Photo by Teresa Rafidi

Photo by Teresa Rafidi

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Africa Adieu: Saying Goodbye is Difficult to Do

Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else." ~Fred Rogers

Over these past couple of months, Woody and I have been wrapping up our projects as best we could and preparing ourselves for leaving the village. When we arrived in South Africa over 2 years ago, we never realized how difficult it would be to leave this place and the people whom we have grown to love.

We enjoy teaching people, helping people learn and watching their faces light up when they learn something new. It has also been an enlightening experience learning from all of the people around us. As Peace Corps volunteers, we have had a chance to work with and teach alongside many different people here in South Africa on a daily basis from community members, to school Principals, Deputy Principals, teachers, Admin clerks, general works, support staff, NGO workers and students. We are very glad that we were placed in the community that we were put in. Although we had both good days and bad days, we were welcomed with open arms to the community and we have enjoyed living in the village because people there have camaraderie and are very friendly. The people of our tiny community work together and help each other, and that holds much promise for the future of our village. Every time Woody and I needed to learn a new word in xiTsonga (Shangaan) or needed directions on how to get somewhere, there was always someone there to help us and show us the way. We have learned so much here and have met so many people that have become like family to us.

As we began packing to return home, we realized that there are an immeasurable amount of things that we couldn't pack into our suitcases. Our memories, friendships, and our totally unique experiences could never be quantified. Our time serving as Peace Corps Volunteers fostered experiences that will live with us forever and we will be bringing back with us much more than anything you can pack into luggage. For us, it will be very difficult to leave. South Africa has become our second home. However, we will not be leaving here with nothing. When we go back home, we will tell everyone how much we have learned and have grown here in South Africa, and how important to us are the people who work and live in our second home.

Here is a list of a few of things that we will miss about South Africa:

  •  The people! They never cease to surprise and amaze us.
  •  Although it does get hot at times here, at least there aren't 30 days straight of over 100℉ heat like there are back home in Texas. Even when it's so hot that it's the only topic of conversation, someone inevitably says “It will probably rain tomorrow”, and are usually right.
  •  The kindness of strangers and being able to hitch free rides with strangers without having to worry about your safety or being taken advantage of.
  •  The slow pace of life. It can be a good or a bad thing, but mostly, once you get used to it, it's easy to flow with.
  •  The wildlife and the landscape. The flora and fauna are so beautiful and have such a wide and sometimes strange variety, it's hard to get tired of it. . . (cows included).

The Conundrum of School Libraries (Article by Robin & Woody) 

One thing that we did get done in the last few months in our village was finishing setting up the new Literacy Centre and library at the high school including arranging furniture, organizing, cataloging, and labeling over 2,200 books, as well as painting a mural. We also established the Literacy Centre management committee of teachers and worked with the committee to develop objectives, rules and policies for the new Literacy Centre.

The study area of the new library
While it may seem that we have put a lot of work into this project, and that we've reached the end of that work, it is actually just the beginning. The teachers, student, and any other volunteers that help with this still have much work ahead of them, whether it's in developing and presenting lessons, showing the students how to utilize the library for schoolwork or fun, or even the basic job of running and maintaining the Literacy Centre.

Library Helpers playing on the
computers in the new library
While we wish we could be there to help with those jobs, it was time for us to hand it over to the school and give them the best advice we could offer: “In whatever fashion you can, use this resource, and allow the students and community to access it.” Our own opinions of what a Literacy Centre could or should be helped shape the structure and content of the centre. But now it is time for the school and the community to take the next step and shape the way it will be used, hopefully in a way that will benefit the most people, will be fair to all who visit, and will improve the overall literacy and academic performance of the school and community. Also, a big thanks to all of you who supported our Books for Africa project. The books will be arriving shortly for the new library! 
Three levels of Junior Novels
The Science and Technology section


My So Called Peace Corps Life (Article by Robin & Woody)

Education is, quite simply, peace-building by another name. It is the most effective form of defense spending there is.” ~Kofi Annan

This quote above by the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, is one of my favorite quotes because it is very true and, in my opinion, it quite simply sums up the purpose and objective of the US Peace Corps program. If we can just improve or expand the education and experience of a few people, we can help to eliminate poverty, racial injustice, and war. Peace Corps volunteers help foster development while at the same time help to build good will and relationships with countries around the world.

