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Peace Corps Visit – 13 Feb 2009

13 February 2009

Today was a good day. We had Peace Corps visitors in Jericho. Shawna(Sorry if I spelled it wrong), who works at the Southern Africa Desk in Washington DC came to visit and see how PC South Africa is using PEPFAR money. IN Jericho, there are three PEPFAR funded projects by Peace Corps Volunteers: Will’s Voice of the Youth newsletter, Robi’s Atlegang Girls Club, and Erin’s Young Mothers’ program. Due to time constraints, Shawna was only able to visit with Will and Robi. It was great.

Shawna arrived with Margaret Shebe, PC Small Grants Cordinator, and Jeff, a PC Driver. They arrived about 45 minutes later than expected due to a slightly late departure and a wrong turn in our closest major town, Brits. Shawna was quickly welcomed by everyone, and she and I got to sit down and talk about the funding proposal process, the progress on the newsletter, give and get feedback, and simply talk about life as a Peace Corps volunteer. It was like talking with a good friend, even though I had just met her. Then we had a meeting with 6 of the youth volunteers that are working on the Voice of the Youth, along with Margaret and the manager of the Youth Centre. It was incredible. Fenji, our host sister, was a superstar. She talked about the article that she was working on, which was the Young Mothers’ program and her involvement with the Municipality Arts & Culture committee, of which she is the chairperson. The other volunteers talked about their articles and how they want to use the Newsletter as a step up in the world, as a place to gain skills, and as a way to get answers to questions. The group was spectacular and Shawna was blown away. She told me how great the meeting was and how excited she was about getting an advanced copy of the newsletter.

After talking with me and the Voice staff for an hour and a half, they moved on to Mmatope Primary School and the Atlegang Girls Club. I walked over with them, and did the first introductions, then left to talk with some of the news staff about a problem with an article. I was able to meet with them for about 20 minutes, trying to find a resolution to a logistical problem of getting an interview with someone in the Department of Health. Figured it out and then talked more with them about where the newsletter was going in the next few weeks. It was great.

When they left, I hustled over to Mafale Primary School to pick up some forms that they needed to fill out and send in for books and for Oprah School applications. Unfortunately, the school was closed today because of an athletics meet in Brits. (If this confuses you, don’t worry. It confuses me as well). Since the school was closed, I went to Mmatope to check in on Robi’s meeting. Instead of imposing myself into the conversation, I stayed outside talking with the driver Jeff. He is from Soshanguve, a township between Jericho and Pretoria. His father is from Lesotho, “so I have a Sesotho name, but I know Setswana from Soshanguve,” says Jeff. We talked about the drive from Pretoria to Jericho, the drive from Jericho to Hartebeespoort Dam after the meeting, about his 9-year-old twins, and about the need for speed humps in the village between the primary schools. It was nice to sit and talk about nothing and everything.

Robi’s meeting ended and I got to say goodbye to Shawna, wishing her a safe trip home. Robi and I reminisced about the day over a Sepatlo (French Fry sandwich) at a corner shop. Robi told me how well the meeting had gone and how she connected well with Shawna as well. Her 7 leaders had done really well after a timid start. All in all, it was a great day.

When I was sitting with Jeff, the school day ended and the students we excused. About 5 minutes later, the athlete for Mmatope returned to school in a rowdy Koombi. Sitting there, laughing and smiling at the extreme joy that all the kids were expressing (it’s Friday, after all), I realized that my Peace Corps experience is about extremes in my emotions. I have never felt so much frustration in a job before, but I have never smiled as big or as widely as I have with the children of South Africa. It reminds me that the kids have it all figured out, and we, the adults, just mess it up by thinking too much.


November Update

November was an interesting month. It started off with a bag, Obama’s election and lots of celebrations in the USA and the RSA(Republic of South Africa). From the last post, you know that we stayed up all night and had a nice party. For most of November, I did nothing. November is the month in the school year when the students take an end of the year examination on all the material that they have learned. It usually constitutes 75% or more of their final grade, though not officially. With no teaching going on and since I am supposed to be working with the teachers on workshops and other teaching activities, I don’t have much opportunity. November is the month that I am most concerned with the South African education system. No teaching or learning seems to go on. This happens from Grade 12 students, called the Matrics, down to Grade 1 students. I am not a Primary School teacher, but it shocks me that they are having examinations at all, much less year-long summative examinations.

