Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lovin me some SA kids: TPS school concert October 2010

Here are some shots of me lovin on my kids at my primary  school: Thagamoso Primary School. We had our school concert of Friday, October 29.

The school had its concert in the hottest part of the day, from 10:00 am until 2:00 pm, with little shade in sight!  The kids were troopers--and very talented troopers at that!

It was a great day, I loved being with the kids and was able to act like a grown-up around the adults!

Here's to lovin me some kids in SA!


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Behaving childishly in South Africa

Like the bear? You want one? Sorry, THEY’RE FOR THE CHILDREN.

The Mother Bear Project—check them out at—provides hand-made bears to children living all over the world, children living with the effects of HIV/AIDS. Each bear is lovingly crafted, either knitted or crocheted, with the hope of comforting a child. The bears are sent at the asking, free of charge, with only a request for pictures of the bears being distributed to the children—the pictures of the children with the bears is the only “payment” the makers require, the only payment required to warm their hearts and keep those knitting needles knitting. Sound too good to be true? IT IS, so check them out and send them some money!

I’m a grown woman living and working in rural South Africa. I come from America, where individualism and self-sufficiency are traits that are admired. Within the American family unit, we help each other, but it is with the expectation that once children are successfully reared, they become self-sufficient adults, freely functioning within society, without aid or support from others. In my culture, we also have the advantages that come with living in the United States, a first-world nation with infrastructure and a democracy. For the most part, most of us in America have adequate shelter, clean water, safe food, safe transportation, and laws in place to keep us safe.

This is me, the grown woman, my background, and where I’m coming from.

The people that I live and work have not come from America. They have suffered for generations under the brutality of apartheid. They are from a culture that values community above individualism and it is the group’s responsibility to make sure all are well—regardless of anyone’s age. In this culture, if I’m in need, it is YOUR responsibility to care for me. The people that I live and work with, for the most part, do not have adequate shelter, do not have clean water, or safe food, or safe transportation, and the laws in place to keep them safe are corrupted and benefit those holding power, rather than those vulnerable and needing protection.

When I first arrived in South Africa, some of my fellow educators, grown women, would tell me and ask me, “I’m an orphan. Will you be my mother?” I didn’t understand the question: Why are these grown women, who are almost my age, asking me to be their mother? I would always feel irritated and think, “You’re a grown up, be your own mother.”

I was once in the post office, and there was a mother and a young child. I had some candy in my pocket and asked the mother if it ok to give her child some candy. The mother agreed and when I turned away from the child, the mother was standing with her hands outstretched, “begging” for her share of the candy. I was irritated at this: She was an adult, she could get her own candy.

When I am in the rare position of offering something, the offer is usually received with a request for something further still. I’ve spoken about this before, as when a guest asks for drinking water, and I offer tepid water, the offer is challenged with a request that the water be chilled. In this way, when I offered a group of boys some tennis balls that someone had sent me from the States, the boys thanked me and asked for tennis rackets. And I felt irritated and often think to myself, “A ‘thank you’ would be nice.”

I have come to understand that the people that I live with see me as a person that “has” and not only “has,” but “can get more.” So, it’s perfectly natural for them to ask me for things and to want more. I need to try to be more compassionate and forgiving and less judgmental, because how they see me, is in fact true: I really do “have” and really can “always get more.” (As evidenced by my camera breaking, and then replacing it with two.) I am ever checking my criticism because the people I live with have come from a place of deprivation and brutality.

I have been teaching in my schools but have recently moved out of teaching and into community project work. One of the projects I have in place with one of my schools is to distribute bears from the Mother Bear Project to one of my schools for World AIDS Day, which is on December 1. (I wish I could say that the idea for this project was mine alone; in fact, I stole the idea from a fellow PCV, Emily C. Thanks Emily!)

When I approached the school about the project, everyone seemed happy at first. Then, culture being what it is and a people living in poverty being what it is, came back with the reply, in the offer of the bears, “Can we have horses or ponies? Or trucks? Or baby dolls? Or ANYTHING but BEARS??” I swallowed my anger as best as I could, realized they didn’t understand the nature of the gift, and replied, “I’m sorry, but we’ve requested bears and bears are what we’ll get.”

A few days later, the first box of bears arrived and I happily opened the box, retrieved one of the wonderful bears, and skipped off to school, feeling certain I would win everyone’s heart.

Well, win everyone’s heart is what I did, but I was so shocked at the response: the TEACHERS wanted the bears: FOR THEMSELVES! Ooo, I want one, they cooed. I was supremely irritated and replied, a bit too sternly: THEY ARE FOR THE CHILDREN! “But I’m a child,” one adult replied.


I have no training in psychology or social work, but I do know that children who come from abusive homes are stunted emotionally in their development and often mature much later than normal. I’ve often wondered if the brutalized peoples of South Africa have shared a similar stunting emotionally. It would make sense.

But the people that I live with aren’t the only ones prone to behaving childishly.

One of my co-workers and I do not get along. We got off on a bad foot initially, and have never recovered. It has been one of my personal goals: to win his favor, because I love the other educators at the school and I love the children. If I left in a huff over him, the children, would ultimately lose. But I have yet to win his favor, and I’m not sure if I will, but I will keep trying.

I was going to list all of the instances of which I feel I’ve been “wronged” by this person, but this in and of itself, would be childish and immature. The short of it is, for all the reasons listed above, I am the adult coming in from an advantaged circumstance and I need to remain forgiving and tolerant and to keep trying. At a recent parents’ meeting, I felt I was publically wronged (by him) and got my huffy self up and stormed out.

I, the grown up American woman, stormed out of the parent’s meeting. How mature was that?

So, we have World AIDS Day quickly approaching, the wonderful bears from the Mother Bears Project are coming in batches, and I will protectively keep the bears and make sure they are given to the children of my school.

How old will these children be? We’ll have to wait and see, but let’s hope that Karen remains an adult through the thick of it.


PS. If there are any readers dying to give money to any cause, the Mother Bear Project is a good one. They ask for no money in return, but to ship one box of 50 bears costs the organization nearly a hundred US dollars. The organization has already shipped my school 4 boxes of bears.

