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City Year South Africa visit: I left my heart and bomber in Soweto

Out of all of the 76 Peace Corps countries I could have been sent to, I was invited to the only one with an international City Year site. What are the odds? You do the math — slim to none.

City Year is based  mostly in major American cities and in two international locations – Johannesburg and London. I came to South Africa a quick month after completing my City Year in Los Angeles. My corps year with CYLA means a lot to me, so of course I had to pay City Year South Africa a visit. Nelson Mandela Day – on July 18th – is a national service day in South Africa; I couldn’t think of a better way to serve than with City Year!

City Year South Africa gave me the opportunity to spend two days with a team – one regular service day and Nelson Mandela Day. City Year South Africa serves in townships around Johannesburg. Huw, the external relations manager, set me up with the Bapedi Primary School team in Soweto.

Of course the experience was phenomenal. I was welcomed onto the Bapedi Primary School team as part of their family. The team had that same type of familial spirit and love my Markham team had. Although it made me nostalgic, I also realized I now have two City Year teams!

Bapedi Primary School team 2013!

Bapedi Primary School team 2013!

I spent Wednesday and Thursday at Bapedi. Wednesday was a regular service day – team meetings, prepping for Nelson Mandela Day, after-school program and final circle. On Nelson Mandela Day, we cleared an area to make a recycling center for Bapedi, helped plant seeds in a garden the Bapedi team started in April and painted a playground set. On Friday, I watched physical training (PT) in downtown Johannesburg, showed pictures from my service year and did an informal Q and A with the whole corps.

Painting for our Nelson  Mandela Day project

Painting for our Nelson Mandela Day project

Clearing this space for a recycling center

Clearing this space for a recycling center

What’s so incredible about this experience is that I clearly see how everything’s somehow connected from these past two years of service. I met people at City Year South Africa who know people at CYLA. Huw – City Year staff – knows the area I serve in South Africa quite well because his dad used to live and work as a doctor there.  I stood in on team circles expressed completely in Zulu and understood a good gist of it. Everyone called me Mpho instead of Liz. I saw City Year culture fuse with African culture – team chants and readiness checks done in Zulu. I introduced myself in Zulu and got the silent applause. And best yet – how ya feelin’? SIYASHISHA FIRED UP! (We are fired up in Zulu). I saw South African learners perform PT. I never imagined that I’d get to experience City Year culture in my Peace Corps host community’s language. It’s a small, small, small world.

Power pumps!

Chainbreakers

I now feel a lot more connected to South Africa because of everyone I had the privilege to meet this week. I saw Soweto through the eyes of a local — Lindiwe, the Bapedi program  manager, gave me a tour, took me to her house and I met her family. I met people on the Bapedi team who talked about how much they love community service and are very involved in Soweto. One has already written a plan to start a non-profit that will give ex-convicts job training. It’s an unworldly feeling to know South Africans are doing the same work I’m doing and have that same idealistic hope for our world’s future. I’ve always known I’m part of a powerful movement, but now I know just how powerful. We all – South African or American – live for a strong purpose. Spirit, discipline, purpose and pride that is!

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Reciting the City Year pledge

I traded my yellow CYLA bomber with Lindiwe and now have a red City Year South Africa bomber — a right of passage in my Peace Corps service country. Lindiwe said she’ll frame the CYLA bomber. I’ll definitely hang mine from my rafters in my hut.

Huge thank you to Lindiwe and Huw for making this trip possible!

