Thursday, November 6, 2008

The aptly named Big Hole

Again... I'm far behind on blog entries. This one should be dated September 15th

I smsed my friend. Indeed to my right, a large wetland area appeared covered in places by a pink sheen. Flamingoes flying, flamingoes standing, fishing. Incredible.

I had been on the road for six hours and switched Khumbis four times to get here, but in a few moments I would arrive in Kimberly. The large wetland area is a tourist attraction here and one of the largest gatherings of these oddly elegant waterfowl in the world.

This past weekend I took a trip to a neighboring town/city, which is where two volunteers are stationed. The town, Kimberly, is immersed in the sort of quirky history that the English are exceptionally good at telling.

Kimberly’s birth came from diamonds being found in a nearby field. This is the town where the De Beers mine is located and where the headquarters of De Beers mining company is located. It was here that John Cecil Rhodes literally drew the modern map of southern Africa, though now Northern Rhodesia is called Zambia and Southern Rhodesia is called Zimbabwe.

The McGregor museum is Kimberly’s largest, so a fellow volunteer and I decided to scope it out. It was particularly interesting in both what it contained and what it did not contain. Though extensive effort had been made to incorporate the history of the native Africans into the museum, it seemed the history stopped when the diamonds were discovered. This is by no means the fault of the original curators, as the English are notoriously good at recording history, making even some mundane activity noteworthy of extracting from a diary and placing on a museum display. The Africans were not as good at this or at least it didn’t seem so from the exhibit, and so the exhibit was fairly Anglo-centered.

The building itself, an old Sanatorium (fancy word for old fashioned health retreat) was wonderful in all it’s Victorian splendor. Altogether quintessentially British. The town itself retains trappings from that era, from beautiful cathedral that I was told had the longest nave in Southern Africa... or was it the South Hemisphere... regardless, it was a massive structure built a century ago- stepping inside it is like taking a step back to those times, to the parks and buildings, all steeped in English charm.

But Kimberly is not British, it is South African. While I was there I attended the finals to a province-wide cultural dance contest, which was incredible. to be continued

Saturday, October 4, 2008

So I'm in Africa

After a year in South Africa, I have finally been on my first daytime safari in the Pilanesberg National Park in Northwest Province. It was awe-inspirinig. We left Johannesberg at five in the morning to arrive at the park shortly after it opened. At first, we saw nothing, then in the distance a few wildebeests appeared in the early morning sunshine. The trick on safaris is not to look at the bush, but to look through the bush.

Our next sight was a warthog who decided that it liked to travel on the dirt path rather than the bush. It's family was a little bit further on, little wart-hoglets? following a larger hog. The car slowed and we caught glimpses of zebra through the high grasses. Little did we know how many more zebra we would see.

My first sighting were three kudu on a ridge, which was magnificent because there were no trees in the way and we could watch them adeptly manuever up the mountainside.

After a turn, we stopped as my friend has seen an elephant. Upon closer examination, there was an entire herd of them, including two calves being lorded over by there aunt.. or so I was told.

And nearby in a place called predator world:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pain beneath the surface

This weekend I was reminded that though I live in a relatively peaceful country, the rest of Africa can be brutal.

“[The rebels – Lord’s Resistance Army] would come into the mission and say, I want food. You had to give them food. They would kill you otherwise and take your food. If they saw you had a car they said give me the keys to your car and I will let you keep your lips. There would be times when you would see a beautiful woman who had her lips cut off and you knew that this wasn’t just a threat.” He went on to describe other atrocities that I would not like to post online. The conversation had not started like this, it was I who asked him about his experiences in Uganda.

“Do you see these scars?” He said, showing me marks on his legs. “These are from bullets in Uganda. We were praying rosary when raiders came and started shooting. One of the women with me was shot through the buttocks. I crawled on hands and knees through thorns.” He paused to examine his hands. “The wounds from the thorns have since healed. I don’t remember how I ended up in my bed, just remember the gunfire and crawling, but somehow I made it there. Luckily no one was killed. The bishop allowed me to rest for a week to recover.”

Yet despite having survived this, he expressed a joy in life that was infectious. His eyes would sparkle and a genuine smile would illuminate his face, his white teeth seemingly illuminated in his dark face. His faith was in God and in people, and he truly embodied the African spirit of Ubuntu, that you are a person, and as a person he respects you, he radiated the feeling of mutual respect for one another. I was his guest at the mission and we talked as equals. As we are both aid workers, we shared our frustrations with the work and also what kept us motivated to do the work we did. It was inspiring to be with those two, sharing stories

On the way back to my own site, I sat in the car next to man who I could tell was not a Tswana. In his hands was a magazine with a script that looked closer to Arabic that anything I had seen in South Africa. We got to talking and I learned that he was an Ethiopian political refugee. Naturally, I was curious and attempted to be discreet in asking as to the reasons for fleeing his country and he went on to explain that it was locked in conflict, whether internal, or with Eritrea. He told stories of hitchhiking, running, and waiting on his long trek from Ethiopia to South Africa. He told of those in his group who were eaten by lions in Kenya, others who were left behind, others who didn’t make it.

Regardless of this, he wanted to pay for my taxi fare. I was humbled, feeling selfish, a little guilty for having it so easy in my life. I felt at fault for my initial disbelief. The atrocities that were so easy to dismiss in literature was now face to face with me, a dark undercurrent to the continent, a continent scarred over and over again, but a continent which somehow through it all has maintained an infectious, almost spontaneous joy. People who are genuinely happy to see you, who will stop time for you, because you are a person. Not all Africans are like this, but it is incredible to see this survive in the face of such atrocities.

p.s. If you click on the picture, you should be able to see a baboon running away from me.

Friday, September 26, 2008


(This entry was written after I stayed a few nights in Pretoria, one of the capitals of South Africa, and what had been an all white city, now slowly being integrated, I was in Pretoria on Peace Corps business and a rugby tournament was taking place, so the hostel was pretty full, some blokes invited me to share the warmth of their kameeldorn, camelthorn fire)

We had been gathering around a fire for awhile. As usual, I was the interesting outsider, which gave me an opportunity to share Peace Corps goals as well as my personal goal, as many of these conversations go, the talk turned to the future of South Africa.

“Where do you think South Africa is going?”

My usual answer is that it depends largely on the average South African and that it is my job to make sure that the South Africans I come into contact with, no matter the race, are both educated and emboldened to take their future in their hands.

You see, Philip. I talked to some blokes from Zim (Zimbabwe) yesterday, and they say we’re headed down that same path.

He was referring to the land repossession in Zimbabwe, where under the Mugabe government, land is taken from whites and then given to the blacks, in an effort to empower the blacks and reconcile the ills of the past, when blacks were forced off their land.

“Now let me tell you, the minute they start taking my land from me, land that has been in my family for generations, I will fight for it. That land is my heritage, my great grandfather bought it on bond, cleared it, made it productive. I want to give that land to my children and if armed men show up at my farm with weapons to take me off my land, they will have a fight on their hands. I will be dead, but so will about a hundred of them.”