PSS. Yes, I’ve finally gotten a camera again! Hooray!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Singing in South Africa

I was chatting with a former coworker from the States this week and she mentioned that she missed me, missed seeing me at work, and missed my singing in the mornings. When I am happiest, I sing, and I am happiest in the early morning, before the day has taken its toll. In my work with her, apparently, I would come in the office in the early morning hours and be singing. I smiled in thinking that she recalled this fondly, as my singing tends to grate on my family members’ nerves: especially at having to deal with it first thing in the morning!

I’ve always had music and song in my life, if not seriously, then playfully. When the approach of a new school year comes, whether I’m in the States or in Africa, I hear my mother’s voice in my head singing her rendition of “School days, school days, same old golden rule days. Reading and writing and arithmetic…” (I can also hear her belting out, with great enthusiasm, her rendition of “Bill.” “Oh won’t you marry me Bi-ill, I love you so, I always will…”). Ah, to grow up in the ‘70s.

My dad’s a musician and very talented. I think he passed along some of this talent to me, but I’ve never taken the time to foster this talent properly. At the critical time in learning about music, I was much more interested in spending my time with boys and growing my finger nails. The latter, especially, interfered with my mastering the guitar! My dad has always played in bands and in festivals, and some of my fondest childhood memories are of him loading my sister and I up, along with his van full of musical equipment, and carrying us to whichever musical adventure was headed to. I loved it when midnight or 1:00 am rolled around, and the ever-extended chorus of “one more for the road!” began. I think my dad would finally call it a night closer to 4:00 in the morning! What fun we had!

I’ve sung all of my life. I’ve never had professional training and can’t read music, but if I hear a tune repeatedly and long enough, I’ll know the song forever and can usually hit every note in it. I’ve never sung professionally, in that I’ve never earned any money at it (unless you count being “paid” in bratwurst at St. Joe’s picnic!), but I have sung in front of people, in front of an audience. I love singing; I love how it makes me feel. And it’s one of the ways I feel the presence of God in my life.

Mornings in my house in Africa have been very quiet for a very long time. I have forgotten how to sing. When I was living with my original African host family way back when I first came to South Africa, (was that only a year ago?) I would entertain them for hours singing the African songs we learned in our Peace Corps pre-service training sessions. They particularly liked when I would imitate the male parts of the chorus of a song, as I exaggerated delving deep inside my belly for those low vibrations. They would squeal with laughter and then we’d all take a turn at trying together! When I visited them again last January, I was entertaining them as always with my best attempts at African songs, and in a somewhat serious fashion, they asked me to sing “something from America for them.” I was stunned and caught by surprise. In all of the songs of my life, I could not think of a single American song to sing for them: not a single song.

A family member, some time back, sent me Patty Griffin’s newest (at the time) release: Downtown Church. I love Patty Griffin; she has the voice of an angel. She’s up there with some of my all-time favorite musicians, the women singers that move me to awe and always leave me thinking, “Wow, how does she do that?” She keeps the same company, for this fan, with Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Gillian Welch. What struck me most about Ms. Griffin’s release, however, was the opening and closing tracks: both songs hold powerful meaning for me.

The initial track of Ms. Griffin’s CD is a cover of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.” I grew up listening not to Hank Williams singing it, but the Seldom Scene. My dad and his bands would always sing it and when I was older, I would join my dad in singing the song adding the harmony line that he had taught me. He had always sung the high harmonies, but being a true musician, could sing in any range. He graciously made way for me, and in this way, allowed me to “fill” his shoes.

Some of my happiest memories are of singing with my dad. I miss it.

The last track on Ms. Griffin’s CD is “All Creatures of Our God and King.” Many of you will know this song from church, as I did. I sung as a cantor in my church once, and remember “studying” it to lead the congregation in this song. It’s a beautiful song and it moved me to tears hearing Ms. Griffin singing it and of course, remembering myself singing it—singing it back home.

The CD is so achingly beautiful that I usually can’t bear to listen to it and it makes me awfully, awfully homesick. My favorite track is “Come Home to Me.”

I was thinking recently that when I return to the States, I will join a choir and have singing back in my life. Mercifully, I was saved from the waiting when a God thought came: “Sing NOW.”

I love the church in my village I’ve been attending since arriving at my permanent site. It’s a “Roman” church, in that it’s Roman Catholic, but it doesn’t matter the denomination: I go because it is the only time in my week that I feel safe and protected, and if not loved then at least welcomed and for the singing. I love to go for the singing. I’ve decided there is nothing lovelier that the Tswana people singing, especially Tswana people singing in church.

I realized today how lucky I am that I can read and write. Even though I’m far from fluent in Setswana, I know enough of it to read it, and if I can’t understand the meaning, I can at least attempt pronunciation—and am usually pretty close. This ability has helped me with singing at my church, because the congregants have figured out that if I can see a hymnal, I will happily sing, and almost always someone is nearby with a hymnal at the ready.

So I’m singing in South Africa, and if not every morning, at least on Sunday mornings.

Another friend has recently sent me some bulletins from a Taizé service I loved to attend in my neighborhood in the States. (Hey Louisville: Church of the Advent, Bardstown Road, Thursday nights at 7:00—a wonderful service—inclusive, welcoming, unfussy, singing, chanting, candlelight, SILENCE--it’s beautiful, it’s easy--check it out!) The bulletins she sent have several of the chants from the Taizé service and I’ve cut the prayers and the chants out and have posted them at various spots around my house.

So, I am learning to sing again, learning to sing in Africa. You, Ms. Griffin, and Africa are helping me find my voice agaiin. If you were walking along, outside my home, you might hear me singing a tune from Ms. Griffin’s Downtown Church, or a chant from Taizé, or an African hymn I’d sung on Sunday morning. I’m doing my best, to learn as many African songs as I can, so I can come home and sing them to YOU!



PS: the photo is a blurred (hopefully) image of Ms. Griffin's album cover... Wasn't sure how crazy she'd be at my using it for a blog post!  Copyrights and all!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The White Tribe of Africa

Apartheid -- the former political and social system in South Africa, in which only white people had full political rights and people of other races, especially black people, were forced to go to separate schools, live in separate areas, etc. –Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

This blog post is likely to offend you as a reader, as it is about racism. Racism, by its very nature, is offensive, so consider yourself warned; you’ve had your spoiler alert.

