Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Phokwane Youth Sports League, Part II

Just this month we received generous donations from two local stores. We now have balls, water bottles, whistles and more of the same promised plus a duffel bag to carry everything.

Adults and children don't often play together in this culture. Our goal is to boost the kids' self esteem and to provide an activity that reduces behavior that increases the risk of exposure to HIV and AIDS.

The Phokwane Youth Sports League, Part I

One of the projects we feel has been most meaningful and successful to us thus far has been playing soccer and netball with the children in our village every Saturday.

Jennie came up with the idea when her Sepedi tutor, Mahlatse, commented on the lack of activities for youth to do - on the weekends, on school breaks, in general. So after the lesson, we played soccer and ultimate frisbee with about 15 kids and Mahlatse.

This continued for about three weeks when we decided the soccer field didn't have much water. So I asked my principal if we could move the Saturday games to the school, which has water, a netball court and a full size soccer ground.

Three weeks more down the line, and over 50 kids were showing up. If you've never tried to play one soccer game with 50 kids, don't. It doesn't work. Everyone kind of swarms the ball. So now we've started playing netball in addition.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

First Thanksgiving in South Africa, Part II

Pictures from our first Thanksgiving:

Friday, December 7, 2007

First Thanksgiving in South Africa, Part I

We celebrated our first Thanksgiving in South Africa with two fellow volunteers, Margurite and Gregor, and our host family on Saturday the 24th. We were all working on that Thursday, as Peace Corps Volunteers don't get United States holidays off, only South African holidays.

We did manage to find most of the fixings - turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casarole, and a fabulous fruit salad brought by our friends. We attempted, we think successfully, to explain Thanksgiving to Sholden, Madintsi, Lea, and Lebogan, our host siblings. After we stuffed ourselves, we had just enough time to rest before running the weekly sports activities up at the school (the topic of our next pair of posts).

Slide show to follow in the next post, or click here to go to the album.


We were telling someone in the United States that we go on a run every morning and they were quite concerned. "Is that safe with all the wild animals?"

It's time we came clean. There are no giraffes or impalas grazing outside our window. I know, we thought there would be too. At least five per week. But sadly, no. Apparently, they don't freely roam rural Africa. Our older host brother thought it was pretty funny we expected that.

In fact, we have yet to see one giraffe, impala, kudu, lion, zebra . . . here's a slide show of the "wildlife" we've seen thus far.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

South African Schools, Part II

One of my schools has relatively new classrooms and a computer lab with nine computers. Another lost part of its roof four years ago and they are still waiting for repairs. Class sizes range between 35 and 60 students.

The South African government has introduced sweeping reforms since 1996, aimed at moving the education system towards more outcomes/standards based assessment with a greater emphasis on fostering the critical thinking process. Unfortunetly, these reforms take time and require extensive training for the teachers to learn the new methodology. So it's difficult for all parties involved.

Working at the schools has really helped me reaffirm my convictions regarding pedagogy and good practices. I've had to think about why I believe a certain type of teaching is preferrable. I've also continued to develop my classroom management skills, which were always a little weak during student teaching and have additional dynamics in a different culture.

Friday, November 16, 2007

South African Schools

Stephanie from Indiana asks:
"How do you find the schools there?"

I work with three primary schools in our village, Thotaneng, Phokwane, and Mokgoma. Because of their location in a rural area, all three schools were subject to the Bantu education system established during the Aparteid regime. The result is that many classrooms are overcrowded and sometimes materials and resources are not as available as teachers would like.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

New Words

Peace Corps has been such a life changing experience so far ans we have only begun. I have been pushed to places I thought my shy self could not go and beyond the wall I have seen my strength. I have found a passion for dancing I was too self conscious to enjoy before. I have been able to laugh at myself as well as many situations I have found myself in. I have been able to connect with other people on a very human level and I am trying my best to learn everything I can in a very short amount of time.

