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