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Month three: living and learning, thinking and hoping

One of my best PCV-buddies Katie told me a good Peace Corps analogy: You’re so excited to get in the boat in the beginning, set sail and do everything you imagined, but then you’re stuck in the ocean for a long, long time, waiting, waiting, until you finally see the shore.

Right now, I’m excited to set sail, am making my breezy ride to the middle of the — at times rocky — ocean, and can’t stop thinking about how I can make my service meaningful here.

I’ve got plans in my little reporter’s notebook for days — initiatives I want to do at school such as spelling bees, phonetics activities, reading competitions, intramurals, SCHOOL NEWSPAPER, and more. I’ve got a little piece of paper hanging above my bed as a “blogging cue” that has ideas for stories during my time here; most of these ideas will take a while to report.

Yet, I also feel like a fish out of water on this little USS Peace Corps boat. I’m here for a reason — to live and thrive — but I’m going to need help from others, like a fish needs water, to implement anything I want to do here. That will happen in time, but not as fast as my head is daydreaming it will.

What makes me nervous is that my school is pretty unstructured: Teachers spend up to an hour into morning class to argue over something, don’t get to class on time, might not teach because they are “too tired”, listen to people come to the school and sell things (real life infomercials straight in my school’s staff room — I’ve learned that “there’s a meeting” doesn’t mean there is a meeting, just someone selling something), etc. My favorite moment of unstructurdness is on “sports day” when learners are out of class at 1:30 p.m. to play sports, but they end up just sitting around. The sports equipment is there and plentiful, but there is no structure for the kids to actually use it. Moreover, my principal seems to always be busy or away from the school attending meetings to really have the direct oversight that’s needed; she’s extremely hard to schedule a meeting with.

A lot of things I want to do here must be structured (I salute you, America), so I’m crossing my fingers that I can find a way around this “structural” clash of cultures to still be successful. Whenever a teacher isn’t in class or learners are wandering the school grounds, I stay clam and collected because I remind myself that this is their culture and how schools have been for decades. Teachers don’t see a problem, so how would they fix it? I’m hoping that by leading by example the next school year will help add more structure to my school.

I still haven’t been doing much at my school because there aren’t many classes to attend. Teachers are busy grading and working on evaluations. Thus, I started one of my secondary Peace Corps projects, which is to get the school library up and running.

The David Rattray Foundation, a non-profit that works closely with the schools in my area, has donated plenty of books to my library, including every kid’s favorite — Roald Dahl! The director of the non-profit, Ben Henderson, supports PCVs and we are very lucky to have him so close by! He comes by the schools every so often to deliver new books.

When I first arrived at school, the library had been sorted into fiction and non-fiction and by subject. However, there was no system in place that would allow learners to check books out. So, I’ve taken on a couple of duties:

1) Cleaning out the library and getting rid of every teacher or student workbook that was unnecessary. This took me about two weeks. I felt like I was on a reality show for hoarding; I found student workbooks that were from the 1980s. I lugged all the books out in a wheelbarrow and burned them (literally — trash is burned here). Satisfaction.

2) Making an “accession register” for all the books — a handwritten notebook with numbers according to every book so they can easily be tracked. I recorded 671 books!

3) Currently, I’m in the process of organizing the books alphabetically and color coding the books based on reading level in the fiction section and color coding and grouping the books based on subject in the non-fiction section.

4) After that, I’ll make return cards for all the books so they can be checked out and create an alphabetical title catalogue to make the books easier to find if a learner asks for a specific one.

Talk about tedious and repetitive work! My goal is to have the library up and running by next school year (January) so I can use it with my class and show other teachers how to utilize it in their classes. In the meantime, I will get some students on board as “library monitors” — some grade 5s have already been coming in during lunch to read and were so excited to see the new books Ben brought the other day. They’re top of my list.

The library has been keeping me busy and I feel somewhat accomplished. Americans like getting things done and that’s exactly what I’m doing. But don’t worry, I’m still socializing with the teachers now and then because building relationships is #1 in South Africa over getting things done quickly.

Other than spending M-F from 7:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at school, I have free time when I’m not doing chores. Community “integration” has been a bit challenging for me because the weather is bipolar where I live — blazing heat one day and vicious thunder and rainstorms the next. People rarely walk around unless they have a destination.Thus, I feel stupid walking around with no place to go even though I’d like to meet more people. I go to church with my host family occasionally, which is a community hub to greet people. However, as a female, it’s harder to make friends because being friendly to men here isn’t taken as “let’s be friends” but rather, “oh, can I get your number?”

Just the other day I was laughing and hanging out with my 19-year-old host brother and his friend to socialize, but two days later the friend knocked on my hut at night, asked for my number and asked to come in. Hmmm…REJECTED.

