Friday, August 15, 2008

Ben Cooks Bogobe

Friday, July 18, 2008

Mom and Dad Bleckley Come to Africa

Jennie and I were recently blessed with a visit from my parents, just before the end of the semester. Mom and dad spent a couple days in Johannesburg before flying to Polokwane to spend a few weeks with us.

We met them at the airport and after navigating the hustle and bustle of Polokwane, we drove to the village. Mom and dad were kind enough to plunge into South African village culture without the prior training we received from Peace Corps so they could get an idea of what our everyday life is like. They stayed with a friend of ours who is opening a bed and breakfast in her retirement. Ms. Maloka owns a shop in town and is on a board of directors for a number of organizations, including Mohlarekoma Home Based Care, one of the organizations where Jennie works, and the Phokwane Improvement League Rural Education Trust, where we're helping to start a library and college guidance center.

Ms. Maloka has traveled outside South Africa, but like us, her culture is an insurmountable influence. My parents were given star treatment both because of how Americans are precieved, and because Ms. Maloka is such a hospitable host. They had plenty of blankets and shared tea and rusks (a delicious type of tea biscuit) with Ms. Maloka, who asked them to call her Edith.

During their time here, my parents helped prepare lunch at Mohlarekoma's drop in center for orphans and vulnerable children, visited my schools, ate a traditional lunch at Ms. Maloka's shop, and met many of the friends we've made here. My dad took a khumbi ride to the grocery store with me and did a training for area directors at youth camp.

Our host family, Mr. and Ms. Maserumule, were out of town for most of the week we were there, and we were afraid our real parents wouldn't be able to meet our African host parents. Ntate (our grandfather) had an eye operation in Pretoria, and couldn't return because the medicated eye drops he was taking had to be refrigerated; they wouldn't survive the ride back to our village. But Saturday, my dad was outside packing the car when our ntate walked through our gate.

Granddad told them the stories we expected him to: how we have the same Sepedi names of his two grandchildren, Bontle and Monare; how he had his foot operated and that the doctors had left the pin in his foot and he had to have another surgery to get it removed; and about the eye surgery he just had and the eye drops that had to be refrigerated. He addressed my dad as old man, a term of great respect here. I've thought that the two of them are very much alike, and I'm grateful they were able to meet.

Our vacation time was wonderful. We drove to Sabie on that first day, a tourist town near Nelspruit in the Panorama, a beautiful area of rolling hills and winding roads. This was where we ran the Longtom Marathon in March, but the views were new to my parents. In Sabie we ate at a diner with a train car front and miniature golf out back. They had some good burgers and potjies - dishes cooked in a three-legged, cast iron pot. I think my alfredo pasta was probably only served in a potjie, but it still tasted good.

Proceeding from Sabie the next morning, we arrived in Kruger National Park for a wilderness hiking program. Kruger has a number of camps far from public roads traveled by tourists where eight visitors can stay at a time. During the day you are taken on hikes by two park rangers with very large guns. We had seen a number of animals on our Christmas trip to Kruger, but it's a very different experience to see them from inside a car to seeing them while you're crouched behind a rock. And we were able to see rhino, which we hadn't viewed on our previous trip.

From Kruger we returned to the Panorama a little further north in the Blyde River Canyon. Graskop is a big tourist attraction because of it's shops and restaurants. Pancakes here, we learned, are made with more eggs, and often folded over with a filling inside - a sort of cross between pancakes and omelets. I had a spinach and cheese filled pancake, for example. A very unique experience. We did a bit of shopping and some more sight-seeing in the Panorama before driving north to the border with Botswana.

On the South African side we stayed one night in a tent camp, which is not what we had in mind when we thought about a tent. These tents had full bathrooms and a kitchen. They were like cabins, but with canvas walls and a bit colder. After spending the night at Mapungubwe National Park, we went on a tour of their archaeological site, where a village lay on major gold trade routes.

Crossing the border into Botswana, we spent three nights at a second game reserve where we saw big cats. We had seen cheetah in Kruger in December, but at a distance. We saw cheetah, lion and leopard from the truck on many occasions. We even saw a leopard snatch a guinea fowl out of a tree for dinner. The animals there are much more used to vehicles and people, but it was still neat to be able to see them. The food there was awesome! Breakfast "snack" which included yogurt, granola, fruit, juice, toast, and cereal. Tea was served on the morning game drive with rusks (South African biscotti). Brunch was served after the game drive around 11 and there were eggs and meat and casseroles and fresh bread and crackers with . . . wait for it . . . bleu cheese! And salami! It was like being back in America, only there's a herd of semi-wild elephants drinking at the waterhole below the dining area. Then at 3 was something they called high tea, which I was informed meant tea with more food. Crackers and fresh bread came out again. And more bleu cheese. Drinks and popcorn served on the evening game drive and then dinner at 8, served buffet style, something I always hardily support, especially when it's good. For us, food is something we are always able to enjoy more on vacation, so it was a real treat. They did have assigned seating at dinner, which was a little weird, but we didn't push back all that hard.

We drove back to the village the following day. Along the way, my dad secretly bought us a box of wine - something it isn't culturally acceptable to purchase in our village. My parents spent one final night with us before loading up their luggage and saying goodbye. We cried for a good half-hour, but then slowly prepared for reintegration and the following week.

We were so happy to be able to spend time with my parents and so honored that they decided to spend their 25th wedding anniversary trip with us.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Waxing the Floor

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

One Year Update

It is getting cold here! The mornings and evenings I can't seem to warm up. We bought a space heater just yesterday, an appliance almost every household owns. There are ventilation ducts in the walls of the houses that let in all the cold air. Bathing is now my least favorite activity of the day.

With the coming of winter, the semester is ending at my two schools, which means students are taking exams and teachers are working very hard to keep up with all the grading they have to do. While in the United States teachers can plug all of a term's grades into a spreadsheet, the teachers here are doing grades for all their students by hand. For 50 students in each class! Then they have to transpose all those grades onto report cards, again, by hand. It's a lot of work and they are very busy.