“We will give up to a point. If they buy our land from us, then it’s different, but I’m a farmer, I want to farm. That’s my life. I’m good at farming, my farm is productive. Why should I have to give up doing what I’m good at?”

“It’s not that we don’t want to help. We understand what was done in the past was wrong, and let me tell you, if I were of a different race, I would be so enraged by the inequalities that I’d probably commit crimes to right the balance, but I’m not.”

“As I’ve said, I’ve tried to help. I’ve had labourers on my land who I taught how to farm and now they are doing the same on the tribal land. They’re taking a risk because the land belongs to the chief, if he wants to take it back, he can and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ll be trapped because the rest of the society wants what they have, and they feel entitled to it, so they take it. That’s the end of that man’s time and effort. It hasn’t happened yet, but it could.”

“I’ll give you that there are some racists out there, people who don’t want to do anything with the blacks, but that’s not only on our side. There are plenty of blacks who hate the white man.”

I don’t remember when but at one point in time one of the security guards, a black South African came around the fire. The very same people who were just trying to teach me Afrikaans were now speaking a language with clicks which I recognized as Xhosa, but regretfully don’t understand. South Africa has at least 11 official languages… it’d be difficult to learn every one.

Then the conversation shifted to respect and how language, in particular, means a great deal here in South Africa. Nelson Mandela once said, “When you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head; when you speak to a man in his own language, you speak to his heart.” And it was true, once the white South Africans began to speak Xhosa, all apprehension melted away from the face of the guard, smiles abounded on both sides and I took a mental snapshot of what South Africa could become.

I’m no historian or anthropologist, but I do believe, that South Africa has a unique potential to overcome the racial prejudices of the past. I don’t believe it will be easy, nor that it is certain to happen, but there, in that moment, a glimmer of the new South Africa was seen. I hope and pray to see more.

A Rugby Match

I attended a rugby match where there was no beer for sale at the stadium. I was distraught, having imagined watching a rugby match with a fine Namibian brew in my hand. Alas… apparently imbibing is done before the match. Or smuggled in.

Now before you dismiss rugby as a brutish sport that involves brawn a not very much brain power, you might want to stop by a match. These boys are athletic and look it. Unlike American football where you have several players that seem to store a lot of weight in their stomachs, the professional rugby players seem to store it all in their upper body. The game is action interrupted by a few pauses here and there when the ball goes out of play. The players think on their feet, improvise and are incredible athletes, as they sprint up and down the field, to score by kicking it between the goal posts or running it to the other side of the field. In an odd way… it reminded me of Quidditch, Harry Potter’s sport. Maybe because I still don’t understand the rules to either.

During the match it is common for them to lift each other up, cheerleader style (odd comparison I know) in order to catch a throw in.

Rugby has an incredible following, among white South Africans at least. The demographics in the stadium definitely demonstrated the opposite of South Africa’s racial composition, now it was 85% white and 15% other races. However it did demonstrate how tight-knit the white community can be as a chap sitting two rows in front, knew the white South Africans in the village next to mine.

The rugby match we attended was a mere 80 minutes long, however the fans were around the stadium, braaiing up a storm. Flags were everywhere, there was a palpable atmosphere of relaxed enjoyment, mingled with the scent of meat grilling and face paint.

In some ways, the match reminded me of American football or gridiron, as it is known here. The cheerleaders wore similar uniforms and danced like the American cheerleaders. And the fans were just as fanatical. I saw plenty of blue faces, many wearing a Viking hats with bull horns- supporters of the Blue Bulls. A cheetah costume indicated an ardent supporter of the Free State Cheetahs. Did I mention there were a lot of flags?
The first half we (another Peace Corps Volunteer, Peace Corps medical evacuees from Ethiopia, Swaziland, Mozambique) tried to decipher the rules and the cheers/jeers from the fans. We had planned on asking someone from the crowd, but the night sky opened into a drizzle in the second half and the stands cleared for the covered space, others covered there heads with their flags and signs and stuck it out. We were with the diehards… and emerged, bobbing along with the euphoria of the crowd, drenched but entertained.

It would have been better with a beer, though.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Somehow the plants know it is spring

About two weeks ago, the African scrub started to sprout green leaves, signaling the start of spring. I found this odd, as we still have yet to have any rain since autumn.

Such are the seasons here, the tail-end of winter is marked with high mischievous winds that pick up dust and make sure it permeates all clothing. The dust has an upside as well, it means you can see the winds and turn your back to them to avoid being sandblasted too much.

And now blossoms are appearing on the trees, different birds have arrived, baby animals are growing out of their cute phase and into adolescence, and the places where the veld had been burnt are turning green with new shoots of grass.

When I first saw fire in my host family's yard, I was (understandably) alarmed, but my host mother (who had set the fire) assured me that it was they always did and that it wouldn't spread beyond the yard. It didn't.

However, I have seen fires far in the veld, flickering in several spots. I doubted people could be at three places at once.

One fire of note I first saw when I was headed back from town with my host family. Town is about 80 km away from where we live. While still in town I noticed the sunset looked odd... there was a cloud which seemed to be lit from the bottom. As the sun set and we approached one of our neighboring villages, we saw that it was indeed a large grass fire. It was eerie to see the smoke rise, reddish on the bottom and then white on the top, til a point, and then get blown away. I watched for awhile, transfixed, but then focused my attention elsewhere.

I haven't heard anything more about the fire, so I assume it burnt itself out before reaching the village.

Other parts of the country have not been so lucky as fires fanned by the high winds have done some damage in Mpumalanga, KwaZuluNatal, and Eastern Cape.

But not here. For now, I'm enjoying the windy opening of spring, except when I need to turn my back to avoid the next batch of airborne sand.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A package!

This entry is to commemorate the arrival of a package of cookies and the amazing people who decided to send me them. Thanks Julie and Allan! Julie- the cookies are/were delicious and you are incredibly well liked by my host family now. Allan... thanks for being inquisitive enough about the inner-workings of the postal system to send me a box/envelope of cookies.


Back at training

The sun rises over an old teacher training college, bathing everything in a swath of red-gold splendor. The sunrise disguises the reality that the college was abandoned with the fall of apartheid 14 years ago. During the day, it is easier to walk through derelict buildings, some of which have been burned; their ceilings open to the African sunshine. The African veld has claimed its right over some of these buildings, grasses sprout from roofs, birds have made nests in nooks. These buildings almost feel haunted- lightbulbs swing in their melted fixtures, the winds add ambiance of eeriness and make me feel like I should be in a movie about some lost civilization which curiously abandoned its centers of learning.

That changes with addition of Peace Corps, which uses this center for training. 43 trainees and a dozen host country nationals acting as language and culture instructors, add a palpable heartbeat to the surroundings. The training college is being restored, buildings are being repaired, and weeds cleared as the Department of Education has decided to use the buildings for seminars once more.

