Every once in a while, good things happen unexpectedly: A potential project springs to life, a teacher takes my advice, students show they are capable of more than has been expected of them, or a baby starts to walk. Things like these give me hope that I’ll have some success here in making a positive impact. They brighten up my day and help me flush my system of frustrations with language, distance from loved ones, and cultural misunderstandings. They are the light bulbs that go off in my head and those of my counterparts that keep us going after one idea fails or comes to a standstill. I’ve found that often all that’s needed is a little know-how, a Leatherman, and a little luck. I like to think of all the opportunities that have arisen as just part of my birthday presents because that’s how my week began.
My South African Birthday
On Monday the 22nd, I turned 22. It started off as a pretty typical day, waking up by 6am, taking my bucket bath, and heading to school. At school, I continued shadowing/co-teaching with one of the natural science teachers. Along the way though, kids and teachers sang me the local birthday song which basically says, “Happy Birthday! Don’t get as big as an elephant!” I tutored some kids after school and then went to the post office to drop off some mail and pick up a package from Kana. On my way back, I met a man that started a local NGO called the Rural Youth Development Organization. They started the honey project in my town as a way to employ young people. The guy is very motivated and wants to do leadership camps/life skills retreats to help develop the youth in the area. It’s basically a perfect fit, so we’ve started meeting and brainstorming ideas. After we met, I went home and talked to Kana for almost an hour before heading over the Catholic mission house. The priests had a report due and wanted help making a cover so I did some simple stuff with Paint and they were amazed. They were very thankful and gave me some food before driving me home. At home I had dinner with the family and then celebrated back in my room with some Oreos and a glass of milk. I also got a call from my Peace Corps boss telling me the promised furniture was finally on its way. It arrived at the end of the week and now kamore ya me e tletse tota! (my room is completely full). Unfortunately this means my cardboard wardrobe is now awaiting my next creative streak but I do still have a brick bookshelf.
My bookshelf (more books to be added soon hopefully)
Attempts at teaching
This week, I also tried teaching some lessons. I had done some lessons last week on circuits to classes of roughly 30 kids. This week I had a combined 9th grade class of 84 kids. I taught a chemistry lesson. It made me appreciate my time in Exeter in classes of 14 students a lot more. Between the language barrier and lack of discipline, I struggled to get across basic concepts. I thought the kids understood because they answered questions I asked and in groups were able to solve some worksheet problems I gave them and some were able to explain the solution. Unfortunately, when we did an individual assessment in the form of a test, I found out they understood very little of what I said. On the flip side, I have had some good discussions with the teacher I’ve been working with and she’s starting to try some things like docking late work and discouraging copying. I also suggested to her to assign reading and have kids take their own notes rather than follow the current system where she spends an entire day writing notes on the board and having the kids copying them down without really saying anything. She was unsure if it would work, so we had an experimental class. I gave the class (grade 11, about 16 kids that day) a 15 minute spiel on how to take notes and did an example paragraph for them. Then I set them loose on the book for the rest of the hour. At the end of the class, I collected the notes and went over them. When I saw that about half the kids had taken good notes, with a couple taking outstanding notes, I felt vindicated. Now, we are planning to have the kids that understood explain to the rest of the class and use assigned reading. Potentially this could double the time that’s actually spent teaching.
My International Network
Strangely enough in my little village, I’ve begun making an international network. I’ve befriended the two priests that live at the mission from Tanzania. I spent Saturday evening cooking with them and swapping stories (had a chicken from their coup and greens from their garden). Apart from the religion aspect, we really have similar jobs in terms of development so it’s been good to get their perspective. I also met a guy from Ethiopia when my furniture arrived. He tried to sell me some pretty sheets but was way too expensive for my budget. For those of you that know Dawit, he was kind of a lankier, smaller version of Dawit (of course all Ethiopians look the same…). I also continue to meet happy Bangladeshi merchants that try to speak Bengali, then Urdu, then Hindi to me before going to English. I still have yet to break the ice with the Chinese couple that works in the shop down the road from the school though. Last but not least, I’ve found turkey in the village. So there is hope that I can get a turkey for Thanksgiving still…
The three of us that live in the little house I am in are learning to all help each other out. Just as Orapeleng was there to help when I popped my tire, I was able to help out our third neighbor, Elsa today fixing a broken light socket in her apartment. I know that sounds trivial but to me it felt like a watershed. I’m starting to lose the “rock star American” effect and really be seen as a neighbor and community member. It makes sense that it would start with my closest neighbors but hopefully it will spread throughout my village in the coming years too. Although, I am afraid I will always be the “computer guy” and run around fixing computers and cleaning viruses as long as I’m here (5 viruses cleaned so far, 6 schools/organizations assisted/trained in basic computer stuff so far).
Perhaps the best moment of the week was when baby Kitso took his first steps. For the last month it’s been fun to watch his progress as he slowly learned to stand by himself. Now, he’s taking about 4-5 steps on his own before smiling, clapping, and falling down or deciding to crawl. He’s also trying to form words besides “mama.” Since I’ve never been around a baby at this stage with such continual contact, it’s been fun to see the whole development process. It’s also a good reminder for me of where I am. I feel like I’ve just found my feet and taken my first few tentative steps in my Peace Corps career.