Lindiwe, the Bapedi program manager. What an amazing, amazing, AMAZING woman

Lindiwe, the Bapedi program manager. What an amazing, amazing, AMAZING woman

Small heartYours in service,
Liz

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A month in photos: February 2013

  • The first meeting of Girls on the Rise — a girl’s club that my counterpart Yama and I started at the high school in my village. The club is open to anyone and will run until November. We will teach about health issues, self-esteem, love problems (that one is on Yama), sex, really anything else a high school girl would want to talk about. With 38 teenage pregnancies last year at the high school, we can only hope this club will help girls make the right decisions for their futures. My counterpart rocks and organized all the girls. We will meet twice a month. During our first meeting we had the girls draw and discuss their “self-image”, how they see themselves, which I think they enjoyed! (more to come on Girls on the Rise as it takes off!)
  • Pen pal project with my City Year school Markham Middle School in Watts and also Stevenson Middle School in Boyle Heights of Los Angeles. My former roommates Marissa and Josh are team leaders this year at each school! Hopefully I can send the letters this week, but there’s a post office strike (Africa always wins).
  • Learners helping me label library books, which of course got out of hand
  • Other randoms from February


Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Giving thanks 2012

I’m thankful for a lot of things, but mostly, I’m thankful for the education I received in America. Point blank.

I went to a decent public school in a middle class area. I dreamed to attend journalism school at USC as a young elementary child and did it, but I didn’t do it alone. I did it with the help of my parents and every educator who helped me develop my writing. I had parents who were involved in my education and spent countless nights with me in high school grueling through math problems or English essays. Enough said.

Education is so important to success and not repeating the cycle of poverty seen in my service communities. Without similar parental support that I received during my school years, the kids in my service communities may not  understand this and are sometimes robbed of a decent education before they can really take responsibility for their own education. Yet, even when they get older, like some of my 6th graders from last year, they still might not get the hint until it’s too late.

What about that little grade 7 learner who stole my heart when he dressed up as a news reporter and performed a skit as a journalist in front of the whole school the other day? Will he ever make that dream come true and get to report for the camera like I did?

His odds are sure far lower than mine were, especially considering his English fluency. However, there’s still hope for kids that attend struggling schools — and that’s one reason why I serve — so that students can understand how important education is, take ownership of their education and receive the education they need to achieve those childhood dreams like I could.

One day, like myself, I hope the students I work with and those who work with my City Year and PCV buddies will look back during the holidays on their childhood and be thankful for the education that helped them get back on track.  Education is everything. Don’t forget to be thankful for yours this holiday season.

Ripples of hope: serving in the Peace Corps with another City Year Los Angeles alum

It’s a Small World has always been my favorite ride at Disneyland. Not because of the obnoxious music, but because of the message it gave young children: People are connected around the world. Sure, we speak different languages and have different cultures, but we have the same emotions, breathe the same air and well duh, are all humans. We’re all not that different.

Then I came to City Year last year and learned about a Zulu proverb called Ubuntu: I am because you are / my humanity is tied to your humanity. In other words, we’re all connected in some way, somehow.

As known, I joined the Peace Corps quickly after my City Year and found a fellow City Year Los Angeles alum — Katie (corps year 2008-2009) — among my group of Volunteers who served in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood I served in. When I arrived at the Johannesburg airport, boarded the bus and got my Pre-Service Training (PST) schedule, I called Katie’s name across the bus and said, “Katie! We have a training about Ubuntu! Ohhh City Year…” We both shook our heads and laughed.

I didn’t realize the similarities of Ubuntu between my City Year and Peace Corps service until now, but the concept of Ubuntu originated in South Africa. Katie and I are ironically learning Zulu in the same language group with only one other American.

Before Katie, myself and the rest of my Peace Corps Volunteer group were about to listen to a presentation on Ubuntu in South African culture from our Zulu language trainers, Katie and I were sharing City Year pictures and memories. I showed her some pictures from the end of the year. We had already gone through lists of student names to see if I had tutored any of her former elementary students, but today we finally saw how our paths crossed after she saw a picture of one infamous Markham student my team adored. Let me stress again that this is right before the Ubuntu session is about to start (for those non-City Year people, this is City Year’s favorite word).

One of our Markham kids, Sarah*, was one of Katie’s elementary school team’s former students. At the end of a City Year, whether or not some of these students are in a team member’s actual class, there are always a group of kids that every City Year knows and has helped in some way. Sarah was one of those kids for my team AND Katie’s team.