Peace Corps has given me the opportunity to take a step back in time. I’m now at the training site for the incoming class of Peace Corps Volunteers. A year ago, it was I that numbly walked into the South African sunshine, now there is a new group… not as large as mine, but equally diverse and on their way to be successful Peace Corps Volunteers.

It is a wonderful decision by Peace Corps Staff to involve actual Peace Corps Volunteers in the training. Peace Corps staff, though they do know about our situation, see it from above, they know where we are, if the site is safe, are familiar with the principals that are their contacts in the villages etc. However, we are the workers, where training meets implementation, facing unique problems that Peace Corps does not comprehend. Training without volunteers present would seem detached from the present situation and miss out on the wealth of information already generated by past and present volunteers.

As a Corps, we are much quicker to collaborate with one another, choosing not to re-invent the wheel, but using tried and true material and adapting it to our current situation. We are able to offer each other not only professional, but emotional support and yes, there are even Peace Corps couples, which naturally quite a few people know about within a day or two as news travels about as fast as sound through the Peace Corps grapevine. Every now and then a few tendrils have lost their connection to the main vine, but on the whole, news travels.

Our goal as Volunteer trainers is to equip the new trainees for service in the field; we’ve amassed a skill set that we find necessary to pass on to the next generation. It is our pleasure to pass this on.

As a Volunteer at training, I returned to my early days, remembering how it felt to step off of the plane, recalling the ideas, optimism, and hesitant interactions that pervaded those initial moments. I also recalled the novelty of life here, and why I am honored to serve my country and the people of South Africa.

As the training site fades into the veld, I wish all of you trainees (and now official volunteers) the best of luck.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why I love Afrikaans

Afrikaans is a new language, developed in South Africa in the last 300 years or so. It stems from Dutch, and had influences from some of the native languages, as well as the languages of the other European colonists. They all had to communicate, so out of this hodgepodge arose Afrikaans. As it is a new language, it doesn't have all the oddities of spelling that older languages have, which makes it awesome.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Amalgamation of Successes

Sometimes it seems that Peace Corps is nothing more than time spent being frustrated over inequalities, incompetence, cultural differences and general lack of progress. And that is most definitely not Peace Corps. Tangible results are initially hard to come by and in those early stages success is measured in smiles, small steps, and trust. I don’t mean to belittle a volunteer’s contribution during the observation period (first 3 months at site), lovingly termed lock-down by fellow volunteers.

But it’s in those initial months were the community sees you every day and either accepts you as one of its own or holds you at a distance. Success comes when the stares stop and the smiles abound. When the children scream your name from afar and come running toward you… rather than run screaming away from you. Success is your first sickness free week.

Peace Corps during that period teaches you to appreciate the small things. The smiles, the nervousness, the unknown.

It was during those three frustrating months when I got my first bright ray of sunshine. My former host sister called. Peace Corps paired us with a family in the training village during training. During this time, she and I had spent hours going over math and whatever other subject she needed help with. I admired her tenacity; she was not only going to school, but was in charge of cooking meals at times, cleaning at others, and basically running the household. She also studied. She studied every night. We went over math together when she asked for help and the first thing I did was take away her calculator. She depended too much on it, using it as a crutch to cover up not knowing basic math theory. We spent hours honing her skills, reviewing. Before long her friends were coming over and she was helping them.

She called unexpectedly after I had been at site (different from the training site) for about two months and I could hear the excitement in her voice,

“Thabiso, I got top marks on the maths examination!”

I was impressed.

“And I’m going to get a certificate because I received some of the highest marks in the class!”

The long sought after feeling of accomplishment had arrived.

I know my work may not be acknowledged nor even appreciated right away, if ever. I do relish the few times it will be acknowledged, but don’t dwell on them. When times are less fruitful and I really need a boost, I’ll look back at them and realize that these small moments make everything worthwhile. Learning to appreciate life’s small additive successes makes life worthwhile.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A rocky day

A typical day for me begins slightly before sunrise around 6 am. At that time the birds begin to sing, the donkeys bray, the cocks crow, the dogs bark and I turn over in my bed, especially when it's cold (freezing.. remember I have no heater, stone walls and a zinc roof don't do much against the cold/heat) . Fortunately, we only have dogs. The other animals I can hear in the distance.

Usually I get up, make breakfast and check my gmail and the New York Times on my phone, bathe, brush teeth, change, shave and head to work. I throw in playing with the dogs at one point in time as it would be hard to ignore them, they are super energetic and always ready to play and fight over my attention. If necessary, I'll do some polishing of my shoes and cleaning up before school as well.

I work at two primary schools (for the most part), so depending on where I am headed for the day, I either walk along the road until I can catch a ride with a taxi (minibus) or walk 10 minutes to my closer school. The other school is about a 50 minute walk away, which is doable, but I prefer not to arrive dusty to school.

This morning I was walking to my close school when I heard something odd. A metallic clang. Followed by another. And another. As I drew nearer to the school, a man was taking bricks that had been laid in the yard to prevent erosion and throwing them into a donkey cart. Odd. I supposed that the bricks were needed for something else.

I noticed my host mother, also a teacher at my school, standing outside the gate. The gate was locked. She explained that man who was now throwing rocks into his donkey cart had locked it and that there was not something right with him. Teachers who had already arrived had taken their classes into the classrooms, but one class was still waiting outside for their teacher. I took another look at the man.

Two more teachers approached the locked gate. Looking at the man with annoyance... and a bit of fear. It is well known in the community that the man is prone to madness, but to a large degree it is tolerated. It is viewed as shameful to send a family member away for treatment or schooling, so though we had known about this man before, we had just had harmless incidents.

I asked the teachers if it would be acceptable to call the police, as this man had rocks, was mad, and was near children. They responded affirmatively and I dialed the police and handed the phone to one of them. The children outside the classroom bothered me. I looped around the buildings and beckoned the children to follow. Once we were on the other side of the buildings we sang a lively few rounds of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" until I checked and saw that the man was now building a barricade with the stones in the road. This meant that the children could go back to class and lock the door, which is what all the teachers ended up doing. I decided to call the police again as they had previously told the teachers that there were no police cars available. This time they assured me there was one on its way.

The man blockaded the road with his donkeycart for a bit and after stopping a few cars, decided he needed more bricks, so he came back into the yard. My principal then called the police. The head of the SGB (School Governing Body, like PTA, but with more power) was now trying to get to the school, but had his progress hampered by the man.
I decided to continue working, but to keep listening in case I was needed. I followed up with one of the teachers I had been working with and she asked me if I could review verbs with the third graders. So a game very similar to Simon says evolved, which then led to the hokey-pokey. Then it was time for them to write a test, so I left and saw that the police had arrived. They were driving off with the man... but his donkey cart was still in the yard. Though very tempted to take a joy-ride, I continued with my work.

