Sunday, January 23, 2011

Finding happy work in Africa

My fan base—my mom—gently inquired “Have you stopped blogging?” No, I haven’t stopped blogging, but I’ve been crazy-busy with school. South Africa’s school calendar year runs from January-December with generous school breaks throughout the school year. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I guess you can say we’re “year-round schools.” I’ve had a bit of time this weekend to pause and catch my breath and to catch up with you!

And truth to tell, blogging was the primary source of happiness for me during my Peace Corps service to-date, but I've found pleny of happiness in other things now, and don't feel so compelled to blog so much. And when coming back to Cape Town, I realized I was yammering on about things that aren't really important...  But yes, I'm back and happy to be blogging.

The very strong wind storm knocked down several trees (and buildings!) at our campus and there is lots of clean up. One good thing that has come from the storm is that it has made firewood available to the poorer of our community members. Many people have visited the campus to retrieve wood and I wanted to show you one version of a donkey cart: as you can see in the photo, the rear-end of a truck bed serves as the trailer and the donkeys are hitched for pulling. The young boys that drive the donkeys can often be quite cruel.

Now to me and Africa--Yes, yes, I’m still deliciously happy in Africa! I thought my sudden and profound happiness might be temporary, but no, it’s still here! I think the shift in my happiness has come with finding happy work.

Peace Corps has only been coming to South Africa for eleven or twelve years now, since the fall of apartheid. While originally the South African government asked Peace Corps volunteers not to teach in the schools, as our teaching would displace resident South Africans from well-paying jobs, the government has since changed its mind in the wake of South Africa’s HIV/AIDS crisis.

My group, the one that came to Africa in 2009, was the first group allowed to teach in South African schools because of a critical teacher shortage (as a generation of South African teachers has perished in the HIV/AIDS crisis).

What did South African Peace Corps volunteers do when they weren’t allowed to teach in the schools? They assisted schools with various kinds of support and school projects: teacher training, school workshops, tutoring, computer training, school events (like World AIDS Day), etc. In coming to South Africa, while I was happy to teach, I really wanted to help support the schools with school/community projects.

For some reason I do not understand, education volunteers are introduced to their schools at the school year’s end, when everyone is the busiest trying to finish the school year: lessons need to be finished, reports need to be filed, and grades need to be turned in. The South African teachers and students are swamped at the end of the year, and well, to have a Peace Corps volunteer tagging along trying to figure out how best to help the schools is something of a difficult situation. (Or at least it was for me.) Although I had two months to get a feel for both of my schools (I teach for a technical college and a primary school), by the end of the school year and my introductory period, I felt clueless as to go a about school/community projects. I thought, What the heck, I’ll teach for both schools. In this way I’ll be in familiar terrain and I can scope out how to later coordinate school/community projects.

So that’s what I did my first year in Africa: I taught a business level English class for the college and I taught two sections of Grade Six English for the primary school

I learned very quickly that I was somewhat swamped with my teaching load, although my Peace Corps supervisor had warned me. Not only did I need to prepare to administer curriculum for two different grade levels, I was “thrown into the deep end” of swimming through how the South African school system works. One thing I was quite surprised by was the amount of paperwork thrown at South African educators: all of the administrative work seems quite beyond the pale to me. The policies and their resulting requirements are tricky too: lots of reading and interpretation. And I had a supreme advantage over my colleagues, as the policy documents are written in English. More than once I thought to myself, “Gosh, this is difficult to understand all on its own. I can’t imagine trying to understand it if English weren’t my first language.” It was like reading “lawyer-ese.” The other thing, as any good teacher can tell you, teaching is front-end loaded work; What I mean by this is, when you teach a brand new class for the first time, you really don’t know what works and what doesn’t, and your first year with a new class you see a lot of what doesn’t work, and then tweak things to the coursework runs better for future classes. It generally takes me a good year and a half to work out my course “bugs” and my classes aren’t really into top form until the second or even third year. And, well, Peace Corps volunteers don’t have that much time.

So, I found myself drowning in my teaching load, averaging 9.5 hour workdays, and working all weekends. Also, I was running back and forth between the schools, sometimes several times a day. But my workload with teaching wasn’t really the cause of my stress and unhappiness: as weird as it sounds, I felt isolated in my teaching.

What? How can one feel isolated teaching? You deal with people all day every day. Yes, this is true: I came to love my classes very much, and I felt very connected with my own students, but I felt very isolated from all of the other students, from the other educators and from the people in my community. I came and went, was always in a hurry, and felt very much “my own island.” As most of you know, I was pretty miserable for a long time.

Peace Corps, in its 50 years of service (2011 is Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary!), has learned that it takes quite a long time for (some) volunteers to feel comfortable in their communities and find happy work. Although the length of service asked of a Peace Corps volunteer is 27 months, and feels quite formidable going in, Peace Corps has learned that although 27 months seems a very long time, in reality, for the volunteer to be truly effective, 27 months isn’t a long enough period. Many, many former volunteers will say, “I had a very difficult first year, and my second was so much better and flew by in a blur.” They say this, because many of them didn’t find happy work until their second year. In fact, Peace Corps has learned this so well, that it is trying to make 3rd and 4th year extensions more desirable to established, in-country volunteers.

Perhaps in my eighteen months, I took a bit longer than the average volunteer to reach that happy point in my Peace Corps service. I’m just grateful that I stuck in there and kept trying. I was somewhat stubborn about it too—I felt I was being robbed of a happy Peace Corps experience and didn’t want to return home with an unhappy one!!

But all has changed for me, I’m happy to say. At the very end of last year’s school year I was relieved of my teaching duties so that I might better concentrate on school/community projects. (I was lucky and grateful that my supervisors and colleagues were as happy about the shift to project work as I.) The end of my last year’s school year was beyond satisfactory to me: in my primary school we participated in a World Wise Schools project (a letter exchange with a USAmerican school) and we hosted a World AIDS Day event. Everyone was happier: my principal was happier, my fellow educators were happier, the kids were happier (and I had much, much more exposure to many, many more of the school children), and the community members were much happier. (The community members in this case were the parents of the school children.) But most importantly, I was much happier.

So I was happy and joyous at the end of the school year last year, went to Cape Town, was happy and joyous there, and quite frankly, worried that on my return to my village, the happiness would have disappeared.

Not true, Oh I am so happy to report, not true. I’m crazy busy trying to pull together a Valentine’s Day Event for the college in February, where we hope to make a strong push for HIV/AIDS awareness. (Get it? Day of Love? Love one another safely?) We reported for school on the 10th of January, and feeling a time pinch (Valentine’s Day IS on February 14th!!), so I’ve been in planning meetings with my colleagues, begging for money from the college’s corporate center, writing letters begging for money and donations from local businesses and organizations. In short, sending a million faxes and following up with a million phone calls! And then too, following up with personal visits. But I’m having SO MUCH FUN and MEETING SO MANY PEOPLE than I had been. I finally feel that I’m doing the Peace Corps work I dreamed of doing: working with community members to build relationships and bringing community members together to better our lives. I feel ridiculously happy and so very grateful. I love my community, I love my life, and yes, finally, I LOVE MY PEACE CORPS EXPERIENCE! I’m a very lucky girl!

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