Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Draks

The Drakensberg. The Dragon Mountains. Translated from Afrikaans – draken, meaning dragon, and berg, meaning mountains. The Mountains get their name from two curiously shaped lakes that lie at the base. Looking into the valley from the top of the mountains, one of the lakes is visible, making it easy to understand why the mountains got their name. Folklore says the lakes are footprints left by a gigantic dragon that have filled with water. The mountains themselves are the dragon, covered in dirt and rocks, lying dormant underneath. Whether there’s any truth to this tale, one thing is believable – the mountains are breathtaking.

The Dragon's Footprint
During the December holiday 2014, six friends, Michelle, and I trekked our way through some of the most beautiful terrain I’ve ever seen. In the time I have spent in the mountains, I have been able to gaze at the dozens of 14,000-feet peaks of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and climb a handful of the glacier-capped mountains in the Cascades in Washington. Now, I feel fortunate to say that I have hiked in the Drakensberg, or the Draks for short.

Ready to Start Hiking!  The Gang Bright-Eyed...
...and Bushy-Tailed at the Trailhead
After spending three months along the Eastern coast of South Africa, where it’s sandy and flat, I was eager to lace up my hiking boots and hike up valleys, over rocks, and cross streams. I had heard from various people, including Peace Corps Volunteers and locals, that the mountains were beautiful. Their words paled in comparison to the magnificent views: lush mountainsides, gushing waterfalls, and a sheer cliff that dropped about 1,000 meters.

Early Morning Stroll above the Clouds
In thinking about what I wanted to say when I wrote a post about my time in the Draks, I had trouble organizing my thoughts into one coherent, orderly story. So much happened while I was there that I had lots of little stories that left indelible images in my mind. So another idea came to me… Instead of trying to fit the stories into one frame, I thought I would tell a couple of them and post pictures so you, the reader, could get a taste of what the hike was like.

Racheal, Vivian, Mikayla, Laura, & Michelle on a Scenic Overlook
I’m Sleeping in a Cave
As a boy, I often pretended to be an archaeologist. Not the kind that pours over drawers of dusty artifacts in a museum, but the kind that explores caves and gets his hands dirty (picture Indiana Jones). Getting ready for the hike, Michelle and I did pour over maps, but that was to figure out the route we were going to take to get to the top. According to the maps, there were a couple of caves along the way that could offer shelter in case of bad weather. One of them was called the Sentinel Caves. From the trail, the cave didn’t look like it was going to have much to offer. How deceiving a cave can be! Climbing up the side trail that led to the cave, I came to a fork. Looking up from the trail, I discovered that there were two caves situated across from each other. One was liked I imagined from below. It was small and could sleep maybe two-three people at most. The other cave, though, was huge. The whole group ended staying in that one. Later, in the afternoon, we were thankful that we had the protection of the cave because a frightfully-beautiful thunder and lightening storm passed by. As evening fell, I laid in my sleeping bag, thinking about how cool it was to be sleeping in a cave. The little boy in me couldn’t have been happier. 

Our Tents, All in a Row... in a Cave!
The Chain Ladders
In the Dolomite Mountains in Italy, there’s a popular climbing destination called the Via Ferrata. The Via Ferrata, translated as the Iron Way, is constructed of metal rigging connected by ladders. It was built during the first World War to give soldiers a way of getting over the mountains while avoiding enemy fire. Today, climbers like to scale the ladders and enjoy the peaceful serenity of the mountains. Michelle and I hope to visit someday. Prior to hiking in the Draks, I didn’t think we would get a taste of what it would be like to climb on iron ladders until getting to Italy. It became apparent while we were planning the trip, though, that we would.
The First of Two Sets of Chain Ladders
There were two segments of ladders: the first was about 90 feet and the second was about 50 feet. What was more, there were two types of ladders in each segment. One type was the typical ladder with rungs; the second type included rings on the sides that allowed for a better place to grab with one’s hands. Before climbing up, Michelle and I taught the group about the Rule of Three when climbing; meaning, keep three points of contact on the ladder at all times. Now, with the group ready to go, I called out “Climbing!” and then I was off! It was exhilarating climbing up the ladders. I could see the countryside below far and wide. However, the thought of slipping kept me sober and focused. When it was Michelle’s turn to climb up, she yelled out “Dude on rock!”, which brought a huge smile to my face because it’s a fun climbing command we like to use as part of our call and response. (To respond, you yell the phrase in reverse back. I would bet you’ll smile after you say it as well).

