Leaving this Place Better than Before, Part 2

Though I’m not yet leaving South Africa, I am moving from one site to another as I switch from my original assignment to my third year assignment.  In one way, I am finishing up my service and starting anew.  This past week, I attended the COS conference for my cohort, SA24.  Of the 57 of us who came to country, 47 made it to the end of service.  For SA, this is amazing….most cohorts lose far more than we did due to ETs.  45 of us were at our COS conference…two having already COS’d.  And while most of the information given at our COS conference won’t be relevant to me for another year, it was a time for reflection on what I’ve done so far.

Have I really left this place (my old village) better than it was before?

The Village.

The Village.

One of the things that is unique to SA is that just by being in my village for two years, I make a small impact.  Children and adults in my village were able to interact regularly with a white person-one who was learning their language, making efforts to honor their culture, and who tried to help them.  This certainly hadn’t happened to them before.  Children began to change their attitudes: instead of being terrified that a white lady was speaking to them, they began to laugh, then they stopped laughing and greeted me normally.  At the end, children would run up to me, gleefully shouting my name and greetings in English and Setswana.  Adults stopped averting their eyes and speaking Afrikaans to me, and instead happily jabbered at me in Setswana, or tested their shy English skills.  I scarcely heard “lekgoa!” being shouted at me as I walked through the village.  Women would stop and offer to help me carry my things, and men would help me find transport.

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Even if PCVs in SA do nothing else, we change the stereotypes.  We leave our villages a little bit better than they were before, no matter our race.

My host family.

My host family.

Yet there were a multitude of projects I wanted to start, and things I wanted to teach the children.  There were things I allowed to slip through my village, whether through exhaustion, frustration, or simply not knowing how to solve the unceasing problems.  I wanted to do many things: start a girls’ club, host a Camp GLOW, get funding for the garden club, reach out to more home gardeners, significantly improve English and NS scores, start a LoveLife, set up a library, focus more on HIV/AIDS nutrition, engage the community….and many more than I can’t even remember now.  It’s easy to set your goals too high and dwell on the things we failed to do.

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But I believe that every PCV leaves their home a little better than before.  It could well be that all of my projects have completely failed six months from now, and that the people in my village forget my name.  Maybe they’ll start to forget that I was ever there.  But small things will remain: the adorable Grade R who ran to greet me each day might vaguely remember how to plant seeds, my 13 year old host sister might have strong enough English skills to attend university someday, my counterpart may glance at the garden year plan we made from time to time, and the teachers might remember to take the learners outside every now and then and teach in the garden.  Or they might not.

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It was really hard to leave my old village behind.  I had invested a lot of time, blood, sweat, and tears over the past few years.  Even though I saw my counterpart and the Garden Club learners take ownership of our garden, I didn’t want to let go.  I wanted to stay and see what they do next.  But I can’t.  And while I’m hoping to visit in 2014, who knows what the future holds.

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I hope and pray that I’ve left my old village a little better than before.  I doubt I’ll even know if and how, but as long as one little things changed, or one opinion shifted, then it was two years well spent.

Adios, my village.

Adios, my village.

-Jen

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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?

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“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.
-Jen

Realities of the African Village Life

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

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The garden in 2011

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

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The garden in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Planting Gardens Here and There

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The start of a trench bed!

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The past few weeks have been pretty crazy in my normally slow-paced African life.  I was out of the village from April 11-28th, travelling here there and everywhere on Peace Corps business.  It’s actually pretty unusual for an education PCV to be out of the village during the school term for so long, but lest anyone think I was slacking-it was all PC approved!  🙂

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Planting seedlings.

