s life. Perhaps thousands of climbers less experienced and less fit than me, have made it to the top of Kilimanjaro. I’ve had many lessons in humility over the last two years. I think I could have made it if I’d had a day or two to acclimate more.

I had tea with Alex and we chatted. He said I’d shown maturity and wisdom in calling my limits and thanked me for not pushing further. He’s had to carry down climbers that passed out in the past and did not enjoy that much. After tea, I walked around the high camp, snapped some photos, and reflected on the climb. By 9am, Adam and Rebekah rolled in, exhausted. They’d made it to the top and now were sore, tired, and hungry. They slept for a few hours. In the meantime, our friend Ryan stopped by to chat on his way down. At noon, we all had lunch and headed down to 10,000ft to Mweka camp. The next day we packed out and it was done.

The People

Once back at the hotel, we passed out. I got up around noon and called one of my priest friends, Fr. Amandus. Both were back in Tanzania at the time. We arranged to meet at the hotel and it was wonderful to greet them in their own country. We were scheduled to fly back with Fr. Amandus in two days but we soon found all was not well. Air Tanzania was grounded indefinitely. We made some calls to discover we no longer had flights home and we had not been rescheduled. Apparently other carriers were refusing to take continue to clean up Air Tanzania’s mess. My guess is that Air Tanz wasn’t honoring any of their payments so no one wanted to lose more money. Unfortunately, that meant that we all lost money. Fortunately, the Fr.s were there and could direct us around Moshi and interpret for us when needed. With their help we were able to make a plan. All flights out of Moshi were booked until Christmas. Since I needed to be in SA for my rock climbing trip on the 21st, I was eager for other solutions. We finally came up with a plan. We got bus tickets to Nairobi to leave on the 20th and we booked a flight out of Nairobi early on the 21st. I’d arrive and catch a shuttle bus out to the town where I’d be rock climbing. In the meantime, we had some time to kill but no money to spare. Again, the Fathers came to the rescue. They got us free accommodations and meals at a convent in Moshi, with a gorgeous view of the mountain. We also got invited to meet their whole extended family.

I had gotten a bit of a cold after coming off the mountain and was feeling slightly feverish. I spent the day debating what to do. Adam and Rebekah had opted out of traveling anymore and just wanted to rest at the convent. I had given my word to the priests that I’d see their homes though and I knew it would be a long time before I’d get such an opportunity again. So I decided to go with it. The next day, Fr. Amandus and his brother picked me up and we drove 80km to the villages around Rombo. I met many families, ate lots of food (various types of bananas, and various parts of chickens, goats, and cows). I picked up a few Swahili phrases as well as a few Chagga phrases (Kilimanjaro is Chagga for “Our mountain”). My final destination was the home of Fr. Tarimo. Fr. Tarimo had returned to South Africa but had insisted I honor him by staying at his home. So Fr. Amandus dropped me off, I ate yet again, and spent the night with a bunch of people I’d never met, who spoke almost no English, but who were so warm and friendly that none of that mattered. I took a bath by kerosene lamp with water they’d warmed over the fire for me. I entertained the family with my digital camera. Late at night, one of Fr. Tarimo’s sister’s arrived. She is a nurse in Moshi and speaks good English, so she was able to interpret for me the rest of the night. Finally, I got to bed and slept like a baby. The next day, Fr. Tarimo’s other sister showed me around their compound. The village is on the foot of Kilimanjaro and that whole area is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. After tea and bread, we parted ways and I was picked up again by Fr. Amandus’ brother. We returned to Moshi and to the convent. After a night there, we headed out early in the morning on the bus headed to Nairobi. The bus ride itself was enough to convince me that I needed to return to Africa and explore East Africa more, as we passed serene savannah, Maasai herdsmen, and incredible mountains. We got to the airport by 2pm and our flight left the next morning at 7am. We couldn’t check in until 5am the next morning. So, we busted out our sleeping bags and slept in front of the check in counter. Traveling in Africa makes traveling anywhere seem easy. But soon enough, it was all over and we were back in SA. I got a move on to catch my shuttle and within a few hours, was in the quiet town of Waterval Boven.