Colleen from the Midwest asks:

"What is your favorite new word?"
To this I would have to say that it is a tie between ventilate and nyaka (knee-ya-ka). I have heard many people use the word ventilate the way English speakers use the verb to vent and I love the sound of it.

Nyaka means simultaneously to want and to need and I think this is beautiful.

Types of Food and Availability

Linda from California asks:

"Do you have access to our types of food, I don't know if food is flown in to you or if you have adapted to local ingredients?
We shop for our food in the community with a stipend Peace Corps deposits directly into our bank accounts. Some ingredients and spices are hard to come by, like fresh milk, mozzarella cheese, and other dairy products. But for the most part we're able to eat a similar menu to what we had in the United States.

We haven't quite adapted to the local diet. The food is good, but sometimes can make us sick. This isn't a problem when we're cooking for ourselves, but at weddings and funerals we are careful not to eat too freely.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Recipes from Africa - Tsakalaka

This spicy vegetarian dish is usually served on the side here in South Africa, but makes a tasty main course for us.

1 white onion
3 small green chili peppers
3-4 large carrots
1 can baked beans
1 tbsp cooking oil
sliced bread (optional)

1. Dice onion and chili peppers.
2. Grate carrots.
3. Sautee onions and peppers in oil.
4. Add carrots and sautee until soft.
5. Add can of baked beans and stir until everything is heated.
6. Serve alone or with toast.

With 3 peppers it is pretty spicy, but you can use 1 or 2 and a brown onion for a milder version.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Twitter and the Last Set of Photos

Because it's so hard to update the blog from the cell phone, we've also signed up for Twitter, a site designed for mobile updating. We'll publish very short notes about what's going on our page.

Also, I thought I could add captions to pictures from the cell phone. Turns out it didn't work. So the red building in this post is an outhouse.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Language Barriers, Part II

While we don't yet speak fluently, we are able to say where we come from, why we are here, introduce ourselves, buy produce and so on. And when we are not understood, we can communicate with hand gestures and by rephrasing our statements a couple different ways.

One of the best parts of learning the local language are the reactions we receive. Few people have seen or heard a person with white skin speak their language. In a country still recovering from apartheid, we hope our attempts to learn Sepedi will have some impact.

Children fun and easy to converse with. Our six year old host sister will carry on a conversation with up just by saying our names using different tones.

While there are benefits to living in a country with many English speakers, the disadvantage is we have to work much harder to learn the language. We don't have the immersion to help us.

Thanks for your questions, we'll keep answering them, and feel free to keep sending more.

Language Barriers, Part I

A reader asks:

"I know you have been learning the language and customs me the region, but I wonder if the language barrier is a problem, or do you find other ways to communicate?"
Compared to Peace Corps Volunteers in other countries, we probably experience less of a language barrier. Students are taught in their home language only through third grade, after which all instruction is given in English (though legally, students can receive instruction in their language of choice). So the younger population is fairly proficient and many working in the professional fields are also fluent.

However, older members of the community may only speak Northern Sotho (Sepedi) and others may speak Sotho and Afrikaans, which was the language of instruction for all grades during apartheid. While we are quickly learning Sepedi, "ga ke kwešiše" (I don't understand) and "ke bolela Sepedi sa nyanne" (I speak a little Sepedi) are common phrases in our everyday speech.

Monday, October 22, 2007

First Pictures of Our Permanent Site

Here are some pictures to accompany this post.

We've been receiving lots of great questions via email, and we haven't forgotten about them. We'll answer the first question, about language, sometime this week.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Pictures from Training

In theory, above this text is a slideshow of photos from this post. I can't see if it worked on the cell phone.

(If you get this through e-mail, you might need to visit the blog to see the pictures.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Our Permanent Site

We now live in a village near Nebo, which is south of Polokwane and east of Pretoria. We have a nice room outside the main house where we usually cook for ourselves though sometimes sit down to a delicious dinner with our host family. We have one brother and two sisters. Our host mother is a teacher at one of the nearby secondary schools and a gracious host.

