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!


Souns Like…

No, that’s not a typo!

I have officially started working with the literacy program called Souns.  Now that I’m back at site, I’ve started working with the creche children (kindergarten), doing Souns everyday. Right now I’m just working with one class (3-4 years), but I’ll be working with all 75 of our creche learners, aged 0-5 years!

So how exactly do you teach literacy to toddlers and really young kids?  And in a language they don’t speak?

Souns is a really neat program because you can use any language as the medium of instruction, and you teach children letter sounds, rather than names.  For example, and “m” is a “mmm” not an “em”.  Why?  Think about what sound the letter makes.  Children (especially in a second or third language) can easily become confused when they start to read because the letter “s” is called an “es” but makes a “sss” sound.  Heck, it sounds confusing when I read it.

However, if children are taught that “s” is a “sss”, they can lay out the word “stop” and think “sss-tih-ah-pih” and read “stop” easily.  Later on, children can be taught the letter names and spelling, once they have figured out the sounds and start building and reading words.

If I lost you, sorry.  It’s a really cool program, trust me. And hopefully a way to overcome language barriers while teaching children basic literacy.  The really sweet part is that most letters sound the same in each language.  For example, I know for a fact that “m” makes a “mmm” sound in English, Spanish, French, Setswana, Xitsonga, Afrikaans…etc.  However, the letter name isn’t necessarily the same in each language.  Less information, less confusion.

Soooo….today was my first day with Souns.  I went to one of the 3-4 years class, which had 22 kids in it.  Souns is designed to be used with a group of 5-8 children in an informal environment, so sitting in front of 22 children in a classroom wasn’t ideal.  However, due to current staffing shortages and language barriers between the teacher and me, I decided it wouldn’t be bad to start out this way.  The kids can figure out what exactly I want them to do together, and hopefully next week we can find a place to play with our Souns in small groups.

I was impressed with these kids.  They know the alphabet song, but don’t know what it means, so I got to start with a pretty blank slate.  I started with “o” (ah), “m” (mmm), and “s” (sss), and the kids had a blast.  We spent maybe 20 minutes going over the sounds, and at the end of my session, most kids were figuring out which sound went with each letter.  I’m sure most will forget by tomorrow, but that’s okay.

I’ll start adding more letters once the children start to master these three sounds.  And if you were wondering, we started with those three letters because they are the most natural sounds to make.  Think of the noises babies make.

Souns started training SA PCVs with my cohort, back in 2011.  Due to where my site was located, I wasn’t able to be involved.  So I’m really happy to finally be working with the program!

Want to learn more about Souns, or potentially donate some money so Souns sets can be distributed to more schools?  Look no further than here, at their website.


Surrounded by Hunger, Part 1

Since I arrived in my village almost two years ago, teachers have told me that many children at my school go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and often have only one meal a day-the meager meal provided by the school nutrition programme. Looking around, I believed that was true for some of the learners, but I couldn’t imagine that most of them didn’t have food at home. Maybe I was in denial-I didn’t want to believe it.

The fact is that I am surrounded by hunger.

No, children aren’t wasting away before my eyes from acute malnutrition. Instead, from birth they are set on a trajectory of chronic malnutrition, evidenced by low weight-for-height (underweight), or low height-for-age (stunting). Their unfocused eyes in the first hours of school, heads dropping towards their desks, and slow, shuffled movements prior to the school serving the lunch at 10am tell me that most do not have breakfast. These kids are hungry.

And some are dying.

In fact, 1 in 15 children die before they reach 5 years of age in South Africa. One third of those children die when they are severely malnourished, and 60% are underweight.

Their death certificates don’t state that they died from malnutrition. No, instead they die from things children should be able to overcome. A 14 year old in a friend’s village died a few weeks ago from a dog bite. Not rabies, just an infection from a dog bite. In a nearby village, a two year old passed away last year from an unspecified illness. A friend of mine told me about a horrible incident at her school, where a first grader accidentally killed a fellow first grader by hitting her in the head with a rock. A last weekend, there was a funeral in my village for a learner from one of my schools. He was “sick for a long time”, which translates into “he had HIV”.