I spent my free time going to the Youth Centre, planning the Longtom Fundraiser, and working in the garden. For Thanksgiving, we had a visitor in Joey Cardella, a Peace Corps volunteer who arrived with us in July. He had been working in Mpumalanga and in Limpopo. Both projects have been unsuccessful for him for last of initiative and medical problems by his boss. While his work had been frustrating, he came in to town with a positive and upbeat attitude. It was great to see him. Joey taught me some cool stuff with Picasa on editing pictures. (I will try to post them on my PicasaWeb Albums soon.) For Thanksgiving dinner, we had a traditional meal of Enchilladas and Nachos Grandes. Four PCVs in Jericho, seeing the village and generally shooting the breeze. It was a lot of fun.

At the end of his visit, a family member, Poppy, had his wedding to longtime girlfriend, Karabo. It was very neat to see the culture and the differences between Tswana culture and American culture. For instance, the wedding was in Rustenburg, about 2 hours by car away from Jericho. Poppy’s mother and father (our host parents, Mama and Ntate) and the family did not attend the wedding. The wedding ceremony was a traditional affair, with only a small number of people present (as far as we can tell, only Poppy and his children. Maybe an uncle.). After the ceremony early Saturday morning, they drove in a caravan from Rustenburg to Jericho. Jericho was a grand party where everyone was invited to celebrate the wedding. Anyone from the village was allowed in to partake in the food and drink. I explained to Mama that it is the opposite in the US. Almost anyone can go to the wedding ceremony, but only selected individuals are invited to the reception.

Last December, Robi and I started a newsletter that was -written and created by the out-of-school youth in Jericho village. We had a great group that came up with wonderful articles and we made a top-notch newsletter, through the blood, sweat, and tears of Robi’s editing prowess. Unfortunately, in January, when the newsletter was ready to go to print, there was no money for ink to print it. And the newsletter died. No one pushed it, including us. So it had a premature death. While at the Youth Centre in November, I was asked to start up the Voice of the Youth newsletter again. So, I spent a frantic one-week period putting together a 12 page proposal for funds from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Volunteer Activity Support and Training (VAST) programme. I got the proposal done during the week prior to Poppy’s wedding, during Joey’s visit, and submitted it on time just before the December 1 deadline. (Since then, the funding was approved and it began in earnest in February, but more on that later.)

So November was quiet in the middle, bookended by a very exciting time.

A November 4th to Remember

Tuesday Night at the Kgoathe house. Seems normal, but this is no normal night. Rapula, Boitumelo, and Mmabatho are cooking energetically and thinking about the future. “I wonder what will happen?” “I’m a little nervous. I hope it’s not like last time…or the time before that.”

Earlier that day Rapula and Mmabatho travelled to Brits for some grubbin’ supplies. On the taxi ride home Rapula and Mmabatho were sitting in the front seat, sometimes called the ejector seat because of the proximity to the front windshield. The taxi is full of chatter in many different languages from Setswana to Sepedi to Shangaan. The radio talks about the Zuma’s corruption case going back to the High Court of Appeals. The subject switches to the US Elections. The driver leans over to the radio and turns it up and the taxi falls silent. The reporter describes the situation in Washington DC…voters had started lining up at 6 am, EST, and the line was more than 700 meters long. A slight drizzle was falling, but the voters promised to stay as long as it takes to cast their votes.

It is now 9 pm, South Africa time. None of the polls have closed and there are no early signs of anything. All of the news channels have vowed not to make any early predictions due to the problems in the last two elections. We are cooking a traditional American meal to feel a little more connected to our home. It’s Taco Night!!!! To start, we are cooking tacos with sour cream, diced onions and tomatoes, actual taco shells, homemade salsa, and homemade guacamole. Yummy.

10pm…the power goes out. This is not funny. The power has been going out lately for no apparent reason. Luckily, Mmabatho brought the Call Centre number for Eskom. We bother them. After we tell them we are Americans trying to follow the elections, they put a rush on it. Power’s back in 45 minutes. Way to go Eskom!!

