The Saga of the Leaky Roof

So, it seems that the “Saga of the Leaky Roof” is nearly at an end. Praise the Lord!

Yesterday my APCD was up to visit from Pretoria, which ended up being perfect for two reasons: one being a grant I’m writing that she needs to look over, and the other being my leaky roof that I need fixed. You might remember a post or two on this whole leaking roof thing (actually, I thought I had written two posts about it already, only to go back and find none), and it has caused me a considerable amount of stress over the last few weeks. Last night I was up until 2am dealing with an internal deluge of rain.

So my roof leaks. Not a drip-drip trickle. A constant downpour of water from a wooden beam, numerous drip-drip-DRIP-PLUNK leaks, and crying walls. It takes 2 containers and three basins to manage this, one being my huge laundry/bath basin. It means disrupted nights and preoccupied days. And a constant worry about when the next rain is coming. Even now, the sky is filling with clouds. Sigh.

We had a guy over last week to fix the holes. He got up on the roof and laughed. It seems that my roof dips in the middle, causing water to collect there and eventually pour into my room. Sometimes over my bed. Without taking off and essentially replacing the whole room, it’s unfixable.

However, yesterday I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. My APCD came and checked it out, and we decided I would move. A whole 10 meters to the rondeval next to my room!

A rondeval is a circular thatched roof house that is what most people envision houses in Africa to be. I’m actually kind of excited to move into it. Because the roof is high up and thatched, it’s quiet, doesn’t leak, and is COOL in the summer (praise the Lord again). It’s huge, and just a cool place to live. Some small repairs have to be done before I move in, and burglar bars have to be installed. But hopefully over the weekend a good portion of that can be done.

No more leaky roof. It’s somewhat of a trade-off because I might get more critters in the rondeval (spiders, mosquitos, lizards, and bats), but I can handle those. If anything, they make for very interesting (blog) stories!

-Jen

Food Insecurity and Inequality

Many people have misconceptions about South Africa, thinking it is a developed country without many of the problems the rest of Africa faces-poverty, disease, environmental degradation, food insecurity, corruption, etc….and in some parts of that country, that’s more or less true. You can go to highly developed areas of the country and find every modern convenience, mistaking it for some city in America.

But the reality is that South Africa is plagued by inequality and poverty, leading to widespread food insecurity. It’s estimated that at least 12 million South Africans go to bed hungry each night. In the rural areas, where I’m living, this is pretty evident just looking at the children. Many children show signs of long term malnutrition, through stunting or kwashiorkor. Others show signs of emaciation, indicating short-term or seasonal malnutrition. This affects their development, and impacts their success in school and beyond.

Malnutrition is a problem in South Africa, but it’s often hidden by the modern advances of the First World.

There are a lot of things going on in South Africa that affect food security, and race happens to be one of the factors. During Apartheid, black people were removed from some of the most fertile land in South Africa, freeing it up for white farmers. They were removed to some of the harshest, least productive areas of the country. At the end of Apartheid, much of that farmland was retained by the white farmers. Now, twenty years later, vast inequalities in land ownership exist. 36,000 large-scale farmers control 86 million hectares of land, while 1.4 million black farmers have access to 14 million hectares. (iol.co.za)

Stop and look at that sentence again, and really think about what it means. Out of 100 million hectares of farmland in South Africa, 2.5% of the population of farmers (non-black) control 86% of the land. And 97.5% of the population of farmers (who identify as black) control only 14% of the land.

Imagine how that impacts food insecurity, and which ethnicity is most impacted. Yes, there are white households that are food insecure. But the vast majority of families who face insecurity are either rural black South Africans, or township (think urban slums) black South Africans.

I work in a rural village trying to improve food security through small-scale, intensive food gardening, working with potential young black agriculturists. Many of the children in my village are considered orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and come from food insecure households. Even if their family has frequent access to food, it might be only during certain times of the month/year (i.e. near payday), it might not be enough food, or it might be food that lacks proper nutrients (i.e. pap, or maize porridge). My goal during my third year is to work with both adults and children to teach sustainable home gardening methods that are high-yielding, low-technology, and which use water responsibly. The idea is that if a family knows more efficient ways of growing food, they can contribute to their own household food security by growing healthy vegetables.

Food insecurity has the potential to cripple this nation, and the problem gets worse as food prices rise. Pensioners in SA receive 1,500 rand/month from the government (about 150USD). For each child in the rural areas (for needy families), the parents receive R250 (about $25) to care for the child. Can you imagine raising a child on $25/month?

Many of the kids at my workplace are one of several, and some belong to households of 8-9 people who rely on 1 or 2 child grants and perhaps a pension from the grandparent. This means that many children either go hungry, or only eat pap. Pap fills the stomach but provides little in terms of nutrition.

But this is why I’m here…in hopes that I can many some small change to increase food security.
-Jen

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.
-Jen

Community of Gardens

As a third year volunteer, I have a bit more freedom in my projects than I did the first two years, and I’m planning on taking advantage of that. I’m using this freedom to address a wide-spread food insecurity problem in my village. Few families have home gardens that produce year-round, even though the growing season extends throughout the year. So I’ve put together a plan to address that in about 5 of the villages near where I live, which I’ve termed the “Community of Gardens” project.

I’ll be working with (potentially) 3 primary schools, 2 secondary schools, the Xitsavi youth centre, and 2 clinics to establish community gardens at those places and encourage home garden creation. Beyond that, we’ll be doing workshops on nutrition, particularly nutrition for malnourished children and HIV+ individuals, which are two of the populations that are most at risk when there is food insecurity. I’m putting together a proposal for a VAST grant for the equipment and materials needed for the project. Let me tell you, VAST grants are a little crazy to apply for!