Kids shouldn’t be dying from dog bites, bumps to the head, or preventable and treatable illnesses. This happens when kids are chronically malnourished, suffering from protein-energy deficiency. 2.7 million children in South Africa live in homes where there is child hunger. Overall, 12 million South Africans are considered food insecure, and 4 million of those are on the brink of starvation. These are just a few of the stories….but it’s happening every day.

Earlier this week, I recorded the height and weights of all of our Grade R, or kindergarten, learners. We are in the process of identifying who our Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) are, in order to support them through the school gardens. Finding out the orphans is relatively easy, because the social workers keep track of them and provide a stipend for families who take in an orphan. But the vulnerable children often fall through the cracks. It is up to the school to identify them, and without a standard, it is difficult. I can look at the kids who come to school barefoot, or without coats in the winter, or who wear the same uniform day after day, and I know they are vulnerable. But almost every child in my school is painfully thin-how do I determine who is going hungry? I can’t ask them; they won’t say. So I worked with the principal and decided that we would record their heights and weights and compare them to international standards to determine which children are stunted and which children are underweight.

Out of 39 learners, 18 fall below the 5th percentile in either height or weight. If a learner is at the 5th percentile, it means that 95 percent of children their age in the world are taller or heavier than they are. Nearly half of the class is stunted or underweight. 28 of the learners have a Body Mass Index (BMI) below the 5th percentile. Body Mass Index is a calculation that uses weight and height to determine the amount of fat a person has. Only 1 child has a BMI at the 50th percentile, the rest were below, mostly far below. The 50th BMI percentile mark for a 5 year old girl is 15.1 and for a boy is 15.5.

One of the learners only weighed 11.5kg, or 25.3lb, which is considered underweight for a two year old, and she is 5.

How do we fix this? How do we feed these children? How do we improve this situation?

Stunting has lifelong impacts on a child, even if they receive better nutrition later on in childhood. They rarely catch up with their well-nourished peers. Stunted women often give birth to children with low birth weight, and the cycle begins again. When children have HIV, TB, malaria, or other opportunistic infections, they often do not have the ability to fight the disease, leading to death when it could have been averted. Hidden hunger and parasitic infections exacerbate all of this.

According to the Global Competitiveness Report in 2012, South Africa ranked 107 out of 144 in the world for infant mortality deaths, and 133 out of 144 for life expectancy. In a country that is the economic leader in Africa, a relatively stable economy, and rich in resources, this is a tragedy. In 2011, the GINI coefficient labeled South Africa as the most unequal nation in the world, surpassing Brazil. In a country where wealthy children receive a world class private education and feast on well-rounded, nutrition meals three times a day, rural children are slowly fading away, with empty bellies and immune systems that are unable to cope with the onslaught of physical, psychological, and social maladies. A child raised in poverty in South Africa is four times more likely to die before reaching their fifth birthday than a child raised in a wealthy family.

It is estimated that 30% of children in South Africa are stunted, and 12 million of 52 million people in the country regularly go to bed hungry. In Limpopo, 48% of children were considered stunted in 2005. In 2004, over 800 children died from kwashiorkor, which is an acute form of protein-energy deficiency. Kwashiorkor is commonly seen in places such as war zones, famine relief programmes, and refugee camps. There is no reason it should be seen in a country that has enough food to feed everyone. Kwashiorkor often causes children to have bloated, distended stomachs, and their hair will begin to turn reddish, orange, or gold in severe cases. It is obvious to me that some of the learners I interact with on a daily basis are suffering from kwashiorkor.

What can we do? We can give them seeds and teach them to plant. We can put the power in their hands and help them to ensure their homes are food secure. But I live in the desert. Is it enough?

I’ll write more about ways the government in trying to intervene, and ways in which they should intervene. This country is in a crisis. Food insecurity is a far-reaching problem, which has direct impacts on health and education, and is extremely difficult to overcome. But we must have hope that something can be done.

Otherwise, I’m looking at children who are doomed to be sick and hungry for the rest of their lives, who will raise hungry children, and who will ultimately die prematurely. I am very afraid that this could very well be the reality, unless something changes.