At break-time, two of teachers asked me if I would kindly help them bring truant learners back to class. The learners had decided that attending school for half a day was enough and that they wanted to spend the rest of the school day outside playing a game involving coins. As they saw me approaching, they ran. The teachers and I then met to see what options were open to us. They had already contacted the parents previously, had the learners write a contract, and didn't know where to go from there, so we went through a few options in the school's disciplinary policy, including calling the police to the school a second time. We decided to give them a written warning, warning them that they could be expelled.

The day went on. I helped the adminstrative assistant complete some database work and then helped some teachers with subject knowledge. Then, shortly before school let out, five learners were escorted into the office. Some of them obviously terrified. The head of the SGB had been walking through the village and stumbled across the errant learners hiding in a donga or gully. They were in trouble and they knew it.

Luckily for us, the principal had already printed out the letters and we had already discussed what we were going to do. The children received quite the verbal haranguing.

Then after-school I hosted had a professional development workshop on Mentoring and Coaching which had been requested by the principal.

Eish, what a day.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A sheep of Thanks

As I've warned you before, this blog follows chronology only very roughly, this entry is about nine months old...

My host father has asked me several times if I can take a sheep or a goat back to America with me as a gift of thanks. He said I could then slaughter it in the states to show how thanks is given in rural South Africa.

That is an accurate picture of life here. Gratefulness is still measured in cows, sheep, and goats. For my birthday, in fact, my host family slaughtered a sheep for me (well, I helped… wearing gloves this time) and told me to invite people over, which fortunately coincided with Thanksgiving, and even though we were on travel restriction, Peace Corps allowed us to visit our closest volunteer and share Thanksgiving with them. Luckily I’m the closest neighbor to several volunteers. So I turned 23 in the Thanksgivithday celebration.

This proved to be quite an occasion as one of my teacher’s shared my birthday and was over for the braai, a South African BBQ. We, all of us, prepared half the food South African Style- Pap or bogobe, a stiff porridge made of maizemeal, and then threw in some American overtones, salad, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Sharing cultures through food…. There really is nothing as lekker.

One wonderful thing about South African families is that you know who your relatives are… that is unless you are a Peace Corps volunteer and suddenly have 30 or so more new and intriguing names and faces to remember. I ended up making a rather elaborate family tree to help me out on this one. But I digress, family is central to the interconnectedness of rural South African life. I don’t mean this in a traditional western sense. Family, especially the term uncle, is a much looser concept. Uncle is both a term for your parent’s brother or brother-in-law, but also a term of respect for someone who wouldn’t be considered your uncle in the western sense. Family is everyone who is remotely related to you.

And so part of the family came over from the neighboring village and partook in the feast, as did the local family. One interesting feature of the evening was when we brought tables outside, the Americans were quite a ease sitting at the candle-lit table and sharing the meal in that manner, whereas my African host family chose to sit in a circle, as they was their custom. In the end, we did manage to mingle, but it was quite humorous and poignant to see the differing cultures reflected so visibly.

It was also amusing to see the different interactions we had with one another. Some of my host family seemed to feel a little awkward around the handful of Americans that were there. The volunteers were less awkward, or to quote a volunteer, “Awkwardness becomes the norm for us, so awkward ceases to exist.” Since I knew everyone who came, I could see how differently some people acted.

One of the remarkable aspects of the BaTswanan culture is their openness to strangers and eagerness to be hospitable. The visitor is well treated, to the point of the ‘Tswana avoiding any particular topic that might lead to conflict. Now this is true in other cultures as well, but I found a particular iteration in my time here, where I notice people doing everything to make me feel well for the moment, including the extreme of telling me they’ll do something, even though they have no intention of actually doing it, just so that I will feel good at the moment. The fact that I will be let down later can be tempered, but there are very few times a person will tell you something that will let you down. And so some in my host family were exceedingly cautious in talking with the volunteers not wishing to disappoint, which lasted until they were repeatedly invited to come and sit with us at the table in a typical Thanksgiving style. Please don’t get me wrong, I also joined my host family’s circle, but felt that unless they were invited repeatedly to the table, they would not come. And so, surrounded by some of my friends in Peace Corps and my host country national host family, we celebrated Thankgivirthday until the candles had burned low on the tables and the Milky Way stretched brilliantly across the night sky.

A few weeks later, my host father asked if I could take a goat home on the plane with me. I was honored.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

“We really liked the camp Thabiso”

As I was broke from Youth Day (we operated on our own personal funds until funding came from the states which was only accessible two weeks later), I decided be a villager for the break. The fact that I traveled home during the school year might have had something to do with it….

But as usual, I decided to run a camp for the children and a computer workshop for the educators that were also in town (Excel this time- how to keep a gradebook), and I’m glad to say, there was learning going on. I awoke the first day of camp was heavily loaded. A backpack, guitar, 5 kg bag of flour (I’ll explain) , another bag full of tangrams, and a bucket in which I usually wash clothes.

As a looked towards the school, a handful of children were already there. I knew that there would be more coming from our house, because well, the host cousins come over every time I have a camp. They also tend to be immensely helpful in preparation.

The camp worked like a charm, very few discipline problems, a massive papier-mâché globe was made, and about 50-60 children excitedly asking me daily to look at their tangrams to see if they got it right. Some are quicker than other, some require a little help, but on the whole tangram time is something looked forward to by all, but it can be mayhem. On occasion, I calm the room down by having a sing-a-long, which tells you just how loud it can get when the tangrams come out.

By far the favorites are “Oh Susanna!” followed closely by an Africanized version of “This Land is your Land” i.e. from Table Mountain to the shores of Durban

The final event in the camp was a math competition for two prizes my family had sent me. Yes, the children got excited about math… too excited at times as they would literally jump out of their seats to answer a question. This led me to move the competition outside, where everyone wanted to see the flashcards.

As this was the third camp I conducted, I’ve begun to see personalities in the students. Two particular students had enjoyed darting in and out of the previous camps and now came early, trying to read. This tells me that I’ve either learned a bit about classroom management, or skipping camp has lost it’s novelty, perhaps a little of both.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Happy Birthday Madiba

"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Nelson Mandela - Rivonia Trial, where he could have been sentenced to death.

Today was Nelson Mandela's 90th Birthday, so I wish him all the best and would like to thank him for inviting the Peace Corps to South Africa.

This remarkable man is both the grandfather and father of post-apartheid South Africa and is a role model, not only for South Africans, but for many in other parts of the world.

Branded as a terrorist, and to be sure, he was one. He sought to overthrow the state, using terror if necessary. However the leader that emerged in the transition to democracy was one of compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. Many South Africans hold him up as the model of South Africa. Well-versed in his traditional culture, yet educated in the ideals of democracy, a smart humble man.

To be sure, his presence at the helm is missed, but I do feel, it's time for people to follow Nelson's model, not just clamor for him to lead them again.
God Bless you Madiba, I pray for you and the future of South Africa.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Another congrats!!

