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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bring the Rain

In American or perhaps all of western culture, rainy days seem to bear an image of bleakness and despondency. Rain-checks stand in for unfulfilled obligation. Sports fans curse the rain and the dreaded delay of game that follows. Sunshine gets all the glory with smiley faced suns. Find me a smiley faced raincloud. Sure, a rainmaker is someone that brings great fortune. But seriously, even the Grumpy Care Bear had a raincloud belly.

Perhaps it is because we are used to running water and impeccably watered lawns even in the deserts of Nevada. Perhaps it’s because such a small percentage of Americans still depend on the land for their living. Whatever it is, living out here in the semi-desert in amongst a population that depends first on agriculture and second on government pensions for survival, I’ve come to despise sunny days and love the rain clouds. The stultifying heat probably also biases my opinion… Sunny days may be nice for the right now but too many and you’re dead. Rain brings renewal. Rain brings hope and nourishment for the future. To be fair, too much rain and you’re also dead. But even a flood can be renewing in a sense (see Noah or Gilgamesh).

When I was struggling, my friend Kelee wrote to me with some words of encouragement. She had faced even more difficult situations than I had and during those times her boyfriend had told her to think of the veld grass. Out on the open veld, you see these stubborn tufts of grass trying to survive heat and goats every day. During the long dry winter, the blades become crisp and turn a light yellow. They seem so weak and dead on the outside, easily crushed by whatever passes their way. But deep down, their roots stay strong. The life of the grass has retreated inwards to the core during those hard times, holding on with stubbornness to the dry earth, fed only by the expectation and hope that sometime in the future, the rains will come again. And when those rains do come, the grass drinks its fill of the sweetest ambrosia the heavens have to offer.

Sprinkles of Expectation (I’ll never be a meteorologist)

Last year, the day after I arrived at site, a huge storm came and opened up over us. The next day the entire salt pan was filled with water. That was towards the end of September. This year, we passed through October with few clouds ever passing the sky. Two weeks ago, I saw the clouds gathering. In the distance, lightning bolts lighted the sky. Soon, the winds picked up. As I inhaled the crisp air, I felt lighter in anticipation. I stood out on my stoop far past sunset waiting for the rain and only begrudgingly went in to sleep. Finally, I heard a few drops of rain begin to fall on my roof but within 5 minutes, it was over. What a tease. No one likes a tease. Or as my friend Erin’s host father puts it. “This is not a rain. It is a baby. It just spits and makes noise.” The next day, I got up and went to work as usual. The rain would come eventually, and until then, one just needs to keep oneself ready to receive it.

Three thousand two hundred books and counting; the library is almost ready. Posters and signs are being made. At least one person on the library committee besides me knows how to do every task apart from myself. Things are looking good. But there have been troubles. The student in charge of library cards gave up the job, adding 500 more tasks to my list. Some of the volunteers have stopped coming as exams started (it’s not because they are studying that much though…). But the big hit was the news that my main principal is transferring at the end of this year and thus goes the guaranteed support and backing of the school and its budget. Furthermore, I’ve begun to hear rumors that my library chair, one of the teachers I’ve worked most closely with, may be leaving next year too. Strangely, I don’t feel too phased. I just need to recalibrate. I’ve still got several months left and will find a new foundation while I in the meantime hold things up. In the end, even if the library fails and the changes I wished to bring to the village don’t come when I want them too, I’ve seen enough here to realize some change will come, on its own time, as a result of what I’ve done. The best I can do in the meantime is to prepare the grounds to best receive it when it does arrive.

Enter the Deluge (Make hay while the sun shines…dance like a fool when the rain falls)

On the Tuesday before last, I tried in vain to sleep at night. Every few hours, I’d wake up, turn over, and check the latest returns on on my phone. By 8am my time, it had happened. Barack Obama had won the election. Not only had America elected someone that wasn’t white but they had elected someone who was unabashedly intellectual. Even though our country had entered dark times, the future is still full of possibility. After years in a drought, I believe America has finally chosen a leader (and I count the drought longer than 8 years because though I think Clinton did a good job, I wouldn’t follow him to the gates of hell and back…) I know for many American’s the election was a moving moment. My teachers congratulated me since they had been aware of whom I was supporting. One sent me a text “Obama is the man”. During the day, as I walked between schools and home, I caught myself unconsciously smiling for the first time in many months. At certain points in the day, as I watched the news or heard people talking about America, I was seriously choking up. It’s not that I think Obama is the savior. He’s got a tall order to fill and there is no way he can do it all. I believe he can do a lot though. What I think had me so emotionally welled up though was something that can’t be taken away no matter what happens during the next administration; the fact that American’s rejected the smear campaigns and attacks. The fact that even Montana was close had me dumbfounded. For me, the heaven’s had opened up and were raining down renewal upon me and my country. For a little while, it was easy to look past all my own problems and believe in my own future. It was pouring down and for a little while, I rejoiced, knowing that all of us as American’s would need to soon put our heads down and get to work to make sure every drop fulfilled its potential for life bringing renewal, just as the farmers know rains bring work, but welcome work.
Over that weekend, I went on a bike ride to a few villages over, riding over the salt pan. I knew soon the real rains would come and traversing the flat would mean fording the lake. Sure enough, that night the clouds were gathering again. The lighting was all around. Surely this would not be another dry light show. Soon, the rain was beating down; so loud on my metal roof that I couldn’t hear my thoughts, but I knew they were happy thoughts.

Scattered showers

The past week has been interesting. As I grapple with what I should try to force through while my principal is still around, I am also returning to some of the management work I did early on as schools should now be evaluating to what degree we’ve fulfilled the action plans we created at the beginning of the year. In the library, with my volunteers starting to drop off and internal politics from outside the committee conspiring to turn my partners against each other, I’ve been digging in and preparing for a fight. The heat was on and no relief was in site. Then while I was walking back from the post office two days ago, a little girl walked up to me on the street. “KB, Nkopelela!” “KB, Sing to me!” I had spent most mornings last quarters singing English songs with the primary school kids but had started phasing it out as I tried to hand it off to teachers and got myself caught up in the library again. I stopped in the middle of the street and we sang a few songs before she was satisfied and I continued on my way with a smile on my face. Yesterday, I went to the library to do some work. A group of kids was out front as usual, playing on the weatherproof housed computers out there. As I unlocked the door, I looked over my shoulder at a couple of kids standing behind me expectantly. We hadn’t really officially opened yet but I asked them, “A lo batla go bala?” “Do you want to read?” And they nodded their heads excitedly. I showed them to the Children’s Fiction section and picked out a few short books for them. Soon 6 little boys were sitting and reading intently. Three of them stayed over half an hour, reading different short stories. Whatever fight I need to put up for this library, it’s worth it.

In the burning summer heat, the downpours bring life, but even a little unexpected shower can be life saving.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Setshwaro ke Dinja tse Pedi, Ga se Thata

(That which is caught by two dogs cannot give them much difficulty. – Setswana Proverb)

The last month or so, I’ve been involved in a lot of slow paced, hard slogging work. Unlike the flash-in-the-pan events like Youth Day and my camps, this work is high risk as it has involved a huge commitment of time, thought, and energy giving it the potential for incredible success or terrifying failure… Hopefully in a few months I’ll be writing a big triumphant story. For now though, there are no big magnificent events to post, but there are some encouraging signs that I wanted to share. There are some attitudes and actions that beat us down every day in our work here, but when I see behavior change, when I see people breaking the stultifying norm and taking control of their lives, I know why I am here. I am here to applaud them, tell them they are not crazy, and help give them the strength and knowledge to go on forging their own paths. As they say; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, united we stand, or, in Setswana, Setshwaro ke dinja tse pede, ga se thata.

A committee…that meets?

In my previous posts, I mentioned the Books for Peace Project, started by my colleague Rose. Firstly, a huge thank you again to all of you that donated to the project and helped 30 libraries each get a huge jump start. Secondly, a huge thanks to Rose, Books for Africa, and the others that made the project a reality. As the time for the books to arrive came closer, I had a huddle with some of my key teachers and we decided to form a library committee. We set our first meeting date and invited any staff that was interested. In the end, only 6 of my 21 teachers attended that first meeting. The library chair himself did not come. Still, with a little prodding and encouragement, those of us that showed up used the lack of interest and leadership to rally ourselves. We made an action plan to recruit community members and students into the committee, we solidified our finances, and we set a second meeting for right before the books would arrive.