While this may seem like an overly rosy view of the world, and perhaps a bit na├»ve, we've tried to understand it in a very pragmatic and realistic way. We did not expect drastic changes to happen over-night. We did not expect to “save Africa” or that every effort we made or every lesson we taught would be profound or transformational. Our only hope is that of the little things we were able to do, some perhaps even without the intent of being “development work”, enough would stick with people in the same way that their interactions with us have stuck with us. Maybe – just maybe – in our tiny little village in South Africa, we made just a small dent. And hopefully in time – days, weeks, or years later – someone will remember a small thing from our time spent with them. And hopefully that memory will be enough to change an “I can't” or an “I shouldn't” into an “I can” and an “I should”, especially if it's for the good of more than just that one person.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Space Odyssey and Traversing the Namib Desert

And How Exactly Do You Pronounce Sossusvlei? (Article by Woody)

Leopard at AfriCat Foundation
Okonjima Nature Reserve
Well, we had a chance to find out over the school break from late June to early July when we finally visited Namibia! In addition to funny German and Dutch town names like Sossusvlei and Swakopmund, Namibia is extremely scenic, with a number of national parks and private reserves focused on wildlife conservation. So on this trip, starting from the capitol Windhoek, we went on a camping trip and traveled with a tour group from Wild Dog Safaris going north and making our first stop at AfriCat Foundation's Cheetah and Leopard rehabilitation centre where we saw an old rescued leopard at feeding time (with a mongoose and red-breasted shrike trying to steal their share of dinner) and a trio of sibling cheetahs lounging in the late afternoon shade. 
Younger male head-butting an older male giraffe

The next day we continued to the east entrance to Etosha National Park, where we spent 2 nights and got to see a wide variety of wildlife, including black rhinos, a few lions, including a pair mating, giraffes fighting (complete with martial-arts ninja style dodges and fake-outs), and lots and lots of grazers like black impala, springbok, kudu, steinbok, and gray duiker. Along the way to the central gate of Etosha, we stopped at the giant salt pan that occupies at least one fourth of the park. Since this was the dry season, the salt pan was really a salt flat that stretched as far as we could see out to the horizon. It's a little surreal standing on what looks like it could be the edge of the world. But during the rainy season when the pan floods, it's filled with wildlife, mainly huge flocks of birds, that migrate in just for the season. Along the way, both the camp spots we stayed at had water-holes that were illuminated at night. While we didn't get any good sightings of big cats around the water-hole, we did see a number of elephants, tiny black rhino, and extremely skittish giraffes coming down for a late night drink.

Himba community outside the
far north Kaokoland region of Namibia
Following Etosha National Park, we took a short visit to a Himba village, where we met a small community still living the very traditional lifestyle of cattle herding and leather-and-bead craft work. 

Himba boys (photo by Anne Stacey)

From there we headed west again to AfriCat Foundation's Lion rehabilitation centre. There we camped for the night, and the following morning got to accompany the centre's guide to see feeding two of the centre's rescued male lions. We continued on our way west toward the coast, and in Damaraland stopped briefly to see the Petrified Forest then on to Twyfelfontein to see the rock engravings that were left by the San people more than 2,000 years ago. Looking at the carvings of all the different animals they tracked and hunted, it seems they ranged quite far, probably spanning the area from Etosha or even Caprivi in the east all the way out to the western coast.

Cape Cross seal colony
The next day we finally made it to the coast and stopped mid-day to see the fur seal colony at Cape Cross. A short way south along the coast and we reached our destination for the next two days, the big coastal cities of Swakopmund and Walvisbay. There we got to take a break from camping for a couple of nights and were able to check out the more touristy side of the town. 
Seagull on lamp post at Walvis Bay
Our tour group split up there with the few of us remaining who were heading south through the rough gravel plains and hills to the giant sand dunes in Sesriem and Sossusvlei. While it is quite a long drive from Swakopmund to Sesriem, the scenery is desolate and amazing, with rolling hills of stone sticking up at all odd angles and run through with a few seasonal river beds that only see water in the rainy season. It's such a difficult terrain that it's a wonder they even tried to run a dirt road through there. The only thing that manages to grow there is a little scrub and some very scraggly acacia trees, just enough to feed the few animals that are adapted to that environment and that can travel that terrain.