Whenever I go into town I am hit on or proposed to.Trust me, none of this is going undocumented: I am writing down all the hilarious things Zulu men say in attempt to woo-me-over and it will be published in a while. I’ve started telling people in my town and my community that “ngiya xolisa, kodwa I have” an American boyfriend, which is actually kind of fun. Clearly, he’s a hipster-preppy mix and a journalist (still searching for name suggestions?) This make-believe man has my heart back home, sorry Zulu men!

I haven’t met many females my age except my host sister and the secondary school’s admin clerk, who I’m hoping will agree to be my language tutor. On a normal day, I watch Generations, an over-the-top-so-bad-it’s-so-good soap opera, with my host family every night and hang out with them on their porch just to spend time with them. I’m molding my relationship with them as if I am part of the family rather than a tenant.

The other day my Mama and Sisi showed me family pictures from as far back as the 60s — some of my Mama and her siblings at the school I’m teaching at, pictures from my Mama’s wedding (you can tell she LOVED her husband. I really wish I could have met him) and some pictures even in front of my 20-year-old rondoval hut! My family has lived in my village for generations and still lives on the same property my Mama grew up on. Now, we live on her husband’s family’s property. I was so happy to learn more about their history and shared a couple of my own photos with them as well.

Women, like my Mama, in the community are seriously super women, just without the flying super power. I wouldn’t be surprised if later they evolve to have that, though. They do everything at home but herd the cattle and chop the wood. As a female, I’m finding my place in the culture. People are shocked when I tell them I can’t cook or I’m single. Which, obviously, ignites the common responses: “I will teach you how to cook!” or “I will find you a South African boyfriend and you will get married here!” Ha, have fun with those people!

My “cooking” has been made fun of plenty of times back in the states and frozen meals were my best friends. I’ve never learned how to really iron clothes. I don’t fold my laundry. Doing laundry in the states consisted of throwing all my clothes — regardless of color — into a machine at once. Cleaning my apartment or room to be spotless clean only happened every once in a while. It’s a running joke with my friends back in the states to feel sorry for whoever marries me (it will suck to be them — IF that happens).

Frighteningly, I’m becoming domesticated like the Zulu women I live among. I’m learning how to hand wash my clothes (which takes up to four hours sometimes) and scrub the coffee stains out of them. I clean and sweep my hut every day because cleanliness is a big deal to my family. Likewise, I’m learning how to cook without a fridge.

Daily meals consist of oatmeal for breakfast, fruit or dry cereal for lunch and a variation between a mix of grilled veggies (onion, tomato, butternut) with seasoning, lentils, sugar beans, soya mince (soy meat), flour tortillas from scratch, rice, pasta, or eggs and if I’m lucky some avocado or guacamole for dinner.

I’m going to get sick of eating the same thing every day after two years, but I’ve been pleased with it so far and my cooking isn’t horrible. I coined the term “saxican food” — a fusion of Mexican and South African food. My host family even loved the guacamole and tortillas I made for them. Rarely do people want to eat what I make, so that’s a score in my book!

Although I haven’t been eating anything so foreign, my body is still hating me right now. It doesn’t like eating the same thing every day and it really doesn’t enjoy trying to digest beans — big or small — all the time. I’ve been sick on-and-off since I arrived at site and hoping it isn’t an on-going thing like a parasite from water or something of that matter, but I doubt it.

The untold Peace Corps stories of dashing to the outhouse or puking outside your hut during the night are real. I am living proof — people just don’t like to talk about it because in our culture it’s taboo. Here, it isn’t and I’m giving you a real slice of life of what it’s like to adjust to a foreign country. News flash: You get sick and all you can do is laugh about it with your fellow PCVs.

I’m supposed to start team-teaching with a teacher next week. The English teacher is aware of this, so hopefully the plan follows through. If not, I’ll be taking on my own grade 5 class — wish me luck!

P.S. mine and Katie’s CYLA alumni story made its way to Peace Corps social media (the Tweeta and Facebook) thanks to City Year!

We are beyond thrilled that our ripples story was shared to such a wide audience because if we were City Year or Peace Corps applicants we would be “fired up” from the story; it demonstrates the power of service! Humble brag, but we’re pretty darn proud of both of these organizations.

Sorting through the fiction books and grouping them based on reading level…it’s a mess, I know

All the new books the David Rattray Foundation just donated! Can’t wait to read Roald Dahl books to my classes!

My completed hand-written library accession book. Hopefully people can read it…

Sala kahle,
SmallTransparentLogoLiz

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dwight W. #

    Thanks Liz. These are always a delight to read.

    October 19, 2012

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  1. Month nine: 20 reasons to be happy | Liz in Service

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