Jennie is working at a non-governmental organization (NGO) that supports 28 different local non-profit organizations (NPOs). She works with 11 of these organizations on programs supporting HIV/AIDS victims or orphans and vulnerable children (OVC).

I'm working with three primary schools to improve education practices and on a USAID project called mindset, which provides technology to suppliment classroom instruction.

We have regular access to e-mail now, so feel free to send us a note. If you e-mail us questions or leave them as comments to this post, we'll post the answers here for everyone's benefit, if you're okay with it. Our e-mail addresses are benbleckley at and jennie_bleckley at

Hope things are good where you are.

Monday, September 24, 2007

We Are Officially Volunteers

Sorry it's been so long since we last posted. Jennie and I drafted a
post a few days ago and were transfering it to the phone, but the
phone cut me off at 1294 characters. Then we were going to break it
up into multiple posts of 1000 characters or so, but I lost the
notebook. That's okay though, because so much has happened in the
last four days.

We've finished what Peace Corps here calls Phase I Training, which is
basically all the classroom sessions. The next three months are Phase
II, where we begin to integrate into the community and complete
assignments that apply the skills we learned. Phase III is in January
where we come back together to share our experiences and successful

The exciting news is on September 20th we were sworn in as Peace Corps
volunteers at a ceremony at the ambassador's house. We also have a
new address:

Ben & Jennie Bleckley, PCVs
PO Box 870
South Africa

More about our new home, jobs, and host family in our next post.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Teal Rondaval

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Teal Rondaval Here are some long overdue pictures of the rondaval we've been living in during training.



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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Greetings from South Africa!

Dumelang! Re dula South Africa!
Greetings! We are living in South Africa!

We haven't had access to the internet since we left Colorado. Today we are at an undisclosed town near our village close the the Botswana border (Peace Corps asks us not to post our specific location for security purposes).

Our eight hour flight from New York has a 12 hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany where coincidentally, Jennie's uncle Rans was on a business trip. He met us at our day hotel for some schnitzel (we'd never had any - it was pretty good). Everyone was talking about my cool Uncle Rans!!

That evening we flew for 11 hours from Frankfurt to Johannesburg, where we were greeted by Peace Corps country staff and driven on buses to an educational center in the Northwest Province.

We were welcomed at the college by our Language and Cross-cultural Facilitators (LCFs). They are native South Africans responsible for language training. They greeted us with traditional South African singing and dancing. It was pretty cool.

Training took place at the college for the first week, before we climbed on the buses again to ride to our training village and move in with our host family.

We live in a rondaval separate from our family's main house. It has teal walls and a thatch roof - very stereotypically African. Our training schedule is fairly rigorous, so we get to see the sun rise and set every day. Each morning begins with one of us fetching the water for our bucket baths. We then heat up some of the water in an electric tea kettle and mix it in with our cold water, then bathe and clean our shoes before dumping the water out. Then we eat breakfast (usually corn flakes or porridge) and head to training. Lunch often consists of peanut butter and jelly and some fruit.

Dinner consists of rice or a staple food called bogobe or pap. It's made to a stiff mashed potato consistency from cornmeal and water. It's pretty good, especially when you cover it with meat or chicken and gravy. This week we also sampled a South African delicacy - mala, or cow intestines. They were actually pretty good, we would compare them to a chewy noodle.

Laundry is done in a bucket as well, by hand without a wash board or anything like that. It's kind of hard work and many of the trainees have sore on their hands. We have a group of neighbor boys who come over every week to play games and help with laundry.

We went to a funeral the first Sunday that were here which was pretty intense. There is a funeral pretty much every weekend. One of the traditions is for men and boys of the village to help put the sand over the casket during the service and Ben went up to partake in this.

We have met so many wonderful people in the last couple of weeks who we are very excited to continue to work with. There is another couple who lives just up the dirt path from us and they come over on the weekends to play cards and to go on walks.

The weather has been nice. It is usually cold in the mornings but a very pleasant temperature for the rest of the day.

