Saturday, April 18, 2009

A map with no compass

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

Lots of work, a little progress

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

January to April 2009

Adding Up

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

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

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

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

Just add water

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

Navigating some narrow ledges

Joel across the Scree

Adam and the ocean spray

Boys on the Beach

Zimbabwe Breathes Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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