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

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Food Parcels

In the rural areas in South Africa, a common thing to do for food insecure children is provide food parcels. Of course, this is not the best development option, but it is important to make sure children aren’t going hungry at night, and the food parcels help with short term food insecurity.

At Xitsavi, we have identified about 90 OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) who receive food parcels on a regular basis. I was at work last Wednesday when I noticed cans of beans and fish being set out along the lawn, and I knew they were preparing to hand out food parcels. I went over to help sort the food and distribute. To me, the food parcels seemed a little nutty: 12.5kg of mealie meal, 2 cans of fish, 2 cans of beans, tea, oil, 1kg of sugar, 2kg of rice, creamer, 10 soup mix packets, morvite (breakfast porridge), 5 bullion packets, 1 packet of curry powder, and 1 tube of toothpaste. Nothing fresh, very little protein, but it’s food that the children are used to eating and that the adults can easily cook. I probably would have selected a few different things, but overall it was a good food parcels for the kids.

The process ended up taking a few hours. Parents had to come pick up the packages, otherwise the children would try to sell the food on the way home. Plus, that’s a heavy load for a kid to carry. It was fascinating to watch the process. The parents had to sign for the food, then the families would go two by two to collect their parcel. Hardly anyone brought sacks to carry things in, and the centre didn’t have any. So people got pretty creative in how they managed to carry the stuff. Most of the women would carry the 12.5kg (25lb) of maize meal on their heads, which still impresses me, and the kid would load up their backpacks with the both things.

Most of the food is probably already gone, even though it’s only been a week. I did a quick approximation of the amount a person would spend buying all of that stuff at the store, and it came up to about R300. When a family only makes perhaps R1200 or R1500 a month, that makes a big difference in the monthly grocery bill!
-Jen

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.

Stoven

Stoven


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.
-Jen

“The Farm”

Xitsavi Food Security Project

Xitsavi Food Security Project

Today was my first visit to the Xitsavi Food Security Project’s site, where I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next year.  This project is actually the entire reason I am at my new site, and will be the focus of my work as a third year PCV.  A little background on the project:

Hosi Nwamitwa started the Xitsavi Youth Project back in 2009, and small groups of learners started going through the new Fit for Life Fit for Work programme at that time.  FFLFFW is a programme aimed at getting youth (18-30 years old) out of their houses and gaining important life skills, such as sexual and reproductive health, computer literacy, coping skills, and employment skills.  From the FFLFFW programme, the Xitsavi Food Security Project was created to help graduates of the programme gain agricultural skills.  Two years later, the Xitsavi FSP has about 10 hectares of land producing a wide range of vegetables year round, 2 duck and tilapia ponds, a banana orchard, and upwards of 100 moringa trees.  Now, this is a pilot project in polyculture/aquaculture, and I am here to help it move into permaculture.

So to backtrack, today was my first day at “the farm”.  I actually don’t really like calling it a farm, because that brings to mind fields upon fields of heavily fertilized, sprayed, monocrops….which this certainly isn’t.  But for ease of writing, let’s call it the farm.  I was basically just observing today and figuring out what their needs are…and wow, there is a lot I can help with, which is exciting.  They are growing all sorts of delicious things: green beans, okra, tomatoes, cabbage, spinach, mustard spinach, peppers of all colours, beetroot, onion, bananas, moringa….and probably some other things I forgot.  But one of their problems is that they are afraid to plant too much because sometimes finding buyers can be difficult.  So through a series of events, I found myself in town, walking to about 6 different shops and finding out who would be willing to buy our produce.  Three of the shops were very eager to do so, and asked us to bring samples next week so they could assess the quality of our produce.

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Score!  I was exhausted after walking all over the “mountain” that is Tzaneen (my counterpart’s words, not mine), but I felt really good about the prospects for this project in the coming year.  Now to build a nursery…. 😀  After all, we are going to need a LOT of seedlings!

-Jen

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Moringa!!

Moringa!!

Living in a Food Insecure Household

Prior to moving to Africa, I failed to understand what food security meant on a personal basis.  Though I grew up in a household that didn’t have a lot of money, we always had food.  I never went hungry. 

However, during PST, the first few months of training in South Africa, I lived with a family and ate what they ate.  I didn’t truly realize it at the time, but the family I stayed with was food insecure.

Let me be clear, I never went hungry. But I often wasn’t full.  Our meals were limited in choice and greatly emphasized cheap carbs like pap (stiff maize porridge), rice, and bread.  Though we had protein at almost every meal, the servings were quite small.  I didn’t eat many fruits and vegetables, and sometimes would go days without either.

Peace Corps delivered a food parcel every two weeks.  The first few days after it was delivered were great-we had fresh fruit, green vegetables, and our meals were varied.  The rest of the week, the fruit was gone and the vegetables started to peter out.  The second week meant I was often hungry after lunch, and meals were mostly comprised pap and chicken.  My family almost always had chicken at the evening meal, which was great, but the portions would dwindle during the second week.  Some of the meals I had included penne pasta noodles with ketchup and chicken; lettuce and cheese sandwiches for lunch; pap and baked beans; and eggs, bread, and homemade French fries. Not exactly nutritious or delicious.

