Sunday, October 2, 2011

Coming to terms with house music

After two months in the Congo, I am still struggling to think of interesting things to write about our life here. It's not that we are by any means unhappy or even bored. As I mentioned, our quality of life is quite high. We've got a great place to live, can afford to treat ourselves to some of the ridiculously expensive imported foods, spend many afternoons at the pool, and always have people to hang out with. This blog is supposed to about "African" things, right? And we're just not in a position to gain much in the way of a perspective on the state of the Congo as relative outsiders.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one interesting thing about living here is getting to see the intersection of Central and Southern African goods and culture. Though the Congo is geographically in central Africa, South Africa seems to be working towards co-opting into it's area of dominance (that already extends across Southern Africa). South African companies are worming their way in, and the DRC is part of SADC (the Southern African Development Community).

The more interesting thing to observe is the intersection of culture here. People say 'koko' before entering a room just like in South Africa. They also grab they air to motion someone to come towards them just like in Chad. Congolese music, in addition to being some of the most popular music around Africa, shows some of this intersection as well. I came to surprising revelation the other evening while listening to a Congolese band playing in a bar. Some of the beats reminded me of jiving to South African house music. I had always thought of house music as a European style embraced by South Africans, but I finally realized it was more than this - sure the electronic side of house music is European but the beats are African and that's what makes it so popular. I'm still not a fan of most house music, but at least I can justify enjoying the song 'Jezebel' so much.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Walking Around the Neighborhood

I've been having a hard time thinking about what to write on this blog lately. As I had imagined, our life here is much more focused on school and our students so I don't know that I will ever know enough about the Congo to really comment on culture, society, or politics like I could in Chad or South Africa. Living on the school campus is a bit of a unique experience. Though it's a like a compound that is isolated from what's going on around it, we can and do walk out the gate and around the neighborhood whenever we want. Of course, during the week, we're usually pretty tired by the end of the day and even walking 10 minutes to buy a few loaves of bread seems like too much work, but on the weekend we like to walk down to a busy intersection which is about a 30 minute walk from school. On the way you pass one of Mobutu's old palaces which also housed a zoo (complete with a lion that was killed and eaten during the fighting). It's a cool place, totally overgrown but the cages are all still there peeking through the thick undergrowth. You can see the remains of stalks where soldiers (we think) from the surrounding army have cleared some of the land to plant corn in past years. There's also a museum which we haven't been inside yet, but outside of it, there's a statue of Henry Morton Stanley that has long since fallen down. It's kind of creepy as the way his arms are extended towards the sky it looks like he's reaching towards heaven as he takes his last breath.

Another 10 minutes past the zoo/palace/museum brings us to the circle. There's a Nando's (which I've heard is not anywhere as good as Nando's in South Africa, but since I've never eaten Nando's before, who knows) and lots of small shops that mainly cater to the Kinois not expats though you can get just about anything you need in them. The best part though is that it's the closest market type area to where we live, and there are lots of ladies selling vegetables and fruit for much more reasonable prices than in the expat grocery stores or from the ladies who come and sell on campus. What's crazy about Kinshasa is that people don't really seem to care that you are there. Certainly the vegetable ladies want you to pick them for your business, but we haven't really been harassed at all walking around this busy circle or around our part of the city in general. Though children are occasionally excited to greet us, many children let us pass without a second glance something that would never happen in the other places we've been in Africa. People here just seem to be underwhelmed by foreigners. Maybe with so much negative involvement since Stanley first came down the river til now, they've actually figured out that foreigners and foreign aid aren't the answer, or maybe their just too busy to care. Who knows, but I'm happy to get a chance to walk around the neighborhood a bit.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

getting comfortable

As we get settled here in Kinshasa, we are constantly amazed by how comfortable our life here is. We've moved a few steps up from Peace Corps and though we don't have everything we had in South Africa (like a microwave), we have to filter our water and bleach our fruits and veggies, and sometimes the water or power go out, things are just a million times easier. It's bizarre because we suddenly find ourselves with lots of free time in the evenings and don't really know what to do with it. Here's just a few examples of what's changed...

We don't have to wash our clothes by hand. We've got a washer and dryer and our housekeeper usually does our laundry for us anyway.

When we wash the dishes, our non-stick pots and pans get clean in about one hundredth the time of our dishes in South Africa and we can wash them under hot water coming straight out of the tap.

We can buy alcohol and bring it home without worrying about concealing it.

We can also buy as much as we want of anything because we don't have to carry it on taxis.

We eat salad which we never really did in South Africa mostly because of the annoyance of carrying vegetables home from the grocery store. We also eat lots more fruit because of the same reason.

We can take a hot shower anytime we want. We can go number 2 in the middle of the night if we have to without risking the bad folks lurking in the night.

We can look at as many pictures and videos and download as much as we want on the internet (with the exception of tv shows and movies).

We can walk around our beautiful jungley school compound, see parrots, and enjoy nature.

We can swim in the pool that is a less than 5 minute walk from our house or play just about any sport with the teachers, aid workers, missionaries, etc.

We've got neighbors all around us who are always up for a beer and a chat.

We've got all of these things and yet we still live in Africa. This morning, we walked down to a busy intersection a couple kilometers from the school where there is a small market of sorts, just people selling food and things on the side of the road. We bought some fruits and veggies, and James bought himself a new pair of our favorite African (well really Chinese I'm sure) flip flops since he left his last pair in South Africa. It was nice to get out and see more of the area around the school, and not just from a car driving by it. In some ways, Kinshasa is a scary city, but walking around near the school, you don't feel like that at all. It feels like a much smaller place than a city of 10 million, and it was nice to finally feel a bit more grounded here and less wrapped up in all those conveniences I described above.

Friday, August 5, 2011

enter the congo

Thanks to all for blog title ideas. I decided to go with one of James' since it is supposedly his blog too though he wouldn't offer ideas until I put it out there to the world. So thanks for motivating him :)

We arrived safely in Kinshasa on Sunday after very different length trips. James' had a four hour direct flight from Jo'burg while I had a longer trek via Addis. I spent over 36 hours on airplanes in less than two weeks. Not fun. But it was wonderful getting to spend time with friends and family in Virginia and Maine and to see our beautiful kitty.

