Thursday, June 17, 2010

The eclectic, dysfunctional but fun family vacation

Four peace corps volunteers and one visiting american head off into the wild blue yonder. Various roles include mom, dad, twin sisters and the little cousin. Nobody made definite plans and only two of us can drive. We rented a car and are backpacking. In south africa, there are tons of places, like youth hostels, that are cheap and all around the country.

Our journey started in Pretoria, around 3 pm. When we finally converged and headed out, it was four or half four. We sat in bumper to bumper traffic for almost two hours in joburg. (Surprise) Our first destination was a little town nestled in the mountains just north of Lesotho called Clarens. We didn't arrive until half ten, and it was positively freezing. I think the temp, according to the thermometer in the car, was minus 7 c. Remember, nothing is insulated or heated in africa. Thank god i brought my sleeping bag. I also sleep fully clothed. So, i did not get frostbitten.

The next morning, i had the chance to view the gorgeous surrounds. Tall pine trees, even taller mountains, some teepees, it was like an american ski town without the snow or ski slopes. The town has art galleries, coffee shops and other specialty stores. The microbrewery was disappointing, but was a nice alternative to the (crappy) usual beer we drink.

After Clarens, we headed toward Port Elizabeth, using our Coast to Coast backpackers guide to Southern Africa, and found this this strange and wonderful place that is called Nieu Bethesda (or New Bethesda, if you prefer English and not Afrikaans).  In the Karoo (which was touched with SNOW on our first visit- apparently they haven't seen snow in over 20 years), New Bethesda reminds me of that town on 'Northern Exposure' in Alaska- one pub, run by a teddy-bear type, jovial fellow named Ian, a microbrewery with AMAZING ale, a Swiss transplant who runs the local backpackers, restaurant and gift shop selling items made by locals, donkey cart tour of town, and the famous Owl House.  We actually liked this so much that we returned for another night on our way back from Port Elizabeth.

The other 4 family members had tickets to watch some World Cup action, but I was just along for the ride.  I did, however, get sucked in to the fun, learned how soccer "works" and really enjoyed watching multiple games at pubs and restaurants.  Several witnesses could tell you I could officially be described as a fan, according to my jumping up and down, booing, cheering, and overall "ke nako" feeling.  Mzanzi!  Even though Bafana Bafana didn't make it out of the 3rd round, I met some people from Chile and cheered the Chilean team, of course cheered for USA vs. Algeria, which was a totally exciting game.

Port Elizabeth has been poo-pooed by several other volunteers who have previously visited, but i absolutely loved it.  We stayed 3 nights, which was a goodly amount to preview what the city has to offer.  The beaches are gorgeous, it's not nearly as big as Capetown but with some of the same beauty, has a much more laid-back vibe, and is actually called "The Friendly City" of South Africa.  The art museum, which was conveniently located near the FIFA Fan Park, was filled with incredible modern art.  Incredible!  I wanted to take photos of everything, but the guard insisted I show him each photo (I think he just wanted to make sure I took a nice one, but it was still distracting) so I just snapped one of my favorite pieces.  It is so incredible to see that South Africans are capable of producing creative works that rival those from any other nation.  And are maybe even more provocative because of the racial tensions that accompany the history of this place. 

One day in P.E. we spent the day at Addo Elephant park and saw over 30 elephants.  They were so close we could have probably touched them (with a long stick), and there is nothing more incredible than watching elephants that close!  You can really see the different personalities, watch the babies play, see their massive hulk and strength, but they are also gentle as well.  And those eyes...they really keep an eye on you.  So curious!

The last night of our journey, we stayed in this swanky "cottage" in Pretoria.  The backpackers were all booked and overcharging out the wazoo, so someone hooked us up with another place.  Chandeliers, individual bathrobes, gourmet breakfast, terrace, veranda, granite countertops in the kitchen...ahh.  Who says the life of a volunteer must be suffering?  We cooked mushroom risotto, shared sparkling wine, and basked in the glow of USA's win over Algeria, and I was giddy 'cause Bill Clinton was in Pretoria watching the game at the same time I was.  Who knew?

One of my proudest moments was teaching my young friend how to drive a stick shift- first in Borakalelo game reserve, where we saw giraffe, wildebeast, tons of birds and bock, zebra, warthogs and some squirrels- then on the way to her village.  There is no better compliment than when someone says you are a great teacher, and you can watch the confidence level and skill rise. 

Friday, June 11, 2010

Cultures colliding celebration

I serve two villages, which are about 7 k apart from each other. I live in one and walk to the other. Although these communities are close to each other in distance, they might as well be worlds apart, in some ways.

One barrier that prevents collaboration is lack of transportation. Most people use donkey cart, bus or local taxi for travel, as owning a vehicle is too expensive. There is almost zero opportunity for employment in each place, and many are pensioners or young school children. For example, in the village where i live, there is one primary school, housing grades 1-7 with just over one hundred total learners, one bottle store (with a jukebox, which is technically not allowed, so don't tell) where beer is sold, one general store type shop run by bangladeshis, and one preschool. And houses, farm animals and some shrubby trees. Anything that happens takes place at the school. This leads to my next point, that none of the school teachers live in the communities where they teach. The government has set up the system in this way. Lack of integration between the major community centre and its leaders is built into the rural education system. Thirdly, the apathy that comes from a culture of poverty rears its ugly head around every turn. Lastly, one unique challenge is the rapidly approaching retirement of one of the school principals, from whom the tone of everything is set, and she is not ashamed nor quiet about her readiness to exit.