Which means I am not very busy. Few teachers want to work on pedagogy when they have a deadline looming. So lately I've been preparing for some upcoming projects beginning next month.

The first is a lifeskills day camp for youth in grades four through seven. I've recruited 10 volunteers from the local secondary schools to staff the camp, and we're starting training on 2 July. Camp will open on 7 July and run for one week. We're going to try to keep it limited to 56 campers, 14 per grade. Each day focuses on a theme like HIV/AIDS, making friends, or goal setting. Campers rotate through four program areas: Computers, Lifeskills, Creative Problem Solving, and Sports & Games. Right now I'm working on lesson plans for each program area for each of the five days. I'm also trying to get donations for food so we can serve lunch to the kids. That may or may not happen, but either way, we can tweak with the camp times to make it work out.

Provided everything goes relatively smoothly this first time, we'll run the camp again when school is out in October, then again in December and so on. Ideally, the youth volunteers will gain experience and take everything over when Jennie and I leave so it becomes a sustainable project. Most of our program supplies are either something we already have, like the soccer balls for Saturday sports, or pieces of trash, like old egg cartons for the egg drop challenge in creative problem solving. A lot of the ideas for camp I took from AJ, who did a chess/problem solving/lifeskills camp back in December.

The other major upcoming project is co-teaching grade 7 English. This is fun for me because I get to do some lesson planning and get back in the classroom, but hopefully will also help to share some new teaching methods with my counterpart who is teaching with me. So we're both planning units and I'm going to share some different theories with him every week like Maslow's heirarchy of needs, Bloom's taxonomy, or differentiation. I'll be posting a lot about that over on my education blog, Pedagogy in Practice.

This past quarter I've continued a couple projects from earlier in the year. Jennie already mentioned that we're still doing the Phokwane Youth Sports League, and the library/college guidance center is coming along, though maybe not on the original schedule. We did help them form an interim committee to organize and open the library, and they're now meeting twice a month and holding community meetings to get everyone's opinion on various policies the library will have. We finally finished organizing all the books by their DDC call numbers and have all the subject cards written for the card catalog. Jennie found contact information for all the colleges and sent them an e-mail back in March, and we've been receiving large envelopes of admission requirements and college applications ever since. So I'm not sure if we'll open next month or next year, but we're definitely on the right track.

Back in February I taught the teachers how to use their computers and in April and May I helped four teachers take their classes to the computer lab. The students are so excited to get to use them - the school has had them for four years now! I walked into one class and all the kids started dancing and murmuring "Yes! Yes!," knowing it was computer time.

As we reach the one year mark, our idealism has diminished a little from what it was. Two years seems like such a long time to "make a difference," but in reality we have very little time. It's hard for me to look around and ask, "what have I accomplished thus far?" Tangibly, not very much. And it's hard to say how much of all this will be sustainable once I leave. But, I know some of the youth here will never forget playing games on sunny Saturday afternoons with a couple makgowa, and maybe that will be enough to make a small difference. I suppose I'll never know.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Currently in Phokwane Village.....

I thought I would take a little bit of time to tell about some of the projects that we are currently working on. I will talk about some of the things that I am working on and Ben will share his as well.

I am currently working with two teachers at the local primary school to do a Soul Buddyz Club. Soul Buddyz is a national club that focuses on real life issues and the empowerment of children. We did not have many materials to start with so up to this point we have talked about and performed dramas related to HIV/AIDS, attended a community TB awareness day (one of the Buddyz read a poem),and completed a community mapping exercise. We have 20 learners (as they are called here) who are in either grade 6 or 7.

I am also working with two home based care organizations on a regular basis (and two others on a not so regular basis). With one organization I did a communication/assertiveness training this past Tuesday. I am also going to be doing a basic counseling skills workshop, computer training, helping to organize paperwork and continuing to teach the carers self-esteem building games for the orphans and vulnerable children who come to the center.

With the main organization that I work with, I am helping them to start a club for grade seven girls at the local primary school. This will be a club specifically geared toward gender analysis, self reflection,and goal setting/future planning. The first week all of the girls will decorate their own journals which they will use every week of the club (and hopefully beyond). The format of the club will be to start with a journal reflection which will lead to activities and discussion, followed by the teaching and completing of a craft project which the girls can take home with them. I have Rachel Johnson (SA PCV) to thank for the wonderful idea of doing a club for girls with a craft component and for all of her support as I was working to get the logistics of the club in order. Some of the topics include: Goal setting, "women can do that work", money management, peer pressure, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, physical fitness and healthy eating, puberty, etc. The club will run for about 6 months this school year and will start for the new 7th graders in January. The club will be led by three carers from the home based care organization and 2 teachers from the primary school.
With this organization, I also assist with proposal writing, finances, policy writing, workshops for carers and computer/internet assistance. We are also going to be teaching the orphans and other vulnerable children at the drop in center how to make jewelry, knit and sew. Hopefully they can use these skills to make projects that they can then sell to earn an income.

I am also helping the main organization I work with to prepare for a Youth Day celebration in our village. Youth Day is observed on June 16th in South Africa and the celebration will be on June 21st. There will be a fun run, various games and races as well as addresses from community members. Ben's parents will be here that day, so they will be in for an experience!

Some projects that Ben and I have been working on together are the community library/career center and Phokwane Youth Sports League.

Ben, another PCV and friend of ours (Katie) as well as the director of the non-profit hosting the library worked many hours to sort the books in the library. A couple of dedicated youth helped Ben and I complete notecards for the books. The library now has information and applications from several different institutions as well as information about career choices and financial assistance. I remember that at the high school I attended, there was an entire room dedicated to information about what to do after graduation. I never had a doubt that I would be able to go to college in any subject that I chose. This is simply not the reality for youth here as well as for youth in many communities around the world. I was surrounded by people who said "yes you can!" Not everyone is that lucky. The library was going to open in June, but it looks like that will be pushed back for a bit.

