Thursday, February 21, 2008


It seems every week there is some sort of seminar that takes one or more teachers away from our schools. The seminars focus on everything from management, to finances, to curriculum issues. For the past three weeks, I have been a part of these said seminars. The Area Project Office (think school district, but bigger) invited Peace Corps Volunteers that were close-by to lead a three two-day seminars on the Representative Council of Learners, which is essentially a government mandated student council in all schools with a grade 8 or higher.

We planned for the seminar for weeks, we put together a video (with subtitles, so they could actually understand our accents), but we really had no idea on whether the system had functioned before and we were giving a refresher to the students or whether we needed to begin from scratch. To complicate matters, we were also working with two representatives from the Area Project Office, who despite repeated invitations, did not participate in any of the planning of the seminars. This led to a miscommunication as the time that we were to leave did not have the same sense of urgency to our counterparts, and after an hour ride in a covered bakkie, we arrived, nearly an hour later than we had planned, making us look rather unprofessional as some students had already arrived. To my amusement, our counterpart then proceeded to admonish schools that came even later than we did.

However, despite the conflicts, the seminars were very enlightening, for all parties involved. To our surprise, the role envisioned by some of the educators and administrators was for the Representative Council of Learners to function as some sort of student police service, to tell on the learners that misbehaved and to mete out punishment on those learners. To their surprise, this was not the role envisioned for them; rather they were to serve as the student’s voice to the school governance. Only with a very imaginative reading of the rules could such a position even be proposed.

All in all, we were able to coach the basic formation of the groups, the purpose behind them and some of the nuts and bolts that go into organizing a successful student-governing group. In the end, we trained over 100 students in their roles and there was some very encouraging progress, as students began to realize the potential of the group. The students took well to the icebreakers, did some great work in the break-out sessions, and laughed at the right moments in the video. Many were very unsure initially and had a fairly negative take on the group, but we were relentless in trying to focus on the positive. As soon as we broke that barrier, we made progress, which was very rewarding.

I also attended a three-day seminar on how to use the science kits that had been shipped to my schools last year. The science kits are a government initiative to provide the poorest schools with resources that they would probably never be able to afford. The kits are amazing, but as I feared, many of the educators didn’t know how to make heads or tails of them. There were a few things I was unsure about as well… does anyone know what the purpose behind an Ingenhaus apparatus is?

But beakers, chemicals, electrical equipment, scales, and more. Those I can do. Funfunfun. During the breaks, I couldn’t help myself and showed how to use various apparatus (apparati?) and towards the end of the seminar, I ended up teaching some experiments and leading some sessions. It was fairly difficult. Imagine taking a room full of adults who have never been in a teaching laboratory before, have never seen science equipment before, and teaching them, in three short days, not only how to use the equipment, not only the science behind the experiments, but also how to run a laboratory. My schools were especially proud to have me, as they knew that they would be able to ask questions later and I could help with the presentation upon returning to our schools.

I’m excited about incorporating it into the curriculum, and know that the students will take to it well, as they love anything that takes them away from reading about experiments in books without doing them. Imagine never having seen baking soda and vinegar react, used a magnifying glass, connected a circuit, etc. Now we get to use them…

These kids are gonna have a great time!

p.s. Many thanks to Julie for various grammatical corrections!


I participated in something known as Letsema, which is essentially a day when the village gets together does work for a school for the morning and then gets fed. I work at two different schools, each with its own personality. This particular school was in desperate need of repair, due mostly to a lack of maintenance. Funding may have been different before 1994, but now there is money for that, it just is spent on ‘Transport and Catering’ which to me seems at times to be a slush fund when teachers attend conferences or anything remotely related to school business. Fortunately we’ve now decided to have some policy for reimbursements, such as a per kilometer fee, etc.

But back to this lovely event called Letsema. It kind of reminds me of Habitat for Humanity in the states, as in we do manual labor, cleaning, painting, building, and get fed. This particular Letsema was bigger than most because in was the one selected by the district, so the entire Area Project Office (think School District size, except bigger) was there and the school was demarcated with flags, advertising the Letsema.

Work was done all morning and then there were a series of speeches from a town councilor, the village chief, the principal, among others. It was great to see everyone out there supporting the school.