I knew when coming to South Africa that I would be living in a country that was still healing from the effects of apartheid and that race relations were still volatile. What I didn’t realize, however, that as a white American living in a black area of rural South Africa, that I would encounter racism, directed at me, on an almost daily basis.

The oppression black South Africans have experienced under the brutal and crushing restrictions of apartheid is not comparable to the harassment I experience living as a white woman in a predominately black area of rural South Africa. How can I complain, a white woman, an outsider, living temporarily in this country and who is taunted and teased when so many black South Africans were brutalized for half a century simply for having a darker skin than mine—in their own country!

I have no right to complain.

During our initial training with Peace Corps, we were given a crash-course in South African history. Like America, South Africa has had many different people come to her shores and South Africa has certainly resulted in a cultural “melting pot.” (I’ve made several attempts at over viewing South African history, but I botch it very badly each time. There are some wonderful and fascinating histories written about South Africa, and I particularly liked and recommend Alistair Spark’s the Mind of South Africa I and Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart.) But the short of it is, people have been struggling here in South Africa, people of all races and cultures, trying to learn how to live peacefully together for a very long time. However, they’ve been struggling to overcome brutality in the last fifty years and have only recently begun to resolve some of the caustic hurts. Peace Corps came to South Africa to help the country in its attempts to restructure its educational system after the fall of apartheid. Under apartheid, black South Africans suffered gross inadequacies in education. South Africa struggles still today, trying to alleviate those inadequacies.

I live and work in a black area of rural South Africa.

In my primary school, I am the only white educator.

In my college, I am one of four white educators; I am the only white woman to live on my college’s campus. (There is another white man, an Afrikaner, who lives on campus, but we don’t ‘hang out’ together.) Everyone else, everywhere I go, is black.

I met a woman, a complete stranger, in Pretoria once. When she asked me where I was from and where I lived, and when I told her my village name, she remarked, “But, aren’t they cruel to you there?” I was caught off guard, because how did this woman know, a complete stranger, and a complete stranger so far away from the village I live in, that I, as a white woman, suffered cruelty in my village? How did she know?

On a taxi recently, a couple engaged me in a similar conversation: Why had I left a country like America to come to South Africa, a country that suffered with racism and xenophobia?

I didn’t say, “I wonder the same thing every single day of my life” but rather replied, “There is cruelty to be found everywhere in the world and not everyone in my village is cruel to me. Some people are wonderfully loving and kind.” And this is true.

However, I underestimated how emotionally draining it can be to live with racism, day in and day out. Since I work with students, the taunting often comes from young people, and I chastise myself, “Come on Karen, you’re an adult. You can understand that they are dealing with peer pressure, they’re right where they’re supposed to be developmentally, you’re an easy target, and they’re trying to impress their friends.”

And when the road workers taunt me in Afrikaans, because they assume I’m an Afrikaner, I try to reassure myself: “They, in their recent lifetimes have suffered horrible, brutal cruelty: they don’t know that I’m an American here to help.”

I continue to reassure myself on an ongoing basis and try to rise to the occasion. But it’s a losing battle: my gut clenches when I come upon a group of young black men working on the road and worry what kind of harassment I’ll endure; I drop my eyes as the young women on my college campus squeal in laughter and make noises indicating they’re laughing at my expense; I’ll back away from an aggressive black woman who is angry that I am not giving her money…

I try and I try… But it is a disheartening battle, and I worry that ultimately, and in the end, I will not overcome it. But I try and will continue to try, as long as I can.

I was biased against Afrikaners on coming to South Africa. In my mind, they were some of the worst “oppressors” in South African history, it was at their hands that black South Africans suffered the most. When we were in our initial training with Peace Corps, we were taught greetings in Setswana (the language of the black people I would be living with) and we were also taught greetings in Afrikaans (the language of the white people I would not be living with, but the language that all of the black people that I would be living with would assume that I would be speaking.)

I bristled at the thought of learning Afrikaans. I DID NOT WANT TO LEARN OR SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.

Mercifully, I was brought me to my senses rather quickly when I realized, “Wait. I SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR.” (Having realized, of course, that the native language of the Americas is not English, and that my country was indeed, colonized by ‘an oppressor,’ and I spoke that very same language of that oppressor!)

We were also given two tours: one of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and one of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. Again, I was much more sympathetic to the Apartheid Museum and was balking at touring the Voortrekker Monument. Again, some divine intervention and mental clarity was afforded me: all peoples of the world has their own history and we should learn about all peoples, their lives, their struggles, their histories, to better promote understanding of the human race. Level the playing field, for Pete’s sake! I walked about the Voortrekker Monument and I learned the history of its people: They are just like me and my people, and just like the black South Africans where we live: we’re all trying to make our way and find a peaceable existence in this world. We all honor and cherish our ancestors and the struggles they endured to make us all free.

A few months back a fellow PCV invited me and others to tour a school with a 100% pass rate. Since we all work in black schools and the pass rates average 50% or lower, I was greatly interested in seeing a school with a 100% pass rate and jumped at the chance to go: How were they managing such an impressive pass rate? What kinds of resources did the school have? Was there some kind of outside funding?

To travel to the school required a bit of planning and an overnight stay in a hotel I couldn’t really afford. But I was excited about seeing the school and made arrangements to go.

I was more than a bit chagrinned to learn, once I had already checked into the hotel room I couldn’t really afford, was that the school in question, the school we would be touring, was a white school.

A white school? Well, of course they had a 100% pass rate! Everyone knows that the whites here (much as in the States) have all of the privileges, all of the resources, and all of the benefits. Why waste my time seeing a white school? I thought of cancelling on my host and returning to my site—and in a huff at that!

Ah, racism you ask? Racism of another color—or lack of color? Of course!

But I went. I went to the white, Afrikaner school and I saw a wonderful school full of wonderful people doing wonderful things. The Afrikaner kids and teachers were thrilled to be meeting Americans, and we, as Americans, were treated to learning about another people of South Africa.