We wrote a post about Phokwane Youth Sports League several months back and this is an activity that we have continued with in our almost 9 months in Phokwane. We have a dedicated core group of children and youth who come every Saturday to play games and just be kids. It continues to be a wonderful way to be connected to our community. And plus, spending time with kids here is just plain fun!!

On that same note, after we moved to a new area of our village (in Feb.), I was really missing some of the kids that we used to live near. Ben and I walk down a certain path to get to many of our destinations in the village and we have developed what I call a "greeting committee." Many kids greet us wherever we go, but these kids are slightly different in that they run from wherever they are to shake our hands and touch thumbs while saying "sharp" (pronounced "shop" or "sure"). Sometimes they also scream to alert the others if they are not see us coming down the path. They are so adorable!!

Be on the lookout for Ben's post about what he is currently working on.
If you have questions you would like to have addressed on the blog, don't hesitate to ask.

Also, if you are wondering, I rarely use utensils to eat anymore. :) Today I even ate beet root with my fingers!

Šalang Gabotse (pl. stay well)
Bontle (Jennie)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Eating Mašotša

Ben tries the local delicacy - sun-dried mopani worms. In Sepedi, they're called mašotša [ma-SHO-cha].

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Vacation in Zanzibar

After running the Longtom Marathon in April, Jennie and I joined 10 other Peace Corps volunteers on a trip to the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. The first term of school had just ended and we took two weeks of vacation to get out of the village and take advantage of some relatively nearby wonders.

We took a two hour flight north to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, just north of Zimbabwe and south of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The flight was brief and they served dinner! Zambia Airways has not scraped in-flight meals like corporate America. We ate delicious tuna salad hoggies with 100% fruit juice and a nuts in milk chocolate candy bar. Then, in addition, they served drinks, including bottled water! It was one of my highlights of the trip.

Landing in Lusaka, we spent about an hour getting through immigration. They were only accepting US dollars to buy our $150 visas. Some of us had the wise foresight to change some rand into dollars before the flight. Some of us also got to walk through immigration to change our rand into dollars near the entrance and then walk back to immigration and pay for our visas. After immigration we spent another hour trying to haggle for a fair price on a taxi to take us to the home of Fraiser, a Zambian Peace Corps volunteer, who was opening his flat to all 12 of us to stay the night. We finally found a bus (covered with Disney characters like Dumbo) that would charge us only 20,000 kwacha each and loaded up with about 15 other Zambian passengers for our ride into the city.

South African culture is at a very interesting stage. We have been welcomed warmly by the people in our village and they have always been friendly to us. However, due to apartheid, there is a sort of quiet discomfort when it comes to color in South Africa from Black, White, Indian, and Coloured. It affects how quickly trusting relationships can develop.

Zambia was different. It wouldn't be until the next day when a local told me "we Zambians are a very friendly people." I already knew it was true. On our airport Dumbo bus, we had the regular chit-chat on our ride, not unlike the conversations I sometimes have on kumbis in South Africa. But when we had some trouble finding Fraiser's flat, another passenger whipped out his cell phone and asked for the number. This is no small thing in Africa. Airtime is expensive and pre-paid. I almost always text message if I can avoid a call. Cell phone users more often send free "please call me" messages rather than buy airtime. But this man that we had met only twenty minutes ago was using two minutes of precious airtime to figure out where we needed to go at midnight in a completely unfamiliar African capital. We did figure out where we needed to go and all the passengers wished us a safe journey.

Fraiser was very laid back about everything. Jennie and I found some floor space to crash on in a spare bed room and caught about four hours of sleep before we had to get up to catch a taxi to the bus station the next morning.

The bus station was an experience. As our mini-bus taxi pulled in, we were swarmed and for a moment I was genuinely concerned about our safety. Two men threw open the door and jumped into the moving taxi and asked us where we were going. We told them and they both had a bus to offer us. We had been told that the bus ride shouldn't cost more than 20,000 kwacha. Both of these buses cost 45,000 kwacha.

We didn't want to get cheated due to our skin color so we bargained with about 50 bus drivers - all at once - for a bus at that first price. We finally found that bus, much to the disappointment of the other bus drivers, though one said to me as I walked away "Eh, that bus won't leave for 16 hours. You'll see."

The nice thing about traveling with a bunch of other people is that sometimes they're more willing to deal with stuff than you are. And so after waiting on that bus for over 4 hours, the price rising to 35,000 kwacha, and then two hours later finding the bus still has not left, we had to get off that bus and get on another that would get us to the train station two hours north of Lusaka in time. And get our 35,000 back. Fortunately, Jennie and I did not have to fight that battle. Unfortunately, we did not get our money back and then paid 45,000 kwacha for the bus afterall. Ah well - it was really a difference of eight US dollars.

In Kampiri Moshi, we boarded our train and moved into our 2nd class cabins that we would use for the next two nights. I have been on a train only once when I was 10 or so and it was a short two hour ride. Jennie had been on a train just last year before leaving the United States. We both had something different in mind. In our car, six people slept in a cabin. The back pad of the couch-like seat folded up to become the beds. The pads were a thick metal slab with half an inch of cushioning. We didn't figure out how to lock the middle bunks until we finished our trip to Tanzania, so they kind of bounced up and down during the night. The toilet was a hole in the floor of the train that dropped everything onto the tracks. The food was affordable but oily. The whole experience was a lot of fun.

We did finally see what Africa was really like. South Africa is two worlds - first world and second/third world. In the village we pump our own water, take bucket baths, and handwash our clothing. But in another part of our village, a fair number of people have indoor plumbing, full bathrooms, and washing machines. We all have electricity. In the city, these things are common place. There are malls bigger than those in the United States. Going to the city in South Africa is kind of like going home. Kind of.