We also haven't written since our whirlwind July began. The first week of July we finished up the last of the school libraries and attended our final farewell function. It was nice to hear everyone's speeches and to present them with our silly gifts (as well as to receive some very nice heartfelt gifts from the schools. Some of the middle school girls came and did traditional dance (both Shangaan and Tswana styles of dance), and one of the principals' daughters came and sang some wonderful songs. The highlight of the whole day was the bus ride home with the middle school girls dancing like crazy to house music the entire time.

Then we attended the Pan-African Reading for All Conference in Gaborone, Botswana. It was a great experience for us as well as the principals/teacher who came with us since they got to experience another country with a very slightly different culture as well as connect with a lot of academics and some NGOs. Our presentation went really well, and people seemed very interested in the work we were doing. Overall it was a very useful and fun week.

We only got to return to the village briefly after the conference, but our host mom prepared a wonderful farewell luncheon before we said our tearful goodbyes. It was challenging to leave after two wonderful, exhausting, and rewarding years in Jericho. (Now I can say the name because we don't live there anymore.)

We've jumped into everything here though the first week has been mostly taking care of logistics. We've been to just about every expat shopping destination in Kinshasa and resigned ourselves to the fact we'll be doing our shopping at grocery stores rather than markets since that's the norm for expats here. The good thing is that our taste in food is on the cheaper side anyway so we won't fall prey to the often exorbitant prices here as often as most.

It's a big, hectic city and we're just now starting to figure out how to get around, but it will be interesting when we take our first solo trip out into the city. We've been getting back into French as we keep getting called upon by other new teachers to help with negotiations and anything that needs explaining in French.

The campus and our house is beautiful. We've got more than enough space and are still enjoying the luxury of indoor plumbing. Air conditioning is nice but not as necessary yet since it isn't too hot this time of year. Our gardener (yep, we have a gardener...and a housekeeper) is planning to get started on a vegetable garden soon. There's also a swimming pool on campus, and I'm going to start swimming for exercise in the next couple of days.

Next week, we'll be preparing for school to start and then on the 15th, things will begin for real. For now though, we're enjoying relatively leisurely days and nights in the Congo.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

getting there

Today begins our last full week in the village. The following week we'll be traveling to Botswana to attend and present at the Pan-African Reading for All Conference. We'll get back from that Friday the 15th and have to head to Pretoria on the 17th to finish up our Peace Corps business. Then I'll be arriving in American on the 21st, spend the 25th-29th in Maine, and leave for Kinshasa on the 30th. It's going to be a jam-packed month, that's for sure.

So our fears about no one caring that we were leaving seemed to be ill founded. Three weeks or so ago, I discovered a secret principals' meeting taking place with the aim of planning our farewell. They didn't seem to realize how soon it was coming up and ended up settling on the 7th as basically the last possible date they could have it. It should be an interesting event, but it's a bit sad because these kinds of things are expensive so they can only invite so many people. Lots of people have been asking us about it who won't get to go, but it would be impossible to cater an event for the whole village (and when we suggested not catering anything, that was just an impossible proposition).

We have already had two smaller farewells that were really nice. I had planned two parties for my clubs to give them certificates and have snacks which felt a little weird since they are planning to continue after I leave. At the one for the magazine club, the teachers commandeered it a bit and had two kids give speeches and they gave speeches along with some presents. The second one was a bit bigger. One of our schools told us they needed us at school on Friday (the last day of school) and they did a program with the whole school. Conveniently they had just participated in an arts competition so they had their traditional dance routine and gospel song already prepared. Those were great plus more speeches, lots of singing and one of our favorite things...singing and dancing while presenting presents. All of the teachers took one of the presents (like towels, picture frames, etc) and danced them up to us on the stage and presented each one while all the kids were singing and dancing at their seats. It was super fun. When we have cheaper internet, we'll try to post videos of these things.

Anyway, it's been a great end to our time here but extremely busy. This week continues to be busy, even with no school. We've got to finish up the last of the libraries, make presents for all the schools, finish the paper and powerpoint for the conference, thoroughly clean our house, and make a dent in the packing process.

It's weird to think back over these two years as it's flown by, but it's crazy to remember everything we've done. We've traveled in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Liberia. We've been through week long power outages and months long water outages. We've been to countless weddings, funerals, and parties and marched around the streets. We made it through a month long teachers' strike. We've seen 4 of the big five and countless other animals. We've swam in the Indian (and Atlantic) Ocean. We've been to the ridiculous Hartebeespoort Snake Park twice. We've spent countless hours talking with our host mom. We finally made friends in the village. We've planned two fun camps that were plagued by extreme cold and extreme wet. We watched Siphiwe Tshabalala score the first goal of the World Cup in a packed room with people of all ages from the village. We saw the US take on England live. We have met an NBA player, the US Ambassador, the South African national soccer coach. We've built/supplemented 4 libraries. We've played Chicago with kids on the street.

It's been a wonderful two years.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Plight of South Africa's Boys, Continued

For the past few weeks, I had been considering e-mailing Oprah my opinions on this issue, basically because if I were in her shoes, I'd feel a responsibility to help the boys of South Africa not just the girls. I don't know how much she knows about the challenges faced by males in this country, but on the off chance that she doesn't know anything at all, maybe my e-mail would get read by someone sort of important and make a difference. I know the reason that she started her school here wasn't really for South Africa, but for Africa itself where in most countries, girls have a horribly impossible time and for herself, as she is very dedicated to women's issues. Still, it makes me wonder why not base your school in a country then where girls really need your support.

This desire to communicate with Oprah had been brewing as, as I mentioned in the last post, we've been watching a lot of Oprah (we get episodes about 4 months behind so the final episode has not yet aired) since winter started. She's really quite good at making you feel like she is accessible and might just call you up when you really know that's never going to happen. Now, my reflection on this issue has been enhanced by the chance of me ever meeting Oprah has gone from never in a million years to slight chance we'll be in the same room, but would I even get to talk to her and if then, would it go beyond hello?

So a few more thoughts to ponder about boys, education and life in South Africa. In my research for our conference paper, I had the chance to read the report on South Africa of the 2006 PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study). This study which compared scores of 4th and 5th graders in 35 countries around the world (most of them developed, the only other African country included was Morocco) found that South Africa performed the lowest of all countries. Within South Africa, students from rural schools also performed significantly worse that students from urban and suburban schools. These statistics were not suprising to me, but what I found most interesting was the gap in performance between girls and boys. Overall, in all countries, girls performed better than boys, but South Africa also had one of the greatest performance gaps between girls (gr 5: avg. 319, gr 4 avg. 271) and boys (gr 5: avg. 283, gr 4: avg. 235). For context, the international average score (and most countries only tested grade 4) was 500. I wish they would have given the breakdown of rural students' scores by gender, but they don't.

In my schools, I see boys lagging behind consistently. I know a number of boys who dropped out of school after the finished 6th grade (end of primary school.) Because of my interest in this issue, I decided to disaggregate the scores on the pre and post assessments I did for creative writing for our research by gender. The overall average on the pre-test was 11.4 (out of twenty) and the overall average on the post-test was 13.4 so the average went up by two points. For girls, the pre average was 11.8 and the post average was 13.2 (an increase of 1.4). For boys, the pre average was 11.14 and the post average was 13.48 (an increase of 2.34). So as you can see, boys originally under performed girls, but made a much larger increase in score to outperform them.

I can only attempt to understand why this happened, but my guess is that, the boys were motivated by the kinds of activities we did because they were interesting to them. In my schools at least, the culture of girls seems to be very achievement oriented. They want succeed. They do everything that they are asked to so that they will get good marks. Though there are a few girls in that class who really just do not know how to read and continue to fail, most girls average 3 and 4s (above average). The boys just don't seem to care as much about getting high marks. I think it has to do with the factors I discussed in my previous post. They don't see the point. The creative writing activities we did were motivating to them because they were fun. Not a single one of them was for a grade (though in retrospect, maybe the should have been), but they did them anyway (boys and girls). Kids who completed their writing assignments got to go type them in the computer lab which was a big motivator. They got to write stories about things they were interested in. When I collected the post assessments (a story about a sequence of pictures), a few boys told me 'I think you're really going to like my story.' I don't know that fun and challenging activities are going to suddenly sweep across this nation, but I would guess they might help motivate boys.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

TV in South Africa

Unlike the vast majority of volunteers, we watch a lot of South African TV. This is mostly because we have a TV in our bedroom. We had never planned on buying a TV when we decided to join Peace Corps a second time around, but when we arrived at our fully furnished house, there it was (along with 3 couches, something most volunteers also don't have the luxury of in their PC abodes). Now, we are both extremely happy that we've had our TV, not just because of the hours of entertainment it provides, but because it has helped us to integrate into our community and to be more effective at our jobs.

We get the 4 free channels (our host mom has a satellite but we did not pay to get a second box so we only watch satellite TV very infrequently) so it's not like we have a lot of programming to choose from. Most of our students are also too poor for satellite TV so that's also what they watch. Usually in the evening, we watch Oprah, our favorite soap opera Rhythm City, the news and possibly something else if there is something good on (for whatever reason old seasons of American reality shows...Survivor, Amazing Race and American Idol lately...are the most entertaining to us). Oprah we most only watch in the winter because it's on at 5:30 at which point it is too cold to be outside any more while during the summer we sometimes stay outside chatting with our host mom til 7 or 8.

Watching the news has really helped us to understand what's going on in South Africa. Yeah, we could look up news online, but the news we see on TV is the news that most people are hearing so it becomes part of the collective consciousness. We often have conversations the next day about the news with teachers and other adults that we run into. It has helped us to learn more about the South African government, politics, and important people (hence why we were very excited to see South Africa's Police Commissioner Bheki Cele at the basketball event. He is on the news almost every night.) It also makes our favorite South African TV show "Late Night News with Loyiso Gola" (which is trying to be like the Daily Show) a lot funnier when we know who and what he is talking about.

Having background in ESL and sheltered instruction, one of the things I know is most important with teaching in a second language is accessing background knowledge to help kids connect that to what they are learning. I have found background knowledge kids have of life in the village a little bit helpful (teaching about mammals, I got kids to think about which animals give birth to live young for example), but I've found knowledge of TV shows even more helpful as it is shared by almost all of the kids and it helps even struggling kids to get the context of things that are farther from their own experience. Recently, I taught a lesson about the elements of a story (setting, plot, characters, and theme) and explained that not just stories that you read have these elements, but TV shows and movies too. I got kids to identify these elements on the most popular soap opera, Generations, before moving on to a story they had read. To explain that sometimes characters can be animals instead of people, I got them listing the characters on the cartoon "Skunk Fu". To discuss theme, I had them identify the theme of "Captain Planet" which was a great example because it's so obvious. Then, it was a lot easier for them to look for the theme of their story which was also pretty in your face, but is daunting to kids because it requires reading.

Anyway, even if had watched Captain Planet as a kid, I wouldn't know that it was on TV on Sunday mornings if I didn't flip through the channels. We don't usually watch movies on TV because why watch a movie filled with commercials when I have 100s of movies at my fingertips, but I always make a mental note of what movies they are showing each week because you never know when one might make a good example in teaching or just a good topic of conversation.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Nearing the End

With each passing day, we get closer to the end of our Peace Corps service. As I alluded in our last post, we have applied for an early Close of Service date of July 20th so if this date is approved we have less than 8 weeks left here in South Africa and only 4 weeks left of school (there is a school break at the end of June and beginning of July). We will most likely be going to school during this time anyway to finish up with sorting library books, but it doesn't feel the same when the kids and teachers aren't around.

The weird thing about leaving so soon is that it doesn't really feel like a particularly big deal. I think most people have just gotten so used to us being here that they forget we are leaving at all. While in December, it seemed like every 5 minutes I was being told not to leave and how much people would miss me, now people have settled into the year and aren't really thinking about us leaving. There has not been any talk about a "farewell function" in months. A farewell function is the typical large extravaganza held when someone retires or moves away for a new job, it usually involves a long program followed by a big meal. Though we are more than happy to go out like lambs, it is a bit of a weird ending to these two years of our lives in which we have been constantly thrust into the spotlight.

The biggest reminder that we are leaving is when we meet new people and are asked to help them with this or that project and have to reply that there just won't be time in the next two months.