My hardened heart melted when a young, Afrikaner girl, bristling with excitement, approached me and gave me the warmest and excited hug I’d gotten in South Africa. She was so excited to be seeing an American and so excited that an American would take the time to come visit her school. She could barely contain herself. In her happiness, a tiny bit of my racist heart melted, just a bit.

And to think, in my contempt prior to investigation, I was almost prevented from coming to this white school in South Africa, this white school of a white tribe of South Africa.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Feeding the hungry in my village: Ke kopa metsi

I’m promised a camera will be available for pick up next week, so new pictures should be coming soon. (Thanks to all of you who have rallied to replace my broken one! I’ve had three offers of cameras from family and friends!)

This is an old photo, one you’ve seen before. It is of an “elegant grasshopper” and sure to be a next thing I’ll be battling in my garden. Yes, he is elegant and he is certainly beautiful: but he’ll be far more destructive to my vegetable plants than the wind knocking around a thorn fence. Also, this is a great shot of the material I use for my thorn fencing. The common name for the plant is “kraal thorn,” as many African farmers use the thorns to fence in their cattle. Can you imagine gathering armfuls of the stuff? Yeowee! I have the battle scars to prove how nasty a material it is to fence with. But at the same time, I’m very grateful to have it: it’s free for the taking and plenty abundant. And the thorn works very well if the fencing is stacked tall enough, thick enough, and staked against the strong African winds.

I heard a knocking at my door yesterday and a young girl I had never seen before was standing on my stoop asking for water: “Ke kopa metsi.”

I invited her in and poured her a glass of water from my Brita pitcher. (In addition to the suggestion of boiling our water, Peace Corps supplies a Brita pitcher to use for water filtration.) With big eyes she surveyed the interior of my home. Visitors to my home—especially children—are always inordinately curious about the nature of my accommodations. She took her time drinking the water and then finally drained the cup. I offered her more to drink, but seemed satisfied, and turned to leave.

Since arriving to my permanent site, such visits to my home are not uncommon. Most come in search of a “cold drink.” In fact, only last week one of the yardmen came to my door asking for a drink. When I offered him tepid water from my Brita pitcher, he balked: he wanted cold, refrigerated water. He was not pleased and seemed skeptical when I assured him that tepid was all I had. I was a white woman from America, after all—of course I would have a refrigerator!!

(I know, I know, I can hear the collective screech from all of you at this moment: No, I still haven’t purchased a refrigerator. I will, I promise. I just can’t seem to get around to it! Eish!)

When I first arrived at my permanent site, another college worker asked me for food. I gave him a portion of my supper that night: beans with rice and some sautéed Swiss chard. South Africans like their meat and I don’t eat a lot of meat. It’s rare that I ever have meat in my home, so I never have it to offer anyone. (I’m not a vegetarian: I’m certainly happy to eat meat when others cook it and offer it to me.) So, this gentleman was not happy about the absence of meat on his plate and I hadn’t rinsed the Swiss chard greens very well, so they were gritty. He didn’t come calling to be fed again.

I’m sure it’s a blessing that my lack of refrigeration and lack of culinary skills has made it through my community’s grapevine: I certainly am in no shape to feed the masses.

I learned early in my Peace Corps service that the people I live with aren’t crazy about peanut butter. However, peanut butter is a cheap, highly stable and nutritious food that I always keep on hand, both for myself and anyone asking to be fed. I figure if someone is hungry enough, they’ll eat peanut butter.

It seems like most of the volunteers here have a group of orphaned boys that we tend to look out for and mine have come to me a year late in my Peace Corps service. I noticed them several weeks ago and wondered why they weren’t in school. They asked me for matches, and I declined. Call me silly, but even in America, I wouldn’t be inclined to hand over incendiary material to under-aged children—under aged children with questionable intent. I also became aware, somewhat disturbingly, that wherever the boys seemed to gather, I would often come across the remains of a killed pigeon. I would come behind them and find the bird’s entrails and feathers. Were they eating the bird? Is that why they needed the matches? Or had they killed the bird to feed the dog? (They have a dog as a playmate and I’m happy to finally report the condition of a happy canine living in South Africa.)

Although I was rightly disturbed at the thought of the boys eating a pigeon, I was also impressed with the skill they possessed: at least they could eat if necessary.

I couldn’t help but worry about the boys and their eating habits.

As it was sure to happen, they came to my house asking to be fed and I was happy to oblige—with peanut butter. I made them peanut butter crackers, worried that I’d have enough and worried I’d be starting an expensive and ongoing trend. However, the boys are fed better than I had feared or they really dislike peanut butter, because they haven’t returned, asking for more.

But I have some peanut butter on hand, should they return. All are welcome to peanut butter, tepid water, and gritty greens!


Sunday, October 17, 2010

This time last year...

This time last year, I had just “gotten off the bus,” as far as Peace Corps service goes. We had finished our 6-7 weeks of Pre-service Training, we were no longer living with our original South African host families, we had visited our permanent sites for a week, had recently been “sworn in” as Peace Corps volunteers, and we were delivered to our permanent sites. At this time last year, I was living in the girls’ dormitory at the college I’m assigned, had just spent all of the September break (almost two full weeks) battling one of the worst illnesses of my life (I very likely had H1N1), and had just gotten the news that a favorite aunt had died.

During all of this time, I was wondering, about my Peace Corps service and life in Africa, “Can I DO this?”

As education volunteers, we’re deposited into the South African school year at fourth term and we’re asked to shadow our South African counterparts, co-teach classes, and in general, learn everything we possibly can about the South African school system. In my opinion, fourth term is the WORST term to do any type of observation because most of the teaching and learning of the school year transpires in terms 1-3. Fourth term seems to be the wrap up term for the school year, as teachers are preparing paperwork and compiling final grades while the students are preparing for their final exams.

I show up all eager beaver, happy American Peace Corps volunteer, wanting to follow everyone around like a puppy and find myself avoided at all costs. When I finally realized that I would not be observing any teaching and learning in either of my schools, I shrugged my shoulders and offered to help out wherever I could. With my offer of help, I found myself buried under piles of papers to grade at the primary school and walking the aisles of exam rooms “invigilating” (bless you) at the college.