On the train, we passed village after village with housing made completely of thatch and venders selling fruit or chapathis (like tortillas, only better tasting and worse for you). We saw more poverty than we've seen in South Africa. We bought bottled water - the only stuff we could safely drink - from some clever children at one of the stations. They had refilled old bottles found by the train tracks. At all the stops we were sometimes taken advantage of and sometimes given a more than fair price.

At the Zambian - Tanzanian border crossing, after our first night on the train, we were told that the train would no longer accept kwacha on the other side of the border. We had to exchange all our money for Tanzanian shillings. This was a lucrative business for some money changers that boarded all trains at the border. They made a 30% profit exchanging our kwacha and rand for shillings. We also got our passports stamped and bought Tanzanian visas for 100 US dollars.

The next morning we passed through a game park on the train and saw some zebras and giraffes. I might have seen hippos in the water, but it was at the very crack of dawn, so who knows. We pulled into Dar es Salaam at 11 o'clock that day.

I had thought Dar was a grand town and was a little disappointed. It was a very busy city and definitely a different and educational experience, but I had expected more Arabic archetechure or something more cultural. Our hotel was very nice and we had a big lunch to save on expenses. The next morning we boarded a ferry at 7 for Zanzibar. I expected a ferry ride like we've experienced in Seattle. But if you look at a map, Zanzibar is actually pretty far off the coast and north of Dar es Salaam.

Getting off the boat we were helped by a local to find our hotel, the Manch Lodge, and set about the town. Without help, we would have never found anything in the first few days. The streets of Stonetown are narrow alleyways, turning and curving in all directions. The first day we found place to eat and just figured out our bearings.

The two places we stayed were both very cheap and served breakfast. The Manch Lodge was 15 USD per person per night and had a great breakfast of crepes, fruit, and bread. The Flamingo Guest House was 10 USD per person per night and served fruit, toast, and an egg. The Manch Lodge had the better breakfast, but the Flamingo was cheaper - at least, during low season.

Low season is a very short window when rain is more frequent. It hardly disrupted our visit. The first day it rained all day long, and there were a couple downpours on other days, but it didn't diminish our trip at all.

Jennie and I tried to eat two meals a day. It was cheaper, and we found a fantastic resturant on one of the busy main streets of town. The Passing Show Hotel, where we were the only tourists, has a long and affordable menu featuring all sorts of basic Indian and East African dishes and freshly squeezed juice. For some travelers the first experence of bogobe (or pap) takes a little bit to get used to, but we've acquired a taste for it. We ate lunch there forthree days.

We were a little disappointed by the beach close to town. It was a quick, 300 shilling (about 30 cents) taxi ride up the coast to Mtoni Marine, but the beach was littered with trash and a pipe lead from a nearby factory into the water where a brown, foamy liquid was deposited. The beaches near Stonetown are not the same pictured on postcards.

On the island our group didn't stick together as much, but we did join them for a trip to Prison Island, site of a Portugese prison and tortise sanctuary. The main attraction for us was swimming and snorkeling. These beaches are the ones found on postcards. The water was very clear, allowing us to see starfish on the ocean floor.

We took another taxi across the island to Jozanzi forest, endemic home to the red colobus monkey. They are protected on the island and so used to humans we were brought directly below the trees where they were eating. We hiked around a little bit and also saw some black colobus monkeys. Colobus describes the number of fingers these primates have on their upper limbs: four.

Zanzibar is famous for it's spices, and we took a slightly expensive (25 USD per person) but tremendous tour with Eco-Culture Tours of a spice farm just outside Stonetown. They also threw in a 10 minute tour of a Persian bath the Sultan built for his second wife . . . We saw the plants nutmeg, cinnimon, pepper, vanilla bean, iodine, cardimon, tumeric, and others. Vanilla was particularly interesting - if you've ever bought pure vanilla instead of immitation, there is a significant price difference. A large factor is that vanilla has no natural pollinators. In order to produce the beans used to make the extract, people have to pollinate the flowers by hand. Iodine, the orange staining antiseptic, is harvested from the stem of a woody, tall but slender plant.

Joining us on the spice tour was a couple on their honeymoon. Athena and Josh are working for for Tulane University in Rwanda and had done Peace Corps separately about 7 years ago in Guinea and Ivory Coast. It was neat to meet some people on the other side of the experience. They were nice enough to ask us out for drinks that evening and then we decided to have dinner together too! They're doing malaria prevention and will be returning to the states around the same time we will be.

Some of Jennie's thoughts on Zanzibar:
Zanibar was so different than I expected. I was thinking that this would be a vacation divided by lying on the beach reading and swimming in the beautiful water. I was thinking that there would be more white sandy beaches. What I found turned out to be magical in a very different way. Beautiful, curious people allowing us to witness a part of their everyday lives. What an experience to walk down the winding, narrow streets that are not familiar but to feel a sense of peace and hope. The giggles of children running down the cobblestone passageways always brought a smile to my face. While I came to Zanzibar expecting to lay on a beach oblivious to the world around me, I was blessed to become tangled into the web of Zanzibari life.

All in all, we had a wonderful trip and it was an experience that we will never forget.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I have tried to keep a lot of the negative experiences of South Africa for the most part out of our blog. I have tried to keep my posts pretty upbeat for the most part to give readers a positive view of our lives here. But not today.

I am so tired of being made fun of, stared at, laughed at, talked about, sexually harassed, being told I am fat, that I need to sweep the floor, that I am a lazy wife, etc. I am tired of being sick. I am so tired of people (at some organizations) treating each other like dirt. Yelling at each other, not listening to what the other is saying. I am tired of doing a job which I have very little training or experience in. I am tired of blatant corruption, discrimination, poverty, racism, sexism. I do realize that these things happen all over the world and that I am lucky enough to be able to see and live in another culture, but today...I am just plain tired.