In the two weeks that followed, we recruited 2 students and 3 community members to the committee. I played some backdoor politics and convinced the chair that he was over-worked and over-committed. Then I gave him a face-saving way to step down from his position so that I could get a more driven teacher in his place. For our second meeting, we had over 90% attendance at the time of the meeting and opened about 10 minutes later. What? T.I.A.? Yes, on time and in Africa. For my American readership, this may not seem that big of a deal, but my PCV buddies, you feel me here. The principal attended the meeting too. We came up with several plans of action, including the creation of student and library cards, a volunteer timetable and training schedule, and solidified our leadership. The students and community members actually spoke up to voice their opinions rather than sitting in deference to the teachers (yes, really). Our next meeting was set for when the books arrived.
I left the next day and spent a week in meetings and sorting books in Pretoria before returning to my school to see what had been done. When I arrived, I found that the students had continued on with the work of cataloging old books that I had started. I had trained them for maybe 2 days and they had spent the week labeling 300 books and cataloging 30 more books on the Linux based computer system I had set up. Our principal showed his commitment to us by getting us a laminating machine and color printer to make some snazzy library and student cards. On top of that, one of our community volunteers, an old man that only completed standard 8 (grade 10), was coming every day and would excitedly talk about books he found and check them out to read.

When it came time for our next meeting, again we had high attendance and began within minutes of our scheduled start time. The two guys I’d recruited from the students had recruited two girls to help, balancing out our student librarians. We committed to a schedule to start working and set the end of September as our deadline to get the library up and running. Other teachers at the school were continually confused by finding out we were meeting. There are dozens of committees on paper in the school, but they don’t actually meet or do anything… Some complained because we were actually making decisions. Fortunately the principal is so thrilled by the idea of a committee actually accomplishing something that he has given us all the support we need.

Knocking on

In South Africa, when you are going to “close shop” or leave work at the end of the day, you “knock off.” (e.g. “Where are you going?” “I’m knocking off now.” “Now? It’s only 1pm…” “It’s month end. Ke chaile! Sharp!” “Sharp…”). One of the big challenges of the education system here is that a plethora of students (and educators and administrators) that are intent on skipping classes (or dodging classes, or bunking classes).

Once again, my library team proved to buck the trend. (Part of it is perhaps because I recruited the teachers that consistently worked late every day and showed up early each morning…) My student and community volunteers have been coming almost every day and working from school out until 5 or 6pm. Last Friday, one of them was chatting with me as we started work. “You know KB, I am seeing we have a lot of work left to do. And really, we must get this work done soon so that we can use the books. I think we must push harder.” “Ok…what do you have in mind?” “Let’s work on Saturdays.” “Ok, what time?” “8am.” Sure enough, the next day, that learner showed up at 8am and together we worked until 4pm. The next weekend all four students committed to coming even though I wouldn’t be there due to a prior commitment. This Friday as I was preparing to “knock off” at 5pm, another student refused. “Let us at least go to half past five. Bring over another box of books, no two boxes.” We locked up at close to 6pm. With kids and community members this committed, I am optimistic that we actually will open this library in a few weeks.

Fasten your Seatbelts

On Monday, I received terrible news. Two of my teachers had been driving back to the village and had lost control of their car. It rolled 4 times and landed in the veld. The car was totaled. They were both in the hospital being checked on. These were two of my hand-picked library teachers, including the new chair of the committee. My heart sank. Fortunately, they sustained no major injuries and were back at school after a few days of rest. How? They were wearing their seatbelts. South Africa, like most developing countries I’ve been in, has a reluctance to buckle up. Indeed, even drunk driving isn’t really looked down upon in the cases I’ve seen. But thankfully, my teachers had done what was unfashionable and uncomfortable and actually used their seatbelts. As a result, they may have saved their lives.
Remove the stumbling blocks

My friend, Adam Bohach (see blogs on my side-bar), recently wrote a post about spoken and unspoken appreciation (and several other very inspiring posts). Basically, the work of development workers is often unsung. We go into our service prepared to pat ourselves on the back because we don’t ask or expect anyone else to. Sometimes though, people surprise you.

After knocking off from the library at near 6pm on Friday, one of my teachers and I were walking back to the teachers quarters. We were chatting about how impressed we were with the students. Caught up in my excitement, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was stepping and stumbled on a rock. My teacher grabbed me then rushed off in front of me tossing rocks out of the way. “Hey, what are these rocks doing here! They are trying to knock down our KB! KB, you can’t let yourself get knocked down, you are too important to us.” It was a playful and somewhat trivial act in a place that is literally covered in rocks (where there aren’t sand pits or thorn bushes) but I think the real meaning he was conveying was more figurative.

The work we do sometimes can be hard to see as meaningful. We see many projects fail, so many people who go on ignoring anything we try to do to help, children being beaten, insurmountable bureaucracy, corruption, risky behavior, and needless deaths. But we also see some people who say no to all of that: people that catch a glimpse of a little light and run after it with all their strength. These people give meaning to my work. No one can be helped without helping themselves first. Rather than trying to force people to stand up, I think our real job is to find those people pushing hard against all the odds holding them down and offer them all we can. And then, if ever we find ourselves knocked down, we don’t have to look far to find a helping hand.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Lekgoa and the Lekwerekwere

“Lekgoa! Lekgoa!” the children scream as they run behind me. Well, I guess it’s not surprising; it’s what you expect as the only white person in the village. Every Peace Corps Volunteer is told to expect it. Wait a second…

I’m not white.

There is no mob of little people trailing me in adoration. There is no verbal labeling of “Whitey”. But there is another type of labeling.

My white colleagues may at first find me in an enviable position. As an American of South Asian decent, I fit rather well into my Tswana village. There are roughly half a dozen Bangladeshi and Pakistani shop owners (in addition to the Somali and the Chinese couple). When I showed up in the village, I wasn’t a rock star. People assumed I had come to sell biscuits and cooldrink (pop…or soda…or coke…whatever). Granted, it’s been almost a year now so people have mostly figured out that’s not my shtick. In a couple of months, if all goes well, when villagers see children reading books under trees and condoms flowing freely from the taverns, they’ll shake their heads and say, “Oh, that KB…” But it’s taken a lot to get to this point. Upon entering my village, I quickly realized, I needed to make an effort to go out and introduce myself to people. If I showed up at a community event or was just walking around the village, I did not attract the attention, questions, and introductions that my fairer skinned friends received a few villages away. I didn’t mind. The challenge added to the impetus to bulk up on language and social networking skills.

The biggest challenge of not being a “Lekgoa” PCV is knowing when to pre-empt a random stranger by somehow declaring, “Wait! I’m not Makwerekwere! I’m an American volunteer.” Ma-what? While Lekgoa is used to reference to any White, non-South African or English South African, Makwerekwere is used to reference migrant workers and illegal immigrants. Makwerekwere is mostly used in reference to other African’s but can extend to the East and South Asians who work all over the country and are often perceived as “stealing” jobs. Examining each word etymologically is an interesting exercise. I’ve heard two different tales of the origins of Lekgoa.

Lekgoa – “lay-k’ho-a” – n. – a European or white American, “whitey”

The first, perhaps more fanciful origin, is that the word is a combination of the Tswana/Sotho words “lewatle” and “go kqwa”. These word’s mean “ocean” and “to spit”, respectively. Hence “Lekgoa” would be “The spit of the ocean” because the first white people to arrive in South Africa were more or less spat up from the ocean. Lovely [1]. The second, and perhaps more credible explanation is that the word finds its roots in the verb “go kgoa” which means “to be rude or have no manners”. Adding “le-“ is a common way to nounify a verb in Setswana [2]. (Now, I have friends that complain that the “le-/ma-“ noun class is an object class used to describe things like brooms, spoons, and bad people like thieves. Honestly, though, “lekgarebe” and “lekgau” are in the same class and mean “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” respectively, so no more complaining on that count.)

Lekwerekwere – “lay-kway-ray-kway-ray” – n. – non-southern African African’s, illegal immigrants, the equivalent of “spick” in American English.

