Tuesday, August 17, 2010

STUFF needed for one year in South Africa…

Before departing for my trip to South Africa, there was all of this fuss and bother about WHAT TO BRING WITH US when coming to Africa. As we’re limited to the amount of stuff to bring (two suitcases), you can imagine the heartache that goes into deciding what to bring.

We were also told over and over, what you will need DEPENDS on your site placement, and personal preference.

Here’s what I’ve learned about needing STUFF in Peace Corps service in rural South Africa:

What I’m glad I brought:

*layers of fleecy, warm clothing because it is cold in South Africa: It’s hard to imagine Africa being cold, but in South Africa, in winter, in the Kalahari Desert, it is COLD.

* fleece tops and hoodies: I’m very grateful to have brought several fleece tops and hoodies to layer. I’m also VERY grateful to have brought gloves, ear warmers, handwarmers, hats, and a scarf.

*nylon jacket/windbreaker: I’m glad I brought a nylon jacket to protect me from wind.

*earplugs: at some point in my life, I’ve become overly-sensitive to loud noise (Too many AC/DC concerts at a young age?) I’m happy to report that while I don’t often need earplugs, when I need them, I really need them and am very grateful to have them. I mostly need them when I’m on a public taxi and the driver wishes to share his fondness with very loud music with every one in the taxi and the volume is loud enough to share with everyone in the nation of South Africa. I also need them in one of the church services I attend on occasion: the music for the service is amplified and the room is very small (the music is painfully loud).

*sunglasses: although this is an item that arouse the “Hollywood effect” (in that kids, or anyone, really, think they are cool and want them), the sun in South Africa is painfully bright and I’ve needed protection from the glare.

*umbrella: I brought two and wish I had brought a couple of more (they wear out because I use them all the time). I use them for protection against the sun, not the rain.

*Colorful shawls/wraps: I brought a couple of shawls/wraps with me that serve as garments (when I need a colorful wrap for church) and curtains. So, at times, I certainly feel like Scarlett O’Hara.

*Camera: without a doubt, this is my most treasured possession in South Africa (as I couldn’t blog with as much fun without it). I love my camera and wouldn’t trade it for the world, but at times, I’ve wished for one of better quality, when I couldn’t master the light or needed a better zoom.

*Handkerchiefs and bandanas: very useful items to have.

*Spiritual reading material: Also a must have; have asked for reinforcements!

*Chapstick: must have!

*Five pairs of shoes: I must admit at feeling embarrassed by this, but I’ve needed every single pair: my hiking boots (which also serve as work boots for the garden), dress shoes (for school), Crocs (house shoes), flip-flop sandals (shower shoes for traveling, also serve as warm-weather house shoes), and walking sandals.

*Pictures of family from home!

What I wish I had brought more of:

*Reading material: Even with access to three public libraries (but admittedly, they aren't very good), I find myself ALWAYS in need of good reading material.  In hindsight, I wish I had boxed some reading material and shipped it ahead.

*Stationary: I’m a huge letter writer and find myself always in need of envelops, post-its, scotch tape, etc. I wish I had brought more.

*Kentucky-themed items: I brought a few of these, but wish I had more. They make great gifts and actually go along way in cheering me up as well. (They remind me of home.)

*Good pens: they have good pens here for purchase, but I wish I had brought more—they’re expensive! (I did, however, bring plenty of mechanical pencils, and am glad I did!)

*Multivitamin: Although I’m eating well and balanced, I find myself longing for a good multivitamin—just in case. Vitamins are very expensive here.

*Dental care items: Same here, there is good floss (Glide Comfort Plus), Stim-u-dents, and extra-soft toothbrushes available for purchase, but they’re expensive.

*Burn ointment: I should probably buy some of this and Peace Corps would probably supply it, but since I “wing it” with my pots and pans (and they haven’t proper-fitting lids), I find myself with scalding burns more frequently than I care… You’d think I’d learn!

*Insulated food bag: a family member mailed me one of the insulated shopping bags for groceries. I love it and use it as a “fridge.” It works very well!

*Sun hat: I’ve worn mine out!

*Music: I’m usually very happy with silence but have at times, longed for some favorite music. A family member recently sent me a couple of CDs and I enjoy them very much.

*Good binoculars: I’ve become quite a birder since coming to South Africa, and wish I had a better pair of binoculars.

*A laptop/notebook: I go back and forth with this one. Life would be easier if I had a personal computer and my writing would be better (I would actually have time/capacity for revising!). But I’ve managed, and am lucky, to have computer use at my site (as unreliable as it is!)

What I’ve brought and wish I hadn’t:

*My camping gear: I haven’t had the occasion to need it, and it took all of one of the two suitcases.