Michelle Climbing Up One of the Chain Ladders
Joe on One of the Chain Ladders with the Valley Below
The group made it up the chain ladders in fine style. Admittedly, everyone was at least a little nervous before they climbed up. They were worried about slipping or not being able to handle the weight of their pack. But when they planted their feet firmly on the ground at the top of the ladders, they beamed with pride, and growing confidence, about facing their fears. On the return trip, we felt secure enough on the ladders that we even posed for some pictures.

Sunrise on Top of the Mountain on Christmas Eve, with Vivian, Laura, & Michelle
A Christmas Miracle
On Christmas morning, the group and I packed our things and made our way down the trail to a parking lot where we were going to spend the night. Right before we left, Racheal gifted us with good luck knots, which she had tied herself. Call it superstitious, but I think the good luck knots that Racheal gave everyone in the group had an influence on the events that took place that day. The plan was to pitch our tents in the parking lot where we would get picked up by a shuttle the next day. Little did we know that the manager, Jan, of a nearby mountain resort (who coincidentally also oversees the parking lot where we planned to sleep) would arrive there at the same time as us. To be honest, when I first saw the manager, I thought he was going to tell us that we couldn’t sleep there. He did inquire about our sleeping arrangement and he did tell us that we couldn’t sleep there, but I was pleasantly surprised when he told us that he was going to give us a room at the resort. I thanked him for the offer, but said that we didn’t have much money because we’re volunteers so we couldn’t afford the room. He said not to worry because he was going to give the room to us for free! Happiness overcame me; especially because I had jokingly said to Laura that it would be great to get a hot shower and sleep in a bed at the resort (at this point, it was day five without a shower).

The Mountain Hut atop the Falls
Christmas Day got even better when later in the day the manager approached my group, who at the time were enjoying lounging on some couches and watching TV, and told us that we could use the resort’s wifi to Skype with our families back in the US. I couldn’t believe it! Cell service was spotty, but I managed to get a WhatsApp message out to my siblings to see if they could get to a computer. Unfortunately, Skype wasn’t an option, but that didn’t matter because the manager said we could use his cell phone! Getting to talk with my family on Christmas was amazing; especially because I fully didn’t expect to be able to do that while I was in the mountains and away from cell service. When Marianna asked the manager later why he was being so nice to us, he simply said, “Because it’s Christmas.”
Photo Op with Jan, the Resort Manager
Other Highlights from the Trip
  • Getting to bond with everyone on the hike: Michelle, Vivian, Laura, Mikayla, Racheal, Peter, and Marianna, and even converting some of them into avid hikers who were already talking about their next hiking adventure.
  • Belly-crawling so I could peak over the mountain’s edge and catch a glimpse of Tugela (or Thukela) Falls cascading down the cliff face.
  • Playing a game of Fish Bowl, which is a mixture of Taboo, charades, one word, one sound, and one pose, outside the mountain hut at the top of Tugela Falls on Christmas Eve.
  • The number of unique waterfalls we got to see.
  • Meeting a Wisconsinite on trail and spending an evening kicking back, eating great food, and drinking tasty beer, all provided by his wonderful family.
The Mahai Valley
Joe & Michelle with Tugela Falls in the Background
The Top of Tugela Falls
Frolicking in the Mahai Waterfall, with Racheal, Laura, Mikayla, & Joe
I took lots of pictures throughout the hike, so what’s shown above is just a sampling. A complete slideshow of the pictures I took while in the Draks is available here if you’re friends with either Michelle or me on Facebook.

On a personal note, I’d like to give a shout out to some friends I made while I was a member of The Mountains in Tacoma, Washington – Jim Gawel, Mindy Roberts, Steve Klein, Jeff Wirtz, and Troy Mason. There are many others, including climbing partners and instructors, who I could thank. This thank you is for taking the time and energy to teach me how to organize climbs, prioritize and make decisions among a group of people, and, most importantly, how to have fun while in the mountains.

Joe Celebrating a Successful Hike

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Joe's Six-Month Reflection: Assumptions Have Been Challenged

Michelle and I originally thought about writing a joint-piece about our first six months in South Africa, but it became apparent after some discussion that we were having similar, yet distinct experiences. Michelle’s reflection about her first six months can be read here. My reflection is below.

Six Months in Review

Six months have come and gone since I landed in South Africa. It’s the longest amount of time I have spent outside the US, and about three times as long as any other time I’ve been abroad. It’s humbling for me to think that this time encompasses a little less than one-fourth of the total time I’ll be here.