This also has many fanciful candidates for an origin story, but the most credible one I’ve found comes from Lesotho. The Sotho equivalent is “lekoerekoere” and it’s origin is pretty much the same as the origin of the word “barbarian”. When Sotho speaking southern African’s encountered other Africans, it sounded like they were speaking gibberish saying “kwere-kwere-kwere” so there you have it, they are the “makwerekwere”.

So on the face of it, “Lekgoa” seems like a greater slur than “Lekwerekwere” but the subtext of South Africa flips that on its head.

When the xenophobic attacks broke out, people at home became frantic because PCVs are also foreigners and might be targeted. But there are two classes of foreigners in South Africa; the Lekgoa and the Lekwerekwere. Xenophobia is mostly targeted at the latter. “Makwerekwere” was originally restricted to other Africans, but unfortunately, I feel like the term has become a bit more derogatory in South Africa and signifies a sentiment against any “foreigner” that is seen to be taking jobs. I was told that I shouldn’t worry about the attacks because it was aimed at other Africans. Then I watched the news and saw a Bangladeshi guy almost in tears talking about how a mob came and destroyed everything he had worked years to create. In the background, some cops were standing around outside of his shop, laughing. My Bangladeshi shop owner friends started locking up earlier each night.

So really, even if I was white, I wouldn’t mind being called “Lekgoa” every day. At least it means, people know I’m a foreigner and not an Afrikaaner. Not that there is anything wrong with being Afrikaaner. It would just lead to a lot of other unspoken assumptions that could be problematic. Instead, whenever I travel to a city or a new taxi rank, I ask myself, who is calling me “Makwerekwere” in their head and what can I do to change their mind. I have never heard someone call me “Makwerekwere” to my face and if I did, I would probably be better off showing them my heels; whether that meant kicking them in the face or running away, would probably depend on how many of them there were. (On the plus side, I do get called “my friend” which is the generic village term for any South Asian shopowner. The less nice term for South Asians is “coolie” or “macoolie” in Tswana)

Riding a khumbi is always a unique experience. Cramming a minimum of 14 people, a driver, a few babies, luggage, groceries, and perhaps two, three, or ten more people into a minibus van has a tendency to bring out the best and worst in people. A week ago, two of my teachers were shopping in town and loading up a taxi to take their things back to the village. Now, these teachers, like most of my teachers, are not Batswana (Tswana people). They come from Gauteng, Limpopo, Eastern Cape, KZN, Mpumalanga, etc. They serve a village educating kids while their own kids are thousands of kilometers away. Some of them have been doing it for up to 13 years. I have a huge respect for them because I know I couldn’t do this for much more than two years. So, two of these teachers were at the taxi loading up and leaving some bags on their seats to save their spots.

A woman came buy, looked angrily at the seats and demanded, “Why are those bags on the seat?”
Mme S replied, “We are loading our things. That is where my friend Mme M is going to sit.”
The woman grunted in disapproval, removed the bags, and sat down. Mme M confronted her about it to which the woman replied,

“You teachers think you are so special but you’re just Makwerekwere who came here on the back of some trucks. You should just go back to where you came from.”
“Excuse me, we are teaching your children.”
“You’re just here because you can’t get a job in your home. We aren’t stupid. Why do we need you to teach our children?”
“So where are your teachers then?”

In the end both my teachers made it back to the village but they were both fuming. It made me wonder what people might be thinking about me on the khumbi, or anywhere really.

But being “Lekwerekwere” isn’t always a bad thing. When a group is stereotyped and clumped together, people that previously had no connection tend to unite and watch each other’s backs. On a taxi, a South Asian will always give me a knowing nod. Non-South African African’s will approach me in the taxi rank to ask for help or directions, sometimes choosing to talk to me over South Africans. Once, a village shop owner that I’d never met before sat next to me on a taxi. After saying hello we sat in silence for one and a half hours until we came to a gas station. While the tank filled, he got out and came back with two Powerades and handed me one. Again, I got the knowing nod. I like that nod.

Most recently, I was standing by the side of the road waiting for a taxi to take me back to my village. There were a few Tswana people waiting as well as a guy that I’m going to guess was Somali. I greeted everyone as usual and we stood around for a long time. Finally a taxi came but had only two spots open. A woman with a small child got in as well as the Somali guy. Once I saw the taxi was full, I turned around to go sit down. When I didn’t hear the engine start, I turned around to see the Somali guy gesturing for me to come back. He said I had arrived before him so shouldn’t wait and he squeezed over to give me room to cram in. There were other people who had arrived earlier too but he knew I was a strange person in a strange land, just like him, and lent a hand with a knowing nod.

I used to be a bit annoyed that I didn’t have the “Pied Piper Effect”. I used to be relieved to not constantly be harangued by people yelling “Lekgoa”. Being a white volunteer brings challenges and benefits. Being a minority volunteer brings challenges and benefits. They just are different challenges and benefits. In the end you just have to be aware of it, be mindful of it, and give a little nod.

(1) This first explanation comes from my Pre-Service Training language instructor, in incredible Gordan.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Turning the Page

Disclaimer: The month of July was somewhat tumultuous for me on a personal level. Now at last, I feel enough at peace to write again. However, I’ve also debated at level of detail which I wish to write about my own private life in a domain as public as this blog. I understand that part of the point of a blog is to share one’s private life and indeed that is what I’ve been doing, but there are some things that I don’t think are right to put out so openly. The most I will say is this: the past month has made me more deeply aware of the beauty of life and the sorrow of death; the comfort of love and the pain of separation. Those of you who are my friends reading this will probably find out more detail about this past month from me at some point through a more private means of communication. Nevertheless, the private struggle of the last month has helped me focus more clearly on my public work as a volunteer. So, I apologize if this post seems to be high on philosophy and low on storyline but I want to share the upshot of the last month.

It’s now been over a year since I arrived in South Africa (September 21 will mark 1 year as an official Peace Corps Volunteer). I’ve been going through many transitions all at once. The main project that consumes my time at the moment is my library and literacy campaign. I’ve also found myself reading and writing a lot more recently. The cold winter is slowly warming to spring. Some changes are welcome, some are dreaded, but all seem to become more manageable when taken in the context of a bigger picture. Every change, no matter the size, is the turning of a page. Though the good ones may seem small and insignificant, they help move us forward bit by bit. Though the bad ones seem insurmountable, they too will be buried behind chapters with time.

The Family Book

July Holiday

My family and Kana came to visit for two weeks. We went to Zambia to see Victoria Falls and then traveled back to South Africa to see Kruger, my village, and a few other places along the way. It was an incredible time, though bittersweet at points.
When everyone arrived, we spent a day to allow them to get over jetlag and just hang out. We got dinner with a bunch of my volunteer friends in Pretoria one night. The next day we went to a mall and my parents insisted on getting me a new pair of shoes since the ones I was wearing had holes in them and had had their soles glued back on twice. We also saw Kung-Fu Panda, which was great (my second time seeing it…). Then we packed up and got on a plane to head to Victoria Falls.

Rainbows in the mist

Victoria Falls was incredible and the place we stayed, the Royal Livingstone, was something out of a fairy tale. It’s basically the epitome of luxury within my life’s experience so far, and probably will remain so for quite a while. At check in, they walk you into a spacious lounge, seat you on a couch, give you fresh juice and a hand massage, while taking your particulars. You then get on a golf cart and are driven to your room/cottage, equipped with its own butler. Outside, giraffes and zebras are roaming around on the banks of the Zambezi River, in which hippos wallow. You can see the mist rising from the falls, which are only a 10 minute walk away. The meals are exquisite and the staff, incredibly warm. When you return to your room after dinner, you find the bed turned down for you, covered in rose petals, bathrobes and slippers laid out nicely, and soothing light classical music playing. After a year of battling cock-roaches, baking under a corrugated iron roof, and subsisting on pap and peanut butter, it was almost too much to completely soak in. The falls themselves were magnificent, with a spray that would leave you doused just walking by it. It was quite different than Niagara Falls, with its sheer breadth enough to leave you in awe. With Victoria Falls, it was hard to take in the whole falls at once. It is more reticent to disclose its full splendor. There is also a surprising lack of guardrails at hazardous locations. One evening we went on a sunset cruise up the Zambezi River. It was very relaxing and we got a chance to see some more hippos and elephants from our boat.

