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.