As I reflect upon my time in South Africa, I am humbled for many reasons. First of all is the ways in which my assumptions have been challenged. Despite my tremendous attempt at not having any expectations about what I was going to experience when I came to South Africa, I still had assumptions buried deep with my subconscious that I carried with me as I boarded the plane to cross the Atlantic. These assumptions have become more apparent to me as time has passed.

Assumption #1: I pictured a dilapidated school building that was overcrowded with students, understaffed, and/or lacked formal leadership.

The first assumption is that of the state of the school at which I was assigned to volunteer. While I hoped that none of this was going to be true, a part of me was mentally prepared to deal with at least one of these, if not all three, issues. What I discovered in the few months since I arrived at the school is that it was functioning not only well, but above the Department of Basic Education’s standards. Although the school is indeed overcrowded and understaffed, the school is actually high-performing. The teaching staff is very dedicated, and they willingly fill multiple positions in addition to teaching fulltime in the classroom. Their hard work, as well as those of the students whom they teach, has helped them achieve success in these circumstances.

Assumption #2: I know how to handle adjusting to living in a new place.

Having worked for universities and having had an interest in intercultural experiences (i.e. experiencing people and places different from my own upbringing), I have been educated about and led several trainings pertaining to this very issue. While I understood conceptually about how to manage my thoughts and feelings, it has been an entirely different matter to actually put these concepts into practice. For example, with the language barrier that exists between others and myself, I know I should show them and myself grace. However, I find myself getting frustrated at times about the amount of effort it takes to convey even simple messages. The thing I try to remind myself in these situations is that I am human. The various strengths, weaknesses, virtues, vices, hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares that make me who I am have helped and hindered me throughout my adjustment. Thankfully, family and friends in my life have been a huge support for me with messages, stories, emails, videos, music suggestions, pictures, cards, and care packages, and they have helped remind me that the tough times will pass and that I should do the best I can to enjoy the good ones.

Assumption #3: I am going to make positive changes at my school.

Prior to and throughout the application process, I heard from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and I read literature that talked about the size of the impact volunteers have on their projects. The main takeaway is that volunteers typically have a very small impact. Having heard this message time and again, I braced myself for making small, positive changes. This assumption lacked dimension in two significant ways. The first is the way in which change is measured and the second is when the change shows itself.

Examining measurement, let me begin by saying that Peace Corps South Africa and the country of South Africa have metrics that are used to measure the accomplishments/progress made by Peace Corps Volunteers. But, the kind of change I’m talking about is the stuff that is hard to measure. As I mentioned above, it became apparent during the first few months at my school that there were many things going well. At one point, I even had the following question circling in mind, “Does my school even need me?” The answer was, of course, yes because the school’s principal applied to receive a volunteer and the school was vetted by the Peace Corps. If both the school staff and Peace Corps thought a volunteer should be there, then I was supposed to be there. This meant I had to look closer.

Upon further examination, I realized the kind of changes I was going to make at the school related to the seemingly regular interactions teachers have with each other and with the students. For example, I could influence teachers to try a different teaching technique or I could morph the classroom management techniques I learned in the US to work in a rural, black South African context. I say these kinds of changes are difficult to measure because where one person may say there is progress another may not see anything at all. How can I quantify or qualify the behavior exemplified by the teachers?

The second way in which my assumption lacked dimension was when the change shows itself. I remember reading a blog a long time ago written by a current PCV whose parents had both served in the Peace Corps in Kenya in the late 1960’s. Part of the parents’ role was to educate the village about gender equity and the harmful nature of female circumcision. When her parents came to visit, they went back to the village where the parents served. While they were visiting the village, the chief thanked them for their influence on him when he was a boy. They had a profound impact on his view of female circumcision and he decided not to have his own daughters go through with the procedure. Now, he is working to dismantle the practice entirely. The parents were amazed at how their interactions with the boy who would become a chief could have such an impact decades later. (To read the story in full, visit the following webpage: Family Affair).

Now, that I’m volunteering, I can’t help but reflect on this story. I wonder, “What question or comment, however small or large, will I make that could have a significant impact perhaps months, years, or even decades from now?” There’s a lot of power in this kind of influence. The thought of this kind of question is intimidating and scary, but it’s also invigorating because I hope to make positive changes while I’m here. But then again I realize the changes that I influence quite possibly will continue to happen even after I’m gone. Hopefully this change will be positive and sustainable.

Education can be, and most of the time is, slow. I would love to see changes happen while I’m here, but I’m preparing myself to be ready to not see the larger impact those changes will have on the state of the school and the lives of the students in the long-term.

The Next Six Months

The next six months are sure to be exciting because the new school year is going to start on January 21st. I have a few hopes in mind as I step into this next set of time. I hope I continue to show gratitude for the experience that I get to have by being able to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa. I hope I continue to discover my assumptions and have the humility to explore them. And I hope I do an adequate job at a minimum at conveying my experiences to my family and friends back home.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Michelle's 6-Month Reflection: How We Are Not Saving the World

When we tell people that we are volunteering with the Peace Corps, a common response is a sort of “thank you” for our efforts to “save the world.” Of the volunteers I have spoken to, none of us really know how to respond to this... First because, I mean, what a bold statement. What do you even say to that? Second, because we don’t believe that it is true…

Let me explain…

My understanding of “saving the world” comes largely from super-hero comics. The scenarios almost invariably follow this formula:       
  • World exists with lots of “little, normal people” who navigate the tunnels of society much like ants in an ant-farm. They are largely ignorant to the dangers that await them when the page is turned.
  • A hero enters the plot. This person has some sort of extraordinary powers, strength, or knowledge that grant him/her the exclusive means to be aware of and respond to the impending doom. Of course, little, normal people do not have access to these extraordinary powers. (Exceptions include the examples of benevolent, playboy billionaires who are able to “buy” their super-hero powers by means of fancy machinery, cool suits, and the freedom from needing a 9-5 day job to pay the bills).
  • The hero uses these exclusive powers to fight this evil, while the whole community panics and runs frantically about in a haphazard effort to avoid absolute demolition. Their contribution tends to be (a) positive, yet largely insignificant; (b) neutral; or (c) helpless victims whose dilemmas merely distract from the larger fight at hand.
  • The hero saves the day and goes into hiding to await the next tragedy that will require his/her omnipotent intervention. “Little, normal people” go about their regular lives in the ant-farm, much as they were before.

Let’s call this the “Super-Hero Model” (SHM).   This model is rife with problems that would fail miserably if used in actual service.
Super Hero Cat Uses the SHM when Volunteering...Don't be Super Hero Cat

Dissonance #1: Community Assets and Empowerment
The SHM is supported largely by the supposition that the community is ignorant, powerless, and dependent on this hero for all of its solutions. Yikes! How condescending?! The fact is that my community in South Africa, just like every community in every country across the world, is full of strengths and assets.

I work with a teacher who spends a few Saturdays each month providing training for kindergarten teachers who want to improve their skills. This same teacher has empowered multiple educators to pursue their teaching credentials after encouraging them to volunteer at the local pre-K. She is also working to start her own community day care—from scratch! We have a high unemployment rate, but we also have opportunities for high school graduates to volunteer and gain experience. I work with multiple teachers who are passionate about gaining new and creative skills for the classroom. Our administrative clerk has a passion for inclusive education and gender equity.
Whatever solutions we have must include and be strengthened by these assets.

Dissonance #2: The Hero Has All the Answers
HA! Those who know me know that it takes me 15 minutes to figure out the answer to,  “Now, what would you like off the lunch menu?” I guarantee you that I am not the keeper of all the top-secret answers to life’s big questions. I do have a few perspectives that I can offer from my academic coursework and my experience as a facilitator, teacher, and administrator. HOWEVER, my perspective can be skewed and imperfect AND I cannot create sustainable change in a bubble. 

Volunteers NEED the perspective, assets, wisdom, feedback, involvement, and ownership of the community in order for any of the work that I do to be effective and sustained after my service. This means I need to shut up more. I need to listen with an open mind. I need to find a culturally-appropriate way to gather ideas for solutions (it turns out that my typical model of “brainstorming” is very much based on the US cultural values and doesn’t always translate well to a new setting.) If volunteers come into service believing that he/she will “save the day” with all of his/her “awesome, new ideas!”, then, he/she will become a metaphorical bull in the (cultural) china shop. It’s a pretty painful sight…

Dissonance #3: Sustainability
Every movie ends with the hero lying in wait for the next shoe to drop. The community is unchanged at the core-level. They have not learned or gained anything that will empower them to “save” themselves. The sequel is just like the first…

I used to tell my students that the goal of volunteerism and social advocacy is “to work yourself out of a job.” We want to get the systems in place so that volunteers aren’t needed anymore. Where the community is working together, using existing and trained skills, to fulfill its needs. This is not possible when a volunteer is functioning within the frame of the SHM.

So, if we are not “saving the world,” what are we doing here?

  • We are living within and alongside a culture other than our own. Impact: I am creating (and gaining) a more realistic, human understanding between people who have very different identities and stories. The barriers of “otherness” can break down more easily when you are living in community.

  • We are role modeling and teaching a specific set of skills. Impact: Our teachers are learning new skills for classroom management, computer use, and lesson planning in the hopes that their teaching will continue to improve from one academic term to another.

  • We are encouraging/requiring an increased usage of the English language in schools. Impact: Learners and educators have an additional reason to practice their English, as required by the Department of Basic Education.

  • We are learning and growing a whole heck of a lot in the process. Impact: On a very selfish level, I am meeting my own desires by serving abroad. This growth and change will likely have a positive impact on my future place(s) of employment, life choices, etc. In the meantime, it is an awesome and powerful journey, which I am very blessed to have.

  • We are sacrificing a few “creature comforts” to which we have become accustomed to in the US to adapt to this new community. Impact: Minimal. MILLIONS of people live this way every day. What’s two more of us?  The biggest impact I predict is the reminder to Joe and I (and others in our lives) that we don’t NEED those creature comforts...and gain more appreciation for them in our lives.

We cannot know how this impact will ripple out into the future. We just have to try to do/learn the very best that we can...

Post-Script... For community development nerds out there who are interested in resources related to this discussion, here you go!

Nerd Resources:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Taxi Cab Epiphany

There I was, sitting in a 16-passenger minibus taxi filled to the brim with 18 adults (including the driver), 3 small children, 4 bags the size of mini-refrigerators, and a smattering of small grocery and handbags. It was the fourth hour of our three-hour taxi drive (yes, you read that correctly) and we were turning into a city which was 1.5 hours out of the way of our intended destination. No one expected us to go to this city. No one knew why we were there.

That’s when it hit me: It will all be okay.

It will be okay.

No need to get upset. The detour had already been taken. There was nothing that could be done nor any explanation that would change that fact.

I may not get home when I expected. We would have to postpone some chores and errands. Things would need to be done a bit differently and in a different order, but isn’t that like life? We will find ourselves on unexpected roads. We will need to adjust and take the obstacles in stride. And it will all be okay. There will be headaches and frustration; but there will also be so much beauty…

Outside of the taxi window, I could see small mountains diving straight into a clear, blue lake. The street vendors were selling their goods. Children were chasing each other and laughing. This is a beautiful country and we would have missed it had we taken the shorter road.

So…sit back, turn on some tunes, let go of what you thought your life would look like, and enjoy the view…

Beautiful, yes?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

An American at a “Zulu-ized” Western Wedding

The weekend after the school year ended, Michelle and I had the privilege of attending a wedding.  I felt honored to be there, as I have only known the person getting married for about three months.  But that may only be my perspective seeing as how the person getting married was an educator from my school and everyone from school was invited.  It was the respectful thing to do.  Attending the wedding was as much a cultural experience as it was a celebration of the union of two people.
A Context:
Taking a step back: Christianity has been in South Africa ever since the arrival of the first Europeans back in the 1600’s.  With Christianity came Western ways of thinking.  In the case of a wedding, that meant the involvement of a pastor, vows, and rings.  Add the advent of TV, Westernization of traditional Zulu wedding accelerated significantly.  There were also some political underpinnings elevating the significance of a Christian/Western wedding.  According to the old, Apartheid government, weddings weren’t official unless they followed this precedence; thus, traditional Zulu weddings weren’t officially recognized during that time. 

Traditionally, in the Zulu culture, when two people get married, the groom’s family presents the bride’s family with something called a lobola.  Lobola is a gift to the family.  Historically, when a woman married, she went to live with the groom and his extended family.  This meant that someone who could complete work around the home in the bride’s family no longer lived with the family and thus could not provide her services.  As a way of offering something in return for the woman’s loss of services, the groom’s family paid lobola.  In the Zulu culture, that meant izinkomo (translated: cows) because they were of great value.  Lobola is still gifted today and cows are still of great value; however, the groom’s family usually gives a gift of cash.