Now we’re a year later, I have my own classes to prepare for, my own papers to grade, other community projects to oversee, and no time for “helping out” with paper grading for others or for invigilating. My colleagues are disappointed but understand that I am “busy.” (All South African educators identify with being “busy.”)

This time last year, I was living in the girls’ dormitory of the college and hating every second of it. I never went away to college and usually like to be very far away from neighbors in general: living in the dormitory was more than I could bear. This year, I have my own place, very far removed from the students and am much happier.

I took comfort in the huge windows of my dorm room and how they showcased the South African sky at sunrise and sunset. Because the dormitory would become very busy in the evening, I found myself making an “evening constitutional” stroll each late afternoon, to rest my nerves and enjoy the sunset. Although I no longer need to flee the claustrophobic feeling of the dorm room, I still keep the habit of an evening stroll. My days in Africa are numbered (eleven months to go! ) and I need to see every African sunset I can while still in-country.

A favorite aunt died in October of last year, and when I received the news of her death, I noticed a lovely, lovely tree in bloom on campus. The common name for this tree t is “silver oak,” although the tree reminds me nothing of an oak tree. I love the bright blooms of the tree: they resemble combs and they’re brightly colored with beads of red-black nectar. The tree is blooming now and I walk to it every evening to enjoy the beauty of the blooms and remember my aunt. (The photo posted is of the tree in bloom last year.)

I’m known to lie down at any moment to fully enjoy a tree in bloom or luxuriate in newly-green, spring grass. (My sons have an embarrassing—to them!—story or two to tell of my unrestrained delight!) These past few days, some students and teachers have “caught” me lying on the ground, underneath this tree, staring up into its branches. The beauty of the tree takes my breath away!

It was also in October of last year that the dramatic “faux storms” of South Africa began. Every day, around 3:00 pm, huge, thick, dark thunderclouds rolled in, the wind picked up dramatically, and often there was thunder and lightning. You just knew Mother Africa was going to let go with the storm of all storms! All of this drama unfolded until about 6:00 or 7:00 pm each evening, then the clouds blew off, the wind died down, and the sun popped back out. I’d scratch my head and think, “Mother Africa is a blow hard.” (However, Mother Africa does let loose when she’s good and ready! And she doesn’t mess around when she’s good and ready!)

These dramatic “faux storms” are beginning now, this October, and I’m looking forward to experiencing them from my trailer/mobile home this year instead of being in the dormitory. I’m aching for it to rain: we all are. It hasn’t rained in my area since April/May.

This time last year, I was getting used to the varieties of creatures that shared my dorm room. I had mice, and alien-sized cockroaches, flies bad enough to nickname my bathroom “the exorcist bathroom,” and unfortunately, even a rat. Summer season brought waves of different kinds of insects: beetles, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, preying mantids. I was hording water because the dormitory seemed to lose water and power for days on end. This season, I’m living free of rats and cockroaches: two of my favorite things about my new home! Some waves of seasonal insects are beginning to come, but nothing overwhelming yet. I still hoard water, although I haven’t lost water or power in my trailer/motor home to speak of.

So I’m beginning my second summer season in South Africa, beginning my second and final year. I no longer ask myself if I CAN do this, this living in South Africa, because I KNOW I can. The question has shifted subtly however, from can I do this, to do I want to?



Feeling groovy! Thanks Ruan!

You guys are going to get soooooo sick of me blogging now… I’m armed with a personal computer (thanks Kara!) and an internet connection. Wha ahhh ooooo ahhh! (Evil laugh.)

Photo is new, in that you haven’t seen it before, it is mine, is of a South African flower , and an unidentified one. Sorry, I don’t know what it is, but isn’t it lovely?

One of the favorite things about my fellow Peace Corps volunteers is many of them are very young, talented, and exceptionally bright people. I’m not used to being around such bright lights and I find their company, and everything about them, very refreshing. “The young ones,” as I fondly call them, keep all of us on our toes with games and parties. I usually can’t keep up with them and poop out on them most of time, as I’m an old foagie who goes to bed early… But this invitation was irresistible.

We were to choose a song that best represents our mental process, and the songs would be collected, compiled, and distributed. The exercise involved mystery and suspense: who would choose which song to best represent themselves. And would we be able to match the song to the fellow Peace Corps volunteer?

Now, think about it: a song that best represents your thought process. What would you choose?

I thought about it for quite some time. (It doesn’t take much, for me, to inspire a huge amount o of time to devote to a completely worthless cause, say, for example, if you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life, which three albums would you choose?)

When I thought about my mental process, I soon realized, that, well, my mental process is an unlovely creature. When I realized how unlovely it is, I remarked to our list compiler that he was asking for a very intimate detail: we would be, if we were honest, revealing a very vulnerable detail about ourselves.

Such a selection is fraught with complications. Should you pick a song by its lyrics to represent your mental process? The musical composition? A combination of the two? Is your mental process the same, say, when you’re hammering out your master’s thesis? When you’re crunching numbers for a blasted VAST grant? When you’re sitting serenely in the morning, watching the African sunrise, having your second cup of tea? When you’re zoned out in front of Facebook, idling the day away?

Ok, ok, in GENERAL, how about a song that reflects your mental process?

At first I thought, “How about Horowitz playing Mozart?” And I quickly thought, “RIGHT. You WISH your mental machinations were that beautiful!

I finally narrowed my selection down to three songs. I wanted something that indicated lots of false starts, pauses, some frenetic moments, focus, and intensity. I wanted a song that illustrated dense texture with lots going on in it all the time. I told you: unlovely! I thought about Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” the live version, as it certainly has all of those. (Hear the crowd roar, John pounding out a chord or two, then the drive of the beat…) But “Bennie and the Jets is something of a lovely song. Then I thought of Lyle Lovett’s, “Here I Am” because this one too, had the stops, starts, pauses, and intensity. I love how he juxtaposes spoken word with a horn section: talk of intensity! But Lyle Lovett is precise and smooth: everything about his music is precise and smooth. Precise and smooth knocks it out of Karen’s mental process’s ball park!