Back in February, I was invited to help facilitate one of the PC Permagarden trainings with the newest education group, SA26.  The workshop was held in KwaZulu Natal, the home of the Zulu people and 100% different than my Kalahari home.  Mountains, trees, long grass, rain, fog, fertile soil….what a beautiful area!  The workshop was held in the Sisonke district, and about 7 PCVs and their counterparts attended.  I hold this group of PCVs in high regard: almost all of them teach 15-20 hours a week, and some are so rural that they don’t have electricity at home.  Woah.  I had a lot of fun working with this group, and LOVED getting to see real KZN…I had been down to Durban last year, but Durban doesn’t even come close to showing the beauty of KwaZulu Natal.

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I've gotten good at carrying things on my head like the locals. I'm on the right.

Fun thing: we stayed in a haunted hotel.  I was on the fourth floor (aka attic), in a room alone, in a creaky, Victorian style house.  It was creepy to say the least.  No, I don’t think they had 8 ghostly visitors, but it was still pretty creepy. 

The two day workshop went remarkably well, and some of the participants have already started their own gardens since then.  They learned some basic permaculture methods, and several have already contacted me for more information.  I’d love to visit some of their gardens sometime, but I have no clue if that is in the cards!  It was definitely fun to interact with some Zulu people, and hear this 100% foreign-to-me language….we didn’t even learn Zulu greetings in PST, so I was at a loss besides “Sanibonani!”

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One of the covered seed beds.

After that workshop, I spent a day in Pretoria, then headed back across North West, through half of Northern Cape, to a remote village on the SA-Botswana border.  I had been planning a workshop with 3 (three!) PCVs who live in this village for awhile, and was excited to visit their unique home.  This village is home to a fairly large white and coloured population (not an offensive term here!), along with a large black population (who still live off in the “location” on the dune…relic of Apartheid).  However, no white children attend the school, only coloured and black kids.  This school, due to the “diversity”, is dual-medium, meaning they have an Afrikaans track and an English track. 

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Some of the ABET learners with their tire gardens.

Obviously, this was not the normal village experience.  This was easily the nicest rural school I had been in, and honestly could have been mistaken for an American school, albeit low-income and pretty under-resourced.  There were the typical South African education problems, such as overcrowding, corporal punishment, absenteeism, few resources, and the numerous other problems found in village schools.  However, the staff was pretty motivated, and wanted to have a workshop for their ABET ( Adult Based Education and Training) class, comprised of about 25 Grade 7 learners.  Yes, an adult education class for Grade 7 kids….some of whom were almost my age! 

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The finished garden!

I was a little leery about working with the most troublesome and struggling learners at this school, but I was pleasantly surprised.  For most of the workshop, they were attentive, involved, and asking/answering questions.  They were clearly excited to be out of the classroom and learning in a different way.  I spoke with one of the volunteers, and he said they might try to have a gardening period every day, since they learners were actually involved in their learning during this workshop.  Just goes to show that sometimes learners need to be out of class to learn!

My next leg of this journey involved another cross-country trip to see my third year site, but that is definitely worthy of its own post.
-Jen

When You Know It’s Worth It

What a beautiful garden!

What a beautiful garden!

Sometimes (aka often) as a PCV, I wonder if what I’m doing makes any difference. I wonder if my village will show any sign of progress in 1, 5, or 10 years. Change can be so slow to happen that I often think I’ve done practically nothing with the last year and a half of my life.

And then days like today happen, and I know I’ve done something. I know my hard work hasn’t been for nothing.

Today we went to visit the home gardeners. We visited them in September, before the rains came, and most of them do not have taps at home. Therefore, without rain, they are unable to plant. Unfortunately, it hasn’t rained much this year, so the gardens have suffered. But what I saw put a HUGE smile on my face!!

In every garden we visited (5 total), there were new permaculture techniques being used. I saw intercropping, the 3 sisters, drip irrigation, mulch, compost, manure, trench beds, companion planting….in short, the main things we’ve been doing in our garden at school and at our trainings. It was amazing to see how the people have implemented these new techniques, and embraced the things I was so desperate to teach. Some of the beds were empty, and the people would tell us they had just eaten the carrots, beans, spinach, beetroot, etc.