*My raincoat: I haven’t needed it.

*Sunscreen: I bought tons—Peace Corps supplies it, but I’ve found I wear clothing to protect my skin from the sun.

*Old-style luggage: I DEFINITELY should have invested in luggage with wheels!

*Regular batteries: My rechargeables have worked best (but I’m a volunteer with access to electricity: many aren’t!)

*Alarm clock: My cell phone functions as this.

*Short-wave radio: I was hoping to access the BBC but am unable to. :-(

*Favorite items of clothing:  I brought several items of clothing thinking to have them would cheer me up.  I've learned that my favorite items of clothing, while they do cheer me in having them, are ruined in the hand-washing and the hot African sun.

What I’ve bought on arriving and can’t live without:

* My electric kettle: for heating water. When I purchased this, I bought the top-of-the-line, stainless steel model, because I knew I’d be using the heck out of it! (And do!)

* My electric fan: I love this for the cool breeze it supplies and for the “white noise” that I needed while living in the hostel (dormitory).

* A shovel and scimitars: I love working in the yard, so must-haves.

* Field guides: I went back and forth about bringing these: Field guides are supremely heavy!! But if I was aching for anything upon arrival, it was for information concerning the regional flora/fauna that I found myself. Family rallied to get me some and I use all of my South African guides nearly every day still, but I wish I had brought a good, general field/travel guide for South Africa with me.

Well, that’s me and my YEAR in STUFF.

I wonder what STUFF my second year will bring!

Soon, Karen

PS. Many of you have cried for photos of me, and I’ve tried my best to include them. I must say, however, that the practice is becoming tiresome. I find myself feeling like a “Price is Right” girl and am stumped at how to vary my poses. I dislike photographing myself as much as wearing make-up and wearing fashionable clothing!

In one year…

There are three major goals of Peace Corps service, and one is the hope that South Africans can learn a bit about Americans by my serving here. Well, I haven’t taken any interviews or conducted any polls, but here are some things South Africans may have learned about ONE American (other than, of course, this American’s urgent need to save all yard debris from burning!):

*The Primary School children have learned that I will not hit them. This isn’t as wonderful as it sounds: in my community, respect is earned with beatings. In fact, the person in charge of the beatings is often referred to as “the protector” as in, “thank you sir, for protecting us from the disturbance.”

*The college kids have learned that I will not scream at them, throw things at them, curse at them, etc. Here too, not such a great thing when the aforementioned behaviors earn respect. We also waste some—but not a lot-- of class time waiting for them to decide if they want to be respectful or not (so we can begin class).

*Members in my community have learned that I would rather walk to the local market than ride the taxi. (I’m not sure if my community members have learned that I would rather gouge my eyes out than ride a public taxi.) :-)

*Members in my community know that I enjoy watching the birds. They also know that I walk the campus in the evenings to see all of the different bird activity around the different areas of the campus.

*Members in my community know that I enjoy working in a garden.

*Members in my community know that I’d rather be outside than in.

*Members in my community know that I don’t enjoy watching TV and that I don’t own one in my home. (I don’t own one in the States either.)

*Members in my community know that I don’t own a personal computer.

*Members in my community know that I’m not rich enough to travel to the States to visit my family.

*Members in my community know that no, I don’t have R5 to give them.

*Members in my community know that I am not interested in dressing in a sexually suggestive manner, nor do I feel the need to adorn my face with make-up.

*Members in my community know that I don’t have a “helper” and that I do my own cleaning and laundry.

*Members in my community know that I don’t cook meat for myself and if they come to visit, won’t be offered any!

*Members in my community know that I love where I live and miss my home and family very much.

*Members in my community know that I get grumpy with all of the “KFC” talk—Kentucky is so much more than fried chicken!!

*Members in my community know that at church, I will sing the hymns in Setswana if someone shares their hymnal with me (someone usually does!)

I wonder what my remaining year has in store for my community members… What will this American do next?



Monday, August 16, 2010

BOOM! 13 months to finish! Let the countdown begin!

A few weeks ago, Peace Corps volunteers in the neighboring shopping town had a party to celebrate “a year in country.” (We were officially a year in country on July 24).

I have another friend who, if asked, will tell you the month, day, hour and minute until time to go home.

Another friend pointed out that August 15 was our “half way mark.”

Myself, I’ve been waiting for September 17, because September 17 marks “one year to go before going home!” I personally can’t wait for September 18, because it will be the last September 18, I’ll spend in South Africa! For each and every day from that point on, I’ll have the perspective of: this is it, better enjoy it while it lasts!