And congratulations to Erica! My younger sister graduated in June from High School and I am exceptionally proud of her. I’m told her valedictory address was amazing and I look forward to seeing it at one point in time… and then again whenever I return home and you can tell me who everybody is. Just know, I was definitely thinking of you on your graduation and praying that you wouldn’t fall while climbing the stairs. Heels and stairs just don’t seem like a good idea.

It was quite something to be at the “Night with the Stars” with you Erica. You have grown to be a remarkable young lady and I know you’ll do well in everything you do. You are very true to yourself and I pray that you continue to be blessed and share this blessing with others.

Added July 2: I finally watched the speech on YouTube (took me an hour and a half to load... slow connection), it's the by far the greatest high school graduation speech ever, check it out:

Youth Day 2008

Thanks to all who uploaded pictures to my computer: Stacy, Rebeckah, and Adam. I'm using your pictures and thank you for the use of them!

June 16th 2008 marked the beginning of what we hope to be an annual Empowerment Cup for learners in the Primary and Secondary Schools. The event was held in conjunction with am HIV testing drive we organized with the local clinic, and the reason we held the tournament in the first place was to promote healthy lifestyles. Two other volunteers and I sat on the advisory board for the event with about 15 host country nationals, and after we realized one grant application was infeasible- nearly a month after writing the initial grant, I rewrote the grant for a much smaller (cost-wise) event. After months of planning the event had arrived with anywhere from 700 to 900 people in attendance. I’ll present it in snapshots.

I wake up to the Circle of Life, my new alarm tone, and walk outside. I can see my breath and know that after awhile I won’t be able to feel my feet. There is a slight haze over the African savanna. The sun is still hiding behind the horizon but the dawn has sleepily begun, slowly changing the color of the sky and everything around me. Roosters crow and I mentally thank my family for not having one, as they can be quite loud. A few moments of tranquility before the day begins. It’s 6:15. I go to wake the others. A cup of coffee and a day-old handmade tortillaful of leftover lentils later, we’re on our way.

The day is still cold, we are all wearing gloves or wishing we were wearing them. We arrive at the field and begin preparations. We told our counterparts we would meet them here at 7:45… and we assume they will come at 8:30, one comes at 8:15 and we are delighted. By this point in time we’ve put up some signs and balloons, one person has already gotten tested for HIV, and we begin to set up the field. There were two fields to set up so I leave the group with two other Peace Corps Volunteers to help set up the other field.

Three primary school teams arrived on-time, which was wholly surprising. Three arrived late, that was expected. The referees arrived latest of all…. a full two hours late. Late even by African standards. I decide to stay on the primary school side of things, knowing one of my African counterparts and fellow tournament director is at the other field and will be able to manage fine. The games get underway, at last two hours behind schedule. I cross out the times on the schedule; they were more of guidelines anyway. We need to redo the brackets anyway because some teams are showing up much later than scheduled. The day is about the youth, so let them play. Though in all fairness, we do charge the two teams that were excessively late two goals, as they were both playing teams that had played a game previously. The coaches weren’t too pleased. If only they had read the rules, it was in there….

I arrive at the clinic and join the line of people waiting to be tested for HIV. I’m the fifth in line. The counselors have been at it all morning, since 7:30. It’s one now… they’ve never had this many people want to be tested. They look at us in line and tell us that they are exhausted. They look it. This is tough work, imagine you have to tell someone they are HIV positive and encourage them to live a healthy life. One pair of counselors have been going for hours non-stop. It’s time for lunch and then since it’s a holiday, they had planned on leaving early. Come back tomorrow. Since the last person they tested was not affiliated with organizing the event… and the next three people were… I know that some who normally wouldn’t have gotten tested were tested today. Success in my book. Hundreds more know about it and have seen others that were tested. Awareness bracelets were made and donated by a recently-founded women's group in the village. Thank you Mandy for helping them learn this craft and thank you to whomever donated supplies!

Back at the fields, a few missed calls by the refs, but the games proceed as planned. The first game even started with the learners pledging to live a healthy life. For times sake we moved the pledge to the end, more of an exclamation point than a capital letter.

Children yell, Thabiso! (my SeTswana name). I can’t help but smile. This is very common, but they are coming towards me excitedly. They try four times in English to ask me correctly for an extra ball that I brought with me. On getting it right, I lend the ball to the learner. I think they were coached by another volunteer, that or it’s gotten out that I only let people borrow my things when they ask me correctly in English ~ using please ;). I will let them try as many times as possible and even spell it out for them, but it must be done. My host sister’s English is improving by leaps and bounds.. probably because she likes to borrow my things.

Injury. The promised EMS didn’t show. I’m it. I have no ice, just the Peace Corps med kit and the clinic down the road if it’s really bad. Ok, doesn’t look bad. Nothing broken. Just a really hard hit. Dehydrated too. Water. An orange. The kid is fine. It’s amazing how tough these kids are, some are even playing barefoot. Amazing.

I realize it’s a fine line to walk between being a micro-manger and not caring. I definitely erred on the former side for this event. It’s the professional referee in me coming out. However, with all due respect, the primary school games are done nearly two hours before the others and we abided by more of the rules… again lapse in communication between what was desired and what happened. Making a big deal out of it is pointless, but not mentioning it makes the point null. A bit of tight-rope walking is done when talking to the directors on this side of the tournament, making sure people know what was supposed to happen.

A team sticks around to show its support for a neighboring school. Cheering ensues. Rich African smiles. I can see coaches who genuinely care for the kids that they are teaching. They inspire them, they lift them up. Yes, they want to win and when they do it’s all smiles. When they don’t, there was no yelling from them. There were even smiles at times.

A pile of speakers the size of a minivan crank out music through the African sky. A celebration indeed. Children dancing or jiving as it is known here. Having a good time. No School today as it's a national holiday. Today is a day for the kids; it is afterall, youth day.

The crowd pushes into the tent to see the gospel group perform. I look around nervously for the police; it’s getting really crowded. They are hanging back. This is their country. I suppose they know what is best. I mentally draw a line of crowding that, when crossed, is when I’ll ask them to do crowd control… though that is what they were here for.

A policeman asks me why there was no catering. I explain that the bill was footed by a limited fund in which there was no money for food. He seemed to understand. Seems like a faux pas to not have catering at an event like this, but there was no money. Either we would lose our credibility with the village, or we have an event without food. The latter is fine.

Trophies hoisted aloft by joyous children and teenagers. Traditional Dancers, gospel singers, good job Africa. Spontaneous dancing and singing. Happy Youth day!

The tent is disassembled. Everyone is paid. It’s time to leave. The day is done… it’s been a long one. I definitely enjoyed it, so did the children!

Special thanks to Natalia... the Duct/Duck Tape came in really handy!

Heartfelt Congratulations!

The pageantry of a Rice Commencement is quite dazzling, in fact, it makes me want to get another degree. Then I look at what the first degree did to my bank account. Eeish! I had flown to the states for this, to see Julie graduate. I knew nearly exactly what would happen, after all, the last graduation I went to was… well my own, but it wasn’t what event was going to take place that was the reason I was there, it was who was taking part in that event that mattered.