However of note was how little work was done. Yes, the school’s taps were replaced, the classrooms cleaned, and a wall was painted, but it all seemed more symbolic than actually helpful. As far as the wall went, we only painted one small side of the three buildings that are the school. It seemed everyone wanted a turn to wait… and have their picture taken while doing that. For some, they only ‘painted’ until their picture was taken.

Another rather irksome fact was that, where I live, a clean school yard is just dirt, and so the volunteers spent hours pulling up grass from the schoolyard, even though we have a problem with erosion. The original thought behind the pulling up of grass is to prevent snakes from coming close to the buildings, but this was rather excessive, and with the next heavy rainstorm, a lot of soil washed away. To combat this, I’m hoping to convince my school to build flower beds, strategically placed to combat erosion. Even if there are no flowers in these beds, at least the perimeter bricks will do something to prevent the further formation of caves undermining the concrete foundations of the school.

I’m grateful for the work that was done, but like many things, I think the amount of work really paled in comparison with what is left to be done at the school. Still being the idealist that I am, I would have liked to see actual improvements- shelves, repairs, etc. rather than just a cleaning. To me it seems the Letsema was more for show, a demonstration that people were doing something, a half day that made people feel good about themselves, regardless of the actual benefit of the actions. From what I hear, there will be another Letsema in April. I hope this time to have my principal arm the workers not only with mops and brooms, but hammers, nails, screws and wood.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

HIV in Africa

And, so after spending a nearly eight months in South Africa, one of the countries most affected by the pandemic (A 2005 UNAIDS estimate for the number of people infected was 5.5. million, 18.8 % of the populace), it’s time for a blog entry devoted to the subject. For many volunteers, HIV/AIDS work is their primary focus here, but for me it is only one part of my job assignment. That being said, it is a very important part of my job here, but does not preside over all my activities.

To begin with, many people in my village are HIV positive. I visited the local clinic last year and found that nearly half of everyone that goes through with a status test (Test for HIV anti-bodies) ends up testing HIV positive. Many do not even go that far, more than half of the people that come in to be tested, leave without being tested. This probably occurs for a number of reasons, one of which is the information the patients receive in pre-testing counseling. However, despite the rather alarming numbers, I do have hope that at least people are getting tested. As more people become aware of HIV, the more they will listen to preventative measures. Awareness campaigns run from billboards to ad campaigns on the radio and TV (helps to have a state run TV station for those), to programs in schools, chapters in textbooks, and nationwide youth organizations focused on HIV/AIDS.

However, at times, I feel that in the seeming rush to get the word out about HIV, there has been some dilution of the message. Due to the complexities of South Africa, when HIV/AIDS first appeared, it was shrugged off as the Afrikaaner’s Idea for Destroying Sex. After all, in many black South African’s minds, the Afrikaaner population was bent on reducing the numbers and reproduction of black South Africans as well as depriving them of land, rights, etc. Now many say it is the American’s Idea for Destroying Sex, raising some eyebrows as the Americans, to some South Africans, seem to not want them to have children, as they also proclaim that birth control should be taken into consideration. How can Americans not want more babies in the world? Or is it just African babies?

The situation is far more complex than I have described above, compounded by the Mbeki’s government initial denial of the link between HIV and AIDS, a minister in charge of a national AIDS program proclaiming that he wouldn’t get AIDS because he took a cold shower after intercourse with an HIV positive partner, traditional healers who don’t think it is a disease, or think they can cure it with normal herbal medicines, among other factors.

When I came to South Africa, I was aware that about one out of every five people that I would meet would be HIV positive, which of course raised alarm flares. I would have to be extra careful when playing sports, cooking, treating wounds, etc. It was more of a heightened state of alert than anything else. In a way I felt like I was prejudiced, but then I felt that despite any altruistic ambitions that I had, I did not come to South Africa to be infected with either TB or HIV.

My first serious conversation about HIV/AIDS was with a university student, one studying microbiology, or at least that was the plan. Their take on HIV was that it had been in the populace all along, it was only with the increased consumption of chemicals, away from the natural order of things, that HIV could then act and progress into AIDS. I was dismayed, but diplomatic, saying I couldn’t disprove that theory, but that I had learned something else about the virus from various textbooks, going through some detail on the history of the virus. In the end I think I was successful, if not of convincing her than of sowing enough doubt that she might advocate either explanation.