It was cold on the morning sunrise
tour of Dune 45 (photo by Tee La Rosa)
We made it to Sesriem, but too late in the day to see anything but a sunset. Early the following morning, despite the cold and heavy fog, we headed to Dune 45, named so because it's exactly 45km from Sesriem, and climbed it to get a look around. Unfortunately because of the fog we couldn't really see the sunrise, but it's still impressive standing on the ridge of a 170m high dune, with nothing but wind-blown red sand dropping off to both sides. After a little breakfast to warm us up, we continued down the road to Sossusvlei to see the dunes and flood plain where the river ends. By then the sun was out and had burned off most of the fog, so we could really see the extent of the dunes. In Sossusvlei, once we hiked a couple of km into the park, we even got to see the Big Daddy dune at over 350m high. While it was tempting to climb it, I think we were beat from having climbed Dune 45 earlier that morning and the walk into the park. So we settled on a shorter climb just to get a good look at the flood plain and the few dead but still standing acacia trees that remain in the old part of the flood plain, and which have been dead since the river changed direction some 700 years ago. We also got to check out a ravine carved by the river just outside Sesriem on its way to Sossusvlei. Because it's a seasonal river, we were able to walk along the dry river bed at the bottom of the ravine, but we could easily see the marks left by the river indicating the water level when it filled during the rainy season.
Sand dunes at Sossusvlei
in the Namib Desert

After these 10 days of mostly camping, we finally wound our way back to Windhoek where we got to rest for a couple days before flying back to South Africa. Like Botswana and Zambia, Namibia is in many ways similar to South Africa, influenced by a shared history, cultures, and environment. Yet despite the similarities, like Botswana and Zambia it has many unique things that cannot be found in the other three countries. Sooo... should you ever find yourself visiting the southern Africa region and can spare a few weeks to travel around, don't assume that visiting just one place gives you much of a picture of this part of Africa. Make it a point to see all three!

Click here to check out our Picasaphoto album to see pictures of our trip to Namibia: 

A Growing Business... (Article by Robin)

As an education volunteer, when we first came to South Africa, I had no idea that by the end of my 2 years of service that I would help to create a small business project. Since September of last year, Woody and I have been working with our community to create a training center to help community members produce handmade sewn clothing, accessories, and toys.

Traditional African fabric
Soon after buying my own personal sewing machine to keep myself occupied at site, I had a community member (and now student of mine) who approached me and asked if I could teach him to sew. He told me that he was interested in starting a small tailoring business and wanted to learn how to sew. So, I decided to start a sewing and crafts class one day a week for adults that met after school at one of our primary schools. When the class started, we had initially only 3 students all sharing 2 sewing machines (mine and one of the students had her own). Soon the word got out to the community about the class and we more than doubled our number of students to 7. At that point, we still had only 2 sewing machines to use plus the school owned a large industrial machine. So our students had to take turns cutting material and then rotating turns on the sewing machines. Realizing that we needed more machines, in March of this year, I wrote up project proposal to a local community development organization named Ulusaba Pride'n Purpose suggesting that we create items to be sold in their curio shop in order to raise funds for the project and purchase additional sewing machines and accessories for the class.
Student showing off her finished apron

Pride 'n Purpose quickly responded not only with granting us the opportunity to sell our items with them in their curio shop but also generously donating R4,000 as an enterprise development investment in our business. With that money, were were able to buy two more new sewing machines and an abundance of additional equipment such as sewing shears, an iron, seam rippers, bobbins, etc.

Getting ready to sew
From our humble beginnings as a weekly adult sewing class, the Ku Rhunga Klub Project quickly expanded into a small income-generating project. And recently we just sold our first batch of just over 50 items to Ulusaba which they plan to sell in their curio shop. We heard that 5 out of the 6 stuffed rhinos that we made were already sold in the first week.

Reversible purse-ables made by the KRK
Currently the Ku Rhunga Klub Project creates items such as girl's baby dresses, boy's jumpers, aprons, shoulder bags, and stuffed toy rhinos and giraffes. To make each item, the club members begin by cutting out patterns from traditional African fabric. Coincidentally, our clothing items are all reversible, so the club members have to choose two contrasting fabrics that look good together. Once the pattern pieces are all cut out, the pieces are assembled and machine stitched together. Finally, the buttons are hand-sewn on to the clothes and the feet bottoms and eyes for the rhinos and the giraffe toys are also hand stitched. The idea for making the stuffed rhino and giraffe toys came out of the need to utilize small scrap pieces of material as we were quickly running out of fabric. Each item takes between two and five hours to produce.

