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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,

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

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!


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!


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,