It's a baby!

Soon though, the lazy days came to an end and we headed back to South Africa. We drove a little north of Pretoria and spent the night. The next day we headed to Magoebaskloof on our way to Kruger. Magoesbaskloof is a beautiful area, full of mountains and waterfalls. We did a short hike from our hotel to a waterfall and spent time just hanging out. The next day we headed into Kruger to Gomo Gomo Game Lodge. It is in the Timbavati Private Game Reserve which is part of the Greater Kruger, but technically not part of the national park. Every day at 5:30am we’d get a wake-up call. By 6:30am we were in our Land Rover with our ranger and tracker looking for wildlife. We’d come back at 10 and have breakfast before going for a nature walk where we’d learn about tracks, droppings, and flora. At 2pm we’d have lunch and then 3:30pm mount back up for an afternoon game drive. We’d be back by 7:30 and have dinner and be in bed by 9ish. During the night, we couldn’t go outside our rooms because there are no fences. One night, some lions walked through our camp. I don’t remember all the animals we saw but there were a lot. We saw all the big five: lion, leopard, elephant, water buffalo, and rhino. We also saw giraffes, zebras, hippos, crocodiles, a multitude of different antelope, eagles, cranes, chameleons, mongoose, bushbabies, baboons, monkeys, and more. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.


After Kruger, we drove up through the Blyde River Canyon and I got to share some of my favorite spots of South Africa with my family. We stayed in Graskop and I haggled with some street vendors to get two drums. One huge ornamental one that got sent home, and one djembe for me to play here. It was the last full day of the trip with Kana. The next day we drove to the airport and sent her off back to Japan. From there we continued on our way out west. The next day we went to Vryburg and got to do some major shopping for me. I still have tons of food I’m trying to finish. We then made our way up to Tsoe where I shared the people and places I’ve grown to love with my family. We even had time to make a small jaunt down to Perth to see Art. After a few days though, they had to head back and I had to prepare for getting back to work.
It was wonderful to spend time with my family and Kana, and to share my life here with them. At the same time, I realized that the life I return to a year from now will have little resemblance to the one I left last year. The care and affection for the important people in my life will remain, but the details, the locations, and the terms of all relationships changes with time.

Pages of a Troubled Past

Before, during, and after the vacation, I was busy trying to put together the 3rd PCSA Cultural Panel for the Pre-Service Training of SA18. The Diversity Committee started this panel, which brings together speakers from different racial backgrounds to share their life experiences with the trainees and give them a better understanding of the often complex racial subtext on which our service takes place. Unfortunately I was unable to lock down a white speaker and logistics ended up being a nightmare, but it was well worth it to get to befriend three amazing South Africans and help them share their stories with the trainees. While changing names to preserve privacy, I’d like to share some of the highlights that these speakers shared with me.

Mma Mabatho was raised in the townships but spent her adult life in a rural community. She was the last child of her parents and her father, who had so wanted a son, decided to raise her as one. He taught her that she was responsible fully to herself and should never let anyone, man or woman make her think she was less than them. When she got beat up by a boy in school, her father didn’t get angry; he gave her boxing lessons so that next time, she walloped the punk. Living out in rural South Africa, she defied traditions, wearing pants and driving trucks while she was pregnant. Still, she forged her image as a leader, developing her community and pushing education. She is a testament to the individual that doesn’t just fight against the restrictions of society, but transcends them in a way that makes them seem non-existent to an onlooker. In a world still dominated by males and tainted with chauvinism, her and her father are archetypes of a bright future.

Yvonne is a young colored woman from KZN. When going through high school, she approached her principal saying she wanted to go to tertiary school. He looked at her in disbelief and tried to convince her to just get a job like everyone else. After struggling for a year in a university for which her high school had not prepared her, she begrudgingly took his advice, working five years before deciding, to hell with them all, she was going to educate herself. She went back to school, studying by day, working by night, and finished her bachelors. She took some time off from education to be a mother and get a job but is ready to go back for further education now. She is an incredibly driven woman, very well read, and well spoken. She eloquently lays out the great contradictions of the colored identity. Kept at arms distance by the white government, they now find themselves kept at arms distance by the black government because they were seen as trying to be white when it was fashionable and now trying to be black. It was hard to fit them into the Apartheid system because they were the evidence that Apartheid didn’t really work. It was illegal for whites and blacks to have sex but somehow these colored babies kept popping up. Yvonne was raised in a household where her parents rejected the label colored saying, we’re all black and we’re all in this together. She is passionate about developing the human potential of South Africa, even taking in kids from bad home situations and helping to raise and educate them.

Mr. Chandra was born in the late ‘40s and lived through the lifetime of Apartheid. Growing up in a small hut in an Indian township in Durban, he’d read by candlelight until his eyes hurt, seeing education as his only way out of the system. When he got his first bicycle, he was so excited he biked 5km to the beach for the first time. He didn’t have much time to enjoy the view of the Indian Ocean as a crowd of white boys gathered and started stoning him for daring to wander onto a white beach. Later, Mr. Chandra became a teacher and worked his way up the education system. One day for lunch, he and some colleagues went out for lunch at the SA equivalent of Wendy’s, called Wimpy’s. As they sat down at the counter, the manager approached them and said, “You can’t stay here. If you want to get food, go order at the pigeon hole outside. If you sit here, no one will come in here.” Indignant they all left eventually. In 1996, after the fall of Apartheid, Mr. Chandra went back to the same Wimpy’s and sat down. The very same manager was still there and came, this time with a smile on his face and ready to serve. Mr. Chandra asked if the manager remembered him, which he did not. He reminded him of the incident and the manager looked mortified and begged his forgiveness for participation in the system. What struck me was that Mr. Chandra did not harbor ill feelings towards those people that slighted him, he realized that they were also manipulated by the system and so could not be fully blamed. Now, Mr. Chandra is the principal of a school in an Afrikaans town that is now integrated. He is known and respected by all people there and is the go-to man if anyone has any problem with anything. Chatting after the panel he was saying how speaking about these things was interesting to him because he usually didn’t talk about the past. So much is buried inside that stirring it up can make one uncomfortable. Yet, he said, it was necessary to confront and make peace with the past if we are to turn the page and begin writing a future.

Books for a Brighter Future

Back in my village, I’ve been busy at work preparing for 1000 books to arrive at my school. I apologize to all those who generously donated that I have not yet sent out the thank you letters I should have sent out long ago. The books will be arriving in two weeks. In the meantime I’ve been busy preparing for their arrival. Our library committee is revving up. We’ve recruited to student librarians and I’ve got about 6 teachers behind me. We’ve begun cleaning out the shelves and sorting through the books we currently have. I’ve set up Koha Integrated Library Software on a computer ( and been setting it up to catalog all our books so we can register library members and run circulation with the computer. This past week, I went to the tribal meeting to speak about the library and recruit community volunteers to be librarians. Before the meeting began, I met two young villagers on the Youth Council. They both are bright young people who want to build up more skills but don’t have a job. They both signed up to help and then helped me during the meeting to explain exactly what a library is and how it can be useful to the village. When I got up to speak, I gave my presentation in seTswana. After a few sentences, an old cantankerous man stood up, ignored the chairperson and began railing about how he couldn’t understand what I was saying and that I should have brought an interpreter. To my immense relief, villagers all around started yelling at him saying to shut up and sit down because they could hear me just fine. Deflated, he sat down and I continued after the crowd said they understood me perfectly and wanted me to continue. At the end of the presentation, I sat down and the crowd applauded. A couple of people asked me questions about what kinds of books they could find and what they could do. One of my newly recruited assistants stood up and added some further information.

The next day, my friend George, another old villager, came to me and said he was so sorry that other man had harassed me and that they all understood me perfectly and appreciated what I was doing. Then on Friday as I was sorting through old books and writing up instructions, an older man came to the library and asked to see me. He was interested in finding some books on agriculture, particularly about pigs. Since the library is not nearly set up yet, I guided him through the piles and hastily created a circulation log and explained the lending rules. He was very excited to see borrow the books and also wanted to sign up to help with the organization of the library. In a village where reading just isn’t done, seeing an older man excited to have some books in his hands fills me with confidence as I prepare myself for some grueling weeks of cataloging and book sorting. Of course, it will be a long and tiring journey to making a library that is not only functional but also utilized but page by page, we are going to get there.

