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.