During my time in Tanzania, I had reflected quite a bit about my life in South Africa. When we first arrived, I’d thought to myself: “This could have been my life.” Indeed, I’d really love to go out and spend significant time doing some work in a village like Rombo. However, while I was out there, even in the midst of all the beauty, I had a feeling deep inside of me that I was in the place I needed to be in South Africa. My service in SA has challenged me in so many ways unique to that country. I would have grown anywhere I’d been placed but I feel South Africa provides its own special challenges and opportunities that perhaps could not have been better prescribed for me. It made my arrival back in South Africa feel more like coming home.

The Rocks

Back in South Africa, I spent a the week over Christmas having a great time climbing in Waterval Boven. After two days of guided climbs, we shored up our skills, and I refreshed my lead climbing knowledge. On Chistmas we rented out our own gear and spent that day and the next two climbing on our own. We played in rivers, had an adventurous day hike, and a magical Christmas (thanks to Susie and Ronda). I remembered why I loved rock climbing so much. Not only is the sport such an incredible mix of mental and physical complexity, the people that do it are so interesting. I could write tons more but will leave it at this for now. By the end of our week, we were sore, but happy. I was able to climb a 5.9 but struggled on a 5.10a/b which means I’ve understandably lost ground since I was climbing in college. I hope once I’m stateside, I’ll get back at it more regularly and push past my previous limits. It was refreshing though and was a great way to follow the Kilimanjaro adventure.


(Stanford + Phi Psi + Peace Corps)^2 = ?

After the new year began, I received a visit from a good friend. Nick Chan was my HPAC at Stanford (kind of like an RA) and also a brother in my Fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. After graduating, he did AmeriCorps, City Year, and then Peace Corps. I remember writing one of his rec letters for Peace Corps and had him return the favor when I was applying. He has been serving in Ecuador and has extended for a third year as a Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator. When he came over, he told me, he wanted to see Peace Corps SA, so that’s what we did. After a few days in Pretoria and a day at the office, we headed to the taxi rank and began the long haul out to my site.

At my site, we ended up helping with the funeral arrangements for my host grandmother (more about that later). Nick got quite the cultural experience with all the people, prayers, and slaughtering going on. On our first day at my place, Nick and I ended up cooking lunch for all the visitors at the house.

We also made a trip out to some neighboring volunteers sites and saw one of my shopping towns. After that, we got to take a day with Fr. Tarimo to go on safari at the Molopo Nature Reserve, north of my site. We saw giraffes, wildebeest, gemsbok, and hartebeest. We also saw several tortoises and tried to keep one as a pet, but he got away… After the safari, we went out to a lodge near the Botswana border to get some drinks. Strangely, the only person running the lodge that day was a middle aged woman that only spoke French. “Wait, I know French!” was my first thought, but no, I don’t actually. Although I could understand her fairly well, when I opened my mouth, out came “FreTswana”. It was kind of embarrassing but in the end we communicated somehow and got some drinks.

Tsoe Youth Lifeskills Challenge 2009

While Nick was here, I took advantage of his Youth Development Skills, to put on another youth camp. We had sessions in the morning for young kids and in the afternoon for youth for three days. We used the library as the springboard as well as the sports grounds. We did reading, sports, chess, library skills and life skills. Overall, it went very well with over 70 kids total coming out. A nearby volunteer, Erin, also came out to help out. Strangely our afternoon sessions contained only teenage girls which would have made the whole HIV/AIDS sex talk a bit awkward had it been just me and Nick. Erin came to the rescue though and did a fantastic job spreading the message to the girls about how to take care of themselves.
Soon though, it was time to go back to the airport and bid Nick adieu. We took off early on Saturday and spent the night in Pretoria. The next day, I headed back to site as he headed out to the airport. It was great to share the my Peace Corps experience with someone that “gets it” if that makes any sense. I feel the two years we’ve spent have brought us closer together in some ways than we were even in college. I look forward to connecting with other RPCVs once I get back to the states because of that kind of understanding and comraderie.