Keeping the Narrative Alive

I’ve been thinking deeply about what the meaning of change is and what is the point of struggling and suffering. My own, comparatively petty, struggles aside, I look around me every day: seeing teenagers that can’t write their own names, seeing girls having babies in middle school so they can get a government check, seeing an endless line of funerals, seeing the few kids that have dreams find them strangled in a bureaucracy that doesn’t care about anything except its own politics. I ask myself, what can I possibly offer them? Society has already written their story for them. Am I making it worse to even try to give them a glimpse of something better if they may never escape this poverty? No. The thought itself is dangerously akin to the patronizing talk that built up Apartheid and the Bantu Education system in the first place. I am not here imposing “development” on anyone. I am here to help people realize they have choices. If they are willing to make some tough choices, they can take their lives in their own hands and reclaim their future. The choice is still theirs as it always has been. I am here to help them realize that they still have a choice and help them find all the information they need to make the choice they want to make. My thoughts go back to a prayer I remember from my childhood, “Lord, give me the courage to change what should be changed, the grace to accept what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Theistic beliefs aside, striving for such courage, grace, and wisdom is key to any type of development work, whether it be civil development or personal development. When thinking of the dire situation some of my kids here are faced with, I think of Michael K from Coetzee’s book “The Life and Times of Michael K.” Whatever struggles we face, if at the end we can feel free and in control of our life. The end of that book, after so much despair and suffering, is to me, one of the most uplifting passages I’ve ever read. So this quote probably won’t make sense if you haven’t read the book and if you haven’t you may not want to read this, as it is the end of the book but I feel it is fitting to end on a final page:

“And if the old man climbed out of the cart and stretched himself (things were gathering pace now) and looked at where the pump had been that the soldiers had blown up so that nothing should be left standing, and complained, saying, 'What are we going to do about water?,' he, Michael K, would produce a teaspoon from his pocket, a teaspoon and a long roll of string. He would clear the rubble from the mouth of the shaft, he would bend the handle of the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up, there would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live.” – Closing of “The Life and Times of Michael K” by J.M. Coetzee

Sunset over the Zambezi

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Learning the Tswana Way

Tsoe Youth Day 2008

It was 10am on the 16th of June. The 150 person tent was mostly set up and I was working with some kids to get the sound system working. The Beauty Pageant coordinators were arguing that we set up the tent in the wrong place and had to move it. About 50 kids were running wildly about the school. The “Fun Walk” and games that were supposed to keep them busy from 8-10am had failed to occur due to one teacher’s ineptitude at organizing. About 10 village elders, women and men, were sitting outside the tent looking around curiously. We were supposed to have started the program by now. We were supposed to have a whole lot more people here if we expected to actually raise any money for the library with this event. We were supposed to have figured out all this stuff a long time ago. Looking at the chaos about me, I was ready to throw in the towel. I wanted to tell my teachers, “Look, this isn’t going to work, let’s call it off now and save ourselves the embarrassment.” A white pick-up pulled into the school and my good friend Fr. Tarimo stepped out. He’s a big jolly priest, originally from Tanzania, who arrived in the village about a year before me. He had asked to come out to bless the beginning of the event and lead the youth in a prayer. I was standing dejectedly in the almost empty tent trying to help explain to the Beauty Pageant organizers why we could not move the tent at this point. Fr. Tarimo walked up with his customary grin, greeting everyone and making jokes with the other teacher organizers. Finally, he came to me. “Father, I don’t know what to do. I guess we’ll start as soon as the tent is over. But no one is here and this is a mess.” He looked around and put his hands up dismissively, “Don’t worry Kabelo, this is how the Tswana people work. They will come, I’m sure of it. I’ve sat in an empty church many times wondering, where are these Christians. They will come, just on their own time.” I knew Father had a busy schedule that day so I told him it may be awhile and he could get going. He said he would return later to see if he could enter into the program then. With that he gave me a firm handshake and drove off again in his pick-up. I seriously wondered if anyone would be around when he returned…

This wasn’t really my idea in the first place…

Youth Day is a commemoration of the June 16, 1976 student uprising in Soweto. The children were protesting the government’s policy of teaching everyone Afrikaans. Schools were burned, teachers were chased out of classrooms, marches were held, students were beaten, and children were killed. Every year since independence in 1994, South Africa has used June 16 to honor those youth that died in the struggle for freedom and to celebrate the youth of today. In cities, big events are held. In my village, there had been events the first few years, but nothing for a long time. My friend and neighboring volunteer, Art, had been talking about doing some kind of event in his village, Perth, as early as February. I was game to go down and help him out on the day. Then in early May, I ran into a policeman friend, who suggested we try to organize a joint event with the school and the police. Seeing someone in my village take initiative, I soon got caught up in the excitement and was busy making plans to hold a celebration in my village. I had a meeting with my high school staff and had about a third of them on board. I made a draft program and passed around a sign-up sheet for events. Teachers signed up to lead and coordinate a Field Day/Games, a Speech Contest, Traditional Dance performances, Choir performances, a Beauty Pageant, food, and publicity. The program was in large part inspired by a Valentine’s Day event that my buddy, Adam Bohach, held in his village. Unfortunately, an incident in a neighboring village took the police away for several weeks, making their involvement non-existent. I knew that if this was going to work, I was going to need help from the teachers and community. I was going to be spending 10 days in Pretoria for a string of meetings and workshops. When I returned there would only be one week before the event. I packed my bags and hoped for the best.

It would be “in tents”

When I returned, I found that development for the event had been uneven. Some teachers had really gotten into the role and were doing a great job recruiting student participants. Others thought they were doing splendidly simply because they had thought about what they wanted to do rather than actually doing anything. I met with the main organizers and tried to get them all on the same page. I then went about doing publicity and soliciting donations from local shops and businesses since this had been neglected. I sent invites to all the parents, put up shops in stores, talked with the Kgosi (chief), and flyered the shops. Unfortunately, I got food poisoning which knocked me out for two days, limiting the publicity I could do. Fortunately, a couple of teachers picked up the torch and went to town to get the most of the food, supplies, and prizes we’d need.

The keystone though was supposed to be the tent. Big tents are set up for most major village gatherings. Unfortunately, the majority of those tend to be funerals or tombstone unveilings but they are also used at weddings. If you see a big tent in a village, it usually means, there are lots of people there and maybe you should go too. I figured, if we had a big tent, people would come. Problem is, tents can be expensive so I needed to convince someone to “borrow me” a tent free of charge. With one of my teachers who is from the village, I set out to talk to one enterprising villager who runs a tent rental company. He works as a policeman in Vryburg so getting in touch was a bit tough. Finally, we phoned him and tried to plead our case. In the end he generously agreed to give us a tent for free provided only teachers set it up (worried about children getting injured) and that the school took responsibility to pay in the event of damage. I agreed to the terms and got him to throw in a microphone too. The plan was to pick up the tent at 8am (as the games began at the school) so that we could have it all set up by 10am for the main event to begin.

A little help from my friends

Feeling a little overwhelmed by the amount of things that had to come together. I sent out an invitation to other PCVs to come out and help with the event. In the end my friend, Megan Clapp (i.e. the talking zebra) answered my call and came out during the weekend. We spent the weekend checking in with teachers, making programs, making raffle tickets, and figuring out how exactly things were supposed to work out for Monday. When Monday morning came, Megan went to the school a little before 8am to help out with the games and set up. I went with my teacher Mr. Mphatwe to pick up the tent and sound system.

I had been under the impression that it would be very easy to get the tent and take it to the school. I had asked Mr. Mphatwe where the tent was to make sure we didn’t have to drive half an hour to get it. “It’s not far, it’s just around here,” he had said waving his hand in the air. We drove to about 4 different houses all around the village, asking where the tent was, where the key was, where the guy that was supposed to help us was, etc. Finally we drove out up over some hills to one end of my village and met some guys that worked with the tents. We loaded up and headed back, picking up the sound system and microphone along the way. By the time we arrived at the school, it was 9am. Apart from a few teachers coordinating the beauty pageant Megan, and a dozen kids, no one was there. I tried not to think about it and worked with my teachers to get the tent set up.