In other news, though every day seems to be more important than the next in the quest to finish up our work here, we have both come down with a pretty bad flu/cold. James could not speak for about four days and I had a pretty high fever on Friday. Now, we both just seem to have pretty horrible sinus/throat situations going on, and I couldn't really sleep through the night last night because I just couldn't breathe. I'm hoping to make a fast recovery so that Monday I'll be good to go, but the freezing temperatures and constant dust clouds (dry season has officially arrived) are making it a challenge.

We recently had the opportunity to read a magazine article in a tourism magazine for the North West province that described our village in the context of a car passing through on the way to our neighboring national park (usually Friday and Sunday we see lots of Afrikaaners driving by, mostly intending to go fishing in the dam there as it's not as known for wildlife as other parks in the province). They say our village is clean and organized without a lot of trash on the side of the road. It is quite a funny description since there usually is quite a bit of trash on the side of the road, but I guess since there aren't like piles of it, it has gained the approval of the magazine writer. I was pondering this statement on Friday as I walked home, just 100 m or so from that same road the Afrikaaners were driving down, past a women and some children digging in the dry riverbed for water as, as usual, the water is out and has been for weeks. I wonder how that would fit with their image of this perfect, idyllic village where everyone is happy and properly disposing of their trash.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Culture and Friendship

As an anthropologist, how you define culture is part of how you situate yourself theoretically, and I don't intend to discuss the many different definitions and ways of looking at culture that there are in the world, but I want to reflect a bit on culture and how people view it. When I first came to South Africa, I commented to some of the Peace Corps higher ups when they were asking me about differences between here and Chad that people are a lot more proud of their culture here. They were surprised, and I've heard repeatedly both from South Africans and foreigners living here that South Africans no longer embrace their culture, that ubuntu is dead, etc, etc. Yet, I have not changed my opinion on that matter. Never in Chad did I see anyone perform a "traditional dance" or wear "traditional dress" (though the way people danced was certainly different than how people dance in South Africa or anywhere else I've been and South African's would describe the way Chadians dress as traditional, but having seen photos of how people dressed in Chad 100 years ago, it's certainly not.) This country works very hard to promote the idea that every person has a culture and as part of that there are traditions including dance, music, dress, and food. The textbooks promote it. The existence of 11 official languages promotes it. TV shows promote it. Heritage Day promotes it. School competitions in traditional dance promote it.

Never in Chad did I hear anyone say they were proud to be Ngambaye or anyone tell anyone they should be. Speaking Ngambaye at school is forbidden, and other volunteers were shocked to hear that the teachers would speak Ngambaye sometimes to each other at my school between classes because that was not the norm. But when it came to way of life, the life people lived was certainly much more "traditional" than the life of the vast, vast majority of South Africans. Personally, I do not think you can say that one group of people have more of a culture than another group of people because culture isn't just traditions or living a certain way. It is all of that and more. What I would say is that for South Africans, especially those living in rural places as those in urban areas often deal with competing cultural identities, recognizing themselves as cultural beings is much more a part of their culture, and whether this recognition only comes from the imposition of others that it should be valued or is something comes from within, I cannot say.

I've been thinking a lot lately about friendship as we are nearing the end of our Peace Corps service. Though I feel that I have been successful here in becoming a part of my community, I do not feel like I have made any friends that I feel anywhere as close to as I felt to my host mother/sister (she is a year younger than me so hard to call her a mother) Isabelle in Chad. I think that part of our ability to become as close as we did came from not sharing a knowledge base of pop culture and the world. I can have conversations with friends here about just about anything because they watch the news, have seen lots of movies, have seen the latest Lady Gaga video, but it often feels like small talk because that's what it is. I think I was able to get to a deeper level with her more easily because we couldn't have those kinds of conversations. I don't remember 90% of what we used to talk about but we hung out for hours at a time every day. Of course, we were also able to do that because we had the time. People like to say that life in the village is boring but I don't know anyone who has time to just spend their whole afternoon just sitting around, talking and playing Uno every single day.

I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes the gulf of difference between two people can actually be a blessing and that you cannot assume that just because you share knowledge or interests with another person that will allow you to relate to them. Culture and identity are much more complex than interests or even traditions as these things have different meanings to different people and it may be harder to get to the meaning behind things that are more familiar to you than things that are foreign.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cats Funerals Elections and Work

We have recently started to possess a cat. We do not own this cat and do not feed it, but it likes us quite a lot. It started about two months ago when I had the great urge to pet our next door neighbor's cats. No such thing was possible as they would not come within twenty feet of me so we bought two cans of tuna fish and started leaving out a tuna/lentil combo every night which was gone by morning. After a few days of this, we put it out earlier in the evening and then sat patiently inside until the cats showed up at which point we snuck outside and watched while they finished their meal. The next step was to sit outside the whole time they were eating. Finally, we tried to pet them. One of them, the dominant one of the two, allowed petting, but the other still won't come near us. At that point the feeding stopped (we had also just run out of tuna fish). We have not fed the cats in almost two months but the dominant cat comes to our door every day. She will walk with me to and from the bathroom or wherever I may be going as long as I stay inside the yard. She loves being petted, and it seems that that is her only incentive for hanging outside our door all day long as it never results in food. It's kind of the perfect relationship as I like her but not enough that I will be sad to leave her behind.

Last weekend, we attended the funeral of our host mother's nephew in law. It was a sad funeral because he had died in a car accident, but it was a wonderful time to be with our extended family here. We had to spend the night because it was in a nearby village and funerals start so early in the morning that you can't really get there on a taxi at that hour. Spending the night in an unfamiliar place is always a bit nerve-wracking because you never know how much time will be spent just sitting around with no one to talk to since Mma was of course busy taking care of the immediate family. That was not the case at all though as we arrived just when our sister and her kids arrived as well as our cousin. It was great to spend time with all of them. In some ways, even though this was a funeral for a person I didn't really know, I felt like I was getting a chance to attend my grandma's funeral. I know that's a silly thought, but it was the first time I got to be in a family oriented setting since she died and it was really nice.

This week was the municipal elections in South Africa. As Peace Corps volunteers we are not allowed to have political opinions, so I will just say that the election for ward counselor in our village was quite interesting and quite different from in nearby wards. We had 3 candidates, an ANC candidate, a DA (democratic alliance) candidate, and an independent candidate. The ANC candidate won with 57% while the DA candidate got 18% and the independent got 22%. In most other wards around us, the ANC had 80% or more of the votes so it was a relatively close election.

