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Posts tagged ‘rural south africa’

A month in photos: May 2014

  • Library renovating and the FINAL PRODUCT! We’re DONE!
  • Library opening ceremony at my school to thank all the donors that made our library possible (the David Rattray Foundation for the furniture and some books, Books for Africa for a majority of the books, and the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation in Nigeria for even more of the books!) Department of Education KZN officials attended, whom I partnered with on our second BFA container here in South Africa that was funded through the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation. About ten Peace Corps Volunteers that weren’t part of our first Books for Africa project received books from this project, and then 32 other schools  identified by the Dept. received books. My principal was beaming with pride and joy, and I will never forget that day! In total, 71 rural libraries have been established since the start of all our Books for Africa efforts! THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO WORKED WITH ME AND MADE THIS POSSIBLE!
  • Monica’s farewell function – one of my closest Volunteers geographically and friend in my cohort. She is traveling back to America soon, but I know I will see her! Her school put on an on-time, meaningful and beautiful ceremony for her. It was incredible to see how much her community loved her and the impact she has had.
  • Miss Molefe, my counterpart, graduated from University of South Africa with a bachelor’s degree in education in Durban. We traveled there with her family and friends from her house at 4:30 am in the morning to make the 10 a.m. ceremony. I am so happy I got to attend and see her graduate because she is one of my best friends here. I’m happy when others I care about are happy!
  • George’s 30th birthday/farewell function. In the course of a weekend, I took six forms of transportation to get to my best friend George’s site in Mpumalanga to celebrate his 30th birthday, attend his farewell, and help him finish his library before he moves to KwaZulu-Natal for his third year. Tiring, but worth it.

A month in photos: February 2014

  • Labeling library books and organising
  • Paige’s farewell party at her org; she moved from our area to Pretoria for a third year extension
  • Library opening #2 (and one more to come after even more renovating — third time is the charm,  right? )

A month in photos: January 2014

  • Opening prayer at school; school shuts down for a day so the community priest,  learners,  teachers and parents can pray for the upcoming school year
  • Sports day 2014
  • My counterpart’s creative art project with grade fours using some beads my friend Amy left from her visit
  • Bruce Springsteen concert in Joburg! This was his first time playing in South Africa. Unfortunately, I did not bring my camera or phone to the concert,  but got a few pictures before!  The concert was incredible – he played most of my favourite songs while we danced in the rain!

Month 14: I’d like to give an appreciation…

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to drag myself away from City Year culture. I find myself doing the silent applause in meetings; I use hands-up in  class to get the kids to shut up; I recite Ripples of Hope to my colleagues when they need a lift-me-up, and yes, I still do appreciations.

Hands up – I have an appreciation!

Indeed, this is an old photo; I don't have hair! Yet it speaks volumes to those I'd like to give an appreciation to!

Indeed, this is an old photo; I don’t have hair! Yet it speaks volumes to those I’d like to give an appreciation to.

This month I’d like to give my school an appreciation.

Term three recently ended and all of our students took the Annual National Assessment (ANA) test. Primary schools take this standardized English, home language and maths test to measure improvement.

Rural South African learners abysmally fail this test – 15 percent of 6th graders passed English in 2012 – each year. Sometimes there are mistakes on the test, the wording of the test is beyond any primary school’s kids grasp of English, and believe it or not (earlier this year, true story) the test can have an incomplete story on it. This time around, we got lucky. The test covered most things I had done in class with my learners (besides poetry…sorry kids!) and was about topics kids anywhere in South Africa can relate to: a story about dogs, instructions about planting a garden and a poem about a family.

The teachers at my school started preparing  a good few weeks before by giving the kids tests from past years; the maths teacher even offered 50 Rand to the learner who scored the highest on the grade 5 maths practice test!

As soon as my school received the envelopes of the tests, my principal had us open them to ensure there were enough tests for our kids. This – in no way – was a hint to cheat on the test. My principal is a virtuous and extraordinary woman and would never cheat on a test or do anything that disobeys the South African royalty of rules.

We counted the tests, put them back in the bag and brought them to the principal’s office to wait until test day. We then administered the tests according to schedule and everything seemed fine. That is, until the day the world ended.