After lobola is given to the bride’s family, the bride’s family visits the groom’s family to perform some songs and dances and present them with presents to show their gratitude.  Historically, presents would include sleeping mats and blankets.  In both families, the bride and groom would pray to their ancestors and ask for their blessing.  After these ceremonies were completed, there would be a grand feast with cow and goat meat.

Keep in mind, historically, the couple’s villages were close together or the couple was from within the same village.  Further, time is more fluid in the Zulu culture than it is in a Western/American culture.

The Wedding:
Getting back to the topic first mentioned above: Michelle and I were invited to a wedding.  Before the ceremony started, the DJ played music to keep people entertained.  What was icing on the wedding cake (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) were the people that started dancing.  Because it was a sunny day, white parasols were provided.  The people held them as they danced, which made the scene look as if puffy clouds were floating by.  

Pre-Ceremony Dancing
The ceremony opened with a processional of the wedding party, including flower girls, page boys, bridesmaids, groomsmen, the groom, and finally the bride.  Following the processional, the ceremony emcee welcomed everyone (yes, there was an emcee).  The overseeing pastor led the ceremony with various readings of the Bible and a sermon.  The bride and groom then exchanged vows, rings, and a kiss.  Before the ceremony closed, a second pastor got up and spoke, offering his own selected readings and sermon. 

The Lovely Bride and Groom
After the ceremony ended, the wedding party exited and the guests were escorted to a hall.  After the guests were seated, the wedding party entered with a line dance, much to the amusement of the wedding party as well as the guests.  Various family members, friends, and coworkers gave speeches and well wishes.  Some performed songs as part of their speech.  My principal was one of the speakers.  When she went up to the stage, she had the educators and I join her in singing a song.  After the speeches were made, the bride tossed her bouquet, the cake was cut, and food was served.

Here’s a brief rundown of the timeline:
Scheduled Timeline
Actual Timeline
9:30am – The time we’re supposed to get picked up
10:00am – The time we actually got picked up
10:00am – The time the Western wedding was supposed to start
1:00pm – The time the wedding actually started
11:00am – The time lunch was supposed to be served
5:00pm – The wedding ceremony was still taking place, but we were encouraged to eat
1:00pm – The time the Zulu wedding was supposed to start
6:00pm – The wedding ceremony just ended; we’re taken home
5:00pm – The time the feast was supposed to start
1:00am (the next day) – The Zulu wedding ended

Cultural Observations:
Now, I know for typical US-Americans, they would have felt at least a little antsy about the time.  In full disclosure, although I have lived in South Africa for five months and know about the Zulu’s concept of time, I felt antsy.  I outline the timeline as one example to highlight one of many cultural differences between Zulus and Americans. 

Another observation was the influence of Western symbols of status on the Zulu culture.  Noting the d├ęcor, the details were intricate and decadent.  The fact that there were parasols showed that the bride and groom’s families were willing to pay for them.  The guests also provided a glimpse into the influence by the gifts they brought.  For example, the educators and I gifted some appliances for their kitchen.  I learned from talking with the educators that providing gifts was something new.  Historically, it was common for guests to bring food of some sort to the wedding, but these kinds of gifts were recent additions to the Zulu tradition.

The lengths of the speeches given during the ceremony were of particular note.  In Zulu culture, it’s common for the patriarchs of the family to say a few words during a wedding.  Taking this cultural practice and putting it in a Western context, the result was a wedding that took about six hours.  When I asked some of the guests at the wedding if it was normal for a wedding to last that long, they said no.  But because of the incorporation of a Western wedding, the length has increased. 

It is common for Zulus to complete both wedding ceremonies – Zulu and Christian/Western – if they themselves identify as Christian.  It shows respect to their family and ancestors, the former, as well as respect to their faith, the latter.  In the present case, the couple completed both ceremonies.  Unfortunately, our ride wanted to leave after eating, so Michelle and I weren’t able to able to attend the Zulu portion of the wedding.  I was actually hoping to attend that part because I would have seen something that was more traditionally (and more genuinely) Zulu. 

Reflecting on my experience attending the wedding, I hope that I didn’t place any specific value or worth on what transpired, but, instead, provided a view into the events that transpired.  Even as I write this, I don’t believe it’s possible to keep from being at least a little skewed in my thinking because I know I have my own personal bias and cultural values.  What I can say for sure is that the ceremony was beautiful, the bride and groom couldn’t have looked happier than when they kissed as wife and husband, and the guests seemed to be have a good time (even if they weren’t thrilled about how long things took). 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Rollercoaster of Emotions: Getting to IST

IST. Defined: In-Service Training; occurs approximately three months after arriving at one’s permanent site. Example: my cohort arrived at our permanent sites in September, so our IST happened at the end of November through the beginning of December.

Getting to IST is a big deal in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). It’s a big deal because the first few months at permanent site can be one of the hardest times during a PCV’s service. Sure, there is lots of excitement because of finally getting to the place where one is going to serve the community, meeting the people who are going to be served, and seeing where one is going to spend the rest of her/his service. With the excitement comes a lot of hardship as well: isolation, loneliness, loss, and feeling overwhelmed.

To make this post more personal: I have felt all of the things mentioned above and more. Initially arriving to my permanent site, I was excited to be here. I had an image of what it looked like to serve as a PCV, and seeing my new home fit the image almost perfectly. I was in a remote part of the country, surrounded by people who were very curious about my presence, grappling with a new language, and volunteering in a school. Having moved a few times while I lived in the US, I was accustomed to a feeling of “newness” that comes during the first few months. However, there were unique factors influencing my integration. I understood conceptually what these news factors would mean for me, but to live them has been a whole other experience.

For example, one factor was the constant attention I received. Living in a remote part of South Africa meant that people weren’t used to seeing a white guy walking around their village. Often, I would hear people call out to me to get my attention; often, using a slang term that is derogatory (I don’t believe there was any malicious intent, but I do believe there was ignorance with the use of the word). What was even more surprising for people was my ability to speak isiZulu. Keeping in mind that my language ability isn’t all that strong, but I do know greetings and introductions and I can make basic conversation. I learned that by introducing myself I heard the slang term less often.

Another example, and one that conflicts with the example above, is my shopping town. My shopping town lies on a road that is travelled frequently by passing tourists. Because of the tourists, there are a few businesses in town that cater to them. It’s a weird contrast because there are large sections of the town and surrounding villages that live under conditions of poverty. And then there are these shops that contain items that cost the same amount as a week’s worth of groceries for two people (at least based on what Michelle and I eat). When I’m in town, I receive little attention, which is great in some respect, but it’s also alarming when I do because it’s often negative. Usually it’s someone asking me to give them money. This experience isn’t uncommon for PCVs. What I find difficult about it is that people in town think I’m a tourist passing through. They don’t see me as someone who lives there. This experience makes me feel separated from the community; that I don’t belong.

I haven’t only felt negatively since arriving to my permanent site. If anything, I feel like I have been on a rollercoaster of emotions because I have also felt happy, content, grateful, and humble. I’m happy because of the welcoming and warmth I have been shown by my host family and the educators at my school. I feel grateful for many reasons; one of which from the simple fact that I am able to serve as a PCV. Throughout the application process, I learned that it takes a certain level of economic ability to even serve as a volunteer. As someone with debt from college loans, I’m grateful that I was able to get deferments and to save enough money to continue paying one of the loans so I could be here. I’m also grateful that I’m able to WhatsApp with family and friends back home. And I am humbled by the generosity I have been given by so many people here in South Africa. For example, one of the educators at my school ensures that I have a ride home from school despite that fact that I have told him that I’m okay walking. To him, it would be a shame for me to walk when he has a car. What’s more, he has to drive in the opposite direction of his home in order for me to get to mine.

Like I mentioned above, I’m not new to settling into a new place, but I am new at settling into a country. I am excited, and anxious, to see what the next few months hold for me. And I look forward to it. Part of becoming a volunteer was knowing that this experience wasn’t going to be easy. Life wouldn’t be as interesting if it was.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Budding Libraries Part 1: Grant Applications, Foundation, and Infrastructure

Both of our schools have requested assistance in starting school-based libraries for learners (and teachers) to use. Most of our learners do not have books at home and/or are being raised by a person who cannot read. These libraries will support the remedial and extension learning of our students. There is a special interest in increasing access to English books because in grade 4 the Language of Instruction switches from being the learners’ “Home Language” (as determined by the school’s community, and in their case “IsiZulu”) to all courses being taught in English. English literacy has a domino effect: literacy leads to success in the subjects taught in school, which leads to obtaining competitive, meaningful employment (important in a county with a 30% unemployment rate), which leads to financial independence and security. Thus, supporting literacy program is a key priority for our schools and the larger community.

Therefore, for the last 3 months, Joe and I have both been working on two grant applications for book donations and setting up the infrastructure to support the incoming books. The continued development and maintenance of these libraries will be a significant secondary project for us during our service. We want to share a bit of our process with you. If approved for both, we will each receive a total of 2,250 new or gently-used books for our school libraries (fingers crossed).