Stuffed "Richard" the Rhinos made by KRK
This month, Woody and I have also recently developed a new logo for the group, came up with a catalogue of items, worked with the KRK Project's committee to draft a business Constitution, and assisted with opening up a small business bank account for the group. All funds raised by project are split between supplementing the personal income of the participants and providing additional or improved equipment and supplies for the group. For each item sold, half of the profit will go toward the club member who created the item as labor compensation and half of the profit will be given back to the Ku Rhunga Klub Project to save for needed equipment and materials.

Painting the Stars (Article by Robin)

Art Club boys helping paint the library mural
Now that the new library building is complete at our high school, Woody and I are anxiously and hurriedly trying to get it all set up and usable for the teachers and students. The new Literacy Centre will be used for reference, research, enhancing English literacy lessons, and developing student and teacher computer skills. The Centre will also be used by the learners and community members for career guidance and materials and applications for university and other post-secondary education programs will also be made available through the Literacy Centre.

Robin paints the planet Peace Corps
One thing that Woody and I have been doing to prepare the library for opening is to paint a mural. Since the construction of the library began last January, we've been thinking about doing a mural. Traditionally a lot of Peace Corps volunteers across the globe have painted World Map murals since 1988 that can be utilized in conjunction with Geography classes. It is a great idea and initially we thought of doing a world map project too. However, since the previous PCVs had already painted a world map at one of our primary schools, Woody and I decided that we would do something different and go for the entire solar system! I had the idea for the design, but since I'm not the greatest at drawing and computer design, I asked our friend and RPCV Adam Willard to design the mural for us. Adam took my concept and made an awesome design for the mural.

The painting crew (boys from grades 8 and 9)
The next step was actually painting it. Ulusaba donated the paints and brushes and Woody and I set to painting it. We asked a few kids who were formerly in the Art Club at one of our primary schools, who now attend grades 8 and 9 at the high school to help us with the painting. The concept for the mural is a child on Earth sitting under a tree reading a book and out from the book flies the solar system – it's suppose to symbolize the idea that you can open your mind to the whole universe just by reading a book. The mural includes the 9 planets in the solar system plus one extra Peace Corps planet. Just for laughs, we even painted in the Starship Enterprise flying around our little planet Peace Corps.  The process for painting the mural has been lots of fun and additionally it has been a great tool for teaching the kids about space and the solar system.

We also received a ton of new furniture for the library. Recently, Ulusaba received generous donations from Builders Warehouse and also through donors to their Kickstart fundraiser this year. Every year they hold an enduro off-road motorbike riding event for fundraising and this year they chose to do fundraising for our Literacy Centre. The riders all donated R400 per rider and this year there were over 30 riders in the event giving us more than R12,000 that was used to purchase furniture, bookshelves, chairs, and more to outfit the library.

Kids In Space!!! (Article by Woody)

Space - the final frontier.” ~Star Trek; The Wrath of Khan

With the start of Term 3, most of the kids attending the computer classes were getting bored with practicing typing and writing. So it was time to mix things up a little bit. In addition to allocating a little time from each lesson to typing instruction, we've introduced them to the TuxMath program to give them a little practice in basic arithmetic. Trying to explain the controls for the video-game format of the lesson took a little time. “No, don't just hit random keys to fire like crazy! No, no, no, don't just copy the sum! Work out the sum, then type the answer.” Eish! But they finally got the hang of it...

Math lessons in the computer lab with Tux Math
So we're working slowly through it, starting with very simple single-digit addition, then working up to 2 digit addition and on to subtraction, multiplication, and eventually (some day) division and simplifying fractions. At first, it was a little disheartening to the class teachers and to the principal when he visited the class, because quite a few kids, even those in the higher grades, were still doing relatively simple single-digit addition on their fingers. But it's promising and they're showing improvement. The game format is engrossing enough - Missile-Command-defend-the-planet with cool deep-space backgrounds - that they're not getting bored easily. The variation in pace and complexity keeps it from becoming monotonous, and kids being kids, they often celebrate with a little jig when they reach the end screen of each section that says “You've Won!