I feel like I am such a different person here. More frazzled,brittle, more unsure of myself. Somedays it takes all of my willpower to leave the house. I know I am growing and learning so much, I just hope that it does not leave me bitter and broken.

Today I meditated for the first time in my life and it was wonderful. I have been doing yoga for a few years but have always been intimidated by meditation. I have a hard time stopping my thoughts in a regular setting, but while meditating it has seemed impossible. Today was a good experience, and meditating is a powerful tool that I will continue to use.

I am working on one of the most important lessons that I will encounter in social work-learning how to set emotional boundaries. I am so affected by the pain that I see here that sometimes I am less able to function. It simply makes me so sad. I am learning how to be effective in the lives of the people around me without making their pain my own. If I carry everyones pain around all of the time, I will lose myself and ability to empathize with others. As my friend Ronda says "this is boot camp." The aspects of life that I thought would be difficult (not having running water, etc.) really bear little weight in my thoughts and days. The aspects that are the most difficult for me by far is to see so much pain and not even know where to begin.

There are still many wonderful aspects of being in South Africa. I have been given such an amazing opportunity to live and work in another world and I have met people who will stay in my heart forever.

Lots of love.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Hello Friends and Family!
If anyone is interested in sending a book to us at our site, we would be very grateful. If you have an old book lying around the house that you think that we might enjoy, we would be very excited to receive it. We will also pass the books along to others in our village as well as to other volunteers.

Our address:
Jennie and Ben Bleckley
PO Box 870
South Africa

Thank you for your support!

Community Libraries Project

I've been working with three organizations in my village to create libraries that meet their needs. My lower primary school (grades K-4) has some books and we're working on organizing them in the computer room so some students can read while others use the computers and then swap half way through the period. The Phokwane Improvement League Rural Education Trust (PILRET) has a fairly large collection that our friend Katie and I recently finished organizing with the project manager Shocky. (By finished, I mean we finished with the hundreds place for dewey decimal and the Fiction section. We still need to do the tens and ones.) Shocky and I have sat down and planned our next moves for creating a library committee and making note cards for all the books. If everything goes according to plan, the community library will open in June. My other primary school (grades K-7) wants to get their learners reading more, but the only books they have are about 30 National Geographic photo journals of North America.

Luckily, fellow volunteer Rose Zulliger has been working on getting libraries for her schools and received a donation from Books for Africa of 35,000 books. She's sharing this bounty with me and 16 other volunteers. My primary school with the National Geographics is going to receive 1,100 books!

But we need your help. Each school is raising R1,500 (about $225) to help transport the books in a crate across the ocean. We need to raise another $5,000 to get it there. Rose has put together a Peace Corps Partnership Program grant to get that money. The grant is supported by individuals in the United States who can donate to projects of their choice on the Peace Corps website.

Please consider supporting this project. Thirty schools are receiving over 1,000 books each and all have Peace Corps volunteers to help the schools impliment and utilize the books. All schools had to submit a grant proposal in order to receive the books. The website for making a donation is here: Any amount helps, because we have the resources of 17 volunteers, so small donations will go a long way.

When all three libraries are operating, we hope to create an interlibrary loan system so members of any library can use all three with only one library card. We're very excited about this project!

Longtom Marathon

A big thank you to everyone who sponsored Jennie and I in the Longtom Marathon. Together, KLM raised $20,350 to send needy learners to a great private school in Mpumalanga province. We had a lot of fun running it with our friends and having an excuse to get together with them for a good cause.

I ran about half of the half marathon before my knee started really hurting and then spent some time both walking and running for the rest of the race. I was able to sprint into the finish line with a very ugly face.

I finished in 400th place with a time of 2:18:43.

Jennie walked the half marathon with our friend Katie and had a great time, though her feet were understandably tired.

Our own Adam Bohach ran the ultra marathon of 56km and came in 11th overall out of at least 467 runners - it was his first marathon. Good grief!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Plodding along

The sky is almost
just like the pain
               of children
the loss of hope

The bird of poverty sits on their necks
   tighter, tighter

but it too will soar
into the almost

   "Are you happy there?"
                not really"

I now feel I have a

beside me

I run in circles
  to entertain

I just want to make
    a difference

now I have met people I
walk away from

I have met hearts
that will always be a part
of mine

I have experienced a
that will sway
   me forever.

a boy

He has become a
   before his feet
        the ground.

His eyes glaze from all of the
he has
in his

barely a
  does he
scooping rice
fistful by fistful

this may be the last

The ride home

We have been in South Africa for a little over 8 months! In seems that the weeks fly by, but sometimes the hours and days drag on. It is interesting to look back to how we felt in July compared to how were are doing now. I can really see a growth in both of us.

I would like to share a story about a semi-recent event:
I went to a near-by city to visit one of my good friends last month. At the end of the day,in my excitement, I decided that I would like to stop in the Pick N Pay in hopes of finding some goodies that we cannot find near our village. I certainly found some goodies, but I ended up staying in the store a little too long. The next thing I knew, the speakers were calling all shoppers to the front as it was closing time (it was 5p). After I picked up some soy sauce, I headed up to the cashier to wait in a very long line. After I was checked out, I left the convenience of the mall to the harsh, noisy, dirty taxi rank across the street. As I walked out the door, I realized that the sun was about to start setting. I would not have thought anything of it, but I had to pass into a township where I would catch the next taxi going to our village. The township was not one that I liked in the daytime, much less felt comfortable navigating in the darkness.