For those of you who don’t know (I fathom it is very few), Julie and I have been dating for nearly two and a half years now (it will be two and half by the time I post this) and when I joined Peace Corps, I promised we would see each other before a year of service was done. As you can imagine, it has been quite the rollercoaster ride, quite harrowing at times, and I do firmly believe that since we are getting through this, we can get through anything together.

And there she was, in full regalia, smiling along with her classmates, looking as gorgeous as ever. The previous days had been filled with her family coming down to town for this and me getting to know them. Mexican food, Japanese steak, food and more food. Definitely a plus, but to see her again, be in the same time zone, this was what makes me smile even now, sitting in a room in rural South Africa. To see her after not seeing her for months is a joy that cannot be put into words. Just the thought brings back the familiar glow around the heart, the way everything changes to be just more splendidly real.

So there I was, knowing that this was her day. Yes, everyone expected her to graduate, but it still didn’t diminish the fact that she did. I am proud of her and rightly so. Congrats Julie! Thank you and your family for the hospitality.

Every time I do see you, I am reminded of how incredible you are. I couldn’t be luckier.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A proud moment

In retrospect, I am extremely glad I went back to the States and I was surprised at how little had changed. I suppose I’ve gotten used to little things changing, and having more attachments to people than objects. Or perhaps I’m in a phase of my life when everything changes and so I’m surprised by stasis.

After all, I had one of my best Peace Corps moments while in the states. Before I had left, I told my principal at my key school that he could contact me via an email account I had set up for the school. I left detailed instructions on how to send an email and perhaps even showed him once. Not my usual training style as I usually have him actually go through all the motions. Needless, to say I wasn’t expecting anything.


Hallow Thabiso,how are jou?

We missed you a lot,but everything is going well.
Greet your family,tell them that you have tought us a lot and we will keep on thinking of you everyday.
I have make a mistake when I am trying to delete document from the HP printer I have delete the printer from the laptop and
I do not know how to install it.
Good bye
Gerald Sephecholo

I was flabbergasted and incredibly proud. I wrote back, and he replied with this message:

I have received your mail and successfuly used your tips and it has worked.

Thank you very much for help until we meet next week and enjoy days spending at home.
Mr Sephecholo

A school that did not even have a computer a year ago was now sending emails around the world. In a way, I don’t think my Peace Corps service will end so long as that principal stays at that school.

Being away from family makes you realize how important they really are. The BaTswana are so surprised to learn that I voluntarily left my home and family. Families here, though broken at times due to husbands and fathers either MIA or working in the mines, are strong. There is a prevailing sense of family, to the degree that I feel a little guilty when I don’t call my old host family at least twice as often as they call me.

But back to my family. I do miss you guys very much. Seeing you for these few days was great. I love all the letters/emails I get. Mom, Dad, Anita, Erica, and Manuel, I couldn’t ask for anything better than ya’ll. I treasure pictures of ya’ll and now my memories of us together are ever sharper. I know as time goes on that time together will be harder to come by, but I do appreciate all efforts of you to be there when I was in town. Love ya’ll and it’s time to head off to bed now.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Back in South Africa

Again... I'm behind this happened about 2 weeks ago...

And I’m back in South Africa- extremely tired. My arrival at the Dallas airport was harkened by the news that my flight would be three hours late leaving because it was flying around a line of tornados (despite the deceiving screen display which said it was on-time.) No problem for me; Julie, Mom and I looked at pictures of Africa and when it got to be a bit much, old pictures of family that I have on my computer. I was not the only one stuck in this predicament, as an elderly lady was also flying back to SA, as she had one day left on her visa. We ended up going through the same hoops in Atlanta, realizing when the gate opened 6 hours after our arrival (and her first burrito) that we actually were flying standby on a full flight… which was quite annoying. I wouldn’t have minded the 12 hour layover in Paris, but a full flight. If I had known, I would have stayed in Dallas a day longer and taken the first flight out, instead of waiting in Atlanta airport for a day, and then realizing that I wouldn’t be leaving. She ended up being able to get on the flight, so after standing in front of an attendant who seemed to think I was irate when I asked her what kind of options I had (she had been typing into the computer for about 3 minutes before I asked) I headed off to my hotel with the other standby passengers, luckily with my laptop and the boon of a free travel kit courtesy of Delta airlines.

I made the best of the showers (running water!!) and the free wireless (I acquired a Hero’s addiction on the other side of the Atlantic) and managed to at least keep my family and Julie up to date.

The next day consisted of me waiting around in the airport- some of the staff at the restaurants even recognized me!- and then boarding my plane to South Africa 24 hours after I should have. Oh well, such is life. If there is one thing I’ve learned from being a Peace Corps Volunteer it is to be flexible… and that it helps to be patient at times.

Again, there is a silver lining to everything, even long-distance flights. Now planes have dozens of movies for you to see, so a movie-starved person such as myself, saw movies I never really thought I’d ever spend money to see (27 dresses, I am Legend, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an episode of Scrubs, etc.) The free drinks (even alcohol) help as does the refreshment stand in the back, that is… until you are asked to leave. That incident took place on my way to the states, as my neighbor (a Park Ranger going from South Africa to Alaska) and I probably spend a good hour there and then other people wanted to join us. We promptly returned to our seats and began playing a quiz game against each other, the young lady who composes songs for South African television, and some person in seat 41A who didn’t supply us with a name. It was also on that first flight that I met the US Ambassador to Swaziland.

But yes, I’m back in South Africa… and tired. There is a rugby match going on in a stadium just around the block, but I’m too tired to go, which means I’m really tired. Trying to fight jet-lag… good night.

Xenophobic Violence

Dear Family and Friends,

As many of you may have heard over the news, there have been xenophobic attacks here in South Africa. This email is to assure you that a) I am safe b) that you needn’t worry about me and c) to explain what exactly is happening.

Firstly: Safety, Peace Corps is extremely concerned about the safety of their volunteers, often mandating certain safety precautions that seem at times, superfluous. Volunteers have been pulled from their sites if Peace Corps hears the slightest whisper that the volunteer would be in danger by staying longer in that area, often against the volunteer’s wishes. All of the areas that experienced violence, volunteers have been banned from going to for quite some time (ever since before I arrived in South Africa). The areas are in the Townships or Locations, which in the Apartheid era were places that the black South Africans were forced to live. Per Apartheid design, they are outside the major cities. I was actually in Pretoria (one of the capital cities) at the time, and everyone around me was as disgusted as I was at the attacks.

The safety and security officer for Peace Corps alerted us promptly and told us that he was meeting with officials from the South African Police Service to monitor the situation even more closely. He urged us to be vigilant in our own communities, as he always does.

