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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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!





What is Hunger?

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


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

What exactly is hunger?

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

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

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


Kwashiorkor causes hair to lose colour.

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

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

Both conditions are life-threatening if left untreated. 

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


Underweight children watching a gardening demonstration.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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!”

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.”


The garden in 2011

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


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.

Planting Gardens Here and There


The start of a trench bed!


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!  🙂


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.


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!”


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. 


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! 


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.

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.

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

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