We've been really busy wrapping things up at our schools lately. If our early COS gets approved, we have only 5 more weeks of school and there's lots to do. It's been great finally getting to do things I've wanted to for the past two years. I have done some workshops for teachers and have been helping the English teacher a lot at one school. We're also getting the books organized at each school which is a bit of a task since they all have different levels of shelving situations. The community service club has been sponsoring after-school activities for the younger kids which has been crazy but fun. I'm also doing a leadership retreat for one school's prefects next week which I'm excited about. All in all things are going quite well, but it's crazy to think about how soon we'll be leaving.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


This blog is not intended for reading by family or friends or fellow Peace Corps enthusiasts though of course you are welcome to. It is intended for those people who create computer viruses and other malware because for some reason they find that an enjoyable pastime.

I may be wrong in assuming that when people make viruses they do not understand the full impact that these viruses have around the world. They must find it funny to think about all the people that their viruses impact, but I cannot imagine that they include people in developing countries in their private laugh fests.

Viruses spread like wildfire here in South Africa as I'm sure they do in other places with similar conditions (where technology is very prevalent but not very well understood). It seems like it's a constant battle to keep the computers at our schools free of viruses which are mostly spread by USB sticks. Whenever the administrative assistants get together for a workshop or to submit data about the school, they come back with new virus from other administrative assistants. Some people are more concerned than others and follow the directions we give for checking their USB sticks and computers and can usually keep their computers pretty clean, they have to be extremely vigilant whenever anyone else uses their computer. Others don't seem to mind wiping their hard drives clean and reinstalling Windows every few months and just throwing away (or they know how reformatting) USB sticks.

So all this is to say, if you like to make computer viruses for fun, please stop. You are making the lives of people working in under resourced rural schools in South Africa more difficult. Is that really that fun? Are those really the people you thought you were messing with when you made your viruses?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

going to africa

My recent trip to Kinshasa has led me to a bit of pondering about the influence of South Africa and other big players (i.e. China, America, France) on the rest of the continent. I've only done it twice (to Liberia and now the DRC) to get on a plane in Jo'burg and get off in "Africa". Neighboring countries that I've visited are just too influenced by South Africa to feel really different. The closest I've come to feeling like in I'm "Africa" on ground based travel was on our short foray to Zambia, and Livingstone (one of the biggest towns, of course) is still chock full of South African chain stores.

The main reason we did not pursue employment opportunities in South Africa is that we didn't want the suburban lifestyle that is the norm for people living in towns here. We are done with malls and chain stores at least for a while. Though these things exist in America too, they are much more prevalent here where you have to really go to Jo'burg or Cape Town to find good independent restaurants or shops and even there they are few and far between. This relates in a way to something we call the illusion of fanciness that exists here. You can go spend the afternoon sitting in a chain coffee shop, but you'll most likely be disappointed. Just like the fancy houses you see looking nice from the outside with bad construction inside, most of the chain restaurants provide mediocre food and the clothing stores provide ill fitting, bad quality clothes (unless you are willing to pay an arm and a leg, and I'm not just talking Peace Corps money standards).

Anyway, so being sick of all this and not wanting to truly adopt it (which we'd have to living in a town), we searched elsewhere for employment. Ironically, the first conversation I eavesdropped on on the plane to Kinshasa was a few South African businessmen discussing their plans to bring a mall to Kinshasa filled with all of the retailers I've grown to abhor. Inquiring more of folks in Kinshasa apparently this has been in the works for a while so I'm sure it won't be happening anytime soon. I was also surprised to find out that South African fast food chicken place Nandos already has a location not far from the school where we will be teaching. I was less surprised to see all of the South African food products available in the ex-pat grocery stores (for inflated prices of course). It was even interesting to see a local version of Cheetos (which we call snacks or Zimbas in South Africa where they are much more popular than in America and exist in lots of flavors) being sold as part of the school lunch. I never saw a salty mass produced snack product for sale in Chad though there were lots of, mostly Nigerian made biscuits, so I am guessing that this idea came from South Africa but who knows.

Even in Liberia, a country that loves the US more than anywhere else I've ever been, there was South African DSTV (satellite tv), cell phone service (lonestar cell owned by MTN), and the nicest hotel/resort was operated by South Africans. I do not remember hearing much about South African influence in Chad, but I wasn't so well versed in South African commerce at the time either. Chad is not a country much worth investing in as it doesn't have the natural resources, population or tourism potential of a place like the Congo (it has oil of course, but not that much, and it grows lots of cotton but that's not going to ever send the economy soaring) or the strategic port location and natural resources of Liberia. The only country that seems to be investing strongly in Chad is China as they are doing across the continent very liberally.

The investment of countries with strong economies in developing countries brings up some serious questions about neo-colonialism. How can a country develop itself when all of the businesses are owned by foreigners? Certainly a better quality of life (if you consider the ability to buy processed foods and all the goods imported a better quality of life) is available to a small proportion of the population, but how does this develop the country? If these companies do decide to bring production to the host country, this creates jobs but how is it different from colonization? Is there a difference between colonies created by nations and colonies created by corporations? Does foreign investment encourage local entrepreneurship to compete or encourage a culture of complacency and expectation that others will support them?

I have read a bit on this topic and so I know I am certainly not the first person to ask these questions, but I am struck by them every time I wander outside of this country into the rest of the continent. Maybe returning to "Africa" with a new perspective on South Africa will help me to unravel the mess, but I don't know. I of course have my own beliefs, but that is not the way that development and investment seems to be going. It's hard to see how either aid or investment will really help these countries to develop, and I sometimes wonder if that is even the goal.

Monday, March 21, 2011

passing as white

(I promise I talk about South Africa at the end of this post.)

Recently, watching Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, I've been thinking a lot about prejudice towards white people in America specifically towards my own people. Being from my generation, I have not had to deal with a lot of prejudice on account of my ethnicity or gender. Most stereotyping I have encountered has come from my (now former) surname, and often it played out more as people just making assumptions about me i.e. elementary school teachers asking if I am going to be absent for Rosh Hashanah or people assuming I do not celebrate Christmas. Though I have a few times run into more negative opinions, usually these are just hinted at and most often they come from people who have never met a Jewish person before. I have had to deal with none of the employment discrimination and overall societal feelings that my father and his parents etc experienced.