Keeping the Faith

By the time 10am rolled around, when the program was supposed to begin, things were not looking good. With a little encouragement from my friend, the priest though, I resolved to see the event through and braced myself to deal with minimal attendance and a big negative balance for the library.

Mr. Mphatwe and one of the pageant coordinators, Mme Kekana, finally came up with a compromise for the pageant and went about slightly modifying the set up. I recruited students to help set up chairs. By 10:30am, Mr. Sepeng, my right hand man and the MC of the day came to me. “KB, you know there are some people who have a bad attitude and want to see this fail. We cannot let them be satisfied. We must begin the program now and deal with things.” With that he went to assemble the color guard for the flag raising and I herded all the wandering people out to the flag pole. Mr. Sepeng and another teacher led the flag raising and singing of the national anthem. Unfortunately, the kids raising the flag somehow managed to get it tangled up. I couldn’t help but see it as a bad omen.

After a short opening speech, everyone raced back to the tent to try and get in without paying. I chased them out as quickly as possible and set up the entry line. One guy walked in visibly drunk, carrying a liter bottle of hard cider. This is going to be great… I thought about ejecting him but soon found myself overwhelmed. I had thought there was almost no one, but the Father was correct. People had begun to come by 11am as I finished getting the early birds seated. Other teachers took over the entrance and I looked out over the village to see people kilometers away making their way towards the school. The drizzle became a downpour and people were coming in for the whole first half. Mr. Sepeng dealt commendably with the amorphous program, creatively inserting events that had been prepared without my knowledge and removing events that failed to materialize.

I began selling raffle tickets late but still made enough money to cover the costs of the prizes as well as the prizes from the failed field day. Everywhere I looked, my teachers were busy taking initiative, making decisions, and helping out (I know my fellow PCVs are as stunned by that statement as I am). We ran a lot later than expected and we had to cancel the scheduled movie. The Beauty Pageant was wonderfully organized but took a ridiculously long time. However, in the end, we had probably over 500 people attending (close to 600 if you include participants and teachers). We raised a few hundred Rand for the library and for the Grade 12 farewell function. Though only 1/3 of my teachers had shown initial interest in the event, a full ¾ played major roles in the day. Best of all, the kids seemed to have a great time and most people involved felt successful though exhausted. When I returned home, my host sister, Kego, who goes to college in Cape Town, congratulated me on successful event. She said, it was something big for the village, getting parents involved in their kids, and even took people out of the taverns. She cited the guy that had walked in with the hard cider and I laughed thinking back on my previous disappointment at seeing him there.

Though I am still just beginning to understand it, the Tswana way of life has its own measures of success and its own way of looking at things. People, especially my teachers, surprised me, and made me feel a little ashamed for doubting them. The village came together around their youth and gave me faith that together we can make a difference in their lives.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Motho ke Motho ka Batho

I am because you are (in seTswana). This statement, known best in its abbreviated Zulu form as, Ubuntu, is a common refrain you hear throughout South Africa. It’s a source of pride and an answer to many puzzling questions for many people here. Why wasn’t there a massacre of the white’s once black’s came to power? Ubuntu. Why is it so important to greet everyone you see? Ubuntu. Why do people welcome you into their home and offer you tea when you just stop by to chat on the road? Ubuntu. Yet, through some of the recent news coming out of this country, you may wonder, where is Ubuntu? How can mobs rape, kill, burn, and rob others simply because they have come from another country in search of hope and opportunity?

A Little Context

First off: I am safe in my village and things out here are calm.

In case you have not heard the news coming out of South Africa, here is a brief summary. Last week, violence erupted in townships around Johannesburg targeting foreign Africans in South Africa (both illegal and legal migrants). Mobs raged through shanty towns burning buildings and people, beating, looting, and killing. In response to these attacks a few groups of migrants organized gangs to protect themselves or exact revenge and soon the violence spread to areas all over Gauteng and to other urban areas in the country. The violence has been mostly one way though with the poor migrants getting the worse end. South Africa is home to millions of migrants (literally about 3 million Zimbabweans who have fled their ruined country), they come from all over Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and China looking for opportunity and working hard to make a living and support family back home. Many blame these foreigners for the increased crime and for the high unemployment rates (both can be pretty much have no real quantitative support, but alas, word of mouth trumps reality). Now the army has been deployed, the police are out in force, but the violence still continues. The unions have even pledged to get involved on the ground to protect the migrants. The whole thing is a thorough embarrassment for the ANC, many of whose leaders found shelter in neighboring African countries during the apartheid regime.

Still a Rainbow Nation

Even as xenophobic attacks continue to rock the urban areas, demonstrations were held in many cities today against the violence. As I watched the news today I was struck by the scenes of the protestors: white, black, brown, and every shade in between. Though the violence is present mainly in cities, xenophobia is pretty widespread, especially in poor areas (rural villages and townships). No matter what the American pundits may say, whenever a government fails to deliver, those that economically suffer do get bitter. And when they get bitter, socially entrenched positions, good or bad, often help them lay blame, whether its race, religion, gun rights, or what-not. Out here, it is nationality. Nigerians are drug dealers. Mozambicans are thieves. Zimbabweans are stealing jobs. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are scrooges. And perhaps most ironically, Chinese are xenophobic. Despite these prejudices though, for the most part all these people coexist with South Africans. In my village, the Chinese shop owner couple just had a baby and my host aunt and her daughter went to see the baby. Some of the South Asian shop owners have girlfriends in the village. The Tanzanian priests get visits from other South Africans on the weekends. I feel welcomed and accepted by the vast majority of people. As I walk or bike anywhere, I’ll always hear several people call out, “KB!” my seTswana nickname. This in a village about half the size of the town I grew up in in South Dakota and a lot more isolated and rural. It’s certainly not perfect, and the lack of trust for outsiders can be stifling at times. Nevertheless, the good parts are impressive. Still, what is it that feeds those prejudices and fans the flames until they explode?

E Pluribus Unum

What is it that leads people to say they won’t vote for Obama because he is black, or for Hilary because she is a woman? What is it that leads to fences being built from places as different as Texas and Israel? Xenophobia and prejudice of all shades is not confined to South Africa. But neither, on the other hand, is Ubuntu. It is a choice that lies before us all, continually presenting itself to us throughout our life. When I think back on the warmth I was shown as a child growing up in South Dakota, I smile. Despite those who judged me without knowing me, there were those who respected me and trusted me even though I was non-white and non-Christian. They saw me learning about their culture, their religion, their lives and they were curious about mine. E pluribus unum, out of many, one: it is stamped on every coin in the US. It is a testament to the fact that our nation was founded out of the peoples of many different countries, indeed different continents. It is a reminder of the 13 different colonies that united to create their own freedom and dignity by recognizing that of each other. And if you read it one way, it sounds a lot like Ubuntu. One exists because of many. In seTswana: Motho ke motho ka batho. One is a person through people.

One Love, One Choice

I have a good friend in Belize with whom I sometimes am lucky enough to catch online. After sharing our struggles and successes, he often closes the conversation with a simple expression: One love. It is a love of people that I’d like to believe is more universal and more fundamental than the xenophobia and prejudice that make the headlines.

Over ten months ago, I got off a bus with over 90 other Americans, from all walks of life who had left loved ones and certainty behind for two years. We were greeted by over a dozen South Africans, who had left their homes for two months to share their language and culture with us in preparation for our service. Ubuntu certainly is not dead, neither in the U.S. nor in South Africa.