In a previous attempt to join these schoolteachers and principals (community leaders) together, i invited another volunteer to come and help me facilitate a workshop for the group. The workshop was great, but only the hosting school's teachers were in attendance. I can't remember the reason the others didn't come, but the following week, they asked me to give them the same workshop. I did not, and explained to them why. There were no hard feelings, and there are so many weekly fires to put out, the topic was quickly forgotten.

The second attempt occurred when we hosted a workshop for all interested volunteers, their principals and counterparts about libraries. That principal again had an excuse why she could not make it. Not to be deterred, i had the idea to host a party, in my home, for both schools, including non-teaching staff and the parents groups. Everybody loves food, and an excuse to have fun, right? The idea came to me after several months of feeling like i needed to do something about the situation, but not knowing exactly how to proceed. I pitched the idea to the reluctant principal first, to give her the opportunity to help me choose an appropriate date and time that would work for the end of the term. To my surprise, she was excited and did just that, help me plan.

(Ausi: SGB member, me: volunteer, Mmoloki: General Worker, Keitumetse: Typist)

With logistics taken care of, i started menu planning. There might be 25 people attending, so what could i make using my limited resources? This is one of my favorite parts of being a hostess. The more challenges, the better; stress brings creativity to a shiny apple glow. I utilized a recipe my sister loves but i have only used since coming to south africa, the no-bake cookies one from the peace corps cookbook. South africans have major sweet teeth, so i knew that would be a hit. I made one batch with cocoa and dessicated coconut, and the other with only peanut butter. For the savory treat, i made martha stewart's delicious egg salad recipe for tea sandwiches. The tea was inspired by something my mom used to drink called 'constant comment.' Water steeped with orange peel, clove and black tea. A friend of mine owns a shop and donated the bread, spices and cocoa for me. Menu planned, shopping done, house cleaned, party time!

(Kebo: Principal, me: volunteer)
At first, i was concerned that word of my party had spread throughout the land, and EVERYBODY and their grandmother and dog would come. What would i feed them, where would they sit? After half an hour after the designated party time had passed, i began to wonder if ANYBODY would come. True to south african form, one hour late, mostly everyone i invited arrived (except the other principal- she had an appointment with a doctor, no worries). I played johnny cash's greatest hits on my ipod docking station, and finished the sandwiches while everybody mingled and had tea and cookies. I was so happy to see both communities represented and enjoying themselves! My enlightened principal says, 'now that you have us here together, say something.' i love this part, because it is always inevitable. I never say very much, but always make it meaningful. "somebody asked me the other day if i was going home for the long school break. I looked at him and said. 'what do you mean? I am home!' i want to thank you for making me feel so welcome, for working together, sharing food, songs, and cultures. Here's to another year of working together!"
(Mma Sebusho and Rra Sedumedi, SGB members)

I recieved hugs, help with dishes, requests for the next party, songs of thanks and a really nice speech and prayer, led by my wonderful, enlightened principal. It was truly an event to remember.
(Ipeleng: Librarian, Mma Sebusho:  SGB member, Tumiso: Library Volunteer)

(Kebo: Principal, Kgomotso: Senior Teacher Grades 1-3, Ausi, Motlalepula: Teacher Grade 1)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

World Environment Day in Logaganeng

Today, 5 June 2010, is World Environment Day but since I have such a forward-thinking principal, we celebrated it at school yesterday.  This time of year is the end of a term, which means the learners are writing exams only, not attending class.  They may write 2 exams per day, then can loiter around school or go home.  Keeping that in mind, I thought to find some books in the library about energy, conservation, global warming, anything eco- or environmental, and make some lessons.

When I make lessons, they almost always involve drawing; both from me and the learners.  They really enjoy it, and it's something I know how to do.  So, I put together a short (20-25 minute) lesson on the environment for a smallish group on Thursday.  We looked up definitions, including rubbish, littering, recycling, looked at photos of floods, polluting factories, oil spills in the ocean, all sorts of things.  After we discussed the issue, I could see some lights coming on inside their heads.  They were thinking, and realizing that every action causes a much bigger and pivotal reaction, especially concerning our natural world.  It was super!  We were lucky to have the available books in our library (Thanks, Northern Cape Provincial Library Services!) but could have done without them if needed.  After our lesson, I charged them to make a drawing of something that inspired them about our lesson.  There were a few trees, animal and drawings of the world.

The next day, I gave my lesson again to the whole school, and all the kids were really interested.  My principal piggybacked off me and reiterated things in Setswana.  The note of her lesson was putting ideas into action, not just talking about recycling and making a difference, but DOING.  She brought garbage bags from home, and we split up into about 5 groups, and went forth to pick up rubbish from our village.  Woo hoo! Talk about exciting.  I used to do this in Stillwater, both with the City-wide initiatives and on my own, or with friends.  I am very passionate about being a good steward of the environment and educating others to do the same, but the problem seemed so...insurmountable here that I put off dealing with it until now.

When I say insurmountable, I mean townships just covered in litter.  There is no sanitation system here, people are burning their garbage and littering really badly, too.  I should take some pictures to add to this blog, I think.  I did take some photos of my group picking up rubbish yesterday.  They were so good!  The little girl was helping me pick up the small, hidden bits, and the boys enjoyed tackling the big junk.
I realize our village will probably be filled with rubbish by the end of the next term, but the point is to make a difference in the life of one person at a time.  I know these kids will think twice about throwing their snack wrappers out the bus window now that they have hauled bags of litter back to the school.  :)