Food in hungry bellies, what I’ve wanted all along.

Sometimes I wonder if what I’m doing has any impact, and I’m one of the lucky PCVs who actually can see that impact-tangibly, visibly. In the education sector, most PCVs have to hope their impact will come about years down the road, and they may never see real change in their school, even though it happens beneath the surface. I’ve been able to see a metamorphosis at my school, among the learners, and in the village, and I’m so thankful to see some of the changes.

Last week, I glanced at my host family’s garden (which I don’t use) and saw drip irrigation, which I had taught my host sister about during Garden Club. On my way to school, I’ve seen a garden or two that planted the 3 sisters. Learners are respectful of the garden areas at school and rush to help me out.

Change is slow, and fragile. It could be that in 5 years, nobody remembers the name of the young lekgoa girl who played in the dirt for two years. But I hope they remember what I’ve tried to teach. I hope my school still takes pride in the garden, and has blossomed into a leader in the community. And I hope fewer kids show evidence of kwashiorkor, a protein-energy deficiency, because they are eating veggies from their gardens.

I realize that when I leave, everything I’ve done with the permaculture project could completely fall apart. But I don’t think that will happen, not entirely. And to prevent that, I’m looking for an organization that is willing to fund supplies, seeds/seedlings, and a few stipends for the next 2-3 years (so if you’re interested, or know someone who is….let me know!). By having funding through the next few years, my school can focus on growing and improving the school garden, regardless of whether I’m there or not. A few ladies from the community could have temporary employment through stipends, and would be motivated to care for the garden.

The amazing thing about these home gardeners is that, despite serious poverty, they were willing to give. One lady gave us the biggest squash in her garden, and another the ripest watermelon. A lady with a beautiful forest-like garden broke off reeds of sugar cane and passed it around, and we chewed on it as she chattered about her garden, then promised to give us some later to grow at the school. The generousity of people who have far less than I do never ceases to amaze me! Ubuntu at its best.
-Jen

Stunning garden! Compost, almost forest gardening, diversity, intercropping, trench beds!

Stunning garden! Compost, almost forest gardening, diversity, intercropping, trench beds!

Term 1 Has Disappeared

As we all expected, the second year Peace Corps is flying by. Term 1 exams have commenced, summer is petering out into fall, and SA24 is looking at one full term of teaching (or not teaching) before most of us head home. Where has the time gone? Lucky me, I have a whole third year left to serve, so I’m not panicking about starting my real life yet.

But I’ve been incredibly busy this term! With the full support of my APCD, I’ve spent a fair amount of time outside of my village, doing permaculture workshops. Often times PC will discourage PCVs form being away from site often because we aren’t as effective at site. However, because I’m not a full time teacher and because I’ll be doing this work for my third year (and the rest of my life), PC has been pretty great about allowing me ample work leave during the school term. Because of this, I’ve done 3 workshops in 3 different provinces and have another planned for this weekend! Remember that travel here isn’t like travel in the USA, and realize that I am pretty darn pooped after all this traveling the facilitating!

But man do I love it. I’ve have 2 workshops planned for early next term as well, one if Northern Cape and one with PCSA staff in KwaZulu Natal. Talk about polar opposites: the Kalahari Desert versus some of the lushest land in Africa. 🙂

I’ve also had the chance to visit a potential third year site and spent a few days with a PCV friend in Limpopo. It’s been a pretty good term because I’ve seen dozens of PCVs from SA23, SA24, SA25, and even SA26. This is not usual for us far NW-NorCapers during a school term, so I’ve enjoy it and the several showers I’ve been able to take. Enjoying the small blessings for sure! I also was able to see my friend Sue and cajun, who work for Food and Trees for Africa, at a workshop last weekend, and I’ll see them again this weekend. So even though I lost Lorato and Tsiamo, the nearest PCVs to me, I’ve been able to see some friendly face. And…AND my father comes IN ELEVEN DAYSSSSSSS!!!!! (excited dance)