And lastly, what exactly is going on? The attacks that have left dozens of people dead, and hundreds if not thousands more homeless took place in the Townships, which some people have referred to as the South African version of ghettos. These, by design of Apartheid, are removed from the cities, and not places I can accidentally go; I have to want to go there. Poverty is a factor there, as is ignorance. The attacks were on fellow Africans and people of Indian or Asian descent- immigrants that had established businesses, albeit small ones. South Africa has become an immigrant destination as millions of people from all over Africa move here in search of opportunities that were much harder to get or denied to them in their countries of origin (think Zimbabwe). Those that committed the crimes felt that they were taking jobs away from South Africans and threatened them, when in fact it stems more from jealousy that someone who immigrated could have the opportunity and ability to have a successful business when South Africans had not taken advantage of the very same opportunity. .

As far as I know, the violence was only in the Townships and though there were a handful of individual Townships involved, the problem is being dealt with by the South African Authorities. The president has come out to condemn the attacks and the feeling of South Africans is one of shame.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Back in the States

Again... I'm behind on posting... this is from awhile ago.

A little dreary-eyed, back in the sanitary smell of airports, 25 hours after my flight left from Oliver Tambo in Johannesburg, my kudu jerky seized by customs agents (12 oz of jerky- spiced dehydrated meat…what could be the harm in that?) a few steps more and I was home. Well… back in the states.

The notion of home is somewhat an abstract concept to me as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My house is in South Africa, my job is there, yet my life is exists on both sides of the Atlantic. I cannot distance myself from the goings on in the states, to do so would deny my roots there, which is something which I am not supposed to do as a Peace Corps Volunteer. America made me who I am, not staying in contact with those on the other side would seem like denying part of myself. Peace Corps in that sense seems impermanent, a fraction of my life, a life I know will involve a return to the states. My life is and isn’t in South Africa. My job is here and I enjoy it a great deal, but nothing can compare to being together with family and friends to the degree that I had in the states.

But there I was, striding off the airplane and glancing around the baggage claim for my family. It was wonderful to see them. In a way it was like coming home from college, a short visit between semesters, a slow but predictable advance away from the time I could call home the place where my parent’s live.

Since coming back for this visit, I have had the question, well, does it feel different? How has it been adjusting back to life in the States?

The only part that I find a little disconcerting, besides my little brother being taller than me, is driving on the right side of the road. This is worse when I’m in the passenger’s seat, as that would be the driver’s seat in South Africa. I need to remember wide left turns and small right ones. It helps when there are lines and arrows painted on the road, and I’m sure I’ll get used to it again after a few days.

Everything else, the vastness, the infrastructure, the wealth are all familiar sights to my eyes. To be sure, I see America in a different light. I see the opportunities present here, the business infrastructure, the transportation systems, the vastness, the land use. I also see the rampant consumerism, the sense of entitlement of the best and the latest no matter the cost. This may only be particular to my area of the States, but I have not traveled to any portion of this country where that is not present.

It’s amazing how much can happen in two weeks, and how minuscule two weeks can be in the large scheme of things. To think that my Peace Corps training consisted of just four two week periods in unfathomable, so much was learned, so much was done. Then at site, especially during the mandated observation period the weeks seemed to crawl by. I live in a fairly remote area; the houses in my village are spread apart.

Again in less that two weeks I will be back on the plane flying back across the Atlantic, but for now it’s a whirlwind seeing my family, seeing a few friends, doing a few chores here and there, going to a graduation and somehow also relaxing and getting used to the time zone before needing to readjust in those short weeks.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Test

Read the entry titled “The Scare” below, as it will make this entry make a little more sense. This happened last Thursday.

To both set an example and actually know how a test was conducted, a nearby volunteer, Adam, and I decided to go to the clinic to see what it was like to be tested for HIV here in rural South Africa. We are also organizing an event, where we plan on educating the villagers about the virus and felt a little hypocritical telling people to get tested, if we hadn’t been tested ourselves. This way we would know exactly what went on behind the closed door of the testing room.

So we walked into the clinic and asked about getting an HIV test (hopefully the villagers aren’t getting the wrong idea about us… one of our friends had already laughed that we were going to go Brokeback ~ a reference to movie where they are two gay cowboys). They were a bit surprised, perhaps by our openness to getting tested, or perhaps because they think it is a disease that wouldn’t affect the makgoa, the white men.

We waited around for a bit, as some of the staff were on a lunch break, and then we were ushered into a room where the counseling and testing was done. We explained what we were doing and that we would like to take pictures, and so, she told us, that was ok, though she seemed a little confused at our ease that another person would watch the test being administrated. We asked if we could use the pictures in publications- yes. So the pre-test counseling began. First did I know what HIV was and how it was transmitted? Yes, it was a virus that attacks the human immune system and is contracted through bodily fluids, such as blood, semen and breast-milk. Then came the questions that I hadn’t thought about before, how would I react to a positive result?

Um, wow. I hadn’t thought of this. I knew I was negative, but how would I react? I answered as best I could that I would be shocked, as I would have no clue where I would have contracted the virus. I would probably tell my family and friends and discuss my options with a doctor. Then I would, though probably haltingly, get on with my life.

It was then that the irrational fear crept in. How would I really react to a positive test? What if everyone had been wrong about me cutting myself with the knife? What if I was the first documented anomaly? The fear of the unknown was back. I was nervous.

Then it was time to sign the form saying that I had gone through the counseling. Ok not too bad. Why was I nervous? I really didn’t have anything to fear. At the same time, I realized that if I was going through this fear and I really had nothing to fear, I could only imagine what others who had engaged in more risky behaviors would be going through.

Then a few questions about my age, nationality (race), whether I had sex, and if I had sex did I use protection, and it was time for the test. Then we went through what the test would entail. A nurse, not the counselor, would come in to prick my finger. She told me to relax and asked me how I felt. I said nervous.

Ok done. A small prick. Not too bad. Like getting tested for iron before donating blood… though I have felt faint after that.

Then the blood would drip into at small hole on a testing device. They would then add a few drops of a solution. I felt her squeeze, a little more pain..

The mixture would travel up a strip in the test. If one line showed up near the end of the test, I was negative, if one showed up at the beginning of the strip and the end, I was positive. If I was positive, they would do another test. If that was positive, they would send out my blood for an ELISA (a very sensitive assay).

Now it was time to wait. Slowly the mixture advanced… this was agonizing. Seconds elapsed… why was I nervous? I couldn’t have gotten the virus. Unless there was something that scientists didn’t know? More seconds went by. Maybe a minute.

The line stopped. One line. Negative. Phew. I could breathe normally again.

Adam was next. He was also nervous. We both had waived our privacy rights so we could document what happened. Time for me to take pictures.

We then went through post-testing counseling in which we were asked how we felt- relieved. Then a reminder on how to avoid contracting HIV and we were done.

The counselor took an interest in what we were doing and we are now working on a brochure explaining what happens during the test. The more people now about what will happen, the less they will fear.