I always found being stereotyped into being Jewish ironic as I am not Jewish. Culturally, of course, I am as Jewish as I am Irish, but in terms of what technically makes you Jewish, I am not. And though I will always celebrate Jewish holidays (and I wonder why most Christians do not), though I am not technically Catholic either, my religious beliefs lie on that side.

Though changing my name was mostly a convenience as a result of years of answering the phone to telemarketers to explain that there was no Mrs. Silverstein residing at my house, it was also an experiment in passing. Would I be treated differently if people could not make assumptions about my ethnicity (ironic of course as Cramer was changed from Kramer as a result of WWI era anti-German sentiment)? I have found that thus far I was right. American people who did not know me before do not make these assumptions, they assume I'm just one of the mixed up 12% this, 12% that been in America a long time folks. I don't know that they necessarily treat me better as a result, but it is certainly different. And though I was never a fan of stereotyping, I don't think I like this better as is a constant reminder of the veiled prejudice of American society.

Expressing yourself ethnically is a challenge for white Americans unless you live in an enclave of your ethnicity. I feel much more Irish when I am surrounded by my mother's extended family in New York. Of course, this only happens once every few years and has much less so since I've been off living far from the East Coast. I used to feel much more Jewish walking through the supermarket looking for kosher chicken with my grandmother in Florida as she showed me off to the other old ladies. I have not been to Florida since her funeral and have seen less of that side of the family too in the past few years. I want very desperately to maintain my cultural identity as being a Jewish and Irish identity, but I find this exceedingly difficult when the vast majority of interactions within an American sphere are based on parts of my identity...being a Peace Corps volunteer, a graduate student, teacher, etc, etc.

I find the ease with which white people pass as part of the majority interesting as this is certainly a new phenomenon in America resulting from the immigration of more brown people. Reading the book "How the Irish Became White", paints a very different picture of a 19th century America in which Irish people faced much of the same discrimination that black people did. By the time my family arrived at the end of the 19th/early 20th century, that level of discrimination was disappearing with the arrival of Eastern European immigrants (like the other side of my family), but stereotypes still persisted. Now, being Irish American is seen as this cute thing that doesn't really define a person (unless they are from a working class Irish neighborhood and outside of the mainstream of middle class white America). You can say St. Patrick's Day is for you, but the rest of the year you are just like everyone else. Though discrimination against Jewish people is fresher in our consciousness and there are more Jewish communities within the middle class, it does not have the same weight it used to, and it's easy for people like me to pass as long as your name doesn't sound so terribly Jewish as mine.

Now one of the reasons, I have been pondering this issue lately is that white South Africans really cannot pass unless maybe they live in Jo'burg*. You are Afrikaaner. You are English. You are Jewish. That is it. Though there is a small French Huguenot community in the Western Cape, most of them have assimilated into Afrikaaner culture. According to wikipedia, there are white immigrants from many other countries, but they make up a very small percentage of the white population. Though Afrikaaner people are the majority in terms of white people, the stereotypes that exist about them are not positive. Beyond the worldwide view of Afrikaaners as oppressors, Afrikaaners (especially those not from urban areas) are seen as backward. Not wearing shoes is just the beginning of a long list...The English have fared better in terms of public opinion, but are still seen as a unique ethnic group. Jewish people face the same stereotypes that they do all over the world. Maybe because white people are not the majority, there is no white assimilated majority that you can find your way into. This is a double-edged sword as white South Africans can express themselves culturally much more easily than I can, but they also face all that discrimination that I have run away from.

*Jo'burg is different as is more of a cultural melting pot than anywhere else in South Africa, but I'm not really sure how that plays out as I haven't spent a lot of time there.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

a world without water

There's no water. In our village, water is a constant problem for people. Though most people have taps in their yard or plumbing in their house, this does not mean that water will come out of these taps. In fact most of the time, water does not come out of the tap. It's sporadic, some people we know have gone 9 months without water. While the longest we've gone is about 2 months (right now we're about to pass that point). The water usually gets turned on after rain, but we haven't had rain in a while. We've also heard rumors that the ward counsellor (our government representative, just like in American cities) has paid them not to turn on the water so his friend can get a contract for water trucks. This is just a rumor, but at this point, who knows. What I do know is that the water trucks are not sufficient to meet the needs of people in the village. They come at different times during the day, won't drive down certain roads (like ours), and some people have told me they haven't seen one in weeks near their house. For people who are home all day, getting water is a bit easier, but it sometimes involves waiting in line with buckets for hours. If you work, it's close to impossible to get water. Some people dig in the bed of the dry river for water. This isn't common most of the time, but as the situation has gotten worse recently, there've 5 to 10 people there every time I've walked by (and that's just one place along a long riverbed). Because the Department of Education gives our host mother money for electricity which is more than enough, we were able to use that money to buy water to fill our two tanks. But this is relatively expensive (about $80 for 5000 liters as much as some people earn in a month), and if you don't have large water tanks like we do this makes it impossible.

What is hard for us to understand is why people do not dig wells. As South Africa is such a developed country, most wells are dug by machine making them very cost prohibitive, but it's hard to understand why this prevents people from just starting to dig. I know it's not glamorous, but when you have no other option, why not just dig? It's crazy the things people will do and refuse to do in order to be assert that they live in a developed place when the reality is that they do not have access the services that developed places do.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Yesterday, we attended a funeral and a wedding. Though we've been to lots and other parties, it was the first time we attended two on the same day. The funeral was for a teacher at one of our schools, and the wedding was for people we didn't know but we were asked to attend by a pastor who volunteers on one of the school's governing bodies. The funeral (and memorial service held on Thursday afternoon) were a bit bizarre to us just because we knew a little more about this man than many of the people who's funeral's we have attended. He was a very nice man, a neighbor of ours actually, but had been sick for the past 20 years. I remember first meeting him and noticing how sick he seemed. His condition got progressively worse since we have lived here. He stopped teaching about half way through last year. Other than one of the other teachers who would drive him to school, the doctor, check in on him, etc, he seemed to live a very solitary life. He was the only man of his age (51) that I ever saw going to the shop to buy his own bread and things. Most people ask children to do these tasks for them, and we are usually the oldest people at the shop. His funeral and memorial were huge affairs since he was a teacher. They had to have two separate sets of women cooking, one for family and friends and one for teachers and students, because there were so many people there. I wonder where these people were during his life, but at the same time realize how many more people were showing support for his family and those who really did care about him than would have in the states (where I'm sure he would have been forced out of teaching years ago.)