On the last day of ANA testing, an advisor from the district randomly popped up at school. Grade six had not begun writing the maths test yet. The advisor saw that the tests had been opened and that one was missing. The grade six maths teacher took one to do the problems herself so she could grade the tests afterwards; we had yet to get the answer key from the district.

Chaos ensued and everyone was rushing around, whispering in Zulu and laughing. I knew something was up, but I always have to wait for my counterpart to brief me on the gossip in English.

As I was sitting in the library marking my kid’s tests, my counterpart rushes in me and to tell me our school could be disqualified because we opened the tests.

In situations like this, I have a hard time concealing my laughter. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not funny that we could get disqualified, but rather the irony. After being here for a year, those “oh, god, the world is ending” days are always related to one tiny problem that’s blown out of proportion or attention is being focused on the wrong thing.

“But why is that an issue? These kids are passing ANA, look at these scores!” I said to my counterpart. “Shouldn’t that be what the district is focusing on? I’m sure we’re doing a lot better than other schools are doing! They should be proud of us.”

My class had a 52 percent average on grade 5 English ANA, which is really good for rural kids. Ten or so kids even scored in the 40-49 point range, with 49 and 48 out of 60 being the highest grades (80 percent average, which is incredible). Of course I pulled aside these kids and showed them — there’s no better moment than to see how happy a kid, who really cares about their education, to see how well they’re doing in a class or on a test.

Some of my kids are so gifted. I can assure you they didn’t do well on this test because they had me as a teacher. They did well on this test because of the education they have received up to me. I just gave them an extra push by throwing them into an English-only environment.

Because of this test, I was once again reminded of how lucky I am to serve at my school and work with my staff. From watching my counterpart always spending time with the 16-year-old kid at my school who cannot speak or write, to have another teacher tell me she’s scheduling class for a weekend to catch up with the curriculum and feel the passion my principal has for her community and school daily, my school deserves one big ol’ City Year-style appreciation.

It’s been a long and tiring year, but I’ve found that I have nothing bad to say about my school. Of course we have our issues that rural schools alike have, but for a rural South African school, it’s high functioning. I have a lot of pride for my school, which has only made my Peace Corps service easier.

To me, it doesn’t matter if we get disqualified from ANA – to hell with it. I know the people I work with care and are doing the best they can to ensure our little rural school succeeds. If you’re passionate about the work you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

Small heartYours in service,

A month in photos: August 2013

  • Thank you card making for my friends and family who donated to our library project! (We raised $12,000 dollar and the books will be shipped within the next week!)
  • Katrina and Michael visit the Battlefields
  • Constantine’s goodbye party/braii
  • Matric Farewell 2013 (South African version of prom)
  • First grade 7 pen pal letter exchange with my friend Josh’s City Year students from Stevenson Middle School in East Los Angeles. Pretty much one of my favorite days in the classroom so far — none of the kids could pronounce Los Angeles or Spanish last names, but were beyond excited to have a new American friend. It was really neat to be able to tell them kids all over the world learn English as a second language just like them. Such a simple, yet powerful project. Can’t wait to keep the exchange going!

Month 13: patience truly is a virtue

I get inquiries every now and then from people who read this blog and ask about my Peace Corps service. One of the things I tell everyone is that it really does take a year for everything to settle – this two year timeline is completely logical. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to volunteer in a foreign country for less than a year. 

My whole life people have told me to “chill out” and “be patient”. My personality is one that is all over the place – oh, and just a tad high strung. I’m a person that’s gotta be on the move. Then I came to the Peace Corps and calmed down a bit – cliché as it is, patience truly is a virtue.   

My village really felt like home-home after about eight months living there. I think that’s commonplace for many PCVs because we take a huge step out of our comfort zone. We leave everything we know in the States and trade it all for some obscure place and culture we’ve never been before or experienced. As welcoming as everyone is, it’s still overwhelming and takes some time. In the back of mind, I knew everything would feel normal eventually – and it did (really, this is the best advice I can give to any PCV or soon-to-be PCV).