Bursting out in laughter as we flipped through the pictures I had of her, we started to share Sarah stories: Funny things she had said (she has no sensor and doesn’t care what people think, which makes her all the more fun to be around). I was so happy about this discovery that my eyes were tearing up — Katie and I can come from two completely different places in the US (Kentucky and California) and still somehow impacted a student’s life (or in my case, know the people who really did — my teammates Angie, Melanie and Becky — because I didn’t work much with her). This is clear proof that we are all connected through humanity and Ubuntu isn’t just some inspirational saying — it’s actually true.

I’ve written plenty of times throughout my first service year that changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds and one might not always see results. I joined the Peace Corps expecting this, but can finally say that in rare circumstances change can be seen. Maybe Sarah still struggles in school a lot, but she was one of the first students who befriended my team at Markham, which I know had something to do with working with Katie’s team when she was a third grader. Now as a sixth grader, she’s confident, out-spoken, humorous and brave. I can’t completely credit City Year with all this, but the organization must have had some role in shaping who she is today if she decided to look up to the Markham team this year.

In South Africa, Ubuntu is practiced in all households. Batho pele, which means people first, stresses that one must take care of others — including guests and family members — before taking care of oneself when referring to eating meals or anything else. Food must be prepared in large portions in case guests show up to a family’s home. Family members must feed guests — regardless of who they are — before they eat. If one needs food or ingredients, one visits the neighbor’s house to get it. Food is for everyone and is shared. There is no such thing as individual food and it is disrespectful to deny someone food.

Likewise, people come before work. In America, we care so much about our jobs that they often comes before relationships. Here in South Africa, it is not uncommon for people to miss work (which is one major reason why teachers are absent a lot at the schools we’ll be serving at) because their culture emphasizes that they should go to a community gathering — like a wedding or funeral — instead of work.

Now, the South African government is trying to enforce Ubuntu throughout the country — blacks, whites, coloureds —  especially after Apartheid was dismantled.

I wouldn’t call Katie and I crossing paths a coincidence, but fate. I think things are supposed to happen for a reason and today happened to show me that people do impact each other and can make a difference in each other’s lives. In City Year, when one person’s thoughtful actions reach another person, it’s a called “ripple” of hope, which originiated from a speech Robert F. Kennedy gave in none other but South Africa — Katie and I together are the ultimate ripple!

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu — a person is a person because of people. Any interaction that my City Year team had or my new PCV team will have with students will somehow direct and develop who the student becomes as a person today and in the future. And this is exactly why all of those I have met last year and this year chose to do the work we will do or have completed.

My life now makes a little more sense…

 

“Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” –Robert F. Kennedy

Yours in South African service,

SmallTransparentLogoLiz

Vote for Markham to get more school supplies!

Ran across this Target fundraiser the new City Year team leaders at Markham started — all you have to do is click a button to vote. If they get enough votes, Target will send school supplies and what not to Markham. And let me tell you, they need it!

Vote here.

Thanks all,
Liz

Teaching my students about South Africa as a farewell

During my last English class, my teacher allowed me to do a short presentation about where I’ll be living and what I’ll be doing next year. My students are pretty interested in it and actually know where I’m going (although South Africa isn’t that hard of a country to remember). I even got them to recite greetings in isiZulu in unison!

Here’s the short presentation I did:

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20120608-103857.jpgSouth Africa is known as the “rainbow nation” because it is so diverse and so many languages are spoken

20120608-104003.jpg They were amazed that I won’t have running water and I might not have electricity. They told me to watch out for animal “droppings” and asked questions about how I’ll survive without electricity.

20120608-104111.jpg I explained to them that I am joining a government service organization that’s kind of like how you give years to military service for America, but instead I’m giving my time to help people.

20120608-104229.jpgThis slide generated a bunch of “ews” except one student said the sausage (known as Boerewors) reminded them of chorizo.

20120608-104534.jpgI’ll be honest, I can pronounce these greetings as well as my students, but we all tried together!