Anyway, attending these events also reminded me of all the things I'm going to miss about living in South Africa...singing Tswana hymns, dance marching around parties, chakalaka, old men and old ladies, etc, etc.

It's also weird though because though we've lived here over a year and a half, people still are surprised to know that we have done things like attend funerals (our cousin stopped by for a chat yesterday and we were talking about the funeral and he asked if it was our first), take a taxi to Pretoria (something unfortunately we have to do almost once a month) and navigate our way around Pretoria (as a city person, I love walking around Pretoria and we both know the city very well), say ko ko instead of knock knock, understand/speak Setswana, eaten pap, etc. It's okay when these assumptions come from random people as we are meeting new people almost everyday, but they often come from people who we've gotten to know pretty well in our time here. Though two years is certainly enough time for us to accomplish our work here, I think really overcoming these assumptions would take a lifetime.

In my attempts to talk about other things, I haven't mentioned work in a while. Things are going well though we are busy as we don't have much time left here. I'm trying to prepare to go to a conference in Botswana with 3 teachers in July both in terms of finding funding and prepare what we are going to present. Our community service club has been even better this year...the kids are focusing on crime as their issue and organizing an after school club to keep kids off the streets. I'm trying to finally set up a few workshops before we go. Our book donation should arrive this week so we've got lots of work ahead of us to organize the books. We've got the constitution almost done for our camp so they should be submitting the nonprofit organization application in the next few weeks.

Things are good though it's hard to believe how soon our time here will be coming to an end.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

ubuntu versus age (full post)

When we first arrived in South Africa, one of the first cultural sessions we attended was about 'ubuntu', the indigenous South African philosophy of communalism. Though ubuntu is a Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, etc) word, the idea is embraced by South Africans and people throughout the continent, in Setswana (and other Sotho languages), there is an expression that sums up ubuntu "motho ke motho ka batho" (a person is a person because of people...the similar Zulu expression is "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu"). As ubuntu was presented to us, it was a South African idea (there are similar words in many other Bantu languages throughout Eastern and Southern Africa as these languages are all pretty similar...Bantu languages just make up one sub-branch of the Niger-Congo language contrast in Chad you find languages from completely different language families indigenous to places less than 100 km from each other), but in reality it is something that exists around the world not just in Africa.

The Raza studies teachers in Tucson taught their students to recite a poem beginning "tu eres mi otro yo" (you are my other me) which has it's origins in Mayan thought (the Mayan is "in lak'ech" but since I don't know Mayan, I'm sorry if that's wrong.) I believe that at some point in time, most everyone in the world lived by this philosophy.

Though I do not really agree with everything that Durkheim said about mechanical and organic solidarity, I see these concepts as good ways of looking at the differences in indigenous (I say indigenous because for the most part indigenous peoples are the one's maintaining societies that can be characterized as having mechanical solidarity) and Western or Northern societies. As Durkheim says, societies characterized by mechanical solidarity lack a complex division of labor (there can be blacksmiths, carpenters, and farmers but these people are connected and you know where the things you consume come from) which creates a collective consciousness that maintains social order. In societies with complex divisions of labor, people are less connected to each other hence individualism, inequality, and all the other fun that arises (at which point Marx has a much more cogent critique in my opinion).

So returning to the idea of ubuntu, I see ubuntu as both a manifestation of a collective social consciousness (of course we want to help each other because we see how interrelated we all are) and the law stemming from this collective social consciousness that governs the relationships between people in indigenous societies. It is hard for us Americans coming from our individualistic, capitalist society to truly embrace this idea because we are committed to protecting our own self interest first. Sure, I'll donate to charity, but I would never do so to the point where I would myself at risk for not having enough money for clothes, food, or shelter.

The concept becomes even more problematic here in South Africa because the world people live in is not characterized by mechanical solidarity at all. People buy their groceries at the grocery store, and they work in factories. I was reminded recently as we drove through a village in Zambia and saw how much was growing on the side of the road how far a South African village is from being self-sufficient (really even the Zambian village isn't with all the imported clothing, pots and pans, plastic, etc, but it is much more so.)

So how can we have ubuntu when the economic structure is most definitely capitalist, not to mention the cultural imperialism of the US that South Africans consume every evening (and day if they are unemployed) on their TV sets? I would argue though that it does exist despite these influences, yet it isn't so easy to see as one might expect. People are quietly loaning each other money, bringing food to neighbors, etc. People know when their help is needed, and they bring it. They aren't, like us Americans, trumpeting what they are doing for other people to everyone they know. I think that humility is a part of ubuntu because you do what you do because of the way you are connected to other people. You don't see it as a triumph but as a part of being a person.

The other issue that some Americans seem to struggle with is how the hierarchy of age relates to ubuntu. I would argue that in many indigenous societies, age is a very important part of social structure. We, in America, lament that we have lost this when we talk about how we don't take care of the elderly anymore, but just send them off to nursing homes. But we are horrified by this when we hear that a teacher sent a student to buy him some Coke at the shop down the street. I know that I have become particularly desensitized to this as a negative thing because I don't think it's particularly extreme here in South Africa (in Chad, they would close school so the kids could go build a teacher a house for example), but I think it is more an issue of understanding that hierarchy based on age is an inherent part of many indigenous societies. It seems to become less strong in societies with some organic solidarity like here, and hardly exists at all in white middle class America. I would argue that it is important way of organizing society and to see it as helpful or harmful to people is to miss the point. It is about how people relate to each other, and I know many people might disagree with me but there is no wrong or right. In order to have a society that venerates elders, you are going to have a society that does not venerate young people.

While it's easy to think of age as just related to the treatment of children and old people, in reality this age hierarchy that I am talking about affects people of all ages. In Tswana culture as well as many cultures all over the world, boys and girls go through an initiation process to enter into adulthood. Currently, the initiation of boys is more prevalent than girls and initiation schools get in the news sometimes because they can involve circumcisions not done by a doctor (though many more are conducted with a doctor present and sterile instruments). Tswana initiation schools take place in the winter in the bush. They are physically trying and serve to bond the boys (and girls) of that age together. Historically, and to a certain extent today, those age group bonds continue for the rest of their lives. One of our elderly neighbors recently had a part for people of her age group. While in America, upon reaching adulthood, the age of friends becomes less and less important, that isn't the case in a society where age places such an important role. The right of older people to ask younger people to do things for them does not just apply to asking children. During our evacuation in Cameroon, our boss's husband from Guinea asked one of the volunteer's boyfriends (a Cameroonian) to go run errands for him. He obliged without a question.

