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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

Month three: South African school structure; similarities and differences in America

“YES!!!” The learners screamed and jumped out of their seats.

YES!!! They got an answer right!

I sat in the back of the grade 5 English class during one of my “observation” periods perplexed, cracking a smile, but also trying not to laugh because the thought of my students from last year acting like this is just too funny to cross my mind. They would never be caught dead screaming “YES!” in unison during grading; indeed, they are too kewl for skewl.

South African youth, however, aren’t sitting in class during grading period texting and Facebooking each other, “bord in 4 period!!!! lmao >:((((( lyke or commnt” (American middle school internet slang gets me every time). Instead, school is cool and South African learners care a lot about their schoolwork because it’s such a big part of their lives. Family, church, school, chores, cleaning and playing games with other village kids is a typical learner’s childhood.

After the lesson, I told the English teacher that would have never happened in the grade 6 class I worked in last year. She laughed and said, “Ah, yes the learners like to learn!”

At that moment, it really became apparent to me: oh boy, I’m definitely not in America anymore.

So far, I have observed some drastic cultural and administrative differences between South African schools and American schools. To name a few:

  • Students stay in their classrooms, but teachers move class to class.
    Many classrooms aren’t decorated, but may have a few educational posters up because each classroom doesn’t belong to a teacher like they do in the states.
  • Learners from grade 4 and up take NINE subjects.
    These subjects include: arts and culture, life orientation, maths, economics management science, English, home language, natural science, technology and social sciences. I guess instead of one grade 4 teaching all the subjects in a day’s worth of class, the learners get the subjects from different teachers. But seriously, would you have been capable of all these subjects at grade 4 after being taught in isiZulu and now your first year being taught in English? Didn’t think so. However, with next year’s new curriculum, the ministry merged arts and culture and life orientation and natural sciences and technology. The ministry also ditched economic management science and now learners don’t take it until the senior phase (grade 8 and up). Amen my brothas, is teaching a kid about how businesses run at age 10 really practical? Nah, also didn’t think so.
  • Teachers teach based on a “timetable” that breaks up the hours the Ministry of Education requires.
    Subject classes aren’t taught every day and are longer or shorter on certain days. Therefore, learners don’t have a set schedule like we do in America (about an hour for every class period and usually students have the same schedule every day). Some days they might have one hour of English and on other days they might have two hours. As of next year, the ministry requires per week six hours for home language, five hours for English, six hours for mathematics, three and a half hours for natural science and technology, three hours for social sciences and four hours for life skills.
  • Teachers teach multiple subjects.
    In America, teachers usually teach only one or two similar subjects — English and history, math and science, whatever. South African teachers teach whatever they are assigned to and it changes each year. That means if they needed a maths teacher and I had time in my schedule, they’d throw me in that class. I can barely do sixth grade math myself, but in an extreme case, I would possibly have to teach it (trust me, though, I’ve strictly said I will only teach English).
  • Learners clean on Fridays instead of attend class.