On the extension front-there are 2 potential sites in Limpopo, both were new groups are going to be placed. I visited the one village in February, and quickly came to love the village and the area. There are a lot of work-related issues at this site, but there is certainly potential for good work. Last week I was asked to submit a resume for another potential site (thankfully I had a mostly updated one done) and they seemed REALLY dedicated and hardworking. From the work description, it seems almost perfect, and is apparently in one of the most beautiful areas in South Africa, near Tzaneen. As one PCV put it “Tzaneen is seriously my favorite town in South Africa.” Plus, I’m pretty sure it’s in Tsonga/Shangaan area, and I’ve wanted to learn Tsonga since my first day in South Africa!

In short, I’m really pumped to serve for my third year, and wish I could start NOW! But I’ve got several trainings I need to do first! 🙂
-Jen

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Beautiful Venda

Rondevals and maize in Venda.

Rondevals and maize in Venda.

I had been asked by a fellow PCV in December if I could come facilitate a permagarden workshop at her site, which I quickly agreed to. I was a little worried because her site is quite far from mine, in an entirely different climate in SA: up in Venda, or northern Limpopo province.

Start of the workshop!

Start of the workshop!

Fun fact: during Apartheid, Venda (home of the Venda people) was one of the few regions that actually because a sovereign country. The Apartheid government intended to make several of these areas, but Venda was one of the few that were actually created and recognized as a sovereign nation. Due to this, the Venda culture is still very strong. Where I live in SA was also an independent homeland during Apartheid, Bophuthatswana….but the Tswana culture didn’t survive Apartheid as well as Venda did.

Completing the compost heap.

Completing the compost heap.

Anyways, I was delighted to travel to one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa, and excited to garden in an area where things actually grow (unlike the Kalahari Desert). After approval with my APCD, I merged this workshop into a trip that would include a visit to a potential third year site, where one of the awesome SA24 PCVs live.

Takalani and her counterpart, Bruni.

Takalani and her counterpart, Bruni.

After a stop at my favourite backpackers in Pretoria (Khayalethu), I hopped on a bus up to Venda. The further north I went, the more lush and mountainous the landscape became. Finally, up near Louis Trichardt, I fell in love with Venda, its numerous mango trees, the intense green of summer, and the gently rolling mountains that contrasted sharply with my dry, flat, Kalahari home. I met up with Takalani, the PCV who I was helping.

Nearby students dancing....hard to talk over the drums and singing, but fun to watch anyways.

Nearby students dancing….hard to talk over the drums and singing, but fun to watch anyways.

The next two days were spent leading an intense permagarden workshop and drinking in the beauty of Venda. The workshop went very well, despite near constant translation, a cramped room, and interruptive culture dancing while we were working in the garden (ohhhhh Africa….it was still fun to watch). Despite my age, the people-adults and professionals who work in OVC drop-in centers all over Venda-were eager to listen and learn from me. A guy from the department of Agriculture attended the whole workshop and was excited to see the permaculture methods I was teaching. This is the second very positive experience with the Dept of Agric I’ve had while training, and I really hope to make some connections-they are amazingly supportive of permaculture, which makes me very happy!

Getting ready to plant seedlings.

Getting ready to plant seedlings.

A completed trench bed, with Takalani and the Dept of Ag guy next to her.

A completed trench bed, with Takalani and the Dept of Ag guy next to her.

At the end of the workshop, I knew a little more Venda and honestly didn’t want to leave the area. I’ve learned to see the beauty of the desert, but it was hard to leave the lush semi-jungle of Venda. However, I managed to travel via 4 (FOUR) bush taxis down to Southern Limpopo the day after the workshop to visit a potential third year site, but I think that deserves its own post.
-Jen

Wormery session.

Wormery session.

Sibasa, near Thohoyandou in Venda.

Sibasa, near Thohoyandou in Venda.

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