However, Tuesday, August 17, marks 13 months to go, and boy, does it feel thrilling to think of only thirteen months. It feels much more manageable to say 13 months instead of the 27 months! So, I’m beginning my countdown a month early!

Why so happy to count down? Well, it’s been a difficult year for me, serving for Peace Corps in South Africa, and well, I feel pretty exited about being over the hump.

There must be a “pain of childbirth” quality about serving Peace Corps. Before I left for my service, I met up with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Group in my area. I met with them for their monthly dinners and we had the grandest time: there was laughing and joking, lots of story telling. It was one of the happiest groups of people I’ve ever met.

But I always came away from those dinners wondering, “Why didn’t anyone sign up for a second tour?”

And of course, some did serve a second term, and in fact, Peace Corps discourages multiple terms of service. (Peace Corps wishes the opportunity for any American able to serve and would rather give first-comers a shot over someone who has already served). But very few people in our group had served more than one term.

And now that I’m a year in, I’m hearing from a few of these Returned Peace Corps Volunteers from back home. And they’re all saying, “Congratulations! You’ve survived! The worst is over! You’ve made it! It’s cake from here on!”

And I think, “Why didn’t these guys warn me about how difficult my first year would be?”

And I remember feeling outraged, when I realized all the work that goes into child-rearing, when it dawned on me that the women in my family had never warned me about the hardships of raising a family! They all sat around laughing, telling stories, and remembering how wonderful their “babyhoods” were.

So, just like with childbirth and child-raising, Peace Corps volunteers seem to forget the pain and hardships and only remember only the fond parts!


I’ll be home in 13 months! Let the countdown begin! Woo hoo!



Friday, August 13, 2010

National Women's Day in South Africa

On Monday, August 9, 2010, my community hosted a Women’s Day celebration. South Africa recognizes Women’s Day as a National Holiday and the nation is treated as such: no work or school on Monday!

I was told that our community would host a celebration in our community hall. When I asked what time it would start, I was told: at nine or ten (a.m.). I arrived at 11:20 with no start in sight!

And if you see the photo of the program, the program states that activities were to start at 7:30!! Ah, South African time…

I was able to stay for a couple of hours. I was a bit disappointed at the turnout: there may have been 50 women. No one came from my college and only one from my primary school. You may recognize the “lioness” as she was there. I’m told by my colleagues that she is a powerful political figure in my community. I’m happy to report too, that we’ve taken to each other…

There were no men present at the celebration either, which made me sad.

Emily and her cousin, Morley, visiting from Namibia made an appearance--YAY!

Lots of singing and praying--and special guest speakers, but although I was promised a "cow would be slaughtered," no food was in sight.

I’ve posted a bit of info below about South Africa’s National Women’s Day and the link:

On 9 August 1956, 20 000 women staged a march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act (commonly known as the pass laws) of 1950. They left bundles of petitions containing more than 100 000 signatures at prime minister J.G. Strijdom's office doors. Outside they stood silently for 30 minutes, many with their children on their backs. Those who were working for Whites as nannies were carrying their white charges with them. The women sang a protest song that was composed in honor of the occasion: Wathint'Abafazi Wathint'imbokodo! (Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.). In the 54 years since, the phrase (or its latest incarnation: "you strike a woman, you strike a rock") has come to represent women's courage and strength in South Africa.

The march was led by Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn.

Other participants included Frances Baard, a statue of whom was unveiled by Northern Cape Premier Hazel Jenkins in Kimberley (Frances Baard District Municipality) on National Women's Day 2009.[1]

Since 9 August 1994, the day has been commemorated annually and is known as Women's Day in South Africa. In 2006 a reenactment of the march was staged for its 50th anniversary, with many of the 1956 march veterans attending.




Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Spring has sprung in my part of the world!

Well, as soon as I say, "spring has sprung," we've plummeted back into freezing temperatures!  I've gone from wearing shorts and a tank top back to layers and ear warmers!  Oh well.  There are certainly SIGNS that spring is on the way.

Here are some shots of some things around my campus/community.  There are a couple of trees and wildflowers in bloom and the invasive Mexican poppy (plant with thorns)  that I was so taken with when I first arrived in South Africa.  (Now that I'm clear in my understanding that this plant is not welcome here, I no longer thrill to see its bloom!)

But we have new pine cones and emerging green from the burned landscape.  That's me in a tank top when it was warm (a few days ago) and me shirted on the pay  phone.  I make my long-distance phone calls from a pay phone on campus using a World Call long distance call.  The calls aren't cheap, but necessary!  I usually talk to everyone in my family at least once a month, or try to.

