Visiting the Clinics

Though I’ve been in South Africa for over 2 years, I’ve never really been to a clinic. I think I went to one once, during a visit to my permanent site over 2 years ago, and met with the “matron” or head nurse. Then again, that was an insane weekend and I don’t really know where all I went. I vaguely remember visiting a sick relative of my principal in a hospital at one time (one of the most awkward experiences of my service….”Hello half dressed, very ill man. I’m a young white woman who can’t speak your language, who has come to sit in the corner and stare awkwardly not-quite-at-you”), and I went to a hospital once to hand out teddy bears to babies with another volunteer (another awkward experience involved scarcely clothed, breastfeeding women and adorable babies). Those were nice facilities in larger villages that were technically hospitals and not clinics.

Now I live next to a clinic. I have since July, and still haven’t gone. If I get sick, I’ll go to the private hospital in town, not the clinic next door. Seems insane? I thought so too, until I went there.

Have you seen movies of overflowing, run down clinics in The Middle of Nowhere, Africa? That’s about what the clinic was like. The facilities were old, but in good condition. However the waiting room was packed with narrow benches without backs, on which sat many old women and babies, squished together as much as humanly possible. The line of (almost exclusively) women and babies stretched down the hall, and women sat on the floor, waiting their turn which was unlikely to come for hours.

I went into what appeared to be an examination room to meet with the “matron” about starting a gardening programme at the clinic, and a huge box of medicines sat on a rickety old table, and medical supplies lined the wall. Everything was chaotically arranged, and I can only imagine what it must be like to take inventory.

I went to another clinic, which was much larger. The wait line was smaller, but the same scene awaited me at the waiting area, just with less women. The rooms were still roughly organized, and women appeared to be crammed together in one examination room I passed (perhaps they were family).

These are public clinics, supported by the government and at little to no cost to the people who seek services there. I hate that I would go to a modern facility in town because I can afford to take advantage of the private services. I hate that inequality has created a system where the people that most need medical help get substandard services.

Yet at the same time, it’s wonderful that my village has a functioning clinic, one which is being used and helping to curb the HIV/AIDS and TB crisis in this country. They are likely understaffed, underfunded, and under-equipped, but the clinics are doing great work.


The Art of Cooking with a Stoven

In SA, many of the PCVs have a toaster oven/2 plate burner combo, which we call a stoven. It’s very convenient, and usually only a few hundred rand more than the standard 2 plate burner, so a lot of PCVs choose to get one. Regular size stoves are too expensive for us, and given our often small living quarters, rather impractical. Having a stoven gives us the freedom to do baking, not to mention making toast, and so most PCVs develop a strong affection for their stovens.



For me, it’s sort of a love-hate relationship. If you’ve ever tried to bake in a toaster oven, you might understand my frustration. Add to that the unreliable nature of both SAfrican electronics and electricity, and you’ve got something you both love and hate to cook with. Oh yes, and it’s in Celsius, and half my recipes are in Fahrenheit.
After two years, I’ve developed the artform that is baking in a stoven. It’s not as simple as turning it on and cooking….it takes constant readjustment of the heating elements and temperature, and an almost supernatural knowledge of whether something is actually cooked all the way through.

I’m making some banana bread now, and to preheat the stoven, I turned both the top and bottom burners on. However, I had to turn the top burner off when I put the banana bread in, or else I would end up with a burned top and raw inside. In a little while, when I sense the bread is nearly cooked through, I’ll have to turn the top burner back on, and possibly the bottom one off, to make sure the top is browned and the bottom isn’t burned.

Delicious Banana Bread!

Delicious Banana Bread!

Sound exhausting? It is. But the joy of delicious banana bread is reward enough. Plus, knowing that I’ll return to the ease of cooking in the US someday is something to look forward to.

How I Didn’t Learn the Xitsonga Word for Bat

Remember a few months back, when I posted a terrifying and hilarious story about a bat in my room, and how that taught me how to say bat in Setswana?  No, well then, you can read it here.