After food and talking, it’s still only midnight…one more hour until the first closing and six hours until we have a more definitive idea…what to do. So, we decided to watch a movie…Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Seen it before, but nice to have something pass the time.

3am…finally finished the movie…now it is time to find out what is going on in the elections. The first returns are coming in and McCain has only won Kentucky. Three states to Obama. Exciting. The next three hours are more of the same. Checking in with CNN, New York Times, CBS News online. At 4am, Rapula calls his mother to get updates from home. Dad is asleep and will wait for tomorrow morning’s news.

6am..we are watching the news on SABC 3 on which the reporter is standing between two life-sized cardboard cutouts of Obama and McCain. We laugh and hope that she will interview the cutouts. The news on all channels are cutting back to US Elections for 30 seconds, only saying that Obama is winning.

6:30-ish am…news comes in that Obama has been declared the next president. A few minutes later, news that McCain concedes. Around 6:40am, the SABC 3 cuts to McCain’s concession speech. I thought it was very nice and we were able to see about 15 minutes of it. So we wait for Obama’s acceptance speech. The reporter comes on with the picture of Obama giving his acceptance speech in the background, and the reporter talks over it for five minutes. Mmabatho is almost through the TV screen, trying to strangle the dufus. Then the news broadcast plays two minutes of Obama’s speech, then they cut to South African sports. WHAT!!! Are you KIDDING ME!?!? Is Sarah Palin running the network?

We shut off the TV and sit back. A little frustrated, but the overwhelming joy and pride that we have in our country springs to the surface. We open the doors and tell our family (yes, they are usually up at 5:30 every morning with the sun) the happy news. Mmabatho collects her things and heads home for a needed nap. Rapula and Boitumelo barely make it to the mattress before unconsciousness set in.

Things you find when surfing the web

Since it has been a rainy day today and one of the few that I have not had six things planned to do, I have been posting blogs and surfing the web, trying to catch up with my US existence. One of the ways that I do this is by visiting one of my favorite places in the world for some memories. That place is Sandy Spring Friends School. I went there today and looked at some pictures from their photo gallery. I also visited the baseball website that I worked very hard to redesign when I was there. I haven’t been there is a long time and shame on me. To my surprise, there was a message about last year’s alumni baseball game that I loved so much. I think that Coach Ben was being very nice and called it the 6th Annual Will Marbury “Beestball Classic”. Thanks to him and the rest of the baseball team for making me very proud. I miss you guys a ton.

Check out Sandy Spring Friends School to find out more. Go to the SSFS Baseball Site to check out the Beests!

October Update

Posting 3 of 3: If you have not yet, please read Rainy Day Updates and September Update (below)

As I said in the previous posting, the month started with our Mid-Service Training just outside of Pretoria. MST was great to see our fellow volunteers and hear what everyone is doing. We got together to get ideas for the final year of our service and were able to let off some steam and enjoy each others company, which included a Trivia Night contest masterfully researched and prepared by Mike Scarpa, a fellow volunteer. It was lots of fun, but it meant that it was time to go back to work.

After MST, Robi and I stayed in Pretoria for two days to celebrate Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. We had a nice time meeting and talking with people at the synagogue, but this fasting for 24 hours is much harder than I thought. We returned to Jericho with the news that we would be getting another volunteer, Erin, in our village. She is part of our group that came in July 2007. She spent her first year outside of Tzaneen in the Limpopo Province. After a year of trying her hardest, the situation did not work out. When it became obvious that she needed to move sites, we started talking about getting her to Jericho to do some work. She is part of a program that works with NGOs, mostly home-based care and HIV/AIDS organizations. Since we have been in Jericho, we have had lots of NGOs asking for help from us, but Robi and I are only two people and it was getting a little overwhelming. Having Erin, or Mmabatho as she has been named, here has been great. She has only been here for just over 2 weeks, but has already become a part of the community.

Within a week of Erin’s arrival, the three of us were invited to a Literacy Indaba, which is a meeting to see how the municipality has and will work towards raising the literacy rates. It was very nice to be invited and meet a lot of interesting people doing good work. It was a shame that we had to leave before the end of the Indaba in order to get back to Jericho for Girls club.