I found the taxi I needed to go on and only saw one other woman waiting inside at which point I started to get a little nervous as this guaranteed that I would arrive in the township after dark. As I had no other option, I found a seat in the taxi and waited. After a few minutes, more people started to take their seats in the taxi. One of these people was a woman who sat next to me and started to chat. She asked me what I was doing in South Africa and I told her that I was a volunteer. And she said "are you a Peace Corps Volunteer?" I was shocked. People rarely understand my garbled explanation of what I am doing in South Africa. She said that she knew a Peace Corps Volunteer from 6 years ago who worked at the school she where she is currently teaching. She told me that he held a workshop for the teachers where she learned a lot of good information. She was able to tell me about his character and it was clear that he had an impact on her life. This really made me think about our jobs here because sometimes it does not feel like we are really making as much of an impact as we would hope. The truth is that every single person impacts more people than they will ever know. We may never know the impact we have on others.

After our conversation, she asked me where I was going and when I told her she spoke with the driver to make sure that he would drive me straight to the next taxi that I would need to catch. She also asked around on the taxi and we found out that three other women were also going to the same area. We all decided to look out for each other and make sure we were safe. Sometimes my independent side comes out and I do not feel like I need to be looked after every second, but at this moment, I realized that I have not felt so cared for and accepted by perfect strangers.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

How to Eat a Mango

Back home in the US, Jennie and I once tried a mango. We used a knife to cut it in quarters around the flat pit and then skinned it.

Friends, there are better ways to eat a mango, and you don't even need a knife.

The video is poor quality because we're uploading on a dial-up connection. The good news is, those of you still living in 20th century America (mom, dad, aunt Stevie) will be able to view the video on your slow dial up connections as well.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Our New Home

Four weeks ago, we bade farewell to our home with the Nchabeleng's.
While we loved the family and the neighborhood we were living in, we found it too difficult to acclimate to cooking, sleeping, and living in a single room. Though our basic needs were exceptionally addressed, we have realized the necessity of having a place where we can feel at home and comfortable with some privacy.

We now live on the other end of town in a more rural area. We no longer enjoy the comforts of a bathtub and flush toilet, or a washing machine. We pump our water by hand, are again taking bucket baths and hand washing clothing. We are loving it. While the Peace Corps has always told us "don't have any expectations," these were things we expected to experience while living in South Africa.

The small house we now live in is about 100 sq ft more than the room we were in before, but there are two rooms and a thatch roof. The kitchen windows look out over the family corn field and each night we can watch the sun set on the village.

One of my principals was a great help in assisting us to find new housing. She and Jennie walked through this part of the village while I was away at an in-service training (IST) in Zeerust. They found a few houses, but they were similar to our situation at the time - one smaller room close to the main house. My principal asked a woman at work on her mealie crop if she knew of any accommodations available in the area. She pointed across the landscape, saying "the retired policeman on the hill, he has rooms available." The old man didn't hesitate when asked, he understood our purpose in the village and immediately showed Jennie and Ms. Thamaga the two rooms.

When I returned from IST, I went to introduce myself and see the rooms. My principal also suggested I sweep it out so it looked nice when my supervisor from Peace Corps came to check it out. When I arrived, they had already swept it out, someone was hanging curtains, and they had called an electrician to fix the lights and outlets. Our supervisor approved our move the following week.

Our family has been very welcoming but also allowed us a great deal of privacy. The grandfather is a retired police officer and the grandmother is originally from Botswana. She speaks a little English,but most of our conversations are in the native language which we sometimes understand and other times eventually figure out. To complicate our communication, she speaks seTswana, the language of Botswana and North West Province in South Africa. It is very similar to Sepedi, spoken here in Limpopo, but as we are still learning the language, to hear the seTwana adds a twist.

Grandfather's grandfather was the khoši (chief) who founded our village, and his father founded a nearby "suburb" of the village. He gets a kick out of the fact that two of his biological grandchildren have the names Monare and Bontle, the same African names we were given.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Big Question

Although it appeared to be a massive failure, my first success as a Peace Corps volunteer was after two months of living in my community.

My Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) gave all education volunteers the suggestion to hold a meeting with the School Governing Body (SGB) at each school to get an idea of what projects I could work on for the next two years. SGBs are similar to school boards, except each school has one instead of each district, as it is in the United States. They could also be compaired to PTAs, as the SGBs consist of parents of the attending students, teachers, and the principal.

My first attempt at this assignment was a meeting scheduled with the SGB at Phokwane Primary. I planned to facilitate a discussion using what we in the development business call the appreciative inquiry approach.

There are two basic approaches to development I'm familiar with. The first is needs based. A group or organization enters a community or organization and ask "what do you need?" The answer might be a clinic, a school, mosquito nets, medicine, etc. The organization then provides that need and, (usually) seeing their job as completed, leave.

The second approach is based on building a community's capacity to grow and improve on their own. The group or organization is asked by the development organization "what do you excel at? When is your organization most successful and a beacon in the community?" From there, they are asked what they would dream their organization or community could become, to invision their potential. An action plan is created and it is caried out. The process is cyclic.

Both of these approaches have their benefits. A community can not improve if its members are dying from mosquito bites. Likewise, a community cannot become self-sufficient if they are indefinitely receiving outside assistance.

Using tools provided to us during our training, I prepared questions to ask the parents using a method called participatory analysis. This line of questioning would help me learn more about the community and the feasibility of starting certain projects at certain times.

I arrived at 9:30 for the meeting scheduled at 10:00 which started at 11:00. It was what I had expected, and had brought a book, but was too nervous to read. My Sepedi was not yet at a point where I could use it to ask the kind of questions I had planned, and I've had poor experiences with white, English speaking individuals facilitating a room of black South Africans - the history of apartheid is still very present. Participants have been emotionally beaten down for the majority of their life. I wouldn't be quick to participate in a discussion lead by my former oppressor either.

My principal introduced me to the group. Sweat was running down by back, though it was not a particularly hot day. Mr. Madihlaba had struggled to get their participation during his part of the meeting, so I was particularly apprehensive about my chances of a successful discussion.

I began asking about the seasonal calendar, if there were times of the year when community members were more or less available - were they planting or harvesting at certain times of the year and less likely to be available to assist with community projects?

Educators talk about wait time. If you're willing to wait, usually you'll get an answer. This is true 99% of the time. So I asked the question and then I waited.