What else do we have here... There is a shot of our sunrise a few days ago...  The early morning cloud cover made me ache for rain (it hasn't rained here since April) but the clouds burned off later that morning.  One thing that happens when winter is ending and spring is coming is the African winds begin to blow.  I've read that tornadoes only occur in Northern America and do not occur in Africa; however, the winds that blow here are bad enough that we don't need tornadoes!  I despair in seeing my clothes drying in the dusty winds and take small consolation in the idea of a "dust bath."  If dust baths are good enough for birds, perhaps their good enough for my just-washed laundry! 

And there is a shot of the ants returning... I'm not happy to see these guys become active again!  They are voracious biters and a real curse in summer time! They glom onto you if you stop walking even for a second.

One shot is a burn spot surrounded by reeds.  When I arrived on site last year, I remember falling asleep at night to the sound of frogs calling in the night.  I remember thinking, "I'm at the edge of the desert and it is very dry here...  That sound cannot be frogs calling."  Well, yes it was!  In the shot of the sunrise there is a big, square object.  The big square object is a water tower located here on campus and very near this burned, reedy spot in the photograph.  Well, the water tower leaks.  The leak is a bad thing, of course, in regards to water conservation.  However, the water leak is a GREAT thing if you want to develop a wetland habitat.  If you have a wetland habitat, you get frogs, animals that feed on frogs, a HUGE variety of birds, including a variety of water fowl.  When the rains come, this burned, black spot will fill with water and the frogs will sing again!  I'm so excited! I can't wait for it to rain!!

And then lastly, spring calling means I'm feeling the urge to dig again.  So, one photo is of a big hole.  I'm digging a trench garden.  Now, those of you who know me well know that I'm inherently lazy and digging, really big digging is not my thing.  I'd much rather garden with mulching and composting techniques, but mulching and composting techniques don't go over well here (they burn EVERYTHING here!).  But, trench gardening is the recommended gardening style for establishing food sustainability and I'm hoping to go out into my community and establish food gardens (trench gardens) for the needy.  Since I've only read about trench gardens, I thought I'd better practice what I preach, and I sure in the heck need to know how labor-intensive this project is, especially if I'm working with orphans or crippled old ladies.

I thought digging the beds would be killer, but I do a little at a time.  And because trench gardening has other steps: collecting organic material to "fill" the trenches and use as mulch, I have other things to do to build in breaks from my digging.  Also, as we have free-roaming goats, I'll need to build a fence, or my very labor-intensive trenched beds will be a lovely buffet for the free-roaming goats!  So, I also take breaks from digging to collect material to build a fence.

The easiest and most effective way to fence would be to use barbed-wire and posts; however, since many in my community will not have money even for modest fencing, I will try fencing with thorns, of which we have plenty.

Wish me luck!  And wish me luck that this cold spell moves back quickly into spring! 

Soon, Karen

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

100% pass rate and feeding the lions

On Monday, August 2, I went on a “field trip” to visit another school. The school was about two hours away in a town called Stella.

The trip was arranged by fellow Peace Corps volunteer Matson Contardo and Matson, thank you very, very, much, for graciously supplying the photos for this blog post because I had forgotten my camera. Thanks so much Matson!  I should know better than to leave my camera at home when travelling anywhere in South Africa.  You never know when someone might say, "I know a gentleman nearby that keeps lions.  I've phoned him to see if we might pop over to see the lions feeding.  Would you like to go?"

This is exactly what happened at the end of our school visit.  Matson, Emily (Emily was along for the trip!), and I kind of looked at each other and said, "SURE!"

As spectacular as the school was, the lions, well, as you can imagine, snagged the spot of "wow factor" of the day.  I was expecting to see a lion or two in a cage: I had NO IDEA we would see a group of lions almost sixty in number!!

But I must speak about the school visit first, so bear with me.

The point of the field trip was to visit a rural South African School with a 100% pass rate.  I was very excited about this prospect because the pass rate in most rural, South African schools are well below 100%.  I was told by my deputy principal at "my" primary school that the pass rate was 50% (which is considered a high pass rate, by some).

I wanted to see this school and learn their "secret."  What were they doing for their learners that might help ours?

Well, I was more than a bit disappointed to learn that we would be visiting a "white" school.  And I thought to myself, "Well, there is your reason for a 100% pass rate!"

How racist of me!  But it's true: the school has resources, books, qualified educators, classrooms, extra-curricular activities, involved parents, computers, learners with both parents, learners with full bellies--you name it--they had it!

I asked if the school "had enough money" and was told, "No, but we fund-raise to make up the difference."