    This has been one of the hardest things for me to watch/deal with. Learners come to school on Fridays, sing at morning assembly, then sit in class and wait until 10:30ish when they eat the school food. After they finish eating, they clean all day — polish the floors inside and outside the classrooms, clean the staff rooms, sweep, do the dishes, wipe the windows and burn the trash. The reasons for this are two-fold: the school doesn’t have enough money to hire a custodian and it “teaches the students responsibility.” When I tried to clean up my mess in the library the other day, a teacher refused to let me do so because it’s the learner’s job. I’d argue that these learners go to school four days out of the week. I know I won’t be able to change this because it’s cultural — South Africans need everything to be clean regardless of the unstoppable and ever-going accumulation of dirt in buildings — but I do hope that I can at least make Fridays a literacy day for some learners. For example, some grades clean while others do literacy sessions with me in the library (I would do phonetics with lower grades, reading and listening with other grades, etc.) We’ll see if it works — I probably won’t propose this until I feel it’s the right time. In a way, this cleaning business is kind of ironic for me — from my experience, I’ve seen American students trash and tag their schools; now cleanliness is a top priority.
  • Teachers go to class on their own time.
    Heard of African time yet? Well, it ain’t no myth — it really exists. African time is far, far, far different from American time and I’m slowly — but surely — getting used to it. I value timeliness back in America and I have mini-panic attacks when I’m running late for something (I know my roommates painfully miss morning car rides with Liz, right guys?) My time clock says 30 minutes before the scheduled time is early,15 minutes before the scheduled time is on-time and right at the scheduled time is late. In Africa, I’ve learned that schedules aren’t of much importance. When teachers are done with what they have to do — like socializing, debating over a morning announcement from the principal or marking papers — then they’ll go to class. Classes are supposed to start at 8 a.m., but usually start around 8:30 a.m. or later. I’m going to be moving at the pace of a tortoise when I come back to the states, no joke.
  • A substitute system does not exist.
    Self-explanatory. If a teacher isn’t there for the day, the learners sit in the class and do nothing. Hey — at least they don’t throw chairs, hit each other or trash the classroom like my old sub days! Not too shabby kiddos.
  • Every morning, learners gather in the front of the school for “Morning Assembly” where they sing in isiZulu and pray.
    All the learners have different dances and songs they sing according to the day. It’s pretty cute to watch. Sometimes they pray in English and the younger one’s faces are so serious because they are concentrating on saying the prayer right. My school is public, but all the learners are of a Christian background (they attend the Anglican church), so they know all the same prayers. Separation between church and state is unheard of. I find myself closing my eyes, pretending to pray and mumbling “amen” a lot during morning meetings. Awkward.
  • Learners are respectful and listen to teachers.
    Learners say good morning and good afternoon educator to me every time they walk by. They stand in unison when you walk into a room and say, “Good afternoon educator, how are you? We are fine.”Whenever I see a bunch of learners gathered in a group or boys playfully fighting, my blood rises and my eyes are glued to the group as I think a fight could break out. That’ll never happen, though, I just assume that a grouping of students means a fight is about to start. Miss Little Liz won’t ever have to break up a fight again (ha, or attempt — middle schoolers are strong)! Soon enough, the Markham Middle School-effect will fade and I won’t be on edge at school.
  • Staff meetings are held during school and not after-school. Teachers leave directly after-school.
    Only four teachers at my school live in my village and the rest live at more suburban towns anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour away. Those who live farther get a salary incentive to teach in a rural village. Thus, teachers may be more qualified, but only put in the hours they need to because of distance and time constraints. Staff meetings are therefore hosted during school hours so all the teachers will attend. In America, staff meetings are usually once a week after a minimum day at school, which is one more thing I’m looking at to implement here.