We are running out of time on the computer! We have really appreciated the letters we have received so far (I have read each one at least three times). Please keep sending letters, they mean the world to us right now. (It is also helpful if you write airmail on them).
We love you all. Thank you for your support!

Ben and Jennie

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Update 7/27/07

Latest update from Jennie & Ben (they do not have email access so Mother Olson is trying to do this!)
"Things in South Africa are wonderful so far! We have met so many wonderful people & this is just the beginning. When we arrived at the school our language & cultural trainers were singing & dancing to welcome us to South Africa. Myself (along with many others) had tears in our eyes. I am already blown away by the strength, compassion and wisdom of the people I have met so far. All of them have been through so much yet they are always willing to give whenever there is a need. We are leaving in the morning (7/28) to meet the family that will host us over the next two months. We have learned that we will be learning Sepedi (language). We have also learned that we will be moving to Limpopo after training. We have broken into small groups to learn culture and language. I have a wonderful trainer who knows a lot about language and culture."

Monday, July 16, 2007

We're leaving on a jet plane!

It is almost 9p on July 15th and we are almost completely packed. We have had a great (but sad) time saying our "see you in two years." Our families and friends have been so supportive of our decision to join the Peace Corps and we really appreciate it.

We may not be able to update our blog for a while but please keep us in your thoughts.

Here is a picture of Ben and I enjoying a rootbeer float toast:

Update: audio podcast of pouring the root beer float with Jennie and her brother Matt singing in the background.


Jennie and Ben

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Training Itinerary

We put together a map of our current training itinerary - as we're beginning to learn, however, any of this could be subject to change. We're definitely not picky when the government is sending us to Africa and footing the bill for us to live there for two years.

In less than 24 hours, we leave for Philadelphia. Probably one last post from both of us tonight, but if not, we'll try to send something from there.

Monday, July 2, 2007

New Address, more information on training

Hello everyone!

I know you were hoping that we would change the address that you could send letters to one more time so here you are:

Jennie and Ben Bleckley
Peace Corps
PO Box 9536
Pretoria 0001
South Africa

This address should be good until around September 20th and then we will send word with a new address.

I received an email today telling us more about training (July-September) so I thought I would share that with you.

A little bit of information about South Africa and the Peace Corps program there:

"South Africa is a country going through an enormous transition. It is a First World-Third World country. The government and private sector have created a robust, First World economy. However a large segment of the population still lives in a Third World economy. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you will be addressing the needs of those still living in a Third World society, threatened by AIDS and enrolled in an educational system that still does not adequately meet the needs of learners.

This year Peace Corps will celebrate its 10th anniversary in the country. On the day of your swearing-in to become a Volunteer, 140 currently serving Volunteers and numerous dignitaries will be present to recognize a decade of Peace Corps Volunteer service in the country."

My dad said that when we received our new placement (we were not able to go to the first place we were nominated for due to restrictions after a rough medical clearance process) we would be blown away. He sure was right!

We will arrive in Johannesburg on Saturday July 21st in the morning. We will then be driven to Mankwe Education Center in Rustenburg. We will stay there for one week "being oriented to Peace Corps and South Africa." After that week we will move into the home of a South African family who will help us learn the ropes from July- September.

This family will live in the Zeerust area (approx. 120 kilometers from the Botswana border). They will be responsible for helping us with language, teaching us how to cook, wash clothes, etc. We will be eating all of our meals with our host family. The staple food is maize (corn meal), prepared as a thick porridge called "pap" and eaten with vegetables or a sauce.

During our training six languages will be taught: Sepedi, SeTswana, IsiZulu, IsiSwati, Xitsonga and Afrikaans. Every volunteer will take an oral language proficiency exam near the end of training.

Needless to say I am getting very excited and nervous! Any warm thoughts are appreciated.


Sunday, July 1, 2007

Two Weeks to Go

Last Saturday we recieved our staging packet which contains our flight information and staging assignment. At 10 am on July 16th we will leave Denver for Phillidelphia, PA. Staging will begin the following day at 1 pm, so we will have some time to spend exploring the city and visiting my Aunt Leslie who recently took a trip to South Africa. She's worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a number of years, is an avid world traveler, and was a major influence in shaping my world view.