Books for Africa Project (Article by Robin & Woody)

The construction on the new library at our high school is finally finished!  Now we are quickly trying to get everything ready for the teachers and students to use it.  And of course we are eagerly awaiting our shipment of books from Books for Africa.  We want to thank those of you who have donated to our Books for Africa project:

        Helen Al-haddad
        Rhoda & Ben Hill
        Cely & Joe Alhaddad
        Marla & Mohammad Al-Sulaihim
        Tim Branaman
        Kearstin Brewer
        Jennifer Hill & Aaron Martin
        Gillian Grant
        Natalie Eckberg
        Holly Gardner
        Susan Seal
        Tiffany Lewis & Parish Episcopal School

Thank you so much for your contribution and for helping to make our kids futures just a little bit brighter!  You all are our heroes!!!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Village Chronicles...

The Passing Games (Article by Robin & Woody)

Beep,. . . beep,. . . beep. . . This is a test. For the next sixty minutes, this school is conducting a test of the Department of Education system. This is only a test.”

June marked the end of Term 2. So, at the beginning of June, it was time for mid year examinations again. When it is exam time in the schools, it is impossible to get much teaching done. The teachers and students are so focused on administering, writing, and passing the government issued standardized tests that regular classes are put on hold. So, generally Woody and I have a bit less class work going on during exam time. Therefore, during exams, we have more time for our other projects, and even some observation. One thing that we are reminded about at exam time is how much the South African Department of Education, seems to set these kids up for failure.

Instead of giving each student a clearly printed individual test paper along with maybe a Scantron answer sheet where they can bubble in multiple choice answers, the Department of Education gives each school one copy of the original exam (typos and all) and then it is up to the school to make hundreds of photocopies or duplos of the exam. So as a result, exams are often given with questions that have a picture and the student is expected to use the picture to help them write an essay. This test question is similar to the writing assignment that I gave the grade 10 and 11 students last month. However, the majority of the time, the exam paper has been photocopied so many times that it is impossible to even see the picture or read the text. Rather than giving the kids a corrected test, the schools just shrug their shoulders and expect the kids to be able to successfully write an essay without even seeing the picture meanwhile the exam question clearly states that “there should be a clear link between your essay and the picture you have chosen.

Test questions like that are given on an English First Additional Language exam – meaning that the test is given to determine how much English a student has learned as their first additional language. So, instead of testing them on English grammar concepts that they might have learned in class, they are expected to answer relative questions or give their opinion about a topic like “what the photographer's intention was when taking this photograph.” Forget if you know how to conjugate a verb correctly or if you know the difference between direct and indirect speech... No, no, no we are going to see if you can write an essay on “what was the impact of the cold war in forming the world as it was in the 1960s?” I realize that the last time I was in high school was at least 1000 years ago, but some of these questions are concepts that I didn't even learn about until I got to university.

Students are also often expected to read a comic strip or an advertisement inserted into the test (with unreadable text due to over photocopying) and then analyze them. There are questions like “quote the slogan of this advertisement.” Well, if you have no idea what the word 'slogan' means, then how exactly are you suppose to quote it? Or they have to be able to explain the meaning of advertising terms and phrases such as “Terms and Conditions Apply.”  How about letting them just learn regular English first before bombarding them with ad speak and pop-culture that is difficult for even native English speakers to understand?

Additionally, as standardized tests so often do, many of the test questions contain cultural or geographical bias making them difficult for rural South African students to comprehend. A question that may be meant to evaluate reading comprehension instead seems more like a measurement of the student’s pre-existing knowledge of a culturally biased subject matter. For example, I was once sitting in on a class when the teacher was reviewing a sample test with the class. There was a question on the test that included an advertisement for blemish cream that helps fight red pimples. The students were expected to read and then answer the comprehension questions about the ad. While acne might seem like an average subject that most teenagers would know something about, but not all actually do. While reviewing the question in class, the teacher turned to me and asked for clarification on what a blemish or a pimple was. Then a few weeks ago, I had a big pimple right in the middle of my forehead and the General Worker at my primary school was talking to me about something while vigorously trying to rub the pimple off of my forehead – as if she thought that it might just be a smudge of dirt. Not to say that black people don't get pimples, because they do – people of all cultures and ethnic groups do get them. However, because pimples aren't as obvious on them, then generally speaking most black people – especially living in rural areas – just aren't as obsessed about them as much as urban middle-class white people are and they don't use blemish cream and aren't necessarily familiar with terms that would be used in an advertisement for blemish cream.