Now, I bring you the basics:

In general, all South African children have a right to basic education, which is the same in America: children are guaranteed an education until the 12th grade. Twenty percent of the government’s budget is spent on education, but during the Apartheid period that funding was purposefully not given to all-black schools in the rural areas we serve at. As I’ve mentioned before, the purpose of doing so was to ensure that whites received a decent education and blacks received a poor education so they would later work for the white people.

South African operate top-down similar to the way individual American schools operate: principals —> deputy principals —> department heads —> teachers.

All students at the end of grade 12 take a comprehensive exam in English that measures performance, which is called “matric”. This statistic — the matric pass rate — is a significant marker of the schooling system. In the 1990s, South Africa had a 40 percent pass rate and most recently in 2011, the pass rate is 70 percent. Other than English being an official language in South Africa, this is another reason why learning English is so important for these learners because to graduate from school they must be able to pass this test.

Ninety-three percent of South African children are in public schools. There are “no fee” schools for those who cannot pay and then two other groups of schools where parents pay for activities, supplies, etc.

One in 100 South African students will receive tertiary education (translation: go to college). After high school (grade 12), they can attend either colleges that emphasize further training for specific skills or universities like we do in America.

Funding here comes from the government, but isn’t determined by standardized tests like it is in America and schools are allowed to fundraise. If parents are more involved in their children’s education and earn a salary, they tend to contribute to their children’s public schools. At my school, this isn’t the case, but I haven’t seen a lack of resources yet. There are enough exercise books, workbooks, paper and printer ink to teach. The office assistant told me that the school never runs out of basic supplies as such. I have a hard time believing this because paper and ink were such a scarcity last year at my American school, but maybe it’s true. If it is, I can’t believe I’ll be able to make as many photocopies as I need for my class!

Now, I bring you the social issues:

Aside from differences, I can travel from urban America to rural Africa and still find social issues that ring a bell. The schools Peace Corps South Africa serve in face similar challenges to those that Markham Middle School in Los Angeles and other American schools face. There are high illiteracy rates because students cannot get the help they need with homework at home. In rural villages, the mother is usually out working so a grandparent is the only person home, who cannot assist the children because many elders are illiterate. Likewise, the mother may speak some English, but not enough to help; the mamas and babas of my community had to learn Afrikaans in school because they went to school during Apartheid. At Markham, many students couldn’t complete homework at home either because their parents weren’t involved in their education or their families only spoke Spanish. Same situation, different language and country.

Most dropouts leave school during grade 10-12 — a little later than the American school system. Some girls dropout as early as grade 7 due to pregnancies. Most girls are pregnant by age 18 and may return to school if there is a Gogo at home to take care of their child. Girls my age — 23 — more than likely have at least one child.

HIV/AIDS also plays a big role in the South African school system. Learners may have to be the adult of the household because they have lost family members to HIV/AIDS. In America, students may have to assume responsibility in the household due to substance abuse in the family or their parent’s busy work schedules, but still also live in child-headed houses.There’s a good number of children at my school who are also orphans — like foster children in America — and are taken in and cared for by relatives or elders in the village.

Now, I bring you everyone’s favorite — the political issues:

Teacher’s unions also integrate themselves into the way schools operate — what a shocking surprise. Low-performing teachers from the Bantu education era aren’t fired because of union rules and not many want to take their spots in rural schools.The only way teachers are seriously fired is in extreme cases of corporal punishment, which is now illegal in South Africa, or sexual abuse. If a teacher doesn’t commit such a crime, one can call teaching a lifelong job. I can travel 10,000+ miles away from Los Angeles and teacher’s unions still play a huge role in the education system.

The image of a teacher in South African culture doesn’t help draw attention to these issues in the educational system that need attention, either. Historically, South African teachers were seen as poor that made the bare minimum. Therefore, the profession in the past has not been appealing to South Africans and those who made it out of the public school system work in the private sector, but now more and more people are teaching after attending university because of government incentives and higher salaries.

I find South Africans exclaiming their appreciation for us being here far too often. Most of all, I recall the time a deputy from the Ministry of Education came to our pre-service training to welcome us to the South African school system and tell us how excited and lucky they were to have us. Very nice gesture, but like anything and everything, my questioning kicked in.

There are definitely some talented and experienced people in my Volunteer group so I have no doubt that they’ll be amazing teachers and English is our native tongue, but the question that keeps running through my mind is do other countries really look up to American education and educators?

Do other countries understand that our public education system is struggling too? Just because we’re American doesn’t mean we have solutions to all issues or a decent public education system. The teachers at my school were shocked to hear that teenage pregnancy is an issue in America too. See, I told you, believe it or not — we are combating similar issues!

Regardless of the issue of public education plaguing many parts of the world, Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful WEAPON that you can use to can change the world.” Truth.

Now let’s spread that message like wildfire, my Peace Corps and City Year friends.

Here’s a glimpse into my school (10x smaller than an American school!)

Outside of my school

School yards and garden

School sport yard and volleyball court

Peace Corps world map project completed by former health Volunteer in my village

Love to my peoples back at home working in American schools!
Ngidinga ukulala (I need to sleep),

SmallTransparentLogoLiz

Month two: around the village

When I walk outside my door, I no longer see palm trees, busy streets and freeways, smog, murals and graffiti. I no longer hear the tamale lady selling tamales early in the morning, the annoying ice cream trucks that cruise through South Los Angeles every day or Spanish being spoken on the streets.