In the appication process, I also have to meet with each location at least once to propose the project idea, identify the needs of the organization, and gauged whether they want to be involved. This has consumed much of the last two weeks. I’ve been to 4 of the schools at least once, and hopefully go to the remaining school and the clinics tomorrow. I literally live next door to two of the locations, which is frustrating because it’s so close, but I can’t just walk it. I have to find a counterpart to go with me and go through the proper channels.

It can be a little maddening for a take-charge American. Of course, I’ve had two years of practice, which helps.

We went to the tribal office today to meet with the Indunas of the villages I’ll be working in. Indunas are a little like a city council member….that’s the best analogy I can find. As luck would have it, none of the Indunas were there and the weekly meeting of all 32 Indunas was delayed by a few hours, so we left without meeting anyone. On the plus side, I got two package slips, so I’m hoping to knock off work early today to swing by the post office.

The deadline to apply is next week, and one way or another, I’ll get this all done. Though I’ve written one other grant before, this one has been a lot more work. I will say I felt super-special-important writing out the grant objectives and indicators specifically for my project-it felt so official. 🙂 The budget part is making me want to pull my hair out, as is calculating the number. Just to confuse you a bit, I have to know how many adults, teenagers, and children are direct beneficiaries of the project (divided into gender groups), then magically calculate the indirect beneficiaries (again, divided into gender and age groups). Among those, I need to identify random characterists, like whether someone is a “service provider” or lactating/pregnant. Oy.

And then there’s a few odd problems with the excel-style application. One problem which had me nearly beating my head against the cement wall was the date. It said to enter it as MM/DD/YY, but in reality it was apparently YY/MM/DD, but showed up as DD/MM/YY. Seriously, almost too much confusion for my brain to figure out.

But, despite the grant writing procedure, I’m super excited to start with this project, which will run from about now through July, so nearly the duration of my service. And to the best of my calculating abilities, over 1000 children will be direct/indirectly impacted. That’s not even counting the teenagers and adults!
-Jen

Souns Update

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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. 

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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!

-Jen

Prov Con

Midway through my service, PCSA started having provincial conferences, or Prov Cons, as they came to be known. They are weekend long, optional, volunteer led conferences. No PC staff, and the volunteers pay their own way, with a little help for food from our VSN committee. They were started as a way to help PCVs from different cohorts meet and network with each other.

Being in North West Province, which only had SA24 (no other cohorts), we never had a prov con. We just did our own thing in Kuruman on holidays like Thanksgiving and Cinco de Mayo. 🙂

However, now that I’m living in Limpopo, where there are volunteers from SA23, 24, 25, 27, and 28, plus the 26s from Mpumalanga….I finally got a chance to attend a Prov Con last weekend. I lucked out because it happened to be held in my shopping town, Tzaneen, at a great backpackers called Satvik Backpackers. About 50 PCVs from both Limpopo and Mpumalanga came, and I was lucky enough to get one of the nice Chalet rooms, complete with an outdoor shower.

Seriously, taking a hot shower at midnight with only the African sky above you is an amazing experience. I’m considering building on at site. Or rather, I wish one would just appear at my house.

I ended up meeting my site mate in the morning to discuss a project we’re doing together at her school, and we left for Tzaneen around noon. We spent some time wandering around town and meeting up with various groups of PCVs on their way to the backpackers, and got some amazing Pakistani food at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in town. Literally, R25 and I was stuffed to the gills. That’s $2.50 for a full meal.

The other two volunteers with me couldn’t believe I had never eaten Pakistani food before. They were both from the West Coast, so I had to remind them about the overall lack of diversity in the Midwest. 🙂

We got to the backpackers a little before 5pm, and headed down to the Tzaneen Dam which bordered the property. Despite the warning that crocodiles live in the water, and the knowledge that hippos are all over this area, several of us went swimming. I waited until several volunteers had swum out a ways before getting in….kind of like how penguins push some unlucky guy off the cliff first to see if the seals are waiting below. We had a blast swimming, since it was a dreadfully hot day. Nobody got eaten, either. Though I’m sure we all got Schisto.

Saturday was spent having sessions led by volunteers. Nothing was set in stone beforehand, and those of us who had experience with a specific project got up and shared. I talked about permagardening, moringa, the warden system, and Souns, among other things. This was really beneficial to the newest group, SA28, who had just arrive at site in September, as they could hear about any manner of projects they might get involved with throughout their service. It was nice to chat and network with volunteers who are doing similar things to me. Plus, we got to swim a bit more during lunch break.

That night we had a potluck and braai. I brought beetroot to share, figuring a typical South African dish ought to be served. There were salads galore, salsa, guacamole, cakes, cookies, chakalaka, pasta, chips, veggies, fruit salad…..all sorts of delicious things, plus hotdogs, hamburgers, and chicken. I ate too much food, but since it was all delicious, it was ok. 🙂 I spent the rest of the night talking with various volunteers, and had another nighttime outdoor shower.

On Sunday we got up and ate leftovers. For breakfast, I had Niknaks (cheetos), cake, a few cookies, and coffee. Very healthy, I know. The owners of the backpackers came to meet with us, and it was great hearing from them. They are super supportive of PC and I look forward to visiting again. After that, we headed to town in small groups and did a bit of shopping. I got some pizza with some PCVs and did grocery shopping, then headed back to site with my site mate. I spent the rest of Sunday relaxing and preparing for the week ahead.

I was wonderful to get together with so many other volunteers. Though I had technically met almost all of the PCVs, I didn’t now them that well. But now I have a few new friends and look forward to hanging out with more of the Tzaneen cluster, since I actually know who they are now!

I can’t wait until the next Prov Con!
-Jen

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.

-Jen