Another test question that I came across asked students to read a passage of text about a TV actor. In the article, it mentions how the the actor is also a remarkable script writer and a producer. Then one of the questions asked was “what is a script writer?” Well, nowhere in the article did they ever define the term script writer. So, how exactly are the kids suppose to guess the meaning of the term?

It is often like fighting a losing battle here. I mean imagine if you had to take a test in Portuguese (if that isn't your first language) and write a 300 word essay about whether you think that the Kyoto Protocol achieved its objective or not. It can be a formidable task to say the least...

Here are some of Woody's thoughts on the school budget which also has an impact on how the exams are distributed, and school operations in general work:

Caution: Some math follows... According to the UN's Human Development Index, South Africa spent 5.3% of its GDP in 2007 on education, while the US spent 5.5% of its GDP on education in the same year, and has been reasonably stable for the last decade or more. While that may sound comparable, consider that the nominal GDP in the US in 2007 was $14,029 billion while the nominal GDP in South Africa in 2007 was only $286 billion. With about 12 million students enrolled in basic education in South Africa and 440 thousand educators (2010 statistics) compared to the US' 49 million students in public schools and 3.2 million teachers (also 2010 statistics), that puts the annual expenditure per student in South Africa at about $1,263 compared to the US' $15,747.

While we're on statistics, the operating budget for one of our primary schools for the year is about R160,000 ($20,000) (excluding staff salaries) with enrollment of 350 kids making their budget about $57 per student per year. No wonder we don't see legible copies of the tests being distributed...

This concludes our test of the Department of Education system. You may now return to your regularly scheduled program. BEEEEP. . . ”

Opening of the New Library (Article by Woody)

The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” ~Albert Einstein

Library construction complete!
After nearly 18 months from the first meeting proposing a new literacy centre at our local high school, the library is finally done! To put it in perspective, that's about as long as a white rhino's pregnancy lasts.

Well, maybe it's not done by all definitions of the word 'done.' What I mean is that the construction of the new building is done. Now we get to move in and try to get it furnished, stocked with books, paint a mural, and set up for use before we reach the end of our service in just about 4 months.

Inside view with new blue paint
While waiting for the building to be completed, we've been running around trying to prepare all the things that will be needed to get the classroom functional. Ulusaba, Pride 'n Purpose have been happily helping us by working with a variety of donors and sponsors to arrange bookshelves, tables, chairs, and other classroom / library furnishings. 

Woody offloads computers from the
delivery truck
They have also recently delivered to the school a generous donation of a wide array of books collected by the Woolfe family in New York, books we collected from the Rotary Humanitarian Aid and Book Donation Centre, and computers collected by the Saturday Night Community Church / Emmaus Road Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and shipped to South Africa with the aid of Rotary's Second Wind Foundation. In addition to these, Robin and I have been working with a small group of Peace Corps Volunteers to gather donations toward a shipping container full of books from Books For Africa to be divided between our schools. This shipment will likely be the biggest single source of books for this library with over 2,000 books in our share of the container. Fundraising for the BFA shipment is nearly complete, but as you know, the last mile before the finish line is always the hardest. We are still short just over USD $2,000.  So if you have planned to donate but have not yet, click here to do it now! We have also received some generous donations of books from the Scarsdale Women's Club – Operation Bookshelf group and Darien Book Aid Plan.
Principal Mayile helps unload boxes
of computers and books

Of course the building completion was not done until the last day of school before the June/July school break. So as soon as school resumes mid-July, we will have the bulk of our work ahead of us. Arranging the library; inventorying, categorizing, tagging, and shelving the books; setting up a reference station and general purpose computers; and most importantly training the small group of students that will be the Library Helpers and the few teachers that will comprise the Library Committee on setting library policies, managing and maintaining the library, and the array of daily tasks that will have to be done to keep the library in working order. Looking at this list, we may yet need another two years to get all this done!  

The unloading crew excited about
the new computers and books.
Woody, Deputy Principal, Lindsay from P'nP,
and the building contractor
reviewing the contract one last time.

The Jojo tank will collect rainwater runoff from
the roof for water for the garden.