As the months go on, my relationship with my host family only gets stronger. My sister and I have bonded a lot more and my mama is really my mom. My family also understands my American individualism now – just because I’m alone sometimes, it doesn’t mean I’m lonely or sad. It’s just my culture.

My counterpart told me this month that when I first arrived to my school, the staff all talked about how young I looked and how I wouldn’t last here. I’m 24, but am often mistaken for a lot younger. My co-workers gossiped, “Oh! But she is so young. How can she be away from her family so long? How will she adapt to this way of living?” South Africans find it puzzling that a young woman like me can leave her home for two years because in this culture, that would never happen. Women my age are supposed to be with their families – or close enough at least to see them every now and then. Family and home is very important.

Then I told my counterpart it just takes some time to get used to, but I expected that – I knew this experience would unfold with great patience. 

Something I've learned that gets my class's attention -- pronouncing any Zulu word with a Q click; qedile = finished

Something I’ve learned that gets my class’s attention — pronouncing any Zulu word with a Q click; qedile = finished

It’s term three at school now and my first year of teaching will soon come to a wrap. The past school terms have definitely some of the most challenging times in my life. I have the largest class at my school – 40 kids – and inherited all the kids who are consistently held back; I believe grade 5 is the year kids get stuck in (if only I had known this… because those kids just talk and talk and talk). My class ranges from some extremely clever kids to kids who can’t read in their home language. 

I have no idea how to address the kids who struggle in all the subjects. I adopted the attitude that I would impact the kids who are at a middle level and try to bump them up (thanks for that City Year!) So, I tried just about everything to give these kids stories – and even wrote my own – and vocabulary and grammar that are lower than a grade 5 level. I do notice that the kids are speaking more and more – but I’m not sure if my approach to giving these kids easier things worked. The middle kids are still struggling, but the top of the class is killin’ it.

It took eight long months at school to really understand these kids – to know their names and perfect that Q click as best as I can, their culture, their strengths and weaknesses. Now I know what works and what doesn’t through countless hours of trial and error. I’ve even been able to finally implement a luck of the draw system in my class – I pick names out of a hat now to make kids participate (but took the names out of the hat of kids who I know cannot read). However, it’s a shame because term three is jam-packed with district assignments and the annual national standardized assessment. I have to rush through this term, hit all the assignments as well as try to prepare grade 5 for ANA. And I’ve attempted to follow the national curriculum, but it’s frustrating when three quarters of the kids aren’t at the level to do the work and I only have an hour a day. 

If I had my grade 5s as grade 6s next year, we would be a dream team together. Unfortunately, I will be leaving early August 2014, which is only half way into their school term. It would be unfair to take my own class again.

Well, everything’s finally making sense on this end after a year – a little too late in the South African school system timeline, but right on track with the Peace Corps timeline!  

It’s true my peoples – patience really is a virtue. Everything takes time and it’ll all eventually come together.

On an unrelated note, I have been having nightmares about the GRE lately – high anxiety levels in my hut. I am busy getting my graduate school applications movin’. It’s actually been quite fun revisiting my service stories and finding the best for my statements of purposes. I can’t wait to see what the future holds!

A best friend from my hometown booked her ticket to visit me in November and one of my City Year teammates also booked a ticket for December. I’m so thrilled I get to share this incredible experience with two people who are very important to me. I am patiently counting down the weeks!

Yours patiently in service,

Small heartLiz

Month 12: a year in and the happiest I’ve ever been

Exactly a year ago today, I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa after a horrendous 16-hour flight. I had no idea what was next, but I was around 40 or so other Americans who were in the same boat. I was frantically anxious to know – anxious enough to misplace my passport and cell phone 20 minutes before checking into the airport, as well as spilling a whole cup of hot coffee on my skirt an hour before landing. (Some things will never change – but, truth be told, a lot has.)

This past year has been a whirlwind of ups-and-downs, strange and awkward encounters, love, soul-searching and an overflow of emotions I’ve never felt before. I’m going to try to tackle something I’ve thought a lot about during my first year here, but have a hard time putting into words: I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.

That’s not to say I wasn’t happy in the States; I was extremely happy there. I was still doing work I loved and around people every day who pushed me, cared about me and were just all around inspiring people.