And there is the sticking point:  This school is able to fundraise because their fund-base (families of learners) has money to give.  In my school, the fund-base is families living in poverty, so the families have no money to give.  My families want to give and want to support their children's schools, but the families are usually struggling to pay the standard school fees, purchase the required uniforms, and shoes for their kids. (This without even mentioning their struggles to pay for food, electricity, water, etc., basic living needs.)

It's really heartbreaking.  So, I'm asking any and all, Do you know of any effective fund-raising strategies to employ for people living in poverty?

But the school was great, the kids were great, the administration was great, the educators were great.  It was a wonderful day and I'm glad to have gone.  And, after all, Afrikaners are a "different" people too!--yet another group to live with and learn from...  And they were excited, I think, to encounter a group of Americans and learn a bit about American culture. 

I have yet to blog about the "White Tribe of Africa" but hope to be brave enough to do so one day...

Okay, okay, the lions.

So, we drive to a private property with signs everywhere: "Lions on Property: Enter at Your Own Risk!"  We drive onto the property and see herds of gemsbok (pictured) and other wild antelope.  We scan the landscape in search of lions and our host, Cristo (that's him with the camera in one photo, photographing a very grumpy "alpha lion" that was not happy with our intrusion to their feast), would assure us, "The lions are caged."

And then I saw it in the distance: this enormous, fenced in area and could see the lions pacing about inside.  As I mentioned previously, I expected to see one or two lions and to see so many was nothing short of spectacular.

We arrived before the dinner truck and the lions weren't especially excited about our presence.  We sat for awhile and I was completely content to stare at these amazing beasts, lounging contentedly in their cages, basking in the sun.

However, the time came for "dinner" to arrive and the lions were certainly keen to an approaching scent (the same scent that we would not be so keen about in a few minutes) and raised their heads in the direction of the approaching vehicle: the dead cattle were hauled in.

I asked about the cattle used for feeding the lions: were they killed specifically for the feeding or where they random corpses gathered as "trash removal"?  Well, I was hoping for the answer to be the former, but it was not: the cattle fed to the lions were indeed those having died and the farmers wishing their removal.

The lions, familiar with the routine, became very excited at the appearance of a pick-up truck, with on carcass in its bed pulling a trailer with two more dead cows in tow.  The lions came near the food-loading area of the cages and paced wildly and rubbed on the bars of the cage with their massive heads.  They're behavior was very house-cat-like: a lot like our felines rubbing our knees in the kitchen at the sound of the can opening.

I anxiously watched all of this action unfolding, prayerfully hoping for the strength and integrity of the cage: we were literally inches away from these hungry lions.  For the very first time in my life, I appreciated the horror of  the Roman spectacle of  "feeding one to the lions."

When the beef was loaded, the cage secured, and the feeding-gate raised, the lions entered.  It wasn't as violent or as gory as I expected; but after all, the beef was already dead, there was no kill necessary, and the cattle certainly weren't bleeding.  The lions simply surrounded the dead beef, lay down, and began eating.  There was ripping of flesh and crunching of bones, but the feeding was amazingly low-key.  Every once in awhile, some lion would grumpily growl if another lion was munching too near and of course, the alpha male was aggravated by our presence the whole time and snarled at the cameras.  He must have fed well at an earlier feeding, because he was much more content to focus on us than the food.

Although it was certainly amazing to be so close to such magnificent beasts feeding in this way, I came away feeling sad, much in the same way I leave a zoo after a day of visiting animals.  I find it inherently sad to see such animals, especially predators, being caged and fed.  These beasts, as with all others, should (ideally) be living their lives in the wild, hunting and killing on their own.

Hmm, I wonder if the gentleman, who owns the lions, would consider it an option to charge admission for watching the lions feed.  My primary school could certainly use the funds!

Soon, and thanks again Matson, for the amazing photos,

Friday, August 6, 2010

A day at “my” primary school…

I took my camera to my primary school on Thursday, August 05, 2010, because, well, why not?

Actually, I took it because I thought the teacher’s might go on strike next week, and if they did, well, who knew when I might get some pictures of my primary schoolers. (Actually, the teachers still may strike next week: no one seems to know.)

So, no special occasion, just some random, mostly candid shots.

Please note our “lunchroom ladies.” They usually cook meals inside, but my school seems to have run out of funds for purchasing gas to power the school’s gas cook stoves. So, our lunchroom ladies are cooking for 500, outside, on a wood fire. And I thought my job was tough…

Lunch was, well, you can see what lunch was. And yes, that is what it looks like. :-)

The rest are random shots in the classroom and out of the classroom. The outside shots are of learners at lunchtime.

More pictures are posted at my Facebook page. You need not be a Facebook member to view the photos: