Yesterday marked 8 months in South Africa. Ohh yeaahh! It seems very long and very short simultaneously. I think about time all the time. Two years is: a little less than 1/11 of my life so far, 1/5 of a decade, half of high school, half of college, half a presidential term, the amount of time it takes a baby to learn to talk, it’s two Christmases, two Gator football seasons, two birthdays… it’s long but it’s also short in the grand scheme of things. In African time, it’s an eternity. In the eyes of a child, it’s an eternity. In the eyes of an old person, it’s a drop in the bucket. It’s all relative. There are days that feel as long as a week and weeks that go by in a blink. It might be weird to say, but knowing time will never stop, or speed up, or slow down, no matter what it feels like, is a comforting thought to me. The longer I’m here, the faster the weeks seem to go by. Like where did January and February go?? Here are some things that have been going on lately:
I’ve almost made it to the end of the first term at school. It’s been a serious learning curve- up until a couple months ago I didn’t know anything about Learning Outcomes or Assessment Standards or Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements or how much work teachers put in to lesson planning. Not to mention how difficult it can be to manage a classroom full of rowdy pre-teens. I’ve been teaching 5th grade English and co-teaching 4th and 6th grade as well. Some days I’m on fire and they’re actively engaged in the lesson, understanding whatever it is we’re talking about and it feels so GOOD. And some days I can tell I’ve gone too far over their heads. The blank stares and the rising noise levels are usually a dead giveaway. I started with the most basic English concepts I could come up with. My first lessons were on things as fundamental as vowels and consonants in the alphabet. Sounds silly but it was totally necessary, no one could tell me what a vowel was in the beginning. I think I’ve touched on this before: this isn't because they are stupid or lazy. They are products of their environment, one in which no one really encourages them to learn and where most teachers themselves don’t know the basics of the subjects they’re teaching. Slowly they are coming along. It can be frustrating but I know all I can do is keep on keepin’ on and look for little signs of improvement. Makes me wanna go back and give big hugs to all my former teachers and say “Thank you thank you, I appreciate you!”
One of the main challenges I’ve encountered is getting my students to think critically. Simple memorization was the main method of Bantu education (the education system during Apartheid). Education was memorizing definitions and mindlessly spitting back words in a specific order. Blacks were not supposed to think for themselves, as the Apartheid Afrikaner government surely realized that thinking wasn’t conducive to their continued minority control of the majority. This legacy is still obvious in the contemporary school system despite the ANC’s (SA’s current ruling political party and the party of Nelson Mandela) efforts to institute query based education models. For me this means constantly trying to get my students to answer the simple question “Why?”…“Why do you think that?” “Why do you like the story?” “Why do you think to run is a verb?” “Where did you get your answer from?” etc etc. Homework answers that I correct are often directly copied passages from the text we’re working on. They are not used to being asked questions period, or to come up with answers in their own words. My questions are met with averted eyes and heads tilted down. I wanna be like, “Smooth guys, I know the drill, I went to school tooo remember.” It’s funny how crazy loud and rambunctious they are the second they leave my class but when answering questions sometimes all I get is a whisper. I can tell the process will be long and complicated. First they have to realize that their own individual thoughts are worth saying out loud (that sounds really sad but it’s definitely a factor) and then I have to find a way to get them to speak up!
Another enduring legacy from Bantu education, a much more harmful one, is corporal punishment. Corporal punishment is the beating, whipping, hitting, flogging, smacking of students by teachers as the dominant form of discipline. It is an African Peace Corps volunteer’s worst nightmare. There were so many sessions on it during training to try to prepare us for when we experienced it firsthand. I am lucky, I have never seen the teachers at my school hit children. Occasionally I see sticks and whips lying around, possibly as a reminder of what could happen if the students misbehave in class, but I’ve never witnessed it myself. Some of the other PCVs are not as lucky, I hear horror stories on a weekly basis. Technically it is illegal and a teacher could go to jail if they are reported but that rarely happens. Teachers complain that while the government made it illegal, they never implemented a replacement discipline program that works. To many teachers in SA, beating a kid is the only way to get them to behave. They don’t realize the atmosphere of fear that is created by the threat of getting whipped, and that fear does not facilitate learning, but completely inhibits it. Not to mention IT’S ABUSE. Cultural difference learning point Exhibit A: To me, with my Western mindset, it’s abuse. To them it’s an effective form of discipline. (Ethnocentrism can be a topic for another day...) Beating children is still a commonly used form of punishment by parents too. Kids are brought up getting hit by their parents, their teachers, their neighbors, by any adult really. The logic behind this is that “all children are children of the community” so it is every community member’s job to discipline a child when they misbehave. Because kids are used to being hit, they hit each other. All the time. That is what I see a lot of and it’s what makes me sad and angry almost daily. I can’t make it through a whole class without one kid wailing on another. I don’t know how many more times I can go over the class rules to make them get it. I don’t know what to say or what to do to make them stop. A couple weeks ago one of my kids took off his belt and started whipping a girl with it. By the time I could get to him he’d done it multiple times. The girl was relatively unfazed (that says a lot right there) but I was about a millisecond from breaking down into tears. I’m lucky and the students are lucky that my principal does not tolerate the other teachers using corporal punishment, but there is still a long way to go before physical abuse will be eradicated from mainstream SA society.
