Sunday, October 21, 2007

This entry is really for Friday

So today was a banner day for being a Peace Corps Volunteer as I was probably a little socially obtuse, incredibly resourceful, and appreciated by a random stranger. So this morning was great! The headache that I had had the previous night was gone, I was up before my alarm and the sunrise was amazing.

Another Peace Corps Volunteer called right after I finished talking with a friend that called from America, so I hurried up a bit and caught a taxi. As I was waiting for the taxi, the children walking to the closer school (Maikao) waved said hello and asked when I would be coming back. They've decided it's really cool to great me in English and Setswana, so I get to 'practice' both languages. So after a 10 minute or so taxi ride (the taxis are VW mini-bus looking things, and you ride with 14 other people, usually) I arrived at the stand and walked to the school, where some of the kids already knew my Setswana name, Thabiso (pronounced T-habiso, there's no th sound in Setswana, making for very interesting English pronunciation. Thabiso means bringer of happiness). Evidently our principals hadn't told the other principal that we were coming, so we met the principal as he was leaving for an appointment at the nearest optometrist (1 hour 15 minutes away). So we kinda wandered around until someone, who happened to be the deputy principal, showed us around. She stressed several times that we should call before our next visit, but I think we made a good impression. I did get the impression from some of the teachers that if we were working at other schools, why were we visiting theirs?

So after about a 40 minute tour, we were suddenly done with what we had planned for the day, so we walked the 50 minutes back to my school that is pretty much right next to my house. (town is the opposite direction of my far school, so that was out of the question). We could have taken a taxi, but it's also a good idea for us to walk, since we usually bounce ideas off each other. It also helps people realize that despite the fact that we are about the same, age, height, aren't black or Indian, have similar Setswana names (Kagiso and Thabiso), we are not the same person.

I briefly showed him one of the schools where I work, he'll get a better tour on Tuesday, and then we walked to my house, where we hung out on the roof, admiring a bird's nest and my handiwork in patching up a place where the concrete had cracked and was letting water in. I headed to school, where I attended a really long staff meeting, without even falling asleep!!! I did speak at the meeting, introducing them to the internet (courtesy of the Department of Education's project to get us connected, I'll blog that story as well) and letting them know that yes, I was here to help, but I had the same 24 hours as everyone else and that I like to sleep (which they did laugh at, yeah for humor).

After school I helped draft the language policy document for a school in the area, whose teacher just happened to be around. This consisted of me mostly asking her the right questions, in the end, she realized she had done the entire thing by herself, and complimented me on my teaching, and was blown away at the fact that I was 22. Many of my teachers have kids that are older than me, it's weird.

After that, I went home to find I was locked out of the main house, so I cleaned until they came home. As a volunteer I'm supposed to take two desks from my school. But since they are already overcrowded and short on desks, I couldn't bring myself to do it, but then I found about the storeroom (or junkpile) and got permission to use whatever I could find there since they just keep dumping more stuff on it every year. Using my host families pick-up we drove to the storeroom (literally an small abandoned two-room cinder-block house next to the school that was packed full with broken, old frames of desks and the wood that they use to make the desks).

I put the key in. It wouldn't fit. After about five minutes of jiggling the key around it still wouldn't fit. So I climbed in the window frame, and tried the key on the other side of the door. Wrong key. Luckily there was only one other person with me to laugh at me. Since I already looked like a thief (climbing in the window) I figured that actually doing what I came to do wouldn't be that bad. I was there, and I had the pick-up so I rummaged around and found some really nice looking frames and not so nice looking boards to use as desks. So I spent the rest of the evening making the boards look nice, washing them, sanding them down and making them into desks.

My host mom came out and was shocked, her classroom is one that is overcrowded. Over 40 1st graders in one class, sitting three to a desk at times, and all it took was a little time, sandpaper, soap, and screws to fix? Which means some will support me when I go to the principal and ask for a teacher work day to fix up everything that is broken in the school (well, not everything, but a half day would do wonders...)

And then lo and behold, it's time to eat/cook and check email. I get an email from Julie and leave the soup on the stove and run and get my computer. When I come back, the soup had boiled over, and the other pot was getting dangerously close. Of course my host mom comes into the kitchen at that point in time and kinda shakes her head and laughs as I explain in Setswana that yes... I made a mess. But the soup was good. My host sister was playing on the computer/ watching the rugby world cup. South Africa plays tomorrow against England, so naturally I facebooked Father Justin, the chaplain at the Rice University Catholic Student Center who is from England and played rugby, to ask for forgiveness in rooting against England.