In the meantime I'm working at Peaceful Valley Scout Ranch for one final summer. I worked there from 1998 to 2003 and decided to go back for one final year. I'll leave there on July 12th. Jennie and I are both working on learning Setswana, a common language in northern South Africa, where a large part of our training will take place (or so we are told).

It still doesn't seem real to me that in two weeks I'm leaving to live in South Africa. Crazy.

Thanks for all your support!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Address change

Hello everyone!
I just wanted to let everyone know that our address during training has changed to :

Ben and Jennie Bleckley, PCT
Peace Corps
126 Verdoon Street
Pretoria, South Africa

We recently received an email with language lessons that we need to work on, so we are in the beginning stages of learning Setswana (and by beginning, I really mean beginning!). We will have language lessons for several hours every day during training. We do not know for sure if we will be speaking Setswana during our service, but we will be place with a family who speakes Setswana during our training in July, August and September.
We are getting very excited for our upcoming adventure ( a little over three weeks left until we leave for staging).

Thank you everyone for your support!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Uncle Rans and Aunt Pati's

Here is the next installment of the farewell tour edition!

We arrived at Rans and Pati's house around 3p on Friday May 25th. Pati was still at work so we went to surprise her and then we took a scenic ride back to their house.
We could not have planned the trip better if we had tried because we were able to spend the entire Memorial Day weekend with them. We went on some scenic walks/hikes around the island, played board games, went to point-no-point, the seashell museum, and relaxed on the deck. Here are some pictures from our adventures.

A deer that spent much time munching greens in their forest:

The light house at Point-no-Point

A fish in blue jeans who was kind enough to pose with Ben and I:

Starfish on the pier:

Uncle Rans, Aunt Pati, Me, Ben

After much discussion, we decided that it would be best to leave on the 5:20 ferry to Seattle to avoid commuter traffic. This ended up working really well as we were able to see the sunrise on the ferry.

We made it back into Denver on Wednesday May 30th after spending a night camping near the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Up the Coast- California to Washington

We started on our journey up the western coast on Tuesday May 22nd. This was an amazing leg of the journey for both Ben and I. We started this portion of the trip from Moorpark, CA and headed up the coast on the famous Highway 1.

Some highlights from the first day of the journey were:

Morro Bay (where we ate a picnic lunch and found sand dollars),

San Simeon (beautiful water, beach and pier; as well as home to the Hurst Castle),

Elephant Seals,

Monterey Bay (where we spent the night at Sunset Beach State Park).

Day two found us starting in Monterey Bay. We went across the Golden Gate Bridge and enjoyed lunch at Point Reyes National Seashore. One highlight of this day was making it up to Redwood National Forest to camp.

Day three (Thursday May 24th) was spent driving from Redwood National Forest to Cape Lookout State Park in Oregon. This drive was absolutely beautiful with the forest on one side and spectacular ocean views on the other.

We woke up on Friday and headed out of our campsite to Fort Clatsop National Memorial. We then headed across the (terrifying!) Astoria bridge and headed toward my Aunt and Uncle's house in Bainbridge Island, WA.

This was a drive of a lifetime!

Fun on the road-California

I know many people have been holding their breath to hear about our adventures in California so here goes!

We arrived in Redondo Beach, CA on Friday May 18th after staying a night near Cedar Breaks, UT. For those who do not know, we went to Redondo Beach to spend time with my brother and sister-in-law (Robert and Kristen Olson).

First Ben and I walked down to the beach and enjoyed the palm trees.

After Robert got home we went to a restaurant overlooking the beach to eat dinner with Kristen. We then had a tour of the beach and watched the sun set.

On Saturday Robert drove Ben and I down to San Diego to spend time with Aunt Linda and Uncle Tony. They took us on a tour of the city and we ate lunch together.