Something potentially awesome: one of my PCV friends, fed up with the water situation in his village, found an NGO that installs “play pumps” in elementary school yards free of cost. “Play pumps” are water pumps that look like mini merry go rounds, like what you would find on a park playground. Kids pump the water when they play on it, the turning of the merry go round wheel brings the water up from underground where it passes through a filter system and comes out through a tap. The best part is that it uses no electricity. It costs about $14,000 to install one. My school has no direct access to water as of now, the kids can’t wash their hands or drink water unless they bring it themselves, which they rarely do. Occasionally they get a cup from the kitchen with lunch (the two school cooks get their water carted in by donkeys in the mornings, water sanitation at its finest...not.) I contacted the NGO since I knew we had a tap that had been covered over but that has the potential to provide water. It’s in a great location too, right on the edge of the soccer field so it can be used for the school and for other people in the village’s personal use at no cost to the school. A rep from the NGO came to check it out over a month ago and it met all their initial requirements! I was so pumped (pun intended). The next step was to wait for a company to come test the rate at which the water flows out of the ground to see if it’s worth it to install the pump, and to test the composition of the water to make sure it is clean enough to drink by their standards. They came and I watched with anticipation as they checked the water flow rate – it was more than enough! Now I’m just waiting to hear if the water tested clean enough. They said I should know in a couple weeks. If it is then they’ll install the pump for free!!! And I’ll be the happiest white girl in Africa. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, it still feels like a long shot and way too good to be true but if for some reason the water gods grant me this wish, I will be so grateful. Nearly all of what I’m doing on a daily basis can’t be measured in any tangible way, but this would be different. If it doesn’t work out, I won’t regret going through this process. Now that I know that there are organizations like this out there I can look for others that might be able to do something. But for now I’m going to wait and wish and hope and cross my fingers and knock on wood and not jinx it by stepping on cracks in the ..uhh.. sand..
Soccer Soccer Soccer, man I love it!! Being in SA for the World Cup in 2010 was the coolest thing ever. I could try to explain but you should just go to Brazil in 2014 and check it for yourself. That experience helped me to understand what soccer means to South Africa. It’s a universal connector. It’s more than a sport, it has helped diplomatic relations between countries and it brings people together from all over the world. I love that South Africans, no matter if you’re nine or ninety years old, love it so much. I held tryouts at the end of January and formed a team of some pretty darn cool 11-13 year old boys. I picked them based on their skills and how disciplined/well-behaved they are. I’ve played on enough teams to know that the two qualities are equally important. In the beginning of January I went to a meeting held by the school district and found out there are three big district tournaments already set up for different age groups. This was a huge relief to me as I’d been trying to figure out how I was going to find other teams to play against. Knowing there was already some kind of infrastructure in place and that there would be a place for me to meet other coaches, was a huge weight off my shoulders. In the months leading up to then, I’d been stressing about a bunch of things- finding teams to play, finding money for equipment since we only have one ball, making sure the boys can find cleats to borrow and uniforms to wear, filling out all the right paperwork, getting their birth certificates notarized… but somehow it’s all kind of come together. It taught me to chill out when it comes to other projects and stuff like this. I realized that while I have to try to problem-solve as best as I can, I can’t stress or worry too much about everything- the universe has a way of working things out if I just move in the right direction and keep my eyes and ears open. Practice has been really fun! It’s helped me to form a closer bond with the boys on the team who are also in my class. I can tell I’ve earned some major cool points with them and visa versa. First game is this Saturday!!
Even though a lot of my time is taken up with school and soccer stuff, I still have plenty of time to chillax and to mentally escape back to the first world. I spend lots of time reading and watching shows and movies that help me do that. I counted the other day and in eight months I’ve read 31 books and watched every episode of Entourage and Sex and the City. I like to think of my external hard drive and my Kindle as my children, I love them more than a person should love inanimate objects. I also read the news religiously. New York Times, CNN, NPR, Washington Post, Huffington Post, BBC, The Gainesville Sun, anything I can find. The republican primary race has been really entertaining lately. I decided that if Rick Santorum gets elected president, I’m not coming home. I’m not worried about it though, Obama’s got it on lock. I just imagine him sitting in the oval office leaning back in his chair amused at how hard the republican candidates are fighting to be the one that he beats in November (Also: Dear Rush Limbaugh, you are an ass. Love, Julie). It keeps me sane knowing what’s going on at home and in the rest of the world. I’ve always loved reading and watching the news but being this isolated has made me crave information even more.