Guest Post on the Realities of Life in the North West Province

As promised, here is the guest post written by my friend Sue.  She has spent most of her life in South Africa, and has spent much of her professional life traveling to the far corners of this country, teaching schools about permaculture.  She understands the importance of food security, and sustainable, small scale food production.  About a month ago, I received an email from her discussing the realities of life in rural villages in the North West province, where I’ve spent the last two years.  Her words resonated with me, and captured many things I was unable to communicate to friends, family, and whoever else reads my blog.  Sue agreed to write a post for my blog, and I hope you enjoy this post and take something away from it.  It’ll be discussing more about the issues she raises in the coming week, so keep tuned in. 

“Greetings, readers of Jen’s blog!  I have been following it with great interest, too – I am enjoying reading about her experiences and seeing my country through her eyes.  I am an immigrant to South Africa, but have lived here longer than I lived in my motherland.  In some ways I feel I am still learning about this wonderful, rich and diverse country.  Today I share some of my learning with you.

South Africa is a dry country – a rainfall map shows that the coastal areas receive far more rain than the inland areas.  More than half of our population live in built up areas and the rest are at the mercy of poor service delivery (long interruptions in water provision) and an arid landscape.  I recently moved to one of our driest provinces – a huge shock to my system, having lived in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth for twenty years, and a challenge to my permaculture skills.

This province mimics the pattern of South Africa’s rainfall, too!  The parts of the province that border Gauteng and Limpopo are wetter and warmer; so much so that avocados, paw-paws and bananas will grow.  Much of the province, however, is not warmer; it is blisteringly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter (such as where Jen lives).  Spring and autumn are short and provide little relief from seasonal extremes.

What worries me most is the decrease in rainfall in the areas bordering the Kalahari Desert. Climate change is experienced with devastating force in these areas; where we have some of our projects and schools there hasn’t been a ‘planting rain’ for two years.  Planting rain means 50 mm over two days, so that there is a ‘wet’ depth of up to half a metre – which will enable seeds to germinate.  Planting main crops without this much rainfall is a waste of time and precious seeds. After that there has to be a little more rain to maintain growth, and fruiting and seeding – and this has not happened either. To put it into context, Johannesburg receives up to 700 mm per year on average.  The dry parts of this province can expect up to 500 mm of rain per year.  For the past two seasons the rainfall has been below 200 mm.

I have travelled the length and breadth of the province over the past few weeks – peak harvesting time for main crops – and have seen more fields of crop failure than I ever have seen before. The only really good harvests are those cultivated under irrigation.

I have seen very, very few home food gardens.

Climate change hits the most vulnerable people the hardest.  Living in the rural areas of South Africa is not the idyllic, easy lifestyle one might imagine.  It’s tough. And it’s a constant battle to stretch the few funds that float around; one out of twenty nine adults in our rural areas has a job.  Yes, read that again.  Education is at the foundation of this problem; many children quit school sometime during high school because the high school is too far away from home.  There are a few boarding schools but the conditions are appalling. Many schools are over-crowded and in these conditions it is a miracle that some children do succeed.

Add to this that one in five children is an orphan, and of these young ones, one in five lives in a child-headed home. There are not enough NGOs to go around to provide support. The more fortunate children receive help from the community and sometimes the challenge is just too much.  We had a school at one of our workshops the other day; of the 1800 children in the school 1200 are either orphans and/or vulnerable.  What do we do with this information? What can we do?

Think about it this way, if only one in almost thirty adults has a job, what are people living on? Usually social grants, and these may keep maize porridge on the table, but it doesn’t provide for much more than that.  For the vast majority of our children in this province the food that children receive as part of the National Schools Nutrition Programme (NSNP) is the only thing standing between them and severe malnourishment.  These children are already under-nourished. And there are no food gardens at home (in most cases).

One of the tell-tale signs of under-nourishment is when children’s hair turns a shade of rust to orange.  When we visit schools I am shocked to see just how many of the little ones in front of me are in dire straits.  Another telling factor is stunted growth – almost all the children I see are small for their ages.

When we visited a school in Klerksdorp just after Valentine’s Day I heard how the school had used this event as a fund-raising opportunity – and cancelled the NSNP meal of the day.  Great – it’s forward thinking! The school prepared food to sell, and a great number of children in this area could not afford to buy food.  They went hungry.
Valentine’s Day was on a Friday. Many of the children went home to empty larders for the weekend and returned to school on Monday, weak with hunger.  For some reason, that day the NSNP meal did not materialise.  Some of the children drank water to curb their hunger pangs – so much so that they were vomiting water.