Last night, I was sleeping soundly beneath my mosquito net when I woke up right around midnight, and hear something going bump in the night….er…swoosh in the night, really.  I had hear the squeaking of bats in my walls for awhile now, so I was pretty sure I knew what it was.  I worked up the courage to stick my arm out from under my net and turn my solar lamp on, and didn’t see anything.  Of course, the light isn’t that strong, so I lit a candle then hopped out of bed to crouch-run to my light.  There was nothing, no flapping, no swooshing.  Nothing.  I went back and sat on my bed (under my net) for a few minutes, wondering if anything would appear.  Right when I was thinking I must be crazy, the lights flicker and I hear a swooshing.

Yup, there was a bat.  My first thought was that my family has been gone for the holiday, and it’s midnight.  I have to deal with this alone.  My second thought was that I could just tuck my mosquito net in tight and deal with it in the morning.  After a quick Facebook post (if I died fighting the bat, I wanted people to know how I died), and an almost instantaneous response from my sister, full of encouragement, I crept slowly out from under my net and began to pull on protective gear.  The bat was hanging upside down above my bed, so it gave me a chance to put on a fleece jacket (zipped up at high as possible), wrap my hair up in a scarf (who wants to have a bat caught up in their hair??), and my leather gardening gloves, I grabbed my broom and SMACK, hit him full on.

Mr. Bat hanging on my mosquito net....not cool, dude, not cool.

Mr. Bat hanging on my mosquito net….not cool, dude, not cool.

Of course, he didn’t die then.  But I think I broke his wing, which made things a lot easier.  After about 10 more minutes of battle, which involved my mop, broom, flashlight, and a can of baked beans, I finally managed to kill the critter.  I always feel bad for killing bats, as they perform a wonderful function for their ecosystem, but there were a few practical reasons he had to die.

Firstly, I live in one room, and while big, it’s like a dorm room.  You live peacefully in a dorm room with a bat and tell me how that goes.  Secondly, I couldn’t trap him in a bucket or butterfly net because my buckets were full of water and where in the world would I get a butterfly net in rural Africa?  Thirdly, and most importantly, I am still scarred from the time my mom took me to the doctor to get a rabies shot after she had a bad encounter with a bat.

Since my host family wasn’t able to help me, I didn’t learn the word for bat in Xitsonga.  But I did feel a sense of accomplishment that I managed to deal with it myself.


BTW, in case you were wondering-the can of baked beans was dropped on the bat from waist height with the intention of crushing him to death.  It was only partially effective….I need to work on my aim.

Pension Day

In South Africa, anyone over a certain age (somewhere in the 60s, I think) receives a pension.  I’m not 100% sure if only families living below the poverty line get it, or if everyone does, but for all intents and purposes, everyone in my village gets a pension.  It’s delivered to a specific spot in any given village one day a month, paid out in cash, and I believe it’s R1200 ($120).  In my village, it’s given out in a few places, including across the street from my center, at the tribal office, and in a bushy area down by the river.

The food security project I work with often sells at the pension market, and I asked if I could go this week.  Even though I’ve been in South Africa for two years, it was never feasible to go.  In my old village, it was on the other side, which is a 5km walk from my school.  So I’d have to miss school and walk 10km roundtrip, and I knew I wouldn’t buy much if I had to go.  But I’ve been wanting to go to see a pension market for a long time.

It’s a cross between a farmer’s market and a flea market, with a good dose of rural Africaness added in for good measure.  In other words, it’s utter chaos, but in a good way.  We pulled up with our bakke full of beetroot, green pepper, and spinach a little while before they were paying out, but there was already a good crowd there, and we started selling right after we parked.  Picture it: a beat up old bakke full of fresh veggies pulled onto the dirt along a tarred road, women sitting on bits of cardboard nearby, selling all manner of goods, chattering away in Tsonga.

I got a lot of looks, but far fewer than imagined.  For laughs, I’ll let you know what I looked like: a young white lady in a nice knee length skirt, white cardigan, and mary jane shoes….I came straight from work and was a little overdressed.  Oops.  And I forgot my hat and/or umbrella.  Double oops.  Most of the women were in some form of traditional dress, so I definitely looked more out of place than usually.  But it was all good!

We stayed there for a few hours (in the hot, hot sun), and sold almost everything, which was very encouraging.  I bought a few avocados and bananas, and enjoyed seeing what was all for sale.  Next month I plan to bring my new site mate to the market.  They sell everything, and for really good prices: all sorts of produce, steel wool cleaning pads, ice cream, live chickens, tobacco, mealie meal, sugar, minchekas and xibelani skirts, beadwork, buckets, basins, mopani worms, funeral plans, life insurance, achar, vetkoeks, biscuits….so much stuff, and I didn’t even leave the bakke.  I only saw a small portion of the market!!

I had an unpleasant experience with a very irate gentleman, and my race probably added insult to injury.  He wanted us to move our bakke because we were in his friend’s spot (there aren’t assigned spots…mass chaos, remember?), and I couldn’t, and my counterpart was away looking for avocados.  I didn’t have the keys, but it was also unreasonable for him to ask.  Mind you, his friend wasn’t even there.  It put me in the awful position of having to reinforce some racial stereotypes, which made me feel awful.  Though his cussing me out didn’t make me feel any better.

Overall, it was a great day, and I really enjoyed seeing the market.  I definitely got a kick out of the women I’d see carrying live chickens tucked under their arms….guess what’s for dinner.  I look forward to going back, and I might just buy myself some traditional beadwork or a xibelani skirt.  But probably not a live chicken.  And, we sold quite a bit of produce, which supports our food security project!

Hello Again, Village Life!

I am finally back and site and back at work, and it’s feeling good.  There were some changes while I was gone, so now I’m catching up and am pretty excited to really start my third year.  Most volunteers get three months of “community integration” (aka lockdown) after getting to their sites.  This is time for the volunteer to adjust, learn more language, understand how the organization works, and simply figure their new life out.  As a third year volunteer, I don’t officially have this time period.  However, I used the 6-ish weeks between getting to site and leaving for the States as a mini-lockdown.  It allowed me to figure out where I can be most productive and to develop a rough schedule, and since I couldn’t really start any projects right before leaving site for a month at home, having my own version of lockdown worked out perfectly.  Now I’m back and ready to get started!

I landed back in South Africa on Thursday night, and Friday left to co-facilitate a Permagarden workshop for Peace Corps at my site.  Considering I was fairly jetlagged, it wasn’t my best training. However, the 10 PCVs and 12 counterparts thoroughly enjoyed the workshop, and I believe they learned a lot.  I’m excited to keep monitoring their progress and potentially visit some of their sites in the future.

I got home from the workshop on midday Monday, and spent the day unpacked and cleaning my room.  After a month away, things can get a little messy, but at least I didn’t find any creepy-crawlies.  I had to go to town on Tuesday, as my grocery supply was woefully low.  I can only handle rice and beans so many times in a week!  So today I am back at work, figuring some things out and sorting through many emails I ignored during my month of home leave.  I’m a little sad my holiday is over, and I miss my family, but I’m excited for the coming year.  It should be an interesting ride!


Leaving this Place Better than Before

At our COS conference, our CD showed us this video that PC Africa put together for it’s regional conference earlier this year.  I’ll talk more on it later, but I encourage you to watch this video.  It’s truly inspiring and shows the PC life all across Africa.  If you’re at all interested in Peace Corps, this video will make you want to fill out the application today!



What is Hunger?

I will warn you from the start that this post has a good deal of technical language, and wouldn’t necessarily be considered as entertaining as some of my other posts are.  However, because I’ll be talking about the more technical aspects of hunger in the next few posts, I thought it would be nice to lay some groundwork, in case you haven’t studied hunger and food security before.


I have already indicated that many of the children in my school are hungry and live in food insecure homes.  I’ll come back to what exactly food security is in a bit.  Hunger, as you know, if a feeling people get when they haven’t eaten in awhile.  Pretty simple, right?  Things get a little murkier when you start looking at hunger as it relates to international development. 

What exactly is hunger?

There are a few different types of hunger.  One of them is simply the feeling you get when you haven’t eaten for a few hours.  Everyone has experienced this, and this is NOT what people mean when they talk about hungry children. 

What we mean when we talk about hunger is children who do not get enough food or who do not get enough of the right kinds of food.  Did you know a child can have three full meals everyday, rarely experience the sensation of hunger, yet still be very malnourished?  A child can also be overweight and be malnourished.  How?  Well, malnourishment simply means a condition which is caused by not eating enough healthy foods.  An obese child is every bit as malnourished as an underweight child.

Protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) is the kind of hunger discussed when aid and relief options are put on the table.  These are the “hungry children” I have mentioned in my blog.  PEM happens when a person is not getting enough protein or calories (energy) from the food they eat.  A person could have three meals a day and feel full, but still suffer from PEM.  This frequently happens when a person is eating primarily empty carbohydrates (rice, pap-stiff maize porridge, potatoes, corn tortillas, etc) without any meat or other protein sources. 


Kwashiorkor causes hair to lose colour.

One form of PEM is Kwashiorkor, which is a severe protein deficiency.  It frequently happens when a child is weaned from breast milk and given food of inferior quality and nutrition.  Kwashiorkor loosely translates into “what happens to the child when another child is born,” referring to the period when a child is weaned.  In severe cases, children will lose hair color, have thinning hair, develop bloated bellies, and/or have swelling in the legs.  Dozens of kids at my school have wispy, blondish hair, indicating cases of severe Kwashiorkor.

Another form of PEM is marasmus, which is severe emaciation.  When you see pictures of a child who is skin and bones-frighteningly thin, you are looking at a child with marasmus.  Marasmus is a condition where there is severe calorie (energy) deficiency, resulting in rapid fat loss.  Some kids and adults in my village show signs of marasmus.

Both conditions are life-threatening if left untreated. 

Milder (though still danger
ous) cases of malnutrition are manifested by children being at a low height-for-age (stunting), low weight-for-age (underweight), or low weight-for-height (wasted).  If a child is below the 5th percentile for weight or height, they are considered moderately to severely malnourished.  What does this mean?  Percentiles are a way to determine how a child is growing/developing compared to their peers (worldwide, children of their age and gender).  If a child is at the 90th percentile for height, 89% of kids their age and gender are shorter than they are.  If a child is at the 25th percentile for weight, 74% of children their age and gender are heavier than they are. 


Underweight children watching a gardening demonstration.

If a child is at or below the 5th percentile for either height or weight, it indicates either short-term or long-term malnutrition.  An underweight child (at or below the 5th percentile for weight) could be suffering from seasonal or chronic hunger because weight fluctuates frequently.  Low weight is easier to treat and more likely to be “caught up” at a later stage, if a child is given the proper nutrition.  A wasted child (low weight-for-height) is often a child who has suffered from being underweight for a long period of time, and is now wasted.  It is a more serious condition than being underweight.  A stunted child (at or below the 5th percentile for height) indicates long-term malnutrition, resulting in a child whose growth is stunted.  Stunting can be treated, but stunted children rarely “catch up” later on, even if they are given the proper nutrition.  Furthermore, stunted women frequently give birth to underweight babies, meaning they are already malnourished at birth.

Hidden hunger is another form of malnutrition, different from PEM because the body receives enough of both protein and energy (calories), but is still malnourished.  Hidden hunger is a micronutrient deficiency, and can have severe impacts on health.  Deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients can inhibit the body’s ability to develop or function, causing secondary infection and defects.  Hidden hunger is not visible or even noticeable, and therefore is frequently ignored.  Though it is hard to know without proper testing, signs indicate that many of the children at my school suffer from hidden hunger in one form or another.

All of this relates back to food security.  If a household is food insecure, the children are more likely to be impacted and experience hunger.  But what exactly is food security?


“Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle.” (FAO 2005)

For a household to be considered food secure, they must be able to afford, buy, and prepare enough nutritious and healthy food for everyone in the house, during all seasons of the year.  Food security can be transitory, meaning a household can move from being food secure to being food insecure and back throughout the year, based on employment, growing seasons, etc.

What is food insecurity?  It’s the lack of the above criteria.  Also, “food insecurity exists when people are undernourished as a result of the physical unavailability of food, their lack of social or economic access to adequate food and/or inadequate food utilization.”  Furthermore, a person is considered food insecure when their “food intake falls below their minimum calorie (energy) requirements”. (FAO 2005)

Keep posted for information on how all of this technical information relates to my service and the children at my school.