Now when I walk outside my door, I hear people speaking isiZulu. I hear roosters crowing at every hour during the day and night (even at 3 a.m…) and cows mooing. I see vast grassland with clusters of houses scattered around. I see bright blue and clear skies.

Needless to say, I went from living in a hustling and bustling city to a remote rural African village. Two completely different worlds.

In my village, everyone knows everyone. Most people are related in blood or marriage. Teachers live close to learners (my host brother is a student at my school). Teachers attend all the same community events that learners attend. This is one apparent difference I keep noticing between America and here.
In America, there are very strict boundaries between teachers and students. Teachers can’t even give students rides home or to school because of liability. Teachers can’t get too personal with students due to sexual harassment accusations.

Here, boundaries are thin. I even walk to school with students, whereas in America a student probably wouldn’t wait for you at your gate before school. Most learners and teachers at school know where I live and can show up at my door whenever. In America, work can be so separated from your personal life, but in South Africa it’s all intertwined.

My village is very small and only has a tuck shop (small, small convenience store you can buy bread, eggs, but no produce) at, a church (that is practically everyone’s second home), a primary school, a secondary school, a liquor shop and a clinic.

The village has running water — there are hand pumps in various locations. Other households, like mine, have water taps in the yard, so you use a bucket to fetch water and bring it into the house.

Unfortunately, the village runs dry every so often — sometimes even for a month at a time. The water actually ran out for two days last week and I haven’t had time to buy extra buckets for water storage, so I am very thankful it came back on. I’ve never had to worry about water in my life and the possibility of water shortage is something that doesn’t cross many American minds. At least I’m prepared in some ways — my newly shaved head has become even more practical for my new lifestyle!

All of these amenities are definitely enough to survive, but I’m beginning to understand why South Africans place so much importance on relationships. With not much else entertainment, it’s everyone’s job to keep everyone else entertained and happy.

We have so much in America to keep us entertained — movies, malls, technology, bars, restaurants, sports arenas, you name it. We, Americans, can usually something different to do every so often.

Those in my village can’t and don’t. They do the same thing every day. Many are unemployed and live off government grants. For instance, my host mother sells airtime (the South African equivalent of pay-as-you-go cell phone minutes and SMS), sells electricity, sews torn clothes, sells baked goods, etc. Thus, on a daily basis people visit with each other, cook, clean, do chores, attend church and every funeral, wedding or birthday, or take a taxi to town to buy groceries.

And ya know what? From what I’ve observed, it seems like everyone’s pretty darn happy. These Zulu and Sotho people are proof that you can live with the bare essentials to survive and still lead a happy and fulfilling life. Now who woulda thought that back in Los Angeles?

It’s amazing how drastically life has changed for me in the past two months. This village is my new home now and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My hardest Peace Corps challenge in the village so far is facing the harsh reality that I can’t buy ground coffee at my closest grocery store. Hey, everyone needs something to look forward to and I look forward to drinking a good cup of coffee every morning — it’s a healthy addiction!

Want to send me a care package? (Hint: with lots and lots of coffee), here’s my new address.

And finally, here are pictures of my village, the main tar road and the vast grasslands:

Yours in Service,

SmallTransparentLogoLiz

Month two: Surprise, it’s an intombazane!

The primary school that I am volunteering at these next two years requested a girl (or as my principal would say, “Oh! It’s an intombazane!” (girl in isiZulu) and surprise, they got one! Well, just one without any hair.

Last Monday, my Kwa-Zulu Natal Battlefield Region PCV group met our principals. All five of us walked to the meeting, stood in a line and took guesses at which principal was ours. I remember thinking that I really wanted the older woman who had a long skirt and light pink-ruffled jacket on with a pin on her shirt that said, “I am an extraordinary woman.” She just seemed awesome and powerful. And I was right! That extraordinary woman is the principal I will be working with for the next two years. She named me “Mpho Mathebula”, which means “a gift from god” and Mathebula is my host family’s last name. Ya, no pressure or anything.