On Sunday Robert gave me some boogie-boarding tips and I had a blast making a fool of myself! Here's a video Ben taped:

On Monday Ben and I drove to Simi Valley, CA to spend the day with my Grandmother. We went out to lunch, shopping and she showed us around her new place. We were able to sit and visit with her until dinner.

On Monday night we went out with my Aunt Gail and Uncle Bob and my cousins Alicia and Liz. We stayed Monday night at their house in Moorpark and then began our journey up the west coast.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Grand Junction

We are at a computer in Grand Junction's visitor center charging our batteries so I thought I would say "hey" from Grand Junction. We are very excited to continue our wonderful trip! Pictures will be here soon.

Update: Pictures from the awesome visitor center

How to Get the Most Out of Your Fill-up

Wouldn't you like to know how we make our trip affordable with gas prices on the rise? This video offers an ancient family secret passed down from generation to generation on maximizing gas pumped.

Back in Denver

We're back in Denver tonight preparing the second, longer leg of our epic farewell tour hitting Utah, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

We may work over the next week or two to backtrack on our posts and go a little more in depth.
In the mean time, we've updated the map with pictures, captions, and some route information. There are also picture albums without captions. The various albums include:

Wizards Minor League Baseball Game

Fort Wayne Zoo

Milford Lake
If you find this road trip stuff boring and want something more Peace Corps related, check out Doug's blog. He's a good friend of ours doing the Peace Corps in Romania.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Jennie and Ben's Farewell Tour

We're currently in Fort Wayne, Indiana visiting my aunt Stevie. It's the first leg of our epic Farewell Tour, during which time we are going to par-tay like it's 1999. We're visiting relatives across the country during the month of May before we leave for the Peace Corps in July.

I'm on a phone line connection right now, so no pictures or podcasts at present. But you can take a look at our tour map and see what cool things we'll be doing.

More posts soon (we're too busy par-taying like it's 1999 right now).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Assignment Booklets

If anyone's interested, here are some links to the assignment booklets Jennie and I received in the mail:
Jennie's Assignment
Ben's Assignment
South Africa Welcome Book

Saturday, April 14, 2007

We're Invited to Serve

Fourteen months after Jennie and I applied, we finally received our invitation last week. The Peace Corps application process can be long. We began filling out the 20 page application in January 2006 and turned in all our initial paperwork in March. Our interview was in late April 2006 and we were nominated for sub-Sahara Africa the next month. Check out our photo album from our application send-off. We were so excited - little did we know it would be another year before we'd even know if we were going!

We were asked to fill out more medical paperwork in July, then in September, and again in January. In February we completed our physicals and in early April 2007, we received our invitation. The Peace Corps is definitely thorough! But they want to make sure we're safe when living in a developing country without immediate access to doctors and our support system of family and friends, and we won't blame them for that.

We are leaving July 16 for South Africa. Jennie will serve as a Capacity Builder for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fighting HIV/AIDS. I'm going to be a Primary Teacher Training Resource Volunteer. We celebrated our invitee status with a fancy (cheeseburger) dinner and spice cake.

Once we are "in country," we'll receive three months of language, cultural, and job training. In September, we're actually sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV). That date is the official start of our two years of service. While we're in South Africa, we do have two vacation days a month, but it is unlikely we will return to the United States; the Peace Corps pays for travel to your country of service when you begin, and they pay for the return ticket once your service has concluded, but any other airfare is our responsibility. This is really pretty generous - the Peace Corps is one of very few organizations that covers all expenses for getting to and living in the country of service.

We feel extremely lucky to have this opportunity. Living in another country on the other side of the globe should help us learn a lot about ourselves and where we are in the world. We want to thank our families and friends for the massive amount of support we've received; it means a great deal to us.

So, since we will be gone for so long, on May 10th we're beginning our cross-country farewell tour. We'll post our itinerary up here when it's ready. In the mean time, you can subscribe to receive all our posts on the right side of the screen. If you have a feed reader, you know what to do. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can use the e-mail subscription or learn how to use Google reader.