Then it was off to a meeting at a local NGO about setting up our event, which is a tournament to encourage learners to make good life choices and bolster their confidence. We plan on hosting a soccer tournament between the primary schools and then having a healthy living celebration afterwards. Some speeches, traditional dancing, etc. Anyone that gets tested for HIV will receive a bracelet handmade by a women’s group (soon to be founded) in the village. We’re still hashing out the details, but our counterpart seems quite excited about it, as are we. Ok, more updates to come soon.

The Scare

As I mentioned before, these updates will be in no particular order, as this details something that happened nearly 8 months ago, which means it was and still is quite memorable.

My first impressions of site were that I was living in a dry, fairly barren scrubland. The wind would pick up small spirals of dirt at times and whip them around just well enough so that the dust would get everywhere. There were few trees to speak of, and it hadn’t rained during the entire time I had been in South Africa. This picture should help a little. The picture is staged... if I wanted to hitchhike, that road wouldn't be a good road for it as I have only seen three cars on it... my entire time here.

During my first month at site the rains came. They came suddenly, though with some warning, as a massive windstorm precluded them. I was still in the process of settling in to my place and getting accustomed to my schools and my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Nights were cold, so cold I would often resort to pulling my entire duvet and microfiber blanket over me when I slept.

Rain on a zinc roof is deafening; it sounds like marbles. I walked to the window and watched the sheer sheets of rain fall, illuminated at intervals by cold sparks of lightning. I had two leaks which I promptly put buckets under and put a towel under the door as rain water had begun to seep in that entry.

The next day, everything was drenched… and cold. The clear sky was replaced by gray clouds, the sunshine with drizzle that stung your cheeks. The goats and sheep had been in the kraal (corral) overnight and my host mom asked me to come help out, as several of them had gotten stuck in the newly formed mud. I donned my rain gear- pants, jacket, and Gore-Tex Hiking boots- and helped drag the hapless animals into the shelter of an entryway to the house. They were in various stages of hypothermia, some more gone than others. A lamb and a kid were among them and while we were building a fire to warm them, the lamb stopped breathing. It was incredibly sad. One minute struggling for breath, the next silent, no longer moving. Dead. My host mother took a look at the goats and realized that they were probably beyond saving, so she called an older gentleman and a young man from the village and we slaughtered the animals in a wheelbarrow.

I won’t go into a lot of details on slaughtering, but I’ll explain a bit. After hastening their deaths by cutting their throats, we let the blood drain into buckets, then it was time to skin them, which was done by cutting around the hooves and working towards the center of the body. Later on, we removed the innards, etc, but skinning takes a while and was done by two of us at a time. Skinning involved cutting the skin away from the fleshy portion, which can be quite easy in some parts, as there is just some easily cut connective tissue there, but in other areas, you need to really use the knife. While cutting through one of the not so easy sections, the knife the teenager was using slipped and he cut himself. Not too deeply, but blood did begin coming out, so I had him wash it out and used supplies from my Peace Corps Medical kit to bandage him. Then we headed back to work. I continued with skinning… and my knife slipped as well.

A cut on my hand…

Then I realized what had happened…. and time slowed down. A hazy fear started to grow. I dropped the knife and walked over to the tap to wash out the cut. I had cut myself… a teenager had also cut himself. Was it deep? I squeezed the wound, nothing, then after some more squeezing blood did come out.

Oh shoot…….

My vision clouded a bit.

Did I cut myself with the same knife the teenager had cut himself with? Was the teenager HIV positive? He looked to be about 18… oh man… no. This shouldn’t be happening. Could he be infected? Did I just infect myself by helping slaughter a goat? I made sure blood came out of the wound, made sure anything was washed away. A slight panic had set in. I bandaged my hand and then cleaned the knife, something I hadn’t done before. Why had I not cleaned it after the last accident? Was it even the same knife? Why can’t I remember the knife he was using? Please… let it be a different knife…

I knew the possibility of me being infected were slim. First the teenager had to be HIV positive, then I had to have been using the same knife, the virus had to stay alive for the minutes between our cuts, fairly unlikely given the fact that we were cutting the skin away at that time, and I had to have cut myself deeply enough to transfer the virus from the knife.

The chance was really slim… but there was still a chance… Shoot. An irrational fear set in. Despite this, after bandaging myself, I decided to continue helping out. After we finished skinning the goats, I made sure to ask several times if the teenager knew his HIV status. At first he didn’t understand. A little more panic… he didn’t know? Then he told me no… he was negative. Again I asked, just to make sure.. my SeTswana and his English exacerbating the situation. Yes, he seemed to understand.. he was negative, but was he? He probably hadn’t been tested. In stead of calming me, my panic just stayed at the same level it had been before.

How could I have been this careless? I thought again at the chance of me being infected. Slim to none, but if it was slim… could it have happened? I had been so careful all along… one slip-up. I knew what HIV would bring. I had studied the virus in Immunology, and some of my other science classes at Rice…. I would tell Julie, my girlfriend, and end the romantic relationship- our relationship had been rough enough during these months of separation, she had never wanted me to go to Africa and it would be my own fault, it would be over; I would have another 20-30 years to live, and probably devote myself to others similarly infected. That one instant could change everything.

Was I going to be another statistic?

I knew if I was going to do Post Exposure Prophylaxis (medicines to decrease your chance of infection after exposure) I would need to begin taking them within 72 hours in order for them to be effective. The clock was ticking. I went to the schools and worked, observing teachers and the way the school was set up, seeing how things did and didn’t get done. The fears had been allayed by my reexamination of what had happened, but I wanted to make sure. I was fine, but in matters like this, just to be extra careful, I wanted a professional opinion.

I came home… and though I knew I was being irrational of my fear of being infected, I called the Peace Corps Medical Officer. I explained the situation. She informed me that the chances of me being infected were slim (um… thanks) because the virus doesn’t survive very long outside of the body. How long? She didn’t know the exact answer but thought it was in the range of tens of seconds. I asked her if I should take Post Exposure Prophylaxis… she said it was up to me, but that she wouldn’t recommend it as chance of side effects (liver-damage) far outweighed the chance that I was infected. Still I wasn’t completely reassured. I emailed Anita, my sister, who is studying to be a doctor. The email came back the next day and allayed some of my fears. What the Peace Corps Medical Officer had told me was true. I should not be afraid of being infected. All the ifs, made it seem incredibly unlikely that the virus was transferred, if he had it at all. And beyond that, the virus doesn’t survive outside the body for long at all.

Ok, I wasn’t infected, but had tasted the fear associated with a possible infection. Though it was a relief to be reassured, I was angry at myself for being in that situation. I should have known better, after all, I studied the virus, and knew how to handle myself around blood. I decided against telling my parents and friends, as it might actually make them more afraid for me. If I had actually been at risk, though, I would have told them, it would be unfair to keep that from them. But just to tell them to make them worried, that is ridiculous.

I bought gloves to use the next time I slaughtered an animal.

Thanks again to Julie for correcting my abysmal grammar. :)