So, I finally decided upon the Talking Head’s song, “Slippery People” from the film and soundtrack Stop Making Sense. This song, has it all: the driving beat, the frenetic textures, the stops, the starts, the pauses, the pulsing. David Byrne, a maniac madman, screeching and sputtering, rhythms, textures, starts, stops, slams-- It’s a fantastic song, but unlovely, and PERFECTLY reflects, I believe, my mental process. LOVE IT, it’s me, it best represents my thinking activity, most of the time! (Frightening, isn’t it? I TOLD you it was an intimate revelation!)

It was fun to have the final collection of songs, and more fun still to see who chose which song to reflect their thinking. Some of us picked lovely, lovely songs: John Lennon’s “Imagine”’ Joni Mitchell’s “Cary”; Don McLean’s “Vincent.” I must say I envy those beautiful mental processes; my thinking is just not that attractive. There were some surprises and some choices leaving me scratching my head.

But mostly, it was a fun, FUN parlor game to complete and we all have a lovely, keepsake CD now to remind us of our wonderful, Peace Corps selves!

Thanks Ruan!



PS. I know you guys are dying to know the list, so here’s the list, representative of our group:

1. Bela Fleck - New South Africa: Intro

2. Simon & Garfunkel - 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)

3. Kenny Rogers - The Gambler

4. Joni Mitchell - Carey

5. Robert Earl Keen - It's the Little Things

6. Ludacris - Rollout (My Business)

7. John Lennon - Imagine

8. Don McLean - Vincent

9. The Submarines - You Me and the Bourgeoisie

10. Wilco - On and On and On

11. Eddie Izzard - Being European

12. The Beatles - A Day In the Life

13. Dan Deacon - Jimmy Joe Roche

14. Des'ree - You Gotta Be

15. Dixie Chicks - Easy Silence

16. Allman Brothers Band - In Memory of Elizabeth Reed

17. In My Life - Judy Collins

18. Talking Heads - Life During Wartime

19. Bette Midler - The Rose

20. Coldplay - Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love

21. Queen - Bicycle Race

22. Ratatat - Loud Pipes

23. Riverdance - Countess Cathleen

24. Rosette - Brazasia

25. CocoRose - Butterscotch

26. Boards of Canada - Dayvan Cowboy

27. Monty Python - Logic vs. Sex

28. Talking Heads - Slippery People: Karen K.

29. Xavier Rudd - Messages

30. Ennio Morricone - L'Arena (The Mercenary)

31. Lamb of God - Walk With Me (remix)

32. The Billy Burke Estate - Everybody's Gonna Die

33. E.L.O. - Mr. Blue Sky

34. Paul Simon - That's Where I Belong: Outro

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Homecoming and “You are so scarce!”

I’m still camera-less, so bear with photo repeats and things I’ve found on-line. This is a photo of a home near me, and I’ve posted it before, but this photo is over a year old. I love the sense of hope demonstrated in the landscaping: a heart-shaped lawn!

A large part of our pre-service training focused upon how important it is to great people living in rural South Africa. We were drilled, again and again, on proper greetings in Setswana. We were told, as far as speaking the language goes, nothing would ensure our integration into our communities as much as greeting our neighbors in Setswana: Dumelang! Le kae? Re teng! Ke a leboga! Our trainers were correct: to meet and greet in the Setswana language greatly pleases most of the people I live with.

Imagine my surprise, and frustration, then, to learn that I would be most commonly greeted with the phrase, “You are so scarce.”

I don’t like this phrase. It’s accusatory and implies I’m shirking my responsibilities. Also, the tone of delivery is usually as thus, with hands on hips or other displeased body gestures: WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?? YOU ARE SO SCARCE!!

Depending on what time of day it is and how spiritually fit I feel, I usually respond as follows: “Hi there! It’s so good to see you! How have you been? I’ve missed seeing you!” If I’m well-rested and spiritually centered, I can reply with this phrase with love and good intention. Often, I’ll go on to add, “You know, you’d NEVER say, ‘you are so scarce’ to someone in my country-- It would be rude.”

If I’m tired, have been repeatedly harassed in one form or another, or short tempered, I use the same phrase, but use a mean-spirited and sarcastic tone. (I know, this isn’t in good form, and I’m duly ashamed of myself.)

I can’t help but feel defensive with this form of greeting because I LIVE HERE. I AM WITH THESE PEOPLE ALL THE TIME. How can I be scarce?

I had something of a heart-to-heart with a fellow teacher, and asked her about it. When I explained my dislike of the “greeting,” she assured me that it wasn’t meant in ill-will. She explained that my presence was important to people and that people miss seeing me and will be sure to point out that they miss seeing me. When I asked her how I should respond, she suggested I reply, “Yes, I am scarce. Please don’t make me feel badly about it.

My situation is complicated by the fact that I work for two different schools, and each school would like nothing better than to have me all to themselves all of the time. Since I divide my time between the schools, neither is ever happy with my availability, hence the common, “YOU ARE SO SCARCE” coming at me from both sides.

Although I try, try, try to feel more comfortable with this form of greeting, and not take it personally, I wince whenever someone says it.

Before leaving for my few weeks in Pretoria, I was shopping at my local market when someone “greeted” me: YOU ARE SO SCARCE! Since I was not at either of my schools and did not recognize this person, I was a bit rattled and nearly came unglued. Who in the world was saying this offensive phrase to me now??

As it turned out, the person in question was a man from a church I had visited early in my Peace Corps service, but one that I haven’t attended regularly. I remember thinking, “Good grief. I can do nothing right in this village.”

I’m the first one to admit that I really needed a break from my schools, my work, and my life in the village, so I was very keen to leave my site for a few weeks for our Mid-Service Training. Although the training was only a week long, medical and dental appointments kept me in Pretoria for almost another full week. I’m more than a bit embarrassed to admit how much I enjoyed my time in the first world: Pretoria was absolutely beautiful with the Jacarandas in bloom; I ate out in restaurants at least once a day; I found myself visiting this really nice shopping mall on several occasions (I abhor and avoid shopping malls in the States at all costs—they give me panic attacks!); and, well, blast it, it was really nice BEING AROUND A BUNCH OF AMERICANS for a change! I came away from my time in Pretoria feeling rested, relaxed and recharged. But more importantly, I returned to my village and my site IN A HAPPY FRAME OF MIND. I felt excited about the recent training and my time with a counterpart and felt happy about implementing new projects.