However, this side of the Mediterranean Sea, the entire TV was just a giant celebration that they've come this far and that they might win and so people are composing songs, dances, etc, just for the final. It's madness; it's great, esp when you get to cheer in at least three languages (and your rugby mascot is a wild antelope/deerlike looking thing called a Springbok). My host sister even told me that her blood was green. Great time to be here!

Go Boks!!!

Sidenote: The Springboks won!!!!

Another sidenote: The picture is actually a sunset, not a sunrise, but you can kinda see why this area is called "the Texas of South Africa."

Friday, October 19, 2007

We interrupt this Peace Corps experience

.... to say go Springboks go!! (in at least three languages!) Half of the news today was devoted to the fact that the South African National Rugby Team made it to the finals... and is playing England tomorrow in Paris. My host sister told me today that her blood was green and started singing one of the numerous songs that have sprung up for the occasion (Leon Schuster has one, I think he's the only one anyone in the states would recognize), but you turn on the TV and all the newscasters are wearing jerseys. It's great! We talked about it a bit a school, but not for long, but there is definitely some excitement, at least among the younger kids, here in rural South Africa.

The person that I associate with rugby, Fr. Justin, is rooting for England most likely, but I've decided to root for the Boks, because I really like the songs and who could root against a Springbok that plays rugby?

Go Boks GO!!!

p.s. I'll return to a more normal Peace Corps experience after the IRB Cup is over.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

So what am I doing again?

I assume many of you are wondering a bit what exactly it is I am doing. I’ll let you know as soon as I do.

All joking aside, beyond the three main goal of Peace Corps (provide trained individuals to interested countries, promote understanding of host country nationals to Americans and promote understanding of Americans to host country nationals) my project has four main goals.

1) Assisting teachers in improving their teaching and classroom practices in all subjects

2) Complement the Department of Educations training of teachers and school managers

3) HIV/AIDS awareness and education both in the school and community

4) Working with educators, parents, and community members to strengthen the partnership between schools and communities

And … whatever else I decide to work on. In Peace Corps lingo that is termed a secondary project.

So right now my job consists of observing teachers while they teach, all in all, establishing rapport, and making detailed notes on any ideas they might have to improve themselves, and ideas that I might have. Needless to say, I’ve written a lot in both categories.

Why is this necessary?

To begin with, I’ll give a short history of apartheid education. To save on time, I have not included annotations to any of my sources, as many of them are oral. To begin with, Black education (please note that the term Black as used here is not by any means to be degrading, I would say Native Africans to be politically correct, but that is going too far, because doesn’t science claim that we share African ancestors? Please note that South Africa has a number of races, ethnic groups, etc. I use terms to describe people as they describe themselves, I personally dislike labeling people, but to make generalizations, one must, thus, I return to Black education) before the advent of missionaries was not the formalized training that one is used to in the Western world. Much of what was learned was learned from the communities, with an initiation ceremony (which could be quite painful) into adulthood in initiation schools which were taught by elders or one approved by elders to teach the youth. Initiation schools were only a few months and only right before initiation. This way, people knew their roles in society. Shaka Zulu did change this practice, but that is another long tangent.

Missionary Schools began to operate with their goal being the salvation of the soul of the African. Intellectual and white superiority in the terms of “civilized culture” were often taught as well, asking the Blacks to give up their indigenous beliefs for the purposes of being civilized. The two main groups of whites (term used here to describe those of European descent, who have fair complexion, straight hair, etc.) were the British and the Boers (or Afrikaaners), who did educate the Blacks but largely through Mission schools. That changed after Apartheid policies were adopted (following the 1948 ascension to power of the National Party).

The 1953 Bantu (Word formerly used to describe Black Africans) education act essentially changed the schools from being state-supported mission schools to being directly under the control of the government. However, some mission schools continued operating without help from the government, among them the Roman Catholic mission schools (the Seventh-Day Adventist and United Jewish Reform Congregation were the other mission schools that continued without government funding).

However, the other schools that had been registered/handed over to the government were soon to be put under the policy of the Department of Native Affairs. Here’s what the brainchild of this Bantu education act had to say about it:

Excerpts from Minister of Native Affairs Dr. H.F. Verwoerd:

“There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labor. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has, as its aim, absorption into the European community.”

“Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his own community and misled him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze.”

So, to make a long story short, Bantu education focused on forming productive workers that knew how to follow orders and not question them, to only aspire to a certain level, as that is the limit their racial background allowed them to reach. Their schools were also funded 1/7 as much per pupil as pupils in white schools.

This policy started in the 50s, meaning the educators today are largely a product of the old system. Even though they have been re-trained in new techniques (i.e. encouraging critical thinking) it is easier to revert to the old ways, after all, it got the teachers where they are, why make more work for them?