Joe’s Account
In 2013, the educators at my school saw a need that wasn’t being addressed – the school was missing a library. The school already possessed a small number of fiction, non-fiction, and reference books (approximately 100). However, these books were being kept in the principal’s office because there wasn’t a designated space for them. The educators acquired a couple of large cabinets, placed them in one of the classrooms, and called it a library. The educators lacked formal training about how to establish and run a library, so the books sat idle in their new location.

Cabinets Awaiting More Books
This was where I came in. When I started volunteering at my school a few months ago in September 2014, the educators told me they wanted get more books for the library. After perusing the shelves in the cabinets, I spoke with the educators about applying for grants. They were excited about the possibility but didn’t know where to start. Through the assistance of other Peace Corps Volunteers in South Africa, I was able to find two grants that would help my school get books.

Both grants required a completed application and library action plan. The first grant also required a monetary commitment from the school to show its seriousness in enhancing the library. Despite working at one of the poorest schools in the region, the educators saw this challenge as an opportunity to unite the learners and their families. And they were going to do so by hosting a fundraiser called Market Day.

Along with the founding of the library, a library committee was also established. However, in the year before I came, the library committee had never met. Now, with the grant and Market Day, they had a reason. The committee discussed the fundraiser, decided what was going to be sold, and picked a date in early November.

The Educator/Librarian Leading the Way

Learners Lined Up to Purchase Goodies
Market Day came and, with it, excitement. Every educator pitched in to help – popping popcorn, making signs, reorganizing a classroom to become a “market”, setting up speakers to play music, and more. At break time, learners lined up outside the classroom to purchase snacks. In addition to popcorn, juice, hotdogs, ice creams, chips, and suckers were sold. The break flew by in a flash, and, by the end, over R700 (equivalent to $70) was raised. (This may sound like a small sum of money by American standards, but R700 is a large amount in South Africa). The educators were jubilant!

Educators Dancing before the Start of Market Day
Learners Excited to Get New/Gently-Used Books
Leading up to Market Day, an educator and I wrote a letter asking local businesses for donations. We raised R550 through their generosity. Combining the donations with the money raised during Market Day, my school raised the required amount for the grant.

The library committee and I met again after the fundraiser to discuss next steps. While we waited to hear about the grants, we identified training the educators would need in order to operate the library. Plans are now underway to coordinate the training. As part of the training, educators highlighted the need to include learners in the training so they know how to use the books and how to care for them.

Michelle’s Account
My school had wanted a library for at least one year. They had assigned a library committee and started to pull out books that they had already had in their stock. They had asked for donor resources, but hadn’t received the information necessary for them to act. These were steps in the right direction, for sure. However, the committee had only met once and the books weren’t being used and there were still 3x as many books hiding away in the depths of storage…So, we had some work to do.

I first approached the library chairperson to hold a meeting in early October. It became clear after a few tries that she wasn’t quite sure how to approach the principal to ask for a meeting and get us started. She asked if I would have that conversation and get the ball rolling… I didn’t understand at the time that she had never actually called any meeting on her own before and she literally did not know how to do this.

In our first two months of meeting, the committee has already accomplished the following:
  • Developed the Purpose and Aims of the Library Committee
  • Decided on a new structure for the committee, including roles and duties
  • Instituted a new Student Assistant program to make the management of the library more sustainable
  • Selected and trained 11 Student Assistants from grades 3-7
  • Developed the Appropriate Use Policy for library resources (though the meeting to decide the consequences was cancelled)
  • Approved two grants to request large book donations (1,000-1,250 books in each)
One great thing about the two grants we have applied for is that they both required our committee to set a more solid foundation for the library. As a result, it is easier to build buy-in for many essential elements. We still have a lot of work to do in the next school year to keep headed in the right direction, but morale is really high around the project and I am excited to see where we are able to go!

Book Grants: Current Status
To date, Joe and I have heard that our schools were accepted for the first grant – yay! We’re still waiting to hear about the second one, but we remain hopeful that we’ll hear good news. Expect to see another blog about the libraries as we hear more.

In the mean time, we’d like to give a shout out to Paul Prociv, Robbie Lang, and Michael Holloway for agreeing to be our contacts and lead fundraisers in the US for the second grant (if approved). We appreciate your willingness to assist us. Thanks Paul, Robbie, and Michael!