About a week later, Jericho played host to the North West Provincial Premier at the Imbizo Junction for 2008. All of the government agencies had booths and were giving out brochures and posters. Robi set up a table for the Atlegang Girls Club and sold crafts made by the girls. Robi will tell you all about it in another post.

After the Imbizo, I saw the Chief of the village and he invited me for a tour of a new gardening project for the village the next day. I meet him at his office in the morning and we drove to the outskirts of the village to see the African Agricultural Project. The tribal authority has set aside 440 hectares of land for the development of farming skills. The 440 hectares will be divided up into 20 plots of 22 hectares. Each plot will be run by a farmer from the area and will employ about 20 farm workers each. The farmers and workers will learn how to plant and grow vegetables in the dry climate in Jericho. As the crops come to harvest, they will be taught how to best harvest and replant the crops. Finally, they will learn how to market their veggies locally and to bigger companies. The project is being helped with funding by Pick ‘n Pay, which is a national grocery store in South Africa. But the funding only goes so far, so I am looking into the US Ambassadors Self-Help Fund to see if it can be used for this project.

To end the month, Erin and I stressed ourselves out by writing grant proposals for two projects that we want to do in the village. She is going to run a support group for young mothers in the village, which includes gardening and other practical skills. I am trying to get funding for running a newsletter written and managed by the youth of the village called Voice of the Youth. Robi and I had started this last year, but ran into problems when we tried to get it printed. I hope that things work out better this time around.

October was a crazy month, and November has come upon us very quickly. Let’s hope that the work continues, along with the rain. It’s nice to have running water again.

September Update

Posting 2 of 3: If you haven’t read it yet, please read Rainy Day Updates below

I started September by going to the Pre Service Training for the new education group that arrived in July. They had just returned from visiting their new homes in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and KwaZulu Natal. They were very stressed and many of them needed to be talked to about living in South Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I very much felt like a veteran, even though I have only been living here for a year. They all seemed very excited about their future, but needed to have a little perspective. Many of the newbies were excited to get in a start work right away. But the culture clash between our American work ethic and the South African indirectness causes problems. Let me expand a little upon this.

US Perspective: Being from the US, we have a desire to attack problems head on. We are taught throughout school how to think critically about a problem, finding the flaws and possible solutions. We are able to criticize the work of someone and not insult that person. As a teacher, I found great value in being evaluated by a peer. I know that I am not perfect and that another perspective may help me become better. When I did projects, having someone else to talk about it and get feedback is very important. So, as PCVs enter into a school that is underachieving as the rural schools in South Africa are doing, they want to attack the problem head on. We want to walk in and ask questions and find out as much information about the situation as we can. When we feel we have an idea of what is going on, we want to give possible solutions. They can be tried or not, depending on the chance of success. But we want to try something.

South African Perspective: The South African culture is one of indirect interactions. When the PCV comes into the school and starts to ask questions and tries to find the problems, it is often seen as rude. The educators feel that they work hard and they would rather look at what is good about what they do. Looking for the flaw in a system is akin to looking for the fault in the educator. Also, many of the teachers have been teaching for a long time and were educated and taught during Apartheid. Under that government, the white minority generally put down the black majority in order to keep power in South Africa. I feel that sometimes the white American coming in and dissecting what the educators are doing bring back memories of that time.

So I talked with the new group about how to begin and specifically how not to begin in a session called “don’t do what I did.”

(South African cultural side note: Part of the culture is something called Ubuntu. The original idea of Ubuntu was “I am because you are.” It was what we call manners in the US. Here, it is sometimes taken to the extreme. People will agree with you so that you feel accepted and welcome. For example, a PCV may suggest that they have a workshop on Quantum Physics. The educators will say that they think it is a great idea. When in reality, they may not have any desire for the workshop. But to make the PCV feel good, they will say yes. The workshop will not happen because the educators will find a multitude of reasons that they cannot make it to the workshop, from professional to personal obligations. In that way, they have caused the PCV to feel unwanted.)