And waited.

Unfortunetly, one percent is still one percent. And people in Africa have been waiting a long time. With a nervous chuckle, I cut to the chase.

"What is it about Phokwane Primary that makes it such a great school? Why did you choose to send your children here instead of Thotaneng or one of the other area primary schools?"

I asked this while all around us the walls were crumbling. The classroom two doors down had its roof blown off in a storm four years ago and had never been repaired. Across the school yard, a classroom was unattended because its teacher was busy at the SGB meeting. I waited.

"The discipline is good," a parent said.

Finally, a response. I pushed her further.

"What specifically about the discipline is good? The punishments? The behaviors that are disciplined?" The head of department translated my questions.

I waited.

"The teachers discipline well."

I didn't know where to go. Maybe with more follow up questions I could have reached an answer that pointed us somewhere. Maybe I was too nervous, spoke too much English, and possessed too little experience. I moved on. We identified some possibilities. A teacher mentioned a garden. The meeting ended with the agreement that we could try the discussion again in January - but the meeting never happened. We ate lunch, and I went home disappointed.

The next morning I rode my bike to Phokwane with the hope of meeting with Mr. Madihlaba, debriefing the meeting, and then I had scheduled to observe some teachers teaching their classes.

I parked my bike in an empty classroom and found the notes for the School Management Team (SMT) meeting on the board.

From The Big Question

Mr. Madihlaba had modeled the administration meeting off of my discussion.

All the teachers were in a faculty meeting that morning. I missed out on observing the classes because the teachers were planning. The next day the school yard was plowed and seeds were planted. The teachers made a garden to suppliment school lunches with vegetables.

From The Big Question

Not the improvement I wanted to see, but what I wanted was unimportant. It was the improvement the teachers wanted. And though the garden is currently being eaten by insects, it is still one of the most tangible signs of my arrival in this village.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Tapola e Golo Kudu (The Very Big Potato)

While Jennie was in Pretoria for medical appointments in January, I singlehandedly ate a huge potato in a single sitting. Seriously, it was very large. I preserved the feat for posterity and included a nickel in the pictures to demonstrate the potato's unusually large size.

This is definitely going in my description of service.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Holiday Vacation 2007 - Wild Coast

The second half of our trip was spent on the south-eastern coast in the town Port St. Johns. This section is called the Wild Coast because of the dangerous winds and sea conditions for ships. The coast is scattered with shipwrecks and unique geological features.

We spent this time with fellow volunteers Ben and Susie Barr-Wilson, another couple from our group. We became good friends with them during training and enjoyed seeing them again.

We spent some time hiking in the forest, on the beach, and in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. While our guidebook promoted the area as undeveloped and sparsely populated, there sure were plenty of people on the beach on New Year's Day - so many we couldn't get there. We had plenty of time the days before though and it was restful and rejuvenating. Check out the captions for the whole scoop.

If you're still looking for something to read, check out Lisa's blog - she's a friend of ours arriving in Uganda to begin her Peace Corps service - and Jon's blog - another friend in the middle of training for AmeriCorps.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Holiday Vacation 2007 - Kruger National Park

Jennie and I are back home in Limpopo after holiday vacation. In fact, we've been back for over a month now. We spent five days near Kruger National Park and four days on the coast of the Eastern Cape. Afterwards, we spent a couple days at Peace Corps headquarters in Pretoria doing some research on public colleges and financial aid options for youth in our village.

I'm glad we took a vacation. Even though the initial culture shock is starting to wear off, it was good to get away from the village and all the drastic changes from the life we were living back home. At the same time, it's hard to experience South Africa as a tourist after experiencing it as a resident of a rural village.

Suddenly, the privilege we've tried so hard to shed (or give the illusion of shedding) was donned again like a heavy coat. We were able to save enough in the village to rent a car, stay in bed and breakfasts, and go out to eat often over the two weeks. The lines of communication were cut - our Sepedi was of little use in Seswati speaking Mmpumalanga or the Xhosa speaking coast. We could no longer greet South Africans in their own language and were forced to rely on English, making our skin appear even whiter than it was. But for our overall psychological health, we enjoyed being tourists, even if there was a trade off in our frame of mind.

We spent the weekend before with another Volunteer couple, Brook and Jed. They live in a village near Nelspruit about three hours from our site (six hours by khumbi, as we discovered). It was interesting how different life was for them living near a large city compared to our life in rural Limpopo. We had pizza at the mall, saw a movie, and browsed a book store - things we haven't done since early September. The highlight though wa spending time with the two of them. We played a lot of cards, and received a tour of the area where they live and their organization's office. The two cooked some great food - chicken parmesan, french toast, and eggs with toast.

On Monday, we drove from Nelspruit to the small, mostly Afrikaaner town of Marloth Park, just on the edge of Kruger National Park. We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas being lazy - lying in bed, reading, playing cards. For Christmas dinner we had more pizza.

The 27th we made our first attempt to enter the park. Unfortunately, the place is so overbooked during the holiday season that the gates are open only from 5:30 to 6:30 AM each morning, and a line starts forming at 4:00.

Disappointed, we returned to Marloth Park and drove around the vicinity. Not much of a loss, because we were able to see giraffe, zebra, baboons, and a kudu. I thought I had already seen a kudu - I had seen an antelope with sort of twisted horns the first day we arrived. Impala are not kudu. If a kudu and an impala were in a fight, the kudu would win. I would question whether the majority of lions could take down a kudu singlehandedly. It is the most noble animal I have ever seen. And very large.

We went home, hit the sack at 7:00PM, and got up at 3:00AM the next morning. We got in line at 4:30AM with about five cars in front of us. At 5:20, we were in the first group granted entrance.

That day was incredible. There are very few places where you're allowed to exit your vehicle, but it was amazing how close you could get to the wildlife on the road. Our camera only has a 4x zoom, so you can see from these pictures how close we were. It seemed closer than the zoo to me.