Education and thus community involvement in education was actively discouraged as well, so, in a nutshell that is why I am here. To facilitate. To empower. I’m ready.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Arrival in Africa

As promised, it's time to flip between memories and the present. We arrived in Africa after being in the air for about 18 hours. I was pretty exhausted, having met my second cousin Anna-Lena in the airport in Frankfurt and not having slept much either in Philadelphia (where we had two days of paperwork prep for South Africa) and the wait in JFK was horrendous (Can you believe there is no way to send a package from JFK? You can only send letters, which means I had to send my sister her car keys from Germany)

I had dreaded leaving for Peace Corps, I was excited about the job, but really dreaded leaving. My Grandmother had just passed away, I hadn't really had time to grieve with family and saying goodbye to friends and family, especially Julie, was excruciating. I knew it was best, but the realization of the length of time was not something I looked forward to. The morning I left, everything was in a fog, all I really did was put one foot in front of the other, my vision was blurry pretty much the moment I stepped out of the car. It didn't really stop being blurry until well into the flight to Philly, probably when I started sleeping.

Needless to say, the next few days were a mixture of emotions. It was great meeting new people, but I was more concerned about what was happening in Houston than with what was going to happen for the coming months. Probably not the best way to start a new job, but there wasn't any way I could not be concerned. So it was in that state that I landed on African soil. Emotionally drained, tired, kind of in survivor mode more than new job mode.

But we (all 90 or so of us) loaded ourselves and our luggage (90 people packing for two years is a lot of luggage) and headed off to our orientation center, better known as Mankwe. After leaving the airport there were definite signs we were in Africa, a troop (I think that's the right word) of monkeys scampering through the veld, billboards with South Africanized English, etc.

As we pulled into the training center the people soon to be known as our LCFs (language and Culutre Facilitators) sang a song of greeting. Zebras were just on the other side of the fence, the ubiquitous red dust was beginning to creep into our belongings and I was headed for bed.

Note: I didn't take this picture, someone else did... but I was still there.

Sunday, October 7, 2007


Today, Saturday, was a day of doors. I got a new door and we took the car to the car guy (really not sure what to call him). He promptly disassembled the door, worked with some wires and in the end the door worked as good as new. No ordering of parts, no waiting in a building, no offering to change the oil/windshield wiper fluid/ brake fluid/suspension/ catalytic converter etc.

I didn’t realize installing my new house door would take all day. Why a new door? Peace Corps likes to keep us safe, and so when the door wouldn’t shut because it had gotten bigger during the rains, it was time to take a trip to the only place in town that sells doors. (I also ripped the handle off trying to close the door)

The store is an Afrikaaner-run (Afrikaaner = descendent of the Dutch settlers that colonized South Africa back in the day) hardware store in the main shopping district. And by main shopping district, I mean the clinic, a tavern, the post office, gas station, etc. only two real stores. One is the hardware store, the other is a Chinese shop run by the only two Chinese gentlemen in town. We’re are not quite sure how they ended up here, but until my communication skills improve (I think they speak broken Setswana) I won’t be able to find out. There has got to be a good story there. To clarify, the town where I live is nearly all Black South African. The exceptions could be counted on my fingers in a village of upwards of 10,000.

Upon first asking they said they were out of doors (no pun intended), but as I was asked by another cashier what I would like someone remembered they had two doors left. So I got one, along with the necessary equipment and then spoke with the owner, who was delighted to have a visitor from Texas. He was even more delighted when he found out that I spoke German, as he was of German-descent himself and spoke German. (Afrikaans is somewhat like German, so he could converse in both languages). He invited me and the other volunteer out to his farm for beers and steaks. We've decided to wait a bit before taking him up on the offer because we don't really know our schedules and we don't want to appear to be preferring the company of the better-off people in the village, as we are here for the entire village.

When we brought the door back, is wasn’t quite what my host mother had in mind… she had wanted something fancier, but I told her we could make it fancy later, let’s put it in before the next storm.

Of course it wasn’t the right size. I found out that power tools would really save time. Everything we did was done by hand. What would have taken 15 minutes with a circular saw took at least two hours as we had a conventional saw and a plane. As we were working on the door, we had visitors, and I divided my time between working on the door with the ranch-hand, getting visitors drinks, and cleaning up my room since I had unexpected visitors. The work took all day, but in the end I added a coat of varnish and let it dry before closing the door… and the door closed, it was great.