These children are living on a knife-edge.  One small change in the wrong direction can lead to devastating consequences. Living on the edge of the desert is not for sissies; that people are surviving at all is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. But I know there is only so much that we – people – can take.  There will come a time when the ravages of one too many harsh, dry summers will take their toll.  

So, climate change may be flavour of the month in boardrooms and a hot topic at the dinner tables around the cities, and around the world.  It might be really cool to be green, and to work hard at lowering our carbon footprints.  But, there’s more to it than that.Whilst I support such noble endeavours, I see a sea of faces in our rural areas.  I see homes without food gardens and I see children unable to learn because they are not eating, and if they are eating, it’s not enough of the right food.  And I see less and less rain.

We have to apply ways to maximise home and school food production – put the right food on the table every day.  We have to apply really good, smart ways to harvest the little bit of rainwater that there is. This will bring about the positive change to move people away from the edge.  In order to do that we have to plant trees to create micro-climates that makes it possible to turn desert margins into places of abundance. We need more people (like Jen) teaching people how to grow food in the drylands.

What I can tell you is that my heart is touched by the heart of the people of the North West. In all of these challenges there are good people doing good work, and I have met so many in this province. I see many people working hard to make things better, and to make the most of the few resources that are available.Many of the food gardens I have seen are there because someone took the time to teach others.

I am blessed to be here  –  I live among angels.  And together we will turn our semi-arid desert into an oasis of food!”

Reflections on South Africa: Redistribution of Wealth

During Apartheid, nearly all the wealth in SA was concentrated amongst the white population, while the Indian, Coloured, and Black populations were left without, especially the black people. This was, obviously, one of the many problems with Apartheid, and one that wasn’t easily resolved in 1994, at the advent of a new, democratic South Africa.

Nowadays, wealth is spread out more evenly among all the populations in SA, but vast inequalities still exist. There are more black people on the list of wealthiest people in SA. However, the Census 2011 found that white people make SIX TIMES the average salary of black people here. WOW! Six times as much. This means that many black people, who represent 79% of SA, are frustrated by the lack of fiscal improvement since Apartheid.

So some take it into their own hands to redistribute the wealth.

How? They rob white people. This may sound incredibly racist to you, but it is a reality here, not a stereotype. Of course, white people commit crimes here, as do Indians and Coloured people, and Black South Africans are victims of crime as well. But being a white people in a rural area makes me a target.

PC warned us about this “redistribution of wealth” and how some black people do not consider it stealing. They believe that since white people have money, they can easily afford to replace a smart phone, bank card, computer, car, etc. And because they can afford to replace it without suffering, it’s not really stealing. Sixty-seven years of Apartheid and inferior education brough up generations of Black South Africans who believed that their education wouldn’t help them suceed, and those ideas still exist amongst younger South Africans. Instead of trying to get a better education, which can be nearly impossible in village schools, many end up falling into a life of crime.

I’m a white person, and I can’t easily afford to replace my blackberry if it was stolen. I would replace it though, even if I had to skimp on food. But stealing from someone is still a crime, even if they can replace what you stole.

Last month, I watched my friend get mugged in our shopping town. We were heading out of the taxi rank, where no white people go, besides us. We were being careful because we knew it was a dangerous area of the town for us. Regardless, she got her phone stolen. She replaced it later, but that doesn’t mean a crime wasn’t committed. Redistribution of wealth? No, it was a CRIME. This attitude NEEDS to stop.

I think it’s awful that a typical white person make six times the amount as a typical black South African. I hate that I’m a target because of my skin colour. I hate that the education has failed black children, funnelling many into a life of crime in order to escape poverty. But I also hate that some people choose to use their race as an excuse to be a criminal.