We had a meeting with our principals to go over what exactly we, as PCVs, are responsible for at school. My program director, Lydia, who is now my boss, went over two brochures with the principals to ensure that they were clear about why we are here and that we are not supposed to start teaching until the start of the next school year in January.

Now that I’m at my permanent site these next three months are my “phase 2″/community integration period of my Peace Corps service. Basically, I’ll be observing and interviewing teachers and my principal about their work, map my village for directions and where I can find community assets, talk to youth, identify a teacher-counterpart who I will work closely with, talk with community members and last but not least: try teaching a couple English classes with my counterpart and on my own. All of these tasks sound like a lot, but I have 13 weeks to complete them. That’s… a lot of time.

I attended school for the first time last week. I introduced myself in isiZulu to the learners (students are called learners here) during their morning assembly — every morning learners gather to sing religious songs, the national anthem and hear announcements the teachers may have.

As soon as I stepped out of the car with my principal a few teachers ran over to me, hugged me and started saying things in isiZulu. When I responded in isiZulu they couldn’t stop laughing (people here love that an American can speak some isiZulu — they’re laughing with you, not at you). Right then I had a feeling that I was in the right place at the right time.

The teachers at my school act like one big family, which is similar to my environment at Markham Middle School with my City Year team last year. They joke, laugh, playfully hit each other, call each other out and are always talking up a storm in isiZulu. From first impression, I can say that my school is definitely my kind of place!

South African schools — from what we’ve learned and observed during pre-service training — struggle a lot because many teachers don’t have the qualifications to teach and thus the learners are receiving an inadequate education. Many South African teachers were trained under Bantu education — during Apartheid when Africans were purposefully ill-trained as teachers so rural and township children would not be educated as white children were. Also, because English is the teachers’ second language, they have a hard time speaking it and revert to translating a lot from isiZulu, SiSwati, Xhosa, etc. for the learners, which is not conducive for learners to learn English.

Learners are taught in their home language during the Foundation Phase — in my village learners learn in isiZulu — from grade R (kindergarten) to grade 3. During grade 4, learners take on seven subjects all in English in the Intermediate Phase. They learn some English during their Foundation Phase, but only a little. Likewise, learners speak isiZulu at home and outside of school.

Ironically, the South African education standards are very similar to California education standards from what I’ve analyzed. Think about that: school is challenging in elementary and middle school for American students who speak English as their first language or learned English when they were in kindergarten. Now picture learning the same stuff suddenly after being taught in your home language. I seriously admire any South African who is fluent in English — it’s impressive considering how hard it must have been to learn it!

After observing a few teachings, including the two English teachers, I can say that I got lucky. All of the teachers at my school are good teachers and encourage learner participation, unlike other classrooms I have seen where a teacher will write notes on the board (that are often spelled wrong) and make the students copy them into their exercise books with little explanation. Many of the teachers live outside of my village and get paid more to come teach in a rural community with their qualifications. I ain’t complain’!

Yet, the best thing about my school that is something to rejoice about is that there is absolutely NO corporal punishment! Although it is outlawed in South Africa, some schools still use it (including some schools PCVs serve at). The teachers at my school would never lay their hands on a learner unless it was to hug or give them positive reinforcement. I can really tell that these teachers care about the students. And the best part about this is that the learners are still really well-behaved and respectful.

The learners say “good morning educator” whenever they walk by you, ask you in unison how you are when you walk into class and do as they are told. I am in HEAVEN coming from Markham Middle School!

Behavior and classroom management was such an issue last year at Markham that I still cannot grasp the idea that these learners will listen to me. I’m still self-conscious about interacting with them because I’m so used to students talking back and not listening.

The atmosphere at my school, as detailed, is awesome, but there are also some reservations. The principal has a lot of faith in me and my teaching abilities, as do the other teachers. I’m worried that I won’t live up to their expectations. However, I can start some secondary projects like organizing the unused library, implementing a school newspaper, a girls club, HIV education, etc. I still have a lot of time to figure out what exactly I’ll be doing with my secondary projects.