I’ve been doing a lot of settling in here in my permanent site. I live with a host family of a married couple and their ten-year-old daughter. The ten-year old goes to one of the schools I work with and my host mother teaches at that very same school. They have a daughter that goes to boarding school and another daughter that is already out of school. They also have a dog, cows, sheep, and goats. Since it is spring, it’s great to see the lambs, kids, and calves running after their respective parents. Part of this settling in has been pointing out the leaks in my tin roof, which ended up in a trip to that very same roof where I found the problem, an exposed beam. While I was up there, I also spotted a birds nest. The eggs were still warm, but I didn’t have the heart to cook them, but I did end up cooking dinner for the family because my host mom was tired. While I was cooking, the family in Texas called. It was great. After dinner I managed to chat with many of you, and Julie sent me songs, which were amazing. ( I can’t get “Come back to Texas” by Bowling for Soup out of my head). A great end to the day of the door.

Interspersed with these current episodes will be flashbacks to earlier, when I didn’t have a blog. I’ll try to make sure to label which entry is which, but just thought I’d give ya’ll a heads up.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


And welcome! Glad you made it!

You may be wondering how a Peace Corps volunteer is updating his blog from rural Africa, so I have one word for you: cellphones. The village that I live in has no public phones, and perhaps two landlines, at a clinic and at a school, however, it is not uncommon for families to have two or more cell phones. I’ll write more on cell-phone etiquette later… oh wait… my cellphone’s ringing, I know I’m in the middle of talking to you or a meeting, but the call must be more important. Let me go talk for a few minutes, still stand in front of you…


The great thing about cell phones here is that some of them can be used as modems for computers, which is exactly how I can be nearly anywhere in South Africa… and still poke someone on facebook. (and it’s free for me to receive calls!)

So, do I feel that this isn’t the “real Peace Corps,” that I’m living an American’s life in South Africa? Well, no.

This isn’t the Peace Corps of the 60s, we aren’t as detached from the global community; the world has gotten smaller. Technology has reached these areas and we should use it, especially since one of the Peace Corps’ three goals is to provide Americans with an insight into the various host countries and one of my programs particular goals is help the erase future inequalities in education

To begin with, what am I supposed to be doing in South Africa? I was selected for the School and Community Resource Project and so I’m here in a rural village in the North West Province of South Africa working with two primary schools, which on the government’s scale of poverty, rank among the poorest schools in the nation. The schools are not allowed to charge school fees because unemployment is over 75%. Houses do not have running water, some don’t have electricity. There are school lunch programs because some students do not get enough to eat at home.

It’s very difficult to give an accurate description of why I’m here without giving a background in the recent history of South Africa. Until 1994, South Africa was ruled by a white minority, which had conceived of a system of apartheid. Apartheid was a notion that the races had developed separately for many centuries, so they could continue to develop separately by creating racially homogenous sections of the country. These sections would be “self-governing,” similar to Native American reservations in the States. It wasn’t the original land, they had had, but it was some land. However, this system was systematically used to exploit the non-white populations. The most striking example was a powerplant built in a black section, in order to power a white section. Black workers worked in the power plant; however, none of them had power in their own homes, which were right next to the powerplant.

During this time, a system of education was implemented in the Black area in which Blacks were prepared for their position in life, which was one of subservience. They learned by rote learning, and were educational spending on each Black learner was one seventh of that which was spent on a white learner. Critical thinking was de-emphasized and little effort was put into maintaining standards in these schools by the central government. I’ll go into that more later.

One thing that you must remember about South Africa, is that the country could have literally imploded in the early 1990s when the decision was made to transition to a truly democratic South Africa. Luckily, leaders from all camps kept the turmoil to a minimum, and that’s why South Africa is the country it is today. However, there still are glaring socio-economic and racial divides (usually the two go together) and that is part of the reason we are here.

So I’m here to work with the schools to improve the education they are offering their learners (as students are called here). Both of my schools have a computer, and lots of educators (as teachers are known here) didn’t even know how to turn it on. I’m also tapped for my Math, Science, and English skills. However, I do find it incredibly rewarding to be in the schools (both of my schools are primary) and see the curious faces of the children as I tell them that I flew in an airplane (the Setswana word for airplane is eropleini ~ something that I found amusing). Some of them walk around barefoot which I find amazing in a place with thornbushes.

I live with a host family. I don’t live in their house (which has running water and electrical outlets, I live in two rooms in a house just behind theirs. Unfortunately, my outlets don’t work… nor do I have running water.

The area where I am is known as the Texas of South Africa and yup, it kinda looks like it. I see people riding horses, windmills and lots of cattle. They even have a hat that kinda looks like a cowboy hat. So, I must work again tomorrow, so I’m off to bed. (Btw, the stars here are just incredible)