Souns Update


I’ve been doing the Souns programme for a few weeks now, and my 3-4 year old class is doing really great.  They’ve mastered some of the sounds, and we are adding a few more each day I work with them.  Now I’m working on developing word “attack” skills-meaning that they are now learning a few new English words and practicing spelling them out phonetically.  They are working on sounding them out in order to spell them, which will give them the skills they need to attack unknown words once they start reading.

I made some picture cards to help me out.  I decided to teach in English, as from Grade 1 they will start learning English.  In grade 4, they will take their exams in English and have all their classes taught in English.  I want to give them a heads up in a language they don’t often encounter.  Of course, this adds a new dimension to the Souns programme.  I have to teach new vocabulary as well as letter sounds.  

So I found some pictures of basic, phonetic, three-letter words that they kids can practice sounding out, spelling, and reading on.  This week is the first time we have done it, and I’m so proud of my class.  They are brilliant!  Of course, they struggle to figure out how the sounds I have taught them related to the picture, but one by one they are figuring out that the sounds actually make up the word.  They are starting to understand that “pot” is made up of three sounds, sounds they already know: “pih” “ah” and “tih”.  

I’ll be continuing to focus on sounding out the new English words I teach them in the coming weeks, and then we’ll focus on having them write the words they hear.  It might be an interesting experience teaching kids how to hold a pencil!  From there we’ll start to focus on reading, which is the last part of the programme. 


However, they are starting to decode and read the words I’ve given them.  I’m not sure if they are aware that they are reading, but bit by bit they are.  

The kids seem to love it when I come.  They start yelling out to me when they see me with the Souns bag.  On Wednesday, one of the kid was hanging out in the entrance hall at the end of the day.  I called him over, and wrote down a few letters for him to sound out.  He was all smiles as he sounded them out!



Star Trek and Peace Corps: The Prime Directive

I’ve never really watched Star Trek before, and never really wanted to. However, since I’ve started watching the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper has convinced me to try watching it. I started with the 2009 movie-it was surprisingly good, and I moved from that to watching Star Trek: The Next Generation (with Sheldon’s childhood hero-Wesley Crusher). I’ll freely admit it: I’m hooked. It’s not just another “flying around space and fighting with aliens” show. It’s more than that-from an anthropological point, it’s simply fascinating.

Star Trek’s most important rule is the Prime Directive: Whatever Star Fleet does, there must be no interference to the internal development of an alien civilization. No handing out advanced technology, going into schools to teach new theories, or taking control of a government to sort out civil wars or internal conflicts. Star Fleet aids civilizations when necessary and protects them from exterior foes, but they (above all else) will not interfere with a civilization’s laws, beliefs, or development.

I live in South Africa, a country where the modern world and rural Africa collide. Sometimes the transition from First World to Third World is smooth, but more often than not, it causes conflict.  I serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer here, and I live in a rural Xitsonga village which has a rich culture and proudly practices its traditions.

Peace Corps is about sharing our culture and learning from another. Star Fleet did much the same. However, by living and working among people from another culture for two years, it’s inevitable that we start to influence each other. I learn the importance of greetings, and my counterpart sees how greetings have a different role in America.  I eat odd foods and share my own odd foods with my host family. I am able to teach colloquial English phrases to children and they teach me some in their mother tongue. Cultural exchange is at the heart of Peace Corps’ mission, and has a huge impact on the lives of the volunteers and their host communities.

Cultural exchange

Cultural exchange

There are other impacts though, unintended cultural faux-pas that affect my work with the community and their perceptions of me.  Perhaps I remain in my room on the weekend, rather than going out and participating in a village function, and my family becomes concerned for me.  Or else I bring American technology to a rural village and change how records are kept at the school.  It may be more efficient, and wanted, but in the end unsustainable and unhelpful.  Often times, people in the village view me as more intellligent and capable than my supervisors based on my race, which is untrue and causes tension in my organization.

My living in a rural African village would likely go against the Prime Directive, but that’s not to say it’s bad.  I have learned a lot about the people I have spent the last two years among, and I hope they have learned from me.  Yes, I might have instilled potentially unrealistic hopes and dreams among some of my students, but I want them to reach for the stars.  Expectations in the villages are so low, it breaks my heart.  Through living and working in a rural village for two years, some small things start to change in the development of that village.  Star Fleet knew the smallest glimpse at a different life could greatly impact a society’s development, and therefore they would work undercover for years, understanding the culture first.  However, in PC, we are sent to village to aid and sometimes change the development happening there.