Celebrating Youth and Saving Rhinos (Article by Robin)

The duty of youth is to challenge corruption. ~Kurt Cobain

Soccer game in action!
On 16 June, Woody and I assisted with the Footprints of Hope “Goal is Life for our Youth” football (soccer) match hosted by the &Beyond game lodges and Africa Foundation in partnership with Ulusaba and other lodges from this area. There were two main purposes for this day including celebrating South Africa's national holiday Youth Day while at the same time creating rhino conservation awareness among the rural community.

The 16th of June in South Africa commemorates the start of the Soweto uprising and riots of 1976. When high-school students in Soweto started protesting for better education that day, police responded with teargas and live bullets. An estimated 20,000 students took part in the protests, and roughly 176 people were killed. One of the first students to be killed was 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. He was shot at Orlando West High School and soon became a symbol of the Soweto uprising. The South African national holiday called Youth Day honors all of the young people who lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education.

So, what a better way to celebrate the annual Youth Day holiday then to be out with the youth playing football?! The games included 4 nearby community youth teams including our village team. The soccer game drove home the dual message of uniting people and conserving our environment.

Several surrounding game lodges were present at the event. Woody and I assisted Ulusaba, Pride 'n Purpose set up a drink station and gazebo with lots of rhino awareness activities and anti-poaching education. The station included colouring activities where community kids got a chance to design and colour a rhino and then enter a contest for prizes. There was also a rhino quiz competition that adult community members could take to learn more about rhino conservation and also enter a drawing for prizes.

Go team!
The soccer game between the village teams was great fun to watch. Our village team won the first round of games, but then unfortunately lost in the final play-off match. Our high school's principal, who is also one of the team coaches, was there to watch the day's activities and direct his team in the matches they played. 

Woody & Robin get to meet Gordon Gilbert
Woody and I also got a chance to meet professional soccer player Gordon Gilbert who is a Footprints of Hope Ambassador and is very passionate about rhino conservation. Back in January, Woody and I had a chance to do a rhino conservation awareness walk with Gordon and the &Beyond staff starting from our village through about 5 other communities. It was great getting a chance to see him again after almost 5 months. Gordon is a very down-to-earth and genuine guy who shares a passion with us for animal conservation.

To read more, click here to check out &Beyond's Footprints Of Hope blog

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tales from the Precipice

Building for Books (Article by Woody)

The corrugated metal roof on the
new library goes up!
Following our trip to Pretoria in mid-May to attend our Close Of Service (COS) preparation conference with Peace Corps (have we really been here that long already?), we took a short day-trip to Bedfordview just outside of Johannesburg to pay our second visit to the RotaryClub's Humanitarian Aid and Book Donation Centre. This time our visit was on behalf of our high school, and in preparation for the nearing completion of the new Literacy Centre at that school. Once again we worked to pick out a wide selection of textbooks, reference books, novels, travel books, and anything else that will add variety and flavor to the new library.

Roof beams up and walls plastered...
In addition to picking out books, we were also there to check over and coordinate delivery of a number of computers collected and donated to the schools in our village by the previous PCVs Adam and Lora Willard's home-town church. Between the computers and books from Rotary, plus our share of the shipment from Books For Africa (click here to donate now if you haven't yet!), the generous donations from Scarsdale Women's Club Operation Bookshelf, Darien Book Aid Plan, and many other sources – the kids and adults at our village high school will soon have the resources to expand their access to information, improve their understanding of the world at large, and maybe, just maybe, improve the overall English literacy and graduation rate at the school. Hopefully completion of the new library and the delivery of the shipment of books and computers will coincide such that we can wrap setting up the library and get enough teachers and students oriented to using it before it's time to leave South Africa! Eish! The countdown is on. . .

Xidudla (She-dude-la) (Article by Robin)

As my host mom likes to remind me – “U ya xidudla” which basically means 'you're fat' in xiTsonga. Since coming to South Africa, I've been gaining a lot of weight. I've probably gained between 20 and 30 lbs since being here – although it is difficult to tell exactly how much I've gained as I don't have a scale available to measure. My only gauge is the size of my pants which seems to have gone up about 2 or 3 sizes. Have you heard of the college freshman 15? Well, I've got the Peace Corps 25...