Desert Flowers Again

When September arrived this past year, I looked out to the sky anxiously each day, anticipating the rains. When I first got to site, the rains quickly followed and they preceded a burst of color and life in the arid veld. September passed as dry as August and slightly warmer. October brought little relief as well. Finally, in November the rains arrived but not the deluges of 2007 that filled the salt pan. As a result, the land remained fairly parched, hungrily drinking in the little water the sky saw fit to spit upon it. By the end of December, the earth had finally had its fill and released the little yellow flowers I’d been waiting for. Some butterflies have appeared but not the vast clouds that appeared with the last blossoming.

Whereas the last rains had been bounteous and followed by an immodest burst of greenery and life, the rains of this summer have been niggardly and the plants and animals have had to scratch out what little life they could and stretch it out as long as possible. Strikingly, the one similarity between these two seasons of blossoming I’ve witnessed here is that they have been accompanied by death. Yet the difference in the lives preceding those deaths runs parallel to the markedly different manner of the two seasons unfolding.

Last year, I wrote about the death of a student. At 20 years old, she died of TB, which means she most probably had AIDS and TB was the opportunistic infection that ended her life. She had been born under Apartheid but grown up under the blossoming of democracy and relative plenty. The opportunities available to her were vastly greater than those afforded her grandmothers but her life was spent quickly, probably with exuberance, but quickly. As I wrote at the time, it was a life barely lived like the little butterflies that appear with the flowers only to disappear.

On January 7th, 2009, Selwana Edith Mabihi, known variously as Mma Thathi (Mother of Thathi), the Old Woman, Nkoko (Grandma), my South African Grandmother, passed away early in the morning. A few hours later, I received a phone call. I had been sitting in a taxi with my friend Nick, about to travel to my training village to show him different parts of SA and introduce him to other volunteers as we would wind back to my village. After the phone call, we got out of the taxi to Rustenburg and switched to the one to Vryburg. The taxi rank marshall’s at first were blustering and confused (it is kind of a cardinal sin to leave a taxi once you have chosen it). I just said “Mma wa me o tlhokafetse. Ke tshwanetsa go boela gae.” And they dropped all protest. If there is one thing the communities here understand, it’s death. About ten hours later, I arrived home, even beating my host mother who had been in Rustenburg at the time for the holidays. I’ve written a bit about the actual funeral preparations and ceremonies leading up to the funeral above. The real story here is Mma Thathi herself.

At over 70 years old when she passed away, Mma Thathi had lived through the darkest days of Apartheid. She had recounted to me about the hardships of working as a domestic servant, about the police driving through the village just to find people to beat, about how the past was a time of evil. She had lost many children to various causes and only had one surviving child, a daughter. Her husband too had passed away, leaving a matriarchal family amidst a still largely patriarchal society. And Mma Thathi was definitely the matriarch in a bounteous rather than gregarious way. She took me in as her own son and there was unique bond I felt with her that I will truly miss.

For my first few months in the village, I struggled with my host aunt Mpho, who speaks very fast and is a bit strong headed about doing things her way. One day, fed up, I confessed to Mma Thathi that I was just not getting through to Mpho. She nodded and with a slight chuckle said something to the effect of, “Eh, that Mpho, sometimes she just makes noise.” Mma Thathi did not speak much English but she knew some and was always kind and helpful in teaching me Setswana, gently correcting my mistakes and teaching me new things all the time. She taught me about the rains, about the culture, and about the family. When an old man came to the house and asked me to sell him some things she saved me from explaining that I wasn’t a shop keeper. “Ga se morekisa! Ke Kabelo wa rona, ngwanaaka.” “That’s no shopkeeper! That’s our Kabelo, my child.” Cultural boundaries did not bind us nor did any other boundaries. If I had a question that might be awkward to ask about the village or culture, I knew she’d give me a straight forward answer. Heck, once it got hot, we used to joke with each other about how we would just want to get naked.