We were lucky enough to spot a cheetah and her cubs in the tall grass, though we were no where near enough to get a good picture. There are estimated to be only 200 in the park.

We ate lunch at a picnic area I read about in our South Africa guide book. It described monkeys gracefully descending from trees to try to steal your lunch. We imagined them climbing down a tree, giving us a puppy dog face and us resisting the urge to toss them a piece of our sandwich. Sounded like a fun time for all involved.

Instead, a veret monkey snuck up from behind and assaulted Jennie in an attempt to knock the apple from her hand. She was unsuccessful, and then spent five minutes staring at us, as if to ask "so, are you going to give me the apple?" Eventually, she scampered off and moments later we heard another one of her victims yelp in surprise.

We did pretty well on sighting the Big Five. We saw a number of elephant and water buffalo. At the end of the day we also saw a rhinoceros. We're fairly confident we caught glimpse of a lion. We did not see any leopard though, but aren't too disappointed. I mean, what are leopards doing in the Big Five? They're not big at all. A giraffe is way bigger. Same with hippos. Both would make better candidates for the fifth of the Five. But I think the best choice would be the kudu.

We left Marloth Park on the 29th, driving south through Mmpumalanga and Kwa-Zulu Natal to meet friends in Durban and tour the Wild Coast. That will be the subject of our another (potentially our next) post.

Longtom Marathon

Hello everyone!
At the end of March Ben and I will be participating in the "Longtom Marathon" which is set up to help raise funds for the KLM Foundation of South Africa. This foundation was set up by two Peace Corps Volunteers during their service in South Africa and is in place to help the youth of South Africa's Mpumalanga Province.

Here is some information about KLM from their website:

Kgwale le Mollo (KLM) Foundation gives educational scholarships to girls and boys from economically disadvantaged, rural communities of the Mpumalanga province to attend secondary school at one of South Africa's leading institutions. The programme emphasizes scholarship and service and as a result, award recipients are talented, motivated young people who wish to better themselves and their country. We recruit young people who want to change their world.

In collaboration with Uplands College, the KLM Foundation offers tuition and maintenance scholarships to young South African students entering secondary school. Each year, one recipient scholar is selected to enroll in the 8th grade at Uplands College. Tuition, room, board, academic fees, travel expenses, tutoring and a modest allowance are provided to the recipient scholar for five years.

If you are interested in finding out more information or sponsoring our participation in the marathon/walk please go to their website: The two of us are looking to raise R500 each (about $70). Here is a link directly to the donation page. You will need to indicate our name in the Longtom Marathon section of the page. You can either donate to Ben or myself, they will be splitting the funds evenly between us.

And to be completely honest.....we are not running a full marathon. One of us will be running a half marathon and the other will be mostly walking.

Thank you all for your support and let us know if you have any questions.
Lots of Love,
Jennie and Ben

Monday, January 14, 2008


Still in Pretoria for medical, so here is another post!

One of my friends suggested that I interview South Africans and share their stories with people back home (thanks Sean!) so here is my first instalment.

On my way back from a medical procedure, I asked one of the men who drives the volunteers to appointments what he thought was the most important/best aspect of South Africa that I should share with others. Here is an excerpt (please keep in mind that I tried my best to accurately reflect our conversation but I had been sedated for the appointment and I had not eaten for 30+ hours :)):

What is one of the best aspects of South Africa?

"I would have to say that the best thing about South Africa (you know that we speak 11 languages here?), well the best things is that we all work hard to come together. It is important to learn the languages of each other. Where I grew up, if you wanted to play with the other kids and understand each other you had to learn their language.
The other thing that is good about South Africa is that we fought against an unfair government. We won. All of the Afrikaners thought that there would be a civil war, but that did not happen. Its like if you did something wrong against me yesterday, I should just say 'Jennie, yesterday when you did X, this happened to me' and then we move on. Together. That is the other wonderful thing about South Africa. We are not holding grudges, we are moving forward."

I asked a 15 year old youth in our village what was one thing that Americans should know about South Africa and she said that Americans should know that if you live in a rural area, you have to make your own outside light if you want to see at night. I was thinking about this after our conversation and I don't think either of us realized at the time how profound her statement was. There is a perception of South Africa as the land of shopping malls, cities and crime. But the villages are very different. The villages have a beauty about them, but they are also lacking greatly in resources. It is truly 1st world, 3rd world in South Africa (and it is very clear who is given the opportunities to live in each world). In the villages, if you want to see through the night, you better start constructing your own light.

Lots of love,

Thursday, January 10, 2008

tears welling
she lifts my bags
no questions asked

for her
a life

for me
an adventure

no questions asked
i'm stumbling
she lifts.


I have not done a lot of posting on our blog, mainly because I do not have the patience to type an entry on our cell phone. I am in Pretoria right now for some medical tests and I am able to use the computer at the Peace Corps office. I thought I would share one of the most important lessons that I have learned thus far in our Peace Corps experience.

I think one of the biggest lessons that I have learned from my time in the Peace Corps is to let loose the reins of perfection.
For much of my life I have had a drive/a need to be perfect. I felt inadequate if I was not exactly what or who the receiver wanted. Since perfection has no finish line, I never had to sit with the other person's (or my own) disapointment because I could hop right up and say "oh, wait! You thought I was finished. Don't worry, I am not even tired yet." I was always trying to be what others wanted me to be, all the while denying my true interests and talents.

But sometimes the beauty of being a person is to sit down with out make up in mis-matched pajamas and say "here I am," to which the other says "well you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen." For once in my life I am not discounting the statement of appreciation, but actually allowing to let words surround me like the rain, blanket and blackberry tea.

Love to you all!

a poem

Not being able to understand
what is being said
the unique

to let the words

ice cubes
on a hot summers day

the unique
to decide
the orange of the African
with the unfinished