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.