Above all, she was an incredibly warm and positive person. She suffered from a chronic cough that would take her in fits, sometimes lasting several minutes. She claimed she had had it since she was a girl but I think it had something to do with the asbestos mines that used to be around here. She had severe arthritis that at times confined her to a foam mattress because it was too painful for her to move. With some help from my parents, we’d been able to find some meds that helped the arthritis so when I saw her in December and early January, she kept talking about how much better she felt and was moving around a lot more. Remarkably though, her face most often wore a smile. Not an artificial smile coaxed out to appear sociable, but a genuine smile, greeting me each day I came home, greeting the world around her.

FEBRUARY and now

Kicking into High Gear

-Crikey, there’s not much time left, I need to do everything now now…-

And now, I’m in over my head. I am at the point where I’m turning down opportunities and projects that first year volunteers would kill for simply because I do not have the time or capacity to do any more. I am teaching 12th grade mathematics, setting the library on its own feet, working on remedial mathematics and literacy intervention at a primary school, training staff members to use computers at all four of my schools, tying up all the work I’ve done on language, diversity, and for Peace Corps training, and trying to find time to stay healthy and happy. I've gotten to visit a few of my friends sites, play with monkeys, break up bloody fist fights, dialog with the provincial government, start setting up a children's corner in the library, spend two weeks training incoming volunteers on language, diversity, and volunteer life, put together a beginners Setswana manual, and begin reflecting on my overall service. It's been a wild few months.

I’m sorry these posts have been so long in coming. There is so much more that’s happened since then but I don’t have the time to chronicle them now. I will try to write more posts when I get a breather but can’t promise timely updates from now on. I may be resorting more to quick updates to my email list. If you are not on it, and would like to be, let me know. Otherwise, I hope all is well from wherever you are reading this. I am living and loving this experience. I’ve been humbled and crushed in more ways than I imagined but I’ve discovered so much more about what is important to me and who I really am. Now I want to give my all to my community and this country, to make at least a little ripple in this vast sea.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I am still working on a series of blog posts to catch up on many happenings over the past two months including Mt. Kilimanjaro, rock climbing, my friend’s visit here to South Africa, and many other events of significance. However, after a conversation today I decided I needed to give broader voice to some issues. So here’s some food for thought while I continue to work on the leviathan of a post that is to come.

Supply and Demand

As the schools reopened, I found myself faced with a difficult choice. The high school had lost 3 teachers to transfers. We would be bringing in one teacher from Zimbabwe that had come over last year part time and make him a full teacher. That left us two short and most notably short of a maths teacher. I knew there was no one of the rest of the staff qualified to teach upper level maths and so I threw my hat in the ring. I’m now the grade 12 maths teacher, teaching a morning class every day and doing two afterschool review/boot camp maths sessions to try and get the kids up to scratch. It was a tough choice to make as I increasingly have less time before the end of my service and my other projects like the library are still going to require substantial work before I can trust them to hold up with my absence. On the other hand, not trying to teach would almost certainly leave 17 kids to failing their final exam and vastly decreasing their chances of further education or employment. So for now, I’m doing the best I can to be a teacher but I’m was hoping to find a more sustainable solution to the lack as I can’t teach here indefinitely. So I was thinking, Zimbabwe has LOTS of maths teachers available. Why couldn’t we bring one over? Today I had a chat with our new teacher from Zimbabwe and this is what I learned. (For his own privacy and also out of safety concerns for his family, he shall be referred to as Mr. Nomugabe.)