20120608-104607.jpg “You know how I always tell you to get out a pencil or pen? Well, this is what I’m going to have to say when I ask my new students to get one out.”

20120608-104646.jpg Sala kahle: goodbye. I can’t speak isiZulu yet obviously, so I added it into some English. The third isiZulu phrase means “see you later”

20120608-104832.jpgI made my students Hertzog cookies from scratch, a famous South African cookie I found online. I’m not sure if this is really village food, but apparently it’s a cookie that’s made often in the country (maybe urban areas or both? I’ll have to find out when I get there!) The cookie is a vanilla cookie with coconut, apricot and powdered sugar filling. The students enjoyed them and ate seconds!

An end to my first year of service: a reflection to never forget

My worst nightmare has come true. Our last day at Markham Middle School was on Wednesday (actually, one of my students said his “worst nightmare would start on Thursday” because City Year would no longer be on campus).

I can barely write a blog post because so many emotions have been going through my mind this week — I’m anxious that I’m leaving the country in 33 days, depressed that I am leaving my students for good, excited for the future, but not ready to say bye to everyone I’ve met this year.

This year has truly been amazing. I have learned so much from my school, my students and my teammates. At the beginning of the year, I really didn’t have expectations. I didn’t know if this year would be bad, so-so, or great. It exceeded greatness. Why? Well maybe because I learned so much:

  • Markham Middle School and Watts showed me a reality so many others aren’t aware exists.
    I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to experience an urban and struggling school like Markham, as well as a community like Watts. I saw the issues facing our public education system upfront. To name a few, students violently fighting about anything and everything (gangs, gossip, family issues, community issues) before school, during school and after-school. Obviously that affects any learning environment for students — being surrounded by violence at school of outside of school. For example, just the other day when my class was coming back from a field trip on the metro, a rider was walking up and down the train yelling with a gun in his pocket, and then just five minutes later a group of men trying to fight each other at the metro station by Markham. The day after I watched my teammates break up a crazy fight between a boy and a girl before school that was related to outside family/gang retaliation. Scenes like that in the neighborhood and at school I know would make me frustrated and mad, so I’m sure students feel that way.

    I saw how the public education system has failed so many students: so many are behind grade level and unmotivated to keep trying because the work is too hard for them to complete. I witnessed prostitution and alcohol and drug abuse in the community — every morning driving or walking to school. The litter, graffiti and homeless camps throughout the streets with boarded up buildings are a familiar sight. I learned that my student’s parents sometimes work three jobs to support them and traveled as far as 50 miles one-way on public transportation to get to the jobs. I faced the hard reality that some students I knew were foster children due to substance abuse in the family.

    The neighborhood of Watts is also just a bunch of houses, housing projects and convenient stores, soooo, where are the jobs for the struggling families and the kids turning to gangs and violence? The area is forgotten because so many in Los Angeles don’t really realize the extent of the problems here and that it’s a reality for many people. Now that I’ve worked in this reality for ten months, I will never work a day in my life that isn’t dedicated to a cause that will help change this stark reality so many people face in poverty-stricken areas of major cities. Granted I’m not sure if I’ll come back to Los Angeles, but every city has its Watts and that’s exactly where I belong.