I remember times when I would open my lunch at 10am and frown because I was already hungry from breakfast and there wasn’t much for lunch.  There were no snacks.  There was no junk food.  During PST, trainees are given a tiny stipend of about $15usd a week, so I was not able to supplement the family’s food often with my budget.  I would occasionally buy some fruit to share or some chips to eat at lunch, but with such a small stipend, and it didn’t go far.

I lived in a food insecure household for 8 weeks, and that experience will never leave me.  I can’t imagine living that way for the rest of my life, but at least 12 million people in South Africa do.  I have no idea what it would have been like if Peace Corps hadn’t provided food parcels to our host families.  Those food bundles ensured our food security while I was living in the household, and it troubles me that this wasn’t necessarily the case prior to my arrival.

Food insecurity has become an important issue for me since I arrived in Africa.  Food security ought to be a basic human right, but at least 12 million people in South Africa are denied it.  Most of the people in my village live in food insecure household.  I’ve spent most of my service trying to ensure that, in some small way, families in my village can learn to be self-sufficient and ensure their own food security.  Yet climate change and its impact on villages like mine concerns me, and threatens to undo all the work I’ve down over the past few years.  Sadly, there’s no easy answer.

I can’t wave a magic wand and fix these problems.  But I can give people the knowledge to improve their own lives and ensure a better future.  And I’m trying to do that on a very small scale.
-Jen

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.
-Jen

http://www.westerncape.gov.za/eng/directories/services/11512/6451
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC201028/
http://www.timeslive.co.za/thetimes/2013/01/30/twelve-million-going-to-bed-hungry-in-sa

Hunger

Grade R learners-notice the hair of the 2 on the left.

Grade R learners-notice the hair of the 2 on the left.

Since arriving in my village, I’ve noticed how thin kids are. Since food is harder to get in my village than others, and since the unemployment rate is higher, almost every single child in my school is thin. Last year, there were 2 kids that would be described as pudgy, and that has more to do with them having poor-fitting uniforms than actually being fat. Few children appear to be at a healthy weight, and the vast majority are bony arms and legs. It’s hard to live in this reality. Adults are typically overweight, but kids are dreadfully skinny. This is due to a diet largely based on pap (cornmeal dish) and for the well-off family, chicken and maybe a veggie.

I had been told that most of the learners didn’t have enough food, and many went to bed hungry or didn’t have breakfast. Each child would get a meal at school, and unlike every other school I’ve visited, only a handful would bring other food with them. The meals are small and basic, just some carbs, veg/fruit, and a protein. At most schools, kids bring a “real” lunch with them, but not at mine. Mma N, my garden counterpart, had said several times that most learners don’t have food at home, and was adamant about giving food boxes from the garden to our OVCs. But I honestly assumed she and other educators were blowing things out of proportion. This is South Africa, kids can’t be starving, right?

Then I started looking and noticing. I saw how few kids brought food from home, how many didn’t buy snacks at school or participate in fundraisers. I noticed brittle, reddish-blond hair, a dead giveaway symptom of Kwashiorkor. I saw how sluggish and out of it kids were in the mornings, before lunch was served. Kids stole our garden veggies. I observed how slowly children developed, and how babies and toddlers didn’t walk or talk. I saw how small the kids really were, and it was heartbreaking.

Hidden hunger, or lack of micronutrients, is a dangerous form of hunger. People don’t necessarily die from it, but it has lifelong effects. Kwashiorkor is a form of malnutrition that comes from not eating enough protein, even though you get enough calories. I had noticed how some kids had reddish or even gold-blonde hair, and found it intriguing. These are black kids, after all, so their hair shouldn’t be red or gold-blonde. I noticed that many kids in Grade R, 1, and 2 had this hair, but only a few older kids did. So when kids start coming to school in Grade R, they are served a complete protein 5 times a week, and it is helping them. The older kids look a little healthier, but the littlest ones are so small, so underdeveloped.

Kwashiorkor and malnutrition stunt children, meaning they do not grow as tall as they should. This typically is lifelong, which may help explain why some people here are so short. With Kwashiorkor, which I think is the prevalent form of malnutrition in my village, children lose muscle mass and do not develop as they should, mentally or physically. They hit milestones late and suffer in school because they are not prepared for the demands of the classroom. Some even get red or gold-blonde hair, which is very brittle. In the worst stages, they will lose their hair and sometimes skin, leaving oozing sores. If a child has Kwashiorkor, it is much more likely that they will suffer from (maybe even die from) another infection, like pneumonia, TB, malaria, or HIV/AIDS.

I’m setting out on a project to weigh and measure the heights of each child in my school. I’m looking for funding through the Department of Agriculture to help the school garden, and I hope this information helps. Since we use the garden to help feed the kids, hopefully they will be more willing to support us if they see the level of malnutrition and stunting. If not, at least I’ll know which kids need the food box the most. I know it will be hard to uncover the extent of the malnutrition in my village, but it needs to be done. Yes, this is South Africa, but people still suffer from malnutrition.
-Jen

Grade R having lunch. Notice the light hair.

Grade R having lunch. Notice the light hair.

Grade R making recycled art!

Grade R making recycled art!