Let’s back up

Before I get into detail, here is a quick summary for those of you not up to date on the current events in Zimbabwe. So here’s a quick, politically incorrect, summary. Long ago, Zimbabwe was part of Rhodesia and run/oppressed by white people. These white people set up lots of farms in this bountiful land, making it the breadbasket of Africa. In the 1980’s a revolutionary force led by Robert Mugabe overthrew the government and brought Zimbabwe to independence. He was the pride of all of Africa and Zimbabwe was a haven for anti-Apartheid activists. He set up a titular democracy that conveniently always brought him back to power. He also set up a vast secret police force that has been highly effective in rooting out any coup attempts over the past three decades. Blaming all Zimbabwe’s troubles on the Imperialists, Mugabe seized all the land of the white farmers and effectively forced them out. A combination of a lack of skills transfer and a workforce ravaged by AIDS, led to tremendous drops in agricultural productivity. As things went down, the government freaked out and imposed all sorts of terrible economic policies leading to some of the most outrageous hyperinflation the world has ever seen. Economic collapse has ruined the internal market, making petrol, bread, and basic goods nearly impossible to get (only really possible on the black market, bought in foreign currency). Bakeries are forced to stay open by the government and waste electricity as light glares off their empty shelves. The breadbasket of Africa can no longer feed itself. The treasury said that there were not enough items on the shelves to get an appropriate index to measure inflation. That was several months ago. Inflation is estimated at over 10,000,000%. On the news, images of people picking through the garbage for food zoom in on 10 Million ZIm Dollar notes being passed over by people in search for a bite. Children fill cups of water from puddles. Not surprisingly, cholera has broken out in epidemic proportions. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled across the border to South Africa. Of them, hundreds have been killed and thousands intimidated in xenophobic violence. I could go on…and I will for a little while.

20,000,000,000,000 Problems

Given the trouble up north, South Africa seems like the land of milk and honey to many Zimbabweans even despite the threats of violence. Mr. Nomugabe, has come out deep to the Kalahari Desert to teach where few South African teachers would ever choose to be. I asked him if he knew of any maths teachers in need of work. Lots, he replied. Many with 15+ years of working experience. Why don’t they come over? Well, they don’t have passports and to get one right now in Zimbabwe costs about 670 USD. Once you have the passport, you need a visa to enter South Africa, which has just been raised from about 200 USD to 600 USD. Then, you need a work permit, which is another 600 USD. Add in the bribes and other expenses you might have to pay, that’s about 2,000 USD just to get into South Africa to work. A US Dollar is roughly 10 trillion Zim Dollars (several zeroes may be added to that each day from now). So that’s 20 quadrillion Zim Dollars. Teachers are being paid the equivalent of 30 US CENTS a month. Yes. In a year, they pull in about 3.60 USD. That’s a trained professional. It costs more to get to the bank than all the money they have in the bank is worth, so most teachers are now working as hawkers on the street. So while students around southern Africa sit without qualified maths teachers, if any maths teachers at all, some of the best trained and most competent teachers in the region are selling bananas.

Do Something World

Somethings gotta give. I know some at home that will sit comfortably in their armchairs will paw-paw that if Zimbabweans don’t like Mugabe, they should get rid of him. They’ve tried by ballot and been killed for it. They’ve tried by force and been killed for it. Mugabe holds the guns and his sycophantic circle is lustily guarding what they have from anyone that would try to topple them from within. It doesn’t take much to hold a cholera-ridden, half starved, dirt poor people down. In this era of global connectivity, we as a world need to take action. As Botswana’s brave president and Odinga of Kenya have suggested, perhaps we need to use force to tear Mugabe’s strangle hold over the nation. Unfortunately the power broker in the region is South Africa and it has yet to take a strong stance. The U.S. and Europe tried to bring out a targeted set of sanctions to restrict the Mugabe regime and isolate them, weakening their power. It was blocked in the UN Security Council by South Africa, but more importantly by China and Russia who exercised their veto power. I know the developed world has a lot on its plate right now with their economic crises and all but whatever plight we are in is not as dire as what Zimbabwe is facing right now. As long as the oppressive Mugabe regime is in power, other governments need to reduce rather than increase the barriers of entry for Zimbabwean professionals so their skills can be used effectively and they can use the money they earn to feed their families hungry mouths at home. That’s not charity, that’s just good economical sense. South Africa faces a huge shortage of medical and educational professionals. In my training village I met a Zimbabwean man. A former medical technician, he is now scratching out a living by making mops. What a waste.