*Please note: terms like white, black, Indian, and coloured are OFFICIAL designations of race here, and not offensive or colloquial terms.*

Gratitude: Days 18 and 19

Day 18: This is something I had never really considered before, but I am thankful for street addresses, in America. Street names, house addresses, postal delivery…seriously, this is an amazing thing. I am asked by PC to provide an address when I travel in country, but sometimes, that scarcely exists. For example, my school’s address is Stand xx, Maebeebe Section, XXXX Village. That may SEEM like an address, but if you stood in my village, there are no streets, signs, indication of section, and house/stand numbers are randomly painted on the walls of houses. The infrastructure simply isn’t there in rural areas. Also, actually figuring out a physical address can be headache-inducing. And postal delivery? Ha!! I think it exists in places like Pretoria or Cape Town, but I’m willing to bet you pay for it. If you are well off, you have a postal box, but likely share it with other people (I share mine with 2 other PCVs, and apparently a church?). I have to travel 42km to get to mine, which means that only happens 1-2 times a month. You’d be surprised by the number of people who don’t have a mailbox. I have no clue what they do in terms of mail. But man, the mail system here makes me very thankful for the USPS, and for MEANINGFUL home addresses/street names/house numbers.

Day 18: I am grateful to have been taught computer skills from a young age. I started using computers in school in Grade 1 (1994-ish), so I learned how to use a computer from 6-7 years old. I remember the first time I used the internet, in 4th grade, and having no idea how to use the “address bar”, but quickly figuring it out. Using a mouse, keyboard, turning on a computer, saving documents, surfing the internet…these are all things I can do as naturally as breathing. But the teachers at my school here have only been exposed to computers in the last few years, and most are terrified of them. I have to teach them how to hold a mouse, what right click means, where the space bar is, and what the Start menu means. Sometimes I really struggle to teach these things because they are second nature to me. I was taken aback when I first started teaching computers to South Africans because I literally had to start with “this is a mouse. It’s what you use to select something.” I know that’s a bad explanation, but that illustrates my point-I don’t know HOW to teach some of these things! I see how timid educators are around computers, and how much they struggle to do things, and I’m very grateful to have been taught computers from such a young age. It makes for a much easier life in this world of ever-changing technology.


Gratitude: Day 9 and 10

Day 9: The longer I work in South African schools, the more thankful I am for the education I received. I was a public school kid from Iowa, which is one of the better states for education. All throughout my school years I had teachers that challenged me, encouraged me, and helped me realize what my goals in life are. The worked hard to make sure I received the best education they could offer, and for that I am especially grateful. A few teachers have stood out as role models and are a large part of who I am today: my 2nd and 5th grade teachers who taught me how to love writing, my 5th and 6th grade science teacher who encouraged my experimentation and while theories, my TAG teacher from 7th-12th grades who showed me how to think outside the box and helped me through some difficult year, and my high school English and Calculus teachers who challenged me to my limits and helped me grasp concepts I thought I would never understand. Every teacher I had cared about ME, not about my test scores or grades, but about me, as a person. They went beyond the call of duty to give me something priceless: a quality education. Then I went to college, where I spent 4 years learning from some brilliant minds, some of whom are as much friends as professors. They taught me how to have a holistic education, one which crossed academic boundary lines and was truly interdisciplinary. That’s how I wrote my Spanish senior thesis on the effects of the EU’s climate policies on Spain’s renewable energy market, and my political science senior thesis on incorporating the local food movement into university dining halls. My education is far from complete, and even now I’m studying for the GRE in hopes of starting grad school in a few years. But my education is one of the things I am most grateful for.

Day 10: My Blackberry has been a vital tool in my service, and I am extremely thankful for it. Who knew that I’d join the Peace Corps and get my first smartphone? Seems counterintuitive! Now, we could make jokes about whether blackberries are even smartphones anymore, but in SA they are pretty much the top of the line. IPhone what?! Some PCVs get down on those of us who have blackberries, calling us Posh Corps and making jokes about how we are always on them. But honestly, the connectivity the blackberry provides has been invaluable in South Africa, what with the First World-Third World reality. There are practical reasons, like unlimited internet for R60 on my BB (like $8), and FREE BBM. BBM is amazing because over 40 of the 49 of us have blackberries, so I can message them for free. That has saved my sanity over the past year, and has allowed me to support other PCVs as well. Access to the internet via computer in my village is almost impossible because the signal is so weak, but on my BB it works decently. That means I can (and do) a lot of research for classes and the garden, allowing me a vital resource that wouldn’t exist otherwise: the World Wide Web. And keeping in contact with people back home via facebook, twitter, and this blog has HELPED me achieve Peace Corps’ Third Goal. Cool, right? So don’t get down on me for having a smartphone in the Peace Corps, because it has notably improved my service.