  • My students showed me that I have empathy and compassion I didn’t think I had.
    Due to various situations I’ve dealt with with my family, I thought I lost all sense of being empathetic. I usually just think, “Well, that’s your fault for the way you are and you can change if you want to” or I refuse to deal with someone I know won’t change. But that’s not the case in all situations. I found even the worst behaving students in my class to hold a special place in my heart because I saw them outside of their behavior problems and caught them in their squishy moments — i.e. one student always talking about how much he loved his baby brother. That one always got me: “You want to be a role model for your brother, right? Start behaving in class! He’s depending on you.” My students gave me the hope that people do change and will change; now I can believe.
  • It’s chance that my students were born into or moved into Watts and went to school there.
    They have dreams too, just like any other Los Angeles kid. However, it’s going to be much harder for them to succeed based on their reality. Life may never be fair for minority students and students of such communities, but at least we can work to bring some justice to these communities through work like City Year or just teaching in these schools.
  • My team was so incredibly diverse and I tried my hardest to not have first assumptions about people, but let’s be honest, everyone has first impressions of people.
    Everyone is amazing in their own way and every person on earth has an interesting life story. Give people a chance and they’ll surprise you. My team ended up being the most hilarious, intelligent, inspiring and caring group of people I’ve ever met all at once. I vow to not make any assumptions about everyone I will cross in South Africa, whether that be another Peace Corps Volunteer or someone from my village.
  • Time apart shows you who your real friends are.
    This year has been so crazy busy that I lost contact with many people. The best part about losing contact with people is when you see them again and it’s not awkward you know it’s a real friendship.
  • Keep calm and never doubt.
    There were countless times this year that I wanted to give up. I was working toward improving issues that are bigger than myself. I realized that the only way any work would get done at school is if I was calm about it and never doubted the situation. I still doubt a lot of things, but I added a couple of points higher on my positivity scale (special thanks to the teammates and roomies Marissa and Daniel for teaching me this).
  • Changing the world isn’t as easy as it sounds.
    Change doesn’t come overnight. Any work I did with my students may show in a couple of months or years or maybe even never. You come into City Year thinking you are going to change your student’s academic abilities so much, but you don’t understand how patient you have to be with this process. Maybe I didn’t change my student’s academic levels, but I know I made a difference because students looked up to me and the rest of City Year as friends, mentors and role models.
  • I now know what I stand for.
    I stand for the voiceless of the world. I am here to be a voice for the voiceless through my writing and volunteer work. Whether it’s a neighborhood like Watts or a rural South African village, I will be that voice that forgotten communities lack.

I’ll never forget this year and the students I got to work with; I’ll carry the memory of Markham Middle School with me wherever I go in life and it’ll definitely be a factor in choosing my final career path. Everything I learned will serve me well in South Africa and this year has prepared me more than ever for my Peace Corps adventure.

It still hasn’t really hit me that I won’t see my students next week. I think it’s going to take at least two weeks for it set in that this year is actually over.

One of our students wrote a letter to us and read it aloud after-school when all the corps members and students were saying goodbye (yes, many tears were shed):

Dear City Year,

I hope you guys visit us and I hope you guys find a good job. I will always remember you guys, you guys are like my big family. I hope you guys have fun in your new job and I hope you guys have fun in your life.

Thank you Markham Middle School for changing my life. Next year’s Markham team really has to uphold everything we created this year. My team built the foundation for next year’s team to succeed because City Year wasn’t at Markham last year and it seemed like the school was apprehensive about having us back, but now they can see it worth it and that we really made an impact. The students trust us and love us — next year’s team needs to carry over our love, passion, dedication and care. I have faith they will.

Sadly, we graduate City Year tomorrow, but it’s not goodbye, it’s a new beginning. Three more weeks in Los Angeles. Seriously? Gotta make the best of it.

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Keeping the USC spirit alive. I wrote all of my students letters and gave them a Fight On pin so they hopefully remember to never give up on their dreams.

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One of my students begged my teammate and I for our yellow bomber jacket. My teammate Chariya is giving him one of her yellow jackets. I hope he’ll look at the jacket and always remember what we taught him.

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Got my kids to sign my boots because I’m bringing them to South Africa with me. “I’m gonna miss you bitch” oooohhh Markham; words like this mean the kids really do love you.

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My team leader made pictures of all of us and put them on the wall in the City Year room for students to sign. Once again, to show love, one student wrote “you ugly” on everyone’s, but mine was even more special. “don’t know you, but you still ugly.” Oooohhh Markham.

What will I miss about Markham the most you ask? Based on the pictures above, I’ll miss the hilarity.

Although I’m graduating tomorrow, I’ll still be “yours in service” (South Africa in a month),

Liz