One thing that I really miss about America is having the convenience of an indoor gym where I can exercise. My whole life, I've struggled with keeping extra weight off. But it is really difficult here in South Africa due to a few factors. Not having a climate controlled gym to workout in, there are few alternatives for exercise other then just going outside and walking. However, the first problem is that about 8 or 9 months out of the year here are extremely hot and humid, making walking outside a bit unappealing. Even if the weather conditions do cooperate, there really isn't much of any place to walk. We have two choices – walk in the dirt road where, out here in the country, cars seem to constantly speed and run you off the road regardless if you are a cow, a goat, a child, or an adult. Or the second option is to walk in the uneven and bushy fields where you constantly have to dodge cow patties, broken glass, and make sure that you don't step on any snakes. There are no sidewalks or even pathways to walk, run, or exercise. The other problem with going outside to walk around the village is that many villagers don't just go around exercising. So, when we do go outside, Woody and I constantly get strange stares from people in the village and are regularly asked “Mi vuya kwihi?” – “Where are you coming from?” “You are returning from where?” Basically that is how people ask – “Where are you going?” To which we have to reply just “jiga jiga” (here and there) or “famba fambani” (going around).

Additionally, besides the unconscionable heat, the other problem that contributes to weight gain is the lack of food choices. There are no low fat, low calorie, sugar free food choices in the village. In fact, there aren't many choices at all. Here in the village corner shop, there is only one brand of bread. Your only choice is choosing between the white or the brown government subsidized bread. In the US, I could easily find lower calorie options for just about everything in the grocery store. Here even when we travel to our closest shopping town, the only option available is the full fat versions of almost everything. It was just within the last few months that we could even find fresh fruits and vegetables sold in our village. We always had to go outside the village to our shopping town for fresh produce. Most of the processed foods sold in the grocery stores here are packed full of MSG, salt, and lots of fat. I'm jealous of those younger PCVs who can survive off of cake, cookies, chips and candy and not gain an ounce of weight. So, needless to say, one thing that I'm looking forward to when we get back home is eating a healthier diet and being able to exercise stress free on a regular basis.

Advancing Seams. . . (Article by Robin)

Chains do not hold people together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years. ~Unknown

Student making a
reversible baby dress
In September last year I started teaching a community sewing class to adults after school on Fridays. The goal of the project was to teach community members usable, marketable vocational skills to help supplement their income. The Ku Rhunga Klub students have been quickly advancing and are becoming skilled in making a variety of different products. Currently the club creates items such as girl's reversible baby dresses, boy's reversible rompers/jumpers, reversible aprons, and reversible shoulder bags. From our humble beginnings as a weekly adult sewing class, the Ku Rhunga Klub Project is beginning to expand to an income-generating micro business. The income generated from this project will be split between supplementing the personal income of the participants and providing additional or improved equipment and supplies for the group. The goal will be for each item sold, approximately half of the profit will go to the club member who created the item as labor compensation and half of the profit will be given back to the Ku Rhunga Klub Project to save for needed equipment and materials.

Student working with new sewing machine
In April of this year, the Ku Rhunga Klub was generously granted R4,000 as an enterprise development investment from Ulusaba Pride 'n Purpose. The grant is to be used for equipment expenses and to purchase more sewing machines. The club was also given a 6 months interest free loan to be used to purchase needed fabrics and haberdashery items. So recently we were able to take a shopping trip to the big city! We traveled to Hazyview and Nelspruit along with Lindsay from PnP and the Ku Rhunga Klub's newly elected chairperson to purchase sewing machines and supplementary sewing accessories such as shears, machine oil, irons, and seam rippers, fabrics, etc.

Woody sets up the new sewing machines
We came back from our trip with 2 new sewing machines and a ton of fabrics and additional accessory items in tow. The Klub members have been excited about the prospects of the project and working hard to make the variety of items in the initial order, and a little side income as well. They've already completed a few of the items in the order, and seem to be even more enthusiastic about our now twice weekly Klub meetings and classes. The Klub has also attracted the attention of a few other new community members interested in learning or improving their sewing skills. We even have one teacher from the school who used to sew some traditional items as a side business, but has not had access to a machine in a number of years.  So far, I'm very proud of how much the students have advanced and can't wait to see what other items they come up with next! 

Student showing off her
reversible apron
Student showing off his
reversible vest
Back side of the
reversible vest

Students showing off their wares