Writing grants, getting new technology, and improving the lives of the villagers is the basis for PC’s work in our communities.  Though Star Fleet wouldn’t approve, I have found it to be ultimately rewarding.

There is a darker side that is perhaps unique to Peace Corps South Africa.  I mentioned it before, but here the First and Third World exist alongside each other.  Even in the most remote villages, you’ll find smartphones and nice cars.  There is so much influence from American and European cultures that it has started changing the cultural traditions of villagers.  Music starts to change to reflect American pop influences or styles, and dances begin to incorporate modern moves.  Languages evolves to include words for new technology, either blatantly (Computhere for computer in Setswana) or more ambiguous (sefofane, meaning “the thing that flies above” for plane in Setswana).  Certain things are lost as Western cultures become more pervasive in South Africa.  For the Khoi San, this means there language is nearly obliterated.  How long until other cultures face the same disruption?

Teaching new skills

Teaching new skills

At the end of the day, I obviously believe in the development model of Peace Corps, even if it does against the Prime Directive, in my opinion.  We spend a lot of time learning about the new culture and language(s) we will be living among, and we devote two years to living among our host communities. We don’t fly in without explanation and dump foreign practices on unsuspecting societies-we work alongside the people to determine what they need and what is the most sustainable way to accomplish it. We try our best to help our communities improve themselves.


Heritage Day Singing

This is a video I took of the children’s choir at our After School Care centre. OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) come each day from about 5 different schools, grades 1-11. They learn lifeskills, practice cultural traditions, play sports, participate in a Scouts troop, receive homework help, and eat a good meal each day.

Last week, our centre hosted another drop in centre from Nkowankowa, in honor of South Africa’s Heritage Day, and this is a video of our children singing what I believe is a gospel song. Though my Xitsonga isn’t good enough to tell. 🙂

Heritage Day Cultural Competition

A few weeks ago, the after school care team at the centre asked me to be a judge for a cultural competition between our children and children from an OVC drop in centre in Nkowankowa. I agreed, and was looking forward to the event. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, but I love the Xitsonga cultural dances and singing, so I knew it was going to be a good idea. When my supervisor told me she would borrow a Xibelani skirt for me to wear, I knew this was going to be one of those utterly Peace Corps days-awkward and amazing at the same time.

On Friday, I arrived at the centre to the female staff members wearing brightly colored minchekas and xibelani skirts, with beads, headbands, and head wraps galore. One of the guys came up and asked why I wasn’t dressed in something from my culture. Considering I was wearing a dress I bought at Target, I told him I was, and he laughed.

The children from the other drop in centre arrived around 10am, surprisingly on time, and the event started shortly after. In theory, all the dancing and singing would have been done outside, as there were well over 100 children, plus 15-20 staff members and random parents, and the only room available to us was a room that was maybe 20ftx50ft. However, it was scorchingly hot, as there is almost no shade at the centre. So we all crammed into the room, leaving a small space for dancing, and a DJ area, complete with a speaker that was about as tall as I was.

The two groups took turns dancing (Kwaito, Xibelani, and some other dances), singing, reciting poetry in English and Xitsonga, doing role plays (dramas), and eventually playing football (soccer). In between each “act”, our DJ would crank up the house music and random people would get up and dance-kids, staff, grannies….It was hilarious to watch little old ladies shaking it for all they were worth.

Towards midafternoon, the heat reached a torturous point, and a hot breeze picked up, like a big hairdryer in the sky. All the kids received food, and the staff members were treated as well. As a guest of honor, I was asked to sit in the office where the other drop in centre kids and staff were eating. The room was probably 10ftx15ft, and several adults plus 15 or so kids where in there. By the time I arrived, the room was full to bursting, so I hovered in the doorway and ate my plate of white rice, baked beans, and ketchup. Yes, ketchup. There’s always something unique to eat.

Despite the heat and crowded conditions, I had a blast. Some of these kids are incredible dancers and singers, and possess and immense amount of talent. I enjoyed seeing them take pride in their culture, and have a lot of fun while doing so. I took far too many pictures, but I’ve posted a few for you to enjoy.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted. I was nursing a slight cold, and the heat was zapping any energy I had left, so I didn’t watch the football game. I found out at the very end of the day that there was actually no competition, as we didn’t have any truly unbiased judge. I was happy to find that out, as I hadn’t been judging anything all day!


Realities of the African Village Life

As my time in the village begins to wrap up, I keep thinking about how I’ve spent the last two years of my life.  I’ve been having lots of surreal moments lately, as I think about how normal my incredibly abnormal life has become.  Problems I considered insurmountable when I arrived have become the main focus of my service.  I remember when I first saw the garden at my school, my only thought was “Well, there’s NO way I am getting a school garden up and running.  Better kiss that dream good-bye.”