But this is a kind of happiness I’ve never experienced before. It’s something I’ve found only people who have spent a sufficient time abroad in a developing area understand. I’ll call this newfound emotion: “pure ebullience with a hint of peace and simplicity”.

I’ve heard that you will never feel more alive in life than you do in the Peace Corps, except when you have you have your first child or get married.

I believe it. I feel damn alive.

I do absolutely nothing on weekends. My best friends in the village are 10-year-olds. I’m addicted to Generations, a South African soap opera and can’t survive a day without it. I’m in bed by 9 p.m. every night. I usually can’t understand most of anything that’s being said around me; I have to force myself to not laugh. I now consider killing bugs an art. I can spend a day sitting on my stoop and watching the rooster in my yard, proving that it’s the dumbest animal on the planet. My life on paper sounds so, so, so dull.

Yet every day, I ironically feel awake. I feel like my heart is vivaciously pumping joy through my body. You know when you’re depressed and your heart feels like it’s just sinking in your body? My heart is the opposite – it always feels somewhat uplifted.

Even if I’ve had a stressful day, the sheer reminder that I’m in a different culture and country from my own fascinates me. I pick my brain, analyze and contemplate. I could be sitting in the back seat of a crammed 14 person taxi between three gogos, sweating with four grocery bags on my legs and still be content by just staring at the window at all the rural huts.

I’m always absorbing my surroundings. I look at all the people around me and think about the stories, the struggles and the lives these people live. I could sit in the village for a week straight and just watch the way of life. I’m cherishing this opportunity to finally experience how other people in the world live. The Peace Corps has complemented my curious nature and journalism background and will never get old. People are SO INTERESTING.

Everywhere I go, people are welcoming. Whether it’s a “Sawubona Mpho!”  or a smile, I can tell people are open to me being here. (Ok – I’m bluffing a little: Generally any interaction with a male ensues to sexual harassment. But I got tough skin; I can deal.)

My school’s staff has taken me in as part of the family; I can tell they genuinely have my back and care about me. My host mom welcomed me as one of her own. The Mathebula family considers me to be part of the family – I finally have siblings! This is a huge deal coming from an only child. I know love is seeping through my straw roof and Pepto-Bismol-pink colored walls every day (and a pleasant surplus of new spider friends).

My  learner Ayanda invited me over for lunch wither her Aunties

My learner Ayanda invited me over for lunch wither her Aunties (Aunt Grace on the left; Ayanda in the red). I was welcomed with open arms!

And most importantly, I have a sense of purpose. I know that by being here, especially after this country’s history, is changing perceptions. I am a white lady living in a black village, something that would never be seen in South Africa if it weren’t for the Peace Corps. I am showing the people I live amongst that we all share a common humanity, no matter where we come from.

My principal once stood up at a Peace Corps workshop – way, way back in the beginning — and mentioned that in the Apartheid era she was scared of whites. She then went on to say that every time Siyabonga (Will, my closest Volunteer) comes to my school to visit me, the learners see not one, but two white people that care for them, interact and play with them. We expose rural youth to some diversity that they rarely experience. I was so proud of her to stay such a profound thing in front of dozens of Americans and South Africans.

I know why I am needed here, so this ebullience never goes away.  South Africans always ask me, “Mpho, aren’t you bored? Don’t you miss home?” and I honestly tell them no. You don’t need a lot to be happy. You just need the right people with a hint of peace and simplicity: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu — a person is a person through people.

My African name is Mpho, which is Sotho for “a gift”. But I don’t think I’m the gift. I consider this whole experience a gift.

In a year, I’ll have to face the hardest part of my Peace Corps service – saying goodbye. One year seems like a long time, but it really isn’t because this year has flown by.

I have no idea what the next year entails, let alone next week. I do know that I will continue to stay this happy and will continue to learn more about myself and our common humanity than I ever thought was imaginable. I’ll be sure to make this year count because it’s a time in my life I’ll never get back.

Congrats to my fellow SA 26s who reached the one-year mark. Ya’ll deserve a pat on the back!

Small heartYours in service (and half way there!),