It was raining and unbearably cold my first week at site, so I didn’t get a chance to meet many people besides those at school. This week, the sun is out and shining and I’m on the move! I attended a community meeting today with the Head of Department (HOD) of my school and introduced myself in isiZulu (ngiyafunda isiZulu, kodwa ngikhuluma ncane. Ngifuna ukufunda isiZulu — I am learning isiZulu, but I can only speak a little. I want to learn isiZulu). Although I thought I was the first Volunteer at my site, I am not. There was a health Volunteer who lived very close to where I am staying; she closed service last March. Many people ask if I know “Ngelady” (her African name) and are familiar with why I am in the village. Because the community members have seen and interacted with a PCV before, they know that I am a resident and will be living in my village for a long time. Everybody is welcoming and I feel very safe here.

My village is very, very religious; everybody attends the Anglican church every Sunday. I attended with my host brothers and the pastor (or reverend? I really don’t know my religions) introduced me to the congregation, which was nice because now pretty much the whole community knows I am here. I am not religious, but I plan to go to church every once-in-a-while because it is a good community asset for integration. South Africans value relationships over work or anything, so I must make strong relationships with people to be successful here.

With that said, there have been some clashes of cultures since I’ve been here. I am a very independent-type of person — I l-o-v-e doing things alone and being alone. I usually just want to go to my room after a long day at school without any disturbances.

Zulu people are always together enjoying each other’s company. It’s amazing how much they value each other, but it’s not my culture. Thus, I think my host family will realize soon enough that it’s in my culture to need some “me” time. It’s been hard to get that “me” time, though, because I always feel pressured to socialize (or I get eight missed calls and some texts from my host brother in the span of an hour. You best believe I told him that in my culture you do not call that many times and I will not pick up if he does so). It’s all hard, frustrating and a little too new for me, but I know it will just take some time to integrate. I’m aware that my hardest time here will (likely) be my first month at site.

Hamba kahle, ngilala manje (go well, I sleep now),

SmallTransparentLogoMpho Mathebula

Liz’s new home sweet ekhaya

We made it! I am finally living at my permanent site in the Battlefield Region of Kwa-Zulu Natal. We left Mpumalanga right after our swearing-in ceremony and arrived on Sunday night.

My new host family consists of a mama and two high-school-aged boys. They all can speak intermediate English and want to learn more from me. However, I want to learn more isiZulu so this will have to be a two-way trade! Unfortunately, my mama’s husband passed away last year. My mama speaks isiZulu because of her husband, but is Sotho. Apparently both groups live in my area. My principal gave me the African name of “umpho” (a gift from God in Sotho) to honor my mama’s heritage.

My host brothers are polite, shy and very curious about who I am and what America is like. Now that I’ve gone through this host-family thing once already, I can say it takes at least a month to really warm up to each other and to start understanding each other; there’s always that awkward transition phase. It also doesn’t help much that I was ill when I first met my family and neighbors and had a hard time talking because all I could think about was how nauseous I was (everyone gets sick eventually in the Peace Corps and I would of course get sick on my first day at site — ngiphetewe isisi (my stomach hurts). It’s also freezing cold and storming here, so I can’t help but curl up in my two blankets, onesie, jacket, sweatpants, beanie and three pairs of socks to try to keep warm. I’m not worrying too much, though, because I’ve got two years here — people will get used to me and I will get used to them.

Anyhow, here’s a glimpse into my new ekhaya (home in isiZulu):

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The Kwa-Zulu Natal Battlefield Region, ain’t it pretty?

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Home sweet home

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My bed, which my host family let me borrow and buckets for bathing, laundry and dishes

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My makeshift pantry and wardrobe because I have no furniture and my host family let me borrow extra stuff they had

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My makeshift kitchen. I’m living without a fridge for two years and cooking on hot plates. The buckets are filled with water I fetch from my yard for cooking and bathing purposes. 

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View from outside my house in the pouring rain. The main tar road is the only road that runs through my village to town.