I feel like there is so much more to say but it’s hard to know how to explain... I can write about school and soccer and the big things but there are so many small, strange, cool moments and cultural practices that I wish I could transplant into my family’s and friends’ brains so I can give them a more complete picture of the way I live.
Things like waking up to an orange sky and to the sounds of roosters and donkeys. I greet every person I meet throughout the day, no matter if I greeted them an hour before. I shake hands with a specific handshake and only ever with my right hand. I touch my right elbow with my left hand when I hand someone something as a sign of respect. I eat with my fingers when sharing a meal. I’ve tried chicken feet, chicken liver and goat brains. I clean my shoes in the morning, as the first thing a South African will notice about you is your shoes. I wear a skirt every day. Women don’t wear shorts, I don’t think my host mom has worn a pair of pants once in her seventy plus years of life. Transportation really does suck. It takes me nine hours roundtrip to buy groceries every other weekend, as there is no fresh food in my village to buy. Hitchhiking is usually the safest and sometimes the only option. All vehicles break down all the time: a couple weeks ago my ride broke down and I found myself stuck in the rain far from home off the main road with a dying phone. TIA. There are always at least twice as many people in a vehicle as there are seats. Personal space ? What’s that?? Babies are routinely thrust upon me as mothers just assume I won’t mind holding their child for an extended period of time. (I mind.) Women whip out their breasts in public to nurse their babies. This seemed like such a paradox to me because I was taught how important it is to cover my knees, shoulders and hair to show respect and yet there are uncovered boobs everywhere (?????), but it’s another thing that’s become normal. Babies (usually very cute ones) are all around, the world’s overpopulation problem on continuous display. Getting pregnant is called “falling pregnant” like if someone trips you, bam you’re SOL. I don’t turn on the light anymore when I feel bugs crawling on my skin in the night, I just swat and turn over- the true test of integration. I check to make sure my electronic devices are charged and my headlamp is within reach in case the power goes out which it does for hours randomly all the time. When it starts to rain I know just where to put the buckets to catch the water that leaks through my roof. I have multiple buckets in my room, one for dish washing, one for washing my face, one for washing my body, one for storing water, one for carrying water, one to pee in during the night (you’re welcome for that mental image). The “pee bucket” is a sacred and wonderful thing, ask any PCV and they’ll tell you. Shit and all other pit latrine experiences are constant and completely acceptable topics to discuss with other volunteers. The very little discomfort I felt about discussing my bodily functions (Hondurty and Guateballin’ crew hollllaa) before I came to SA is completely gone. I lost it for good around the time the PC doctors talked about playing “Diarrhea Bingo” during training so we would be able to explain to them in precise detail exactly what kind of intestinal issues we are having (again, you’re welcome for that mental image). I don’t even know if you who are reading this are disgusted right now or entertained- that’s how normal this stuff is to me haha. I could go on but I won’t push my luck anymore ;)
I might have gotten a little off track but my point is.. I am learning a lot, changing in obvious and less obvious ways, but also reaffirming core beliefs and ideas that were formed in my mind before I came. I am always trying to integrate myself as best as I can. To mimic the people around me, to bridge the cultural gap between us, to be sensitive to the cultural differences I encounter, to adapt to my surroundings without sacrificing the ideas and practices that are central to who I am. It’s a process that will continue for the rest of these two years. I have tried to merge my American self with my Peace Corps self with my African self. Above all, I’ve tried to stay true to myself. Sometimes it results in a mess. I’ve embarrassed myself in front of large crowds, offended people without meaning to, and probably unknowingly contributed to negative stereotypes about Americans. I know I’ll never be fully integrated. I could live in this village for the next twenty years and still not understand important aspects of Tswana culture. That’s okay with me. It’s a balance between fitting in and standing out that I’m still trying to get right.
Ohhkaaayy I hope all of that made sense. Too many months in the bush, sometimes even I don’t know what I’m trying to say. Good thing I’m coming HOME (!!!!) soon to give me a much needed dose of the people and things I care about the most. I’ll be back for two weeks during my school’s fall break in early April. SO EXCITED doesn’t begin to explain what I’m feeling :) :) America, I’m so happy I get to hang out with you again. I’ve missed you. annndddd if you are reading this, I’ve probably missed you too :)
Piece and Luhv