I was even ready to embrace my previously-despised -form -of -greeting ,“You are so scarce,” on my return to the village. Guess what? I haven’t gotten it, not once.

I think there has been a softening in my relationships here, either in me (probably) or in the people I live with. Have they missed me in my two-week absence? Have I missed them?

On my return to my village, there was a man in the taxi rank that was gentle with me: he helped me board a taxi with my many, heavy bags. Although I initially rebuffed him with a rude turning my back on him, he was there to attend me a second time, and again, with a very gentle manner. (In South Africa, in the taxi ranks especially, it is hustle and bustle with lots of grabbing and shoving. The men in the taxi rank often engage me in an intimidating banter, to see if I can “hold my own” with them.) This man’s kindness and use of gentleness was so unexpected that I felt stunned.

When I saw my fellow college educators when I returned to the staff meetings, there was none of the offensive, “You are so scarce.” There was genuine delight—on all of our behalves—at seeing each other. All were kindly curious as of my whereabouts and of my well-being and more than one remarked at how much “fresher” I appeared.

In church on Sunday, was it my imagination, or were more of the hymns in English? (Most of the hymns are sung in Setswana, much to my delight; I feel this helps me learn the language more than any other means.) Was the congregation trying to better accommodate me because I’ve been away?

So, I have yet to encounter the offensive, “YOU ARE SO SCARCE.” Perhaps I won’t. But if I do, perhaps I’ll be able to say, “Yes, I’ve been scarce. Please don’t make me feel badly about it.”


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Let's make a garden

So, what DID we do at Mid-Service Training?

WELL, we did several things, but what I was most excited about was a "permagarden training."  What is a permagarden?  Permagarden is another word for "permaculture," which simply means making a garden that you will use permanently.  In other words, permagardening in rural South Africa is all about developing food security for people who live in poverty.

Since my camera had died, all photos are supplied by the wonderful Cassandra and Kevin M of our group: thanks Cassandra and Kevin for sharing photos!  And these are of us gardening.

We had our training at an uber-plush hotel and I wondered for days, "where will we build a garden?"  Apparently, the hotel graciously allowed our workshop presenter to install several gardens for the workshops/training (for different groups.)  We worked in the back lot and made a garden!

The love of gardening has come to me late in life, but all the women in my family have gardened, so I'm sure I get it in my genes.  Also, in one of the wars of my lifetime, I remember stocking water and canned goods in my basement and thinking, "You know, it might not be a bad idea to learn how to grow food."

I started with a couple of tomato plants years ago and from that first planting, my life-long passion of gardening began.  Gardening, like anything else in life, so it seems, is "learning what not to do next time."  I love the challenge and the creativity of it, but I mostly love watching things grow from a tiny, tiny seed to a robust, food-producing plant.

Sadly, I can't get excited about teaching English: not here in South Africa and not in the USA.  I can, however, get excited about teaching others to become self-supporting through food production.  I was super-psyched about this workshop!!

The big bummer for me, however, was that a community member of my village was supposed to come to the workshop with me, and I was hoping we could learn the techniques together and bring information back to our village as a team.  Sadly, he was unable to come.

In three days, we learned about establishing permaculture gardens throughout the world and overviewed permaculture theory.  However, the workshop was "hands on" and so, much to my delight, we made a garden!

We made a compost pile that was impressively heated enough to 160 degrees by the second day, double-dug a vegetable bed, dug a seedling bed, and planted tomatoes, beans, corn, peppers, and herbs.  I had a great time, learned a lot, and laid my hands on a neem tree.  (I knew neem trees were living in Africa, but had not yet seen them or learned to identify them.)

The permagarden training was my favorite training opportunity to date and I was greatly inspired.

Other days of training were devoted to reviewing and reflecting on our Peace Corps service to-date (since we're at the half-way mark) and we also spent a couple of days practicing Life Skills lessons with our counterparts.  Happily, my counterpart from my village, who is also a teacher at my primary school, was able to come to our Life Skills training and it felt good and productive to be working with her.  We agreed upon a couple of projects to bring back to the primary school and will be working to implement these in the coming weeks.

Accommodations for the week of training were at a super-nice hotel, and I must say, I was grateful for the respite from the harsher life I experience living in the village.  Sometimes I wonder if Peace Corps strategically plans these meetings knowing when we need a break: I was certainly overdue!

I'm back to site now for a couple of days, busying myself with laundry and wiping the dust that the Kalahari has showered all over my trailer.  It felt good to sleep in my own bed (even if it WAS under a mosquito net!) and I never thought I would say it, it felt good to be cooking for myself again.  Soya Mince never tasted so good!

I returned home to a shower of goodies from home: you guys have been busy sending me things while I was in Pretoria!  Emily C, my nearest volunteer, and a little-bitty slip of a young woman, carried pounds and pounds of goodies from the post office to my home, only to find herself locked out of my trailer and unable to get in.  A neighbor agreed to hold all of the mail until my return, but I will need to keep Emily in Cokes and chocolate for our remaining year for being such a soldier for me!  Thanks Emily!


Monday, October 4, 2010

The Pretoria Zoo

When Peace Corps volunteers come to South Africa, we're dispersed all over and most of us live and work very far from Pretoria.  Since the Peace Corps office is in Pretoria, we sometimes come to the city for "business." Mid-Service Training (Missing the States and Toilets!) is also the time for medical and dental checkups. There are thirty-something of us and we all converge upon Pretoria for various medical and dental appointments. There is a bit of time to see the sights, and many of us choose to shop, eat, and sight-see.

I group of us went to see the Pretoria Zoo.

I had a wonderful time at the Pretoria Zoo, but on this day, sadly, my camera died.  These are the last South African shots you'll see from me for awhile.  (Fortuitously for me, some Peace Corps friends recently purchased a new camera and are passing along their former one to me.  So, I will have another camera somewhat soon, but feel as though I've lost a body part, for now.  I miss having a camera; I miss having the opportunity to show you what I'm seeing. Being able to share my life here in South Africa is my favorite part of my Peace Corps experience.)