Rather than become cynical about Ubuntu, I think it’s important, especially for us as PCVs, to realize that the concept is not uniquely South African. Ubuntu is about more than just South African pride, it’s about human dignity. It’s not something inherent in each human; it’s a choice - a choice to recognize and honor the humanity of another. So in this time of outrage and shame, rather than fault South Africa, the failure of Ubuntu, or even demonize the people perpetrating the terror, let us challenge ourselves to recognize the dignity in all humans despite all our faults. Hopefully this recognition will help those blinded by prejudice to see their own self worth and thereby realize that of others.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tongue Tied

One of the things I place a lot of importance on as a Peace Corps volunteer is the ability to speak the local language. Despite what some may think, I am far from fluent in seTswana despite having been here for almost a year. Still, I’m probably one of the volunteers most comfortable speaking seTswana in my group though there are a number of my buddies who have surpassed me in written seTswana at this point. Recently, my efforts at ongoing language learning have diminished as my old tutor got busy with studies and I got busy with work. I also was starting to feel that though I’m no native speaker, I had enough seTswana under my belt and the ability to learn the rest by myself for whatever I would need to do my service. I had in fact shifted gears to try and develop language learning material to help incoming volunteers in their first encounters with the language. However, after the events of today, I’ve realized I’ll probably never have all the seTswana I need to be the best volunteer, but I damn well won’t stop trying now. I’ll still be working on language learning material for beginners, but I’m going to try a new tutor and try to get my tongue churning out new tenses, vocab, and constructs every week.

The reason for this sudden rekindling of the fire inside me was an event that was kind of like being hit in the face by a pile of bricks.

The Pitso (literally, the calling, but means a village meeting called by the chief)

Every once in a while there is a big tribal meeting in the village. The chief, village councilor, elders, and tons of villagers attend to discuss community issues. After meeting with my chief last week, I’d decided to go full steam ahead with the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign termed HELP (HIV Education & Life-skills Project). Yeah, you can’t be in Peace Corps without loads of acronyms. I met with the clinic and got their backing as well. We agreed to meet with the village and lay out our plan to get feedback and suggestions. I worked to prepare a short speech in seTswana as best I could, getting a few words translated by my teachers. I tried to make it short and to the point but perhaps I cut out a bit too much. The day of the meeting, the clinic sent a nurse to come help out. I’d never met her before but she was my saving grace.

I arrived at ten to 10am when the meeting was supposed to start. The chief arrived at about 10am and the nurse arrived around 10:10am. Everyone else arrived over the next hour. We began at a little after 11am. As is typical, there was a hymn sung and a prayer. The nurse and I were introduced and asked to say our bit. I got up, made my little speech. I motivated the fact that we have some problems here in our little village but that we can help change things together. I told them our plans for teaching life skills in the school to empower youth to make smart choices. I talked about our HIV testing drives we hope to start. I talked about our partnership with the clinic to do health education with the community and to distribute condoms to the shops and to the taverns. I talked about how we hope to train Home Based Care workers, ministers, and anyone else interested in how to implement a life skills training program for youth. Though I had my written speech in front of me, I was speaking comfortably, flying through the tough words and even putting in hand gestures and making eye contact. Then I asked if there were any questions. I looked out at blank faces and my heart sunk. Did I pronounce things that terribly?

I introduced the nurse and sat back to try and digest. She gave a talk touching on the issues I’d mentioned. She talked about HIV and how people should use gloves or at least a plastic bag when helping anyone that is bleeding. She talked about TB. She mentioned how the clinic has free testing for both and if you have them you can get meds from the government for free. She also talked about teenage pregnancy saying how we need to talk to our girls more openly. She said we tell the girls not to play with boys but then they just go and have sex with them so we need to start talking about sex and condoms. Then she asked if there were any questions. Maybe it’s a cultural thing or maybe it took time to digest, but there were hands up immediately and I soon found out they heard me loud and clear.

The first question was some technical question about TB that the nurse handled. Then one woman asked a question about what exactly we were going to put in the taverns and shops. When we said condoms, it was like opening pandora’s box. I’d said mesomelana in the speech which is the seTswana word for condom but sometimes English-Tswana is better and when we said di-condomos the room came to life. Soon there was a raging debate going on. On one side were mainly elders and other old men, with several old women nodding approvingly. On the other side were me, the nurse, a few brave younger villagers, and thankfully, the chief. When passions were ignited and the rapid fire seTswana started flying around the room I was struck with the realization of how much more I needed to learn seTswana if I wanted to make a case on any important issue and really convince people. I was very fortunate to have the nurse there answering questions for me. I was uplifted when a woman and a man both stepped up at certain points to wholeheartedly endorse our plans and make an impassioned defense of our position. I was relieved when the chief weighed in and did his best to cool heads and find common ground. But through all of it, I was frustrated that I could not do more myself. Without any of those people, I would have been completely lost.

Here are some choice bits from the debate including my inner English monologue:

Old man: “This is teaching our children to have sex!”

What I said in my head: “When did anyone ever need to be taught how to have sex? This is teaching them to make smart choices, realize the consequences of sex, and if they choose to still engage in it, to do so with as much protection as possible.”

What my defenders said (or at least what I think because they too spoke in rapid Setswana): “We are still telling the kids not to have sex. We are just saying, for those who will do it anyways, at least use a condom. We can’t tell them that unless condoms are available.”

Old man: “The condoms are being thrown in the street and small children are playing with them!”

What I said in my head: “Obviously, this means that we need MORE not less sex education so that 1) people who use condoms think of smart ways to dispose of them and 2) so that kids know what the difference between a condom and a balloon is.”

What my buddies said: “That’s why we are talking to you now. You need to go spread this information amongst the community. After using a condom, wrap it in toilet paper and throw it down the toilet. If you don’t have a toilet, dig a small hole and bury it.”

There was a lot more debate but those are the only things I really caught. The chief made a really good speech that, as far as I can tell, was about how we can’t ignore the reality of this disease and we need to talk about it openly. He talked about how it is here and partly comes from the migrant workers and then just spreads as people sleep around. We can’t stop people having sex, but we can educate them to make smart choices and give them condoms if they still choose to have sex. At least I kind of think that’s what he said based on previous conversations I’ve had with him and the bits of the speech I caught.

We didn’t really end with any kind of consensus. The old men seemed to always want to have the last word. I realized even though the chief is the chief, he’s a young chief, so the old guys don’t necessarily fall in line. Age carries huge weight here, which is the main reason I’ve kept my beard and will probably grow it back after you all visit. There is support though and it seems to exist among the younger crowd. Honestly, that’s the crowd I’m after because they are the ones that earn money, move around, and do the real work in the village. I’m not going to change some of the minds that are stuck in their ways although I don’t think all the elders are against me.

After the kgosi and the councilor wrapped things up, me and the nurse were excused to get back to work. As we walked outside one of the more cynical of the old men, who I think smelled a little drunk, came out to talk to us. He was going on about how it’s silly to tell people to wear gloves when the take care of people that are bleeding because what if he’s walking down the road and someone is hurt. The nurse pointed out that there are tons of plastic bags lying around that would work. Finally, I reached into my bag and pulled out the latex gloves I always carry around. It’s as simple as putting a plastic bag in your pocket with your phone every day. Unconvinced he went on to talk about how he never has and never will use a condom (personally, I find it hard to believe this guy is still having sex at his age…but you never know…) The nurse was getting a bit agitated at this point and was like, well, you are going to die then, good bye. Finally though, he addressed me directly asking if I was a doctor. I said no, I am a volunteer from America. Then he went off asking, do you know where AIDS comes from? It comes from America! At this point, I almost went off on the guy but the sister cut in saying, no, AIDS comes from blood, so wear gloves and use a condom (you dumb old bugger). With that she excused us and we walked away.

I guess I’d heard all the stereotypes and myths and misunderstandings before but not all at once. This is also the first time I’ve been involved in such a big (the room was literally overflowing, probably over 100 people) and public discussion about HIV/AIDS in my village. It certainly won’t be the last. I’m just glad I’d taken the chief’s advice to bring someone from the clinic with me. If it had been just me, it would have gone terribly. As it stands I think it was mixed. It was sad to see how deeply entrenched the old guard is and disheartening to face their disapproval. It was great to see the dialogue happening. It was even better to see some people really passionate and informed about working on this cause. On the balance though, I think we things did go well though because at least I’ve got the chief on my side.

So even though 80% of the conversation went over my head, some old women were giggling uncomfortably like school girls, and I’ll probably be known as “condom man” in the village from now on, at least we got people talking about HIV/AIDS and condoms in a public setting.

Life is full of successes and failures. To make them worthwhile one needs to capitalize on the successes and learn from the failures. The conversation has been opened up in my village. For my part I need to go back to seTswana boot camp so that my voice can be heard in that dialogue.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ke a Leboga Bomma!