Mugabe is old but simply waiting for him to die is an irresponsible position to take. Besides supporting governments to stand up against the Mugabe regime, what can we do? Find respectable aid agencies working to try and bring relief to the many suffering Zimbabweans and do what you can to help. Unfortunately, the number is not so big as Mugabe has tried to stifle their activities. I admit that besides this, there is not a lot we can do but I think’s it’s necessary every once in a while to remind people of the silent tragedies that get dropped from the news once it gets too boring. I’m mostly just frustrated that South Africa is shooting itself in the foot by not making it easier for Zimbabweans to help themselves out by filling long vacant slots in the professional workforce.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Tale of Three Thanksgivings

It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m writing about Thanksgiving… I guess I’m a little behind the time. I resolve to catch up though as best I can. November was a good month overall and it was capped off by three memorable Thanksgiving celebrations. Funny how spending time outside of the US has multiplied the American holidays I celebrate.

Part I – The Foreigners and the Natives

Thanksgivings and More

The weekend before Thanksgiving, I joined several friends to hang out with Kelee, her boyfriend Philip, and their South African friends out on a farm. The band of Americans was bringing Thanksgiving to the South Africans. Kelee had gone all out, even getting some costumes… Traveling out to the farm was an adventure in itself but the real fun was once we got there late Friday. We had a big braii with delicious lamb from Kelee and Philip’s farm. On Saturday morning, we began cooking. I was in charge of the turkeys (we had two young turkeys) and I made some stuffing from scratch.

From Thanksgivings and More

After a few hours and lots of melted butter, I think the turkeys came out pretty well. We also had candied yams, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, salad, iced tea, and apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies made from scratch.
Needless to say we were all very full after the big meal. After a little digestion though, it was time to continue the Thanksgiving tradition with some good old American football. We taught our South African friends the basic rules and then played a while using their rugby ball. Rugby balls aren’t meant to be thrown overhand. After a while, we switched things up and the South African’s taught us how to play touch rugby. It’s a ton of fun and moves a lot faster than football. The hardest things is remembering to stay behind the ball since it is a foul to pass the ball forward. After the game we relaxed a bit and watched real rugby on TV as the South African National Team (Springboks) crushed the English. Watching rugby with true fans allowed me to finally understand the intricacies of the game. Now I know the difference between a scrum and a ruck. The weekend was a blast and I really enjoyed getting to know Kelee’s friends. I returned back to site for the week and soon was preparing for my next feast.

Part II – Giving Thanks

From Thanksgivings and More

As the quarter was drawing to a close, I wanted to organize a celebration for the library committee to thank them for all the hard work they’ve done. With all their help we are just a few steps away from opening to general circulation. The only big steps remaining are to create our full library policy, to finish with the student library cards, and to streamline the registration system. The library itself is set up and organized and the librarians seem to know the basics of how to get what they want.

From Thanksgivings and More

Based on the exam schedule and teacher’s availability to help, the library party was set for November 27th. I thought it was fitting to be giving thanks to my volunteers on Thanksgiving. The teachers on the committee got food and cooked up a yummy meal of dumpy (a big dumpling bread) and beef stew. I made certificates and we got prizes for our student and community volunteers. We had a few speeches and then watched some movies as we ate.

Part III – American style

Finally, the weekend after the real Thanksgiving brought my last big feast. I traveled to some nearby volunteers who had organized a big meal at a lodge in their village. We played football, ate more turkey and pumpkin pie, and then sang karaoke into the night.

From Thanksgivings and More

The next day I traveled back to site and scrambled to finish everything I had planned before school let out for the year. I had to leave early to go to a training session for Peace Corps in preparation for the next intake of new volunteers. Then I was off to other adventures, whose details shall follow…

Here are some more pictures of things I'm thankful for:

From Thanksgivings and More

From Thanksgivings and More

From Thanksgivings and More