I'm not really a zoo person.  Although I love seeing the animals up close, I find zoos inherently sad. While some animals seem well-suited for a caged and protected existence (snakes and fish, for instance), large animals--and especially predators--seem to suffer in the loss of their natural habitat.

I was thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to see a secretary bird.  (My camera had faded at this point).  I've read a great deal about this bird and thought I would see it in the wild, but never have.  He's amazing.  He's about 4 feet tall and walks around like he's on broken stilts. 

We also approached the Cape Buffalo pen when, much to our surprise, we realized that one of the buffalo cows had just given birth.  We saw a brand-new baby calve!  It was amazing.  The whole herd rallied around the new calf and was licking it and prodding it, trying to make it stand.

I was excited by the reptile exhibit, because I have a keen interest in South African snakes.  South Africa has some of the most poisonous snakes in the world, and I like to have some idea of what to look for, especially when I'm out in the veld hiking or collecting manure. I have seen two of South Africa's poisonous snakes in the wild and am always on the look for the puff adder.  The puff adder is a very poisonous and very common South African snake.  I've never seen a puff adder and have wanted to; I was able to see one in the reptile exhibit so I have a better idea of what he looks like should I find him in the wild.  I also got to see a green mamba and boomslang: two other South African snakes I'm curious about.  I really wanted to see a black mamba, but there wasn't one available for viewing.

One of my favorite exhibits of the zoo happened to be this huge, old fig tree from Australia.  It was massive and full of gnarly roots and lots of limbs and leaves--and figs, of course.  It made me very happy to see many, many people sitting among its roots, the children playing in it, and others relaxing in its shade.

It was also nice to be roaming around the zoo in the springtime, as the flowering plants and trees were in bloom.

And in an ironic moment for me, I realized the Pretoria Zoo had an exhibit of Kodiak bears.  I did not see Kodiak bears when I volunteered in Alaska, as the bears live only on the island of Kodiak, and I was living in a park north of Anchorage.  They are supposedly the biggest and baddest of the brown bears of Alaska, and it felt otherworldly (and sad) to see these great beasts caged and living in a very alien (to them) part of the world.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Mid-Service Training: Missing the States and Toilets

This is for you, Rachelle!

We're a more than a year into our service and into our second and last year of Peace Corps service, so, we've spent a week at a lovely, lovely hotel having our Mid-Service Training (MST).  We have one more formal training left, our Close-of-Service Training (COS) which will happen in June of 2011.

I often think of Peace Corps trainings as Peace Corps "throwing us a bone."  Most of our regular Peace Corps lives are days of dirt, dust, repetitive, plain meals, living with language issues, the stress of teaching, the stress of attempting to integrate, etc.   It can be really stressful, and I for one, don't I notice how stressful the life of a Peace Corps volunteer can be.   At trainings, we're treated to buffet meals, clean sheets, freedom from mosquito nets, opportunities for pool-side relaxation--just all of the grand things that come with staying in a nice hotel with a bunch of Americans you're usually very happy to see..

I, for one, appreciate these wonderful reprieves and felt more than ready to leave my village to come to this training--my spirit needed a recharge!

The photos are of my Peace Corps family, what is left of it.  Actually, we've lost one of us since this photo was taken a week ago.  Every time we come to a Peace Corps training, we're reminded of our group "family members" that have returned to the States.  To lose one of us, for whatever reason, is always upsetting for the group.  Many volunteers return to their lives in the United States for very happy reasons, for example, job opportunities.  However, sometimes some of us return to the United States for unhappy reasons.  The loss of the latest of our family had quite a bit of controversy surrounding it, and because this volunteer is returning home for an unhappy reason, the group has been more upset than usual. 

When I first joined Peace Corps, I was asked what I thought about members of the group.  I hadn't realized it at the time, but when you join Peace Corps, the other volunteers become family, whether you like it or not and "for better and for worse."

I personally hadn't relied on my fellow volunteers until very recently, when I lost a primary relationship (my romantic relationship) and a significant source of emotional support from the United States.  When I lost my primary relationship, all of the challenges that I was facing in South Africa seemed to compound a bazillion times. EVERYTHING felt harder here: the teaching, my relationships with host-country nationals, everyday life events in South Africa, just everything here felt so much harder without that source of support I so heavily relied upon. When I found myself feeling discouraged, frustrated, and, well, hopeless at the half-way mark of my service, (in other words, these last few weeks), I knew I was in trouble.

But I found help and a wonderful resource for emotional support.  I turned to my Peace Corps "family," and they have been WONDERFUL.  People in the group have been so supportive of me: one young woman asked, "Do you want us to support you to stay (in South Africa) or do you want us to support you in going home?"  I replied, "Please support me to stay in South Africa; I'd really like to finish my service." And she replied, "Alright, we need to do A, B, and C," and these words and her willingness to support me endured her to me forever.  I've also made plans with  volunteers to do collaborative projects together, made plans on exchanging resources, and made plans for future visits.

Of course, we have some negative Nellie's in the group that will scream at me to "JUST GO HOME."  I avoid these people at all costs.   But for the most part, the group has supported me beyond my wildest dreams.  Last week while in Pretoria for medical and dental check ups, Peace Corps family members took me shopping, out to dinner, to the Pretoria Zoo, and to a movie!  I had the best time, but more importantly, I feel that I've made significant connections with other volunteers, significant connections that I can turn to and rely on when I face the difficulties of the approaching year--of my final year.

In short, I've learned, very recently, to UTILIZE my Peace Corps family as a resource, and they've surpassed any expectation I may have had.  They have rallied for me, they have surrounded me, they have uplifted me, they have LOVED me, and it has been wonderful.  I feel ever-so-much-more supported, happier, and EXCITED about remaining in South Africa and finishing my service.  (This last point is nothing short of a miracle.)

I feel so much better, having come to this Mid-Service Training, having come to my "family" and asked them for support.  Yes, I'm still missing the States and toilets, but with the love and support of my Peace Corps family, this last year will fly!


PS.  I will blog more about our actual training and the activities that have occupied this week very soon.  For now, I'm off to my last buffet dinner for awhile!