The garden in 2011

Those of you who follow my blog regularly, feel free to laugh along with me!


The garden in 2013

As you might know, I am more or less the garden teacher, and have been described as the Garden Guru amongst my fellow PCVs.  It just goes to show that huge problems can be tackled, one tiny step at a time.

I would be doing a disservice if I pretended everything was peachy keen and hunky dory in my little village.  In fact, very little outside the school grounds has changed in the past two years. Sometimes I wonder why in the world I decided starting gardens on the edge of the Kalahari Desert was a good idea.   When I step back and consider the almost indescribable poverty and hardship in my village, I start to lose it. 

Simply put, I cannot adequate describe what life in my South African village is like.  It’s too difficult, for many different reasons.  Partly because I’m an American that was raised like a princess compared to how the children in my village grow up.  I can’t verbalize the storm of emotions that rages within me, nor can I eloquently state the realities of this life.  I live in it; it’s too personal and at the same time too foreign.

And since you can’t all come and see for yourself, I asked a friend to write about her experiences working with rural schools in our province, the North West Province.  Tomorrow I’ll be posting a guest post focusing on the realities of life in villages like mine.  Sue is a dear friend of mine, who I met a little over a year ago at a workshop in a nearby school.  She has travelled throughout the country for the past twenty years, teaching permaculture to rural schools like mine.  I wanted you to understand what this life is like from someone who is a South African at heart, and who so intimately understands the struggles and hopes of the people I live among.

Sue will discuss the dire circumstances that schools like mine, who are trying to produce their own food, face in the wake of a changing climate and rising food prices, amongst all the other challenges they face.  Climate change is real, people, and villages like mine are taking the first and hardest blows. I hope you check in tomorrow to read Sue’s message and begin to understand what the kids and people in villages like mine face each day.

Feeding a Hippo and Zooming Through Trees

Dad and I quickly realized how short his trip to SA was.  After our safari day in Kruger, he only had 3 nights left in country!  On our was back down to the Graskop area, we made a short detour to do something extremely unique: visit Jessica the Hippo and interact with one of the most dangerous animal species in Africa!


Now, Jessica is a semi-domesticated hippo that was rescued after a flood about 13 years ago.  Her “family” will tell you she’s still completely wild, but wild hippos do not eat bread and sweetened rooibos tea….I had mixed feelings about the visit for several reasons, and was horrified at the “funny” (aka extremely offensive and racist) story the host told us about a local printer.  However, it was really cool to get up close and personal with a hippo, including feeding her, giving her some tea, kissing her, and giving her a back massage.  I’m fairly sure this is a VERY unique experience, and was worth the money.  For kids, it would be an amazing and once in a lifetime experience….heck, it was still that for my Dad and I.


After shrugging off our slight misgivings about Jessica the Hippo, we continued on down the Panoramic Route and stopped off at the Three Rondevals, Bourke’s Luck Potholes, and God’s Window.  The fog because extremely dense at God’s Window, so the employees let us in for free.  Though we didn’t get to see the view, we did get to play around a bit on a slightly flooded and sparsely maintained rainforest trail.


Our last big adventure was ziplining, which we did in Hazy View.  There weren’t a whole lot of ziplines in Limpopo, but this one made up for that.  It was a 3 hour, 9 line, 1.6km long zipline course.  And WOW was it fun!  I had been ziplining before, but this one was longer and a bit more…rugged than the last.  Very African, but in a good way.  The one I did on the Garden Route in 2011 was more strict, straight-laced, and formal feeling than this one….but I still felt 100% safe.  Our guides were great, and our small group of 8 or so people were a fun bunch.  One lady was pretty afraid at first, but seemed to have a blast.   I fully intend to do another zipline in SA, and would HIGHLY recommend it to anyone!  



The day after ziplining, we headed back to Pretoria.  On the way we stopped at the Sudwala Caves.  I was a little let down by this attraction….the tours were tame, with big groups and lost of kids, and the guy talked extremely fast….I had to translate the English for Dad, and I even struggled to catch some things.  It would be fun for kids, but it was underwhelming, though a nice break in the drive back.


Dad left the day before Easter, and I swear the saddest place in the world might be the airport departure gate.  Or else the lonely Gautrain ride back to Pretoria.  🙂  He’s already talking about coming back, and my Mom wants to as well.  Guess who is excited for that?! 😀