So since today is Mother's Day, I'd like to dedicate this entry to Mothers (Bomma). In particular to some mothers that I really respect.

To South African Mothers: The amount of things these women have gone through is phenomenal. From growing up in Apartheid and raising children in the face of unfaithful husbands (not all, mind you, but many) and HIV/AIDS. In particular, my host mother, Mma Tati (Mother of Tati, mother's become known by the name of their firstborn...) never got past a standard 2 (grade 4) education. Her husband died early, but she pushed on building up her farm, working for white families as a domestic worker, building a nice house, and sending her only daughter through college. Thanks to her, her family is among the better off in the village. Though she's probably well over 70 and has a nasty cough (probably caused by asbestos), she's still active, going out in the yard to clear away weeds even in the ridiculously hot summer sun here. The unfortunate problem of teen pregnancy out here though leads to a lot more mothers than are probably ready for the status so the current generation of mothers is serving double duty taking care of their daughters babies. So to all the mothers of South Africa, you are the backbone of this country and we working here appreciate all you have done to bring this country to where it is. To all those contemplating becoming mothers sure you know the responsibility you are about to assume. Those are some big shoes to fill.

To Mothers serving in Peace Corps: You guys rock. You've done your share of work over in the U.S. and most of you are now retired. Rather than sitting back and resting on your laurels, you suit up and get ready for an adventure. Now that you are here, you women have adopted all us college grad yearling's and helped us learn to roll with the punches, take life in strides, and see the bigger picture. Whether you have kids back in the U.S. or not, you are all my Mama's now.

To Mothers of Peace Corps Volunteers: Not only did you succeed in raising idealistic kids with the gumption to actually go out and do something in the world, but you also had the strength to let us go out on this adventure. Thanks for all the life's lessons you taught us. They are serving us well now.

To my mother: Whatever it is I have become and have accomplished, it's due to my parents and the way they have raised me. Mom, I've always had an open ear through all life's ups and downs. You're not only a mother, but you're a friend. You let me leave the nest earlier than you'd bargained for out of respect for me and my best interests. Every step of the way, you've respected me as an individual and the choices I've made, realizing we have to make our own mistakes so that we can truly know our successes. For all that you've sacrificed and given for me and for all I know you will do for me in the future despite whatever protests I may make, thank you.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The ABCs

Right now, I’m doing the preliminary work for two fairly big projects that I have a lot of high hopes for. The first is a library/literacy project that I’m hoping will help kids develop a love of reading and learning. The second is a project using ideas I got from our recent Life Skills Training to help raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. Both deal with the very difficult task of behavior change. However, I’m hoping with a multi-pronged approach and a little help from my friends I’ll be able to break some ground in developing healthier lifestyles that include a love for reading.

C is for cookie!

I grew up as a Sesame Street kid and from a young age, I’ve loved books and reading. A lot of this was thanks to my parents reading to me from as early as I can remember and also from taking part in library reading programs during the summers of my elementary school days. Out here in the village, it’s hard to find books. Reading is not something a lot of people do in their free time. However, I don’t think it’s out of lack of desire. People here, and especially kids, are often very bored. Africa may lack many things but one thing it is not short of is time. And with so much time, kids could potentially read a lot. Since I find myself with a lot of time now that I’m here in Africa, I sometimes read story books to my little 6 year old host sister (thanks Mom and Anita for sending kids books!). Even though she doesn’t understand English, she is always excited when I pull out a book now. The first time I read “Peter Rabbit” to her, we finished and she immediately said, “Bala gapa!” which means “Read again!” A lot of my buddies from Grade 12 also talk to me about wanting to read more books. I’ve leant a few some of mine. But really, we have a beautiful library room at my high school. It just lacks books…

As I’ve mentioned in a few earlier posts, my school was among the 31 selected to receive 1,100 books from Books for Africa as part of the Books for Peace Library Project orchestrated by PCV Rose Zulliger. Right now, we are undergoing fund raising efforts both locally and back at home in the states to ship all the books over to South Africa. We need to raise a total of $5000 at home for 35,000 books. Our schools together are raising about $6000 for shipping. On the home front we are about halfway there. We just need a little over $2,500 more to meet our goal. The way Peace Corps fundraising works is that we don’t receive any of the money until all of it has been raised so we are really trying to push to get that last $2,500 before the middle of May. That way we can start the books moving so hopefully they will get here, get sorted, get delivered, and be on our book-shelves by sometime in September. So, once again, I’m asking for help. Every little bit counts, every dollar you give brings over 7 books so I appreciate whatever you can give. You can donate at:

Once you donate, shoot me an email with your mailing address. I’d like to send a little token of appreciation for all who contribute.

Getting the books here is only the first step in this campaign. Some of my teachers and I have already started brainstorming different programs we can do with the library to encourage its use. We also want to get other teachers to start using it more and assign research projects using the library. Currently we have teacher librarians, but if local fundraising efforts go well, I’d really like to get a community member involved as a permanent librarian who can really focus on making sure everything is in order and used well. I’ve already talked to the village priests and my local NGO buddy and they are all excited and want to help out. Hopefully we can come up with some community awareness events to build up excitement and knowledge about the library before the books arrive so that once they do, we’ll have some volunteers to help us organize and arrange them all. If the books arrive in September then I’ll have a whole year to work with people involved to make sure things go smoothly, the community takes ownership, and we come up with strategies to keep building on our collection and reach out to the community. Of course the devil is in the details, but for now excitement is there.

Abstain, Be faithful, and C?

The other big project I’m trying to get rolling has to do with combating HIV/AIDS. Together with the Life Orientation teachers in my high school, I’m trying to start an awareness and testing campaign in my community. The local clinic is about 8km from where the high school and most of the community lives. With just one nurse, outreach during the week is not really possible since if she left, the clinic would have to be closed. Moreover, people in the village often fear getting tested because though tests are supposed to be confidential, there is fear of gossiping. To try and get around this, I’m trying to find outside groups that could come once a quarter and set up a voluntary testing station at the school. This would hopefully be open to the whole community and hopefully get people into the mindset of not just getting tested, but getting tested regularly. To bolster this effort, the Life Orientation teachers and I will be working throughout the school year to add basic life skills activities into the classroom to help foster a more open and honest dialog about HIV.

One place I’ve realized I need to start is with the C word. Yes, it’s tricky as an educator to talk about sex with kids. By law, we are not supposed to talk about condoms with kids under 14 (even though some kids are sexually active before then…). However, even with older kids, some teachers prefer to say C stands for “Change your attitude” rather than “Condomize.” If teachers are even afraid to talk about condoms, how are kids expected to even know how to use them properly? Because let’s be honest, we aren’t going to stop the kids from having sex. Maybe, with open honest discussion, we’ll convince a few to stop, but in a village where the main forms of entertainment are soccer, drinking, throwing rocks at goats, and sex. Sex wins out as the cheapest, easiest, and most fun. Hopefully with the library, after school clubs, and weekly movies, we can give kids other ways to have fun but until all those are rolling, we need to at least give kids knowledge on how to have safer sex. Inspired by stories from some SA15 volunteers, I’ve got ideas about how to help bridge this gap in knowledge. Hopefully I can get my teachers on board too.

Lastly, still in an extremely nascent phase, is another front I am hoping to potentially open in the battle against HIV in the village. After talking with my NGO buddy, Seatlasaone, I realized we could use the school holiday camps we’ve been doing in a more sustainable way by utilizing the kids that have finished high school but are just sitting around because they haven’t got jobs. Using the PC Life Skills manual, we are going to try to recruit and train a group of these youth to lead camps for kids during school breaks when they are generally most bored. Hopefully this will help ensure camps continue after I leave and also will empower those unemployed youth with some valuable and marketable skills. This though, is still little more than a brainstorming session and in the next few weeks hopefully will become something more solid.

The task is incredibly daunting no matter how we approach it, but we have to face it. Fortunately I’ve found sharing ideas with friends and other volunteers is one of the best ways to stay motivated and think of new things so, if you have any ideas, thoughts, or suggestions on ways to help tackle the issue of HIV/AIDS, send them my way.