After the visit to the new group, Robi and I went to Pretoria for a meeting with one of the founders of the KLM foundation, Bowen Hsu. It was very nice to meet him and learn the origins of the foundation. We talked about where KLM started, how far it has come, and where we would like it to go. It was very nice that Bowen felt comfortable to let this year’s Peace Corps Longtom Marathon organizers run with the event without micro-managing us. He was very excited about the event for this year. We still don’t have a date on the 2009 Longtom. Last year it was not announced until the end of November. Let’s hope that it’s announced a little earlier.

On the 20th of September, my parents came to visit. When they arrived, I had an encounter with an insect and an urgent care visit, which I will expand upon in a later blog devoted to only that. Mom and Dad arrived into the Jo’burg airport and we stayed in Pretoria for the first night. For Sunday and Monday nights, we stayed at a local game reserve called Dikhololo. It was very nice and a great close getaway from our village, where there was no water. They got to visit the schools and participate in Robi’s girls club and she what great work she is doing. One Tuesday, we left for Motswedi and our first South African home. We stayed with Nkoko Kiki and got a chance to play with Siya and Thandi a lot. If was so nice to stay with her again (even though there was no water there, either) and to show Mom and Dad some of our favourite people in South Africa. After Motswedi we drove to Ganyesa outside of Vryburg to see the Campbells, another Peace Corps couple. We stayed in a local B&B and had a nice dinner of Springbok steaks at the Campbells’ home. A quick visit in Ganyesa, then we had to leave early for the long travel day of the trip. We drove from Ganyesa through Kuruman, Upington, and Pofadder on our way through the Northern Cape to the west coast and the town of Springbok. We stayed there for one night then went on to the Namaqua National Park and saw the beautiful wildflower that blossom every spring in the desert landscape of the Northern Cape. We arrived in Cape Town on Saturday night and collapsed from exhaustion, after Mexican food. We tried to see everything in and around Cape Town in one week, which I think is not enough time. We did a lot. Here is a list of the things that we got to do:

See the African Penguins at Boulders Beach
Visit the Cape of Good Hope and the most Southwestern tip of Africa
Whale watching along the coast on the way to Cape of Good Hope
Take a wine tour of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek with a great guide, Sally Cristini
Visit the Kirstenbosch Gardens and the Rhodes Memorial
Watch the Ravens-Steelers game at 4 in the morning (how I miss American football)
Visit the V&A Waterfront (based off of the Baltimore Inner Harbor)
Visit the District Six Museum
Have a generally enjoyable and mostly relaxing time

Unfortunately, we did not get to the top of Table Mountain or Robben Island due to bad weather, but we did eat excellent food and probably gained a ton of weight. Just what a vacation is supposed to be. To get back to Pretoria, we took a luxury train called Premier Classe (or the “Purple Train). It was a very relaxing way to end the trip and get a chance to see the country from a different perspective. See the pictures of our vacation and others from my Peace Corps life on My Web Albums.

Mom & Dad left on Monday, October 6 and Robi and I had to get to our Mid Service Training just outside of Pretoria.

Rainy Day Updates

It’s a rainy day in the North West Province. After a lazy day with a little gardening, I thought that I would sit down and give an update on my blog as to what Robi and I have been doing. I went on to my own blog and realized that I have not posted in over 2 months. My bad. Sorry about that. When I have not seen people in Jericho for over a week, I get a lot of questions. The answers hold true for this blog. “Yes, I am still alive.” “No I did not go back to America.” “No, I do not hate all of you.”

So I decided to write about what has happened since then, but I think that I will have to go by month. I will give a quick description of what we have done, and then I will give updates on the bigger things. So grab hold of your seat. Hear we go!


I last wrote on 20 August. I gave you an update then about everything that I have been doing. Since then, (1) my computer workshop for the Principals and management teams has ended. It ended with the beginning of September. It was very disappointing to see the number of participants slowly lessen over the course of the workshop. By the end, the principals and senior educators needed to be at their schools for submissions at the end of the term. (2) The workshops on creating syllabi and lesson plans didn’t happen. There was always something more important for the educators to attend to. So August ended with a lot going on, but most things were coming to an end.