In a seminar, held by the Peace Corps, the presenters where from an organization called Soul City, which through a nationally televised program and various publications, deals with problems that people living with HIV would face. Another focus is preventing the spread of HIV by presenting realistic situations and proper preventative techniques, such a how to prevent an HIV positive mother from passing the virus to her baby by breastmilk. However, even the presenters didn’t really understand what was going on with the virus. They had been trained to say what the pamphlets said, but did not have any information beyond the booklets, which, though informative, were quite basic. In the end, many of the Peace Corps volunteers had questions, which then led to me giving an impromptu presentation on the various targets of the drugs and how they worked (My Rice education at work).

Last week one of the Soul City representatives called me to ask for even more information, which I viewed as wonderful, because he had voiced concern in talking to me that he didn’t really understand the virus and the call showed his attempt to be even more prepared in his future presentations. I hope he continues to call.

But until last week, HIV didn’t have a human face. Then, someone in my village had asked me about CD4 counts and viral load and what it meant when the numbers fluctuated. This depth of knowledge made me suspect that they had either been preparing lessons or this person or someone close to them was HIV positive, because the CD4 count and viral load is the means used to measure the progress of the virus.

In the conversation that followed, which encompassed a rather cursory explanation of the immune system and how the virus works, the person let me know that they had been positive for 10 years. To me, they looked as healthy as many South Africans, and I gave them compliments on taking care of themselves and helping preventing the spread of the virus in a rather frank portion of the conversation. For me, my heart beat a little faster when I found out, more in compassion than fear, but I tried to betray no emotion, because, after all this person had come to me for information.

It was also a step forward in the right direction. This person felt they could trust me with such personal information and it shows that I have a reputation for understanding subjects well. This also makes me do more research on the virus, thus keeping my biochemical wits about me, even in rural Africa.

I know that while I’m here I will go to a funeral where the deceased has died as a result of AIDS, that while I’m here, the virus will spread to people that I know. However, I hope that I can, in just some small way, help curb the pandemic, by making those that live with the virus live healthy lives and avoid the spread of it and those that do not have it live an HIV-free existence.

Sunday, February 3, 2008


Friday was just one of those days...

I had a rather rough morning, then:

I had a few frustrations at school that I cannot put into a blog.

I also have a laptop with me in South Africa that helps me immensely not only with keeping track of the two schools I work with (all the info in one place, that I can use at home, plus internet), but also stores my pictures, music, videos, life plans, etc. Granted I do back things up from time to time, but haven't recently. On friday, after I had been working on my laptop because another teacher was typing on the school's computer, I realized my laptop adapter wasn't working. It has a little green light that usually stays lit when there is electricity running to it. Now, I plug it in, the light flickers, and is gone.

This means I can't charge my battery, which also means that now that the battery has run low, I can't access any of the files on that computer...

This isn't the first time this has happened, but the last time I was able to get a replacement part in two days, which was still irksome.

So I spent a few hours making sure it was the adapter and not anything else... and then began work again on the school's computer.

I hadn't finished when school let out, so I came back after school to work and also to plan for a vacation that was coming up soon.

While this was on going, a windstorm blew through, so I stayed at the school to wait it out. This was then followed by a thunderstorm. Now, I was a little annoyed, because the power flickered before the storm, making me lose whatever I hadn't saved (fortunately not a lot). I hadn't eaten yet, so I was really hungry as well.

I waited the storm out, chatting with friends on mxit (via my cellphone).
Then there was a break in the storm, so I decided to run home.

It was rather dark, lit up at times by brilliant flashes of cloud to cloud lightning. I was concentrating on not twisting my ankle (fortunately I had worn my boots, thanks Anita!) and staying as far away from the electricity poles as possible. Then...
I ran into a barbed-wire fence.

And bounced off... Unfortunately the barbs were sharp and it looks like a cat attacked my chest and leg. (Peace Corps does give us a whole host of shots, so I'm good in case the fence had rabies, Hepatitis, Tetanus, etc.)

Then, I steered clear of the remaining fence and made it home. I doctored myself up, chatted with friends from home on mxit (Thanks for your concern guys!) and had some food.

I think in the future I'll try to avoid barbed wire.
I should be able to get a replacement adapter in about two weeks.... arg.

And that's life here for right now. Not all days are like that.