Both ubuntu and age are important parts of indigenous societies in Africa and around the world. Ubuntu defines how people should interact with each other, but it does not mandate that they should treat children as their equals. I would argue that these ideas are not in opposition. You can do you part to help children (taking in orphans of your family members or buying your students' school uniforms), but that does not mean that you have to treat them like they are your equal. Your equals are the people who are the same age as you. You also must respect your own elders even if that means doing things for them that aren't always glamorous. The interpretation of these ideas being in conflict with each other presupposes that caring about other people and recognizing your interdependence with them means thinking of them as your equals. This is not the case, and it's just another example of how easy it is to presuppose your own values on other people.

Anyway, I have been thinking about this a lot lately so I'm sorry if you actually read it and were bored to death. Cheers.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Today was the cluster (schools in our area) athletics competition. Athletics is code for track and field. Interestingly, athlete is used to mean track and field competitor not anyone who competes in sports.

Anyway, last year when we attended the athletics competition, we didn't really realize what a big deal it was. Since it happens early in the year, we hadn't been here long enough to realize that there weren't other big sporting events like it throughout the year. Though there are soccer and netball matches throughout the year, athletics is the only time when so many students from different schools are together at the same time. Last year, I was just annoyed by the amount of time spent preparing for the competition (practice makes it difficult to do many other activities), and while I was a little annoyed about it this year, I at least could see it in the bigger context.

Still, I was a little wary of the idea of spending hours in the sun trying to coordinate kids to participate in whatever event I was assigned to help with. But it ended up being a great day. I got co-opted into shot put and James performed a similar role in discus. I measured distances and shouted them to a teacher who I work with a lot. I had to repeat most of it twice because the roar of the crowd made it difficult to hear five point six seven or whatever I was saying. And while I admit standing in the sun for 5 hours was not exactly fun, it was so fun getting to see all the kids I know competing. Working at four schools, we know kids at all of those schools as well as the high school in our village and the middle school in the next village. Somehow kids from some of the other schools in other nearby villages seem to know who we are too and so they were also eager to say hi. And it was also fun to hang out with teachers from different schools all together.

Like everything in South Africa, racial dynamics came into play as the event was held at a primarily Afrikaaner school (actually I don't even know if there are any non-Afrikaaners there, I certainly didn't see any). Many of them came over to gawk at the children or yell at them for no apparent reason. Seeing us definitely confused them. Interestingly, besides the friendliness that we received from all around, the teenage boys also seemed to know that it was okay to make ridiculous comments to me (nothing offensive, just testing the waters) when they would never say those to the Afrikaaners.

Anyway, it was quiet the fun time and a great reminder of all the connections we have built her in South Africa.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Two of the biggest issues that face rural South Africa (and one of them South Africa in general) are strikingly similar to those facing rural America.

The first is the brain drain. Because of the lack of jobs in rural villages, people leave all the time to go to cities and towns. In the weeks leading up to our last camp, we lost one of the organizers to a job at a nearby casino. We haven’t seen her since but don’t blame her for taking the job. Why would you stay and volunteer your time to help at a camp when you don’t have any money to feed yourself and your child? But the problem is bigger than just jobs, and it starts much earlier.

The way that schools are funded in South Africa is very different from that of America. They are divided into quintiles based on the income of the families attending the school. Schools in quintiles one, two, and three can be classified as no-fee schools. These schools get more money from the government per student because the students are not paying school fees. In our community, the schools (which are in quintile three, the least poor of the no-fee schools) actually do charge school fees. These are very low – between R50 ($7) and R100 ($14) a year – and learners can be made exempt. But once you get into schools with school fees, every school is like a private school even though they may be receiving some money from the government. School fees can be very high at these schools, and they decide their own school fees. In some ways, it mirrors the way that communities in America who higher valued property have a higher tax base in turn providing more money to the schools. Here, though it’s just charged directly to the parents in the form of school fees.

So the school a child attends depends on how much the family can pay and instead of working to improve schools in the communities, the usual plan of attack is to take the child to the best school they can afford especially if they see the child having some academic potential. Even in our village and the neighboring village, there is a hierarchy of schools. One primary school is considered better than the rest (and has a higher fee). The middle school in the next village is considered better than ours. Children from the best primary school in our village either go to the middle school in the next village or to Brits, Jo’burg, or Pretoria. Those few of them who stay here are the ones who could just afford the best primary school, but can’t afford the better middle school.

This means that by the time they reach high school, those kids who were considered to have the most potential or at least who have parents with more money are no longer attending school in our village. This is facilitated by the fact that often their parents don’t live in our village either. In primary school, they stayed with their grandparents and now they are staying with their parents or aunts and uncles closer to Pretoria or Jo’burg. Why would they come back to a place that really isn’t their home anyway where there are no jobs?

The brain drain makes sense. You need to go where the jobs and money are to survive, but the question remains – what will become of rural South Africa? You cannot expect villages to develop when most young people are leaving them. And as I explained with the example of our friend, it’s not something that happens all at once. People are always trying to get out. I can think of very few people I know here who did not apply for at least one job within the last year. In many places, rural villages are already only home to the elderly and children. Our village still has some young people mostly because they were not well educated and do not have the skills they need to get a job. Should we work to develop villages in South Africa at all? Or are they a thing of the past?

The second issue is that of nutrition. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are wrecking havoc among rural (and other, but I don’t think to the same extent) South Africans. I recently read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, and though most of his arguments were not new to me, it really drove home the similarities in destructive eating habits between South Africans and Americans. Like Americans, South Africans eat a large amount of refined carbohydrates. Here it is mostly in the form of fortified corn meal, rice, and sugar. Sorghum, the traditional staple grain, is considered poor people’s food, and so it is much less frequently consumed. I have not seen anyone grinding their own corn meal even though most people grow some corn in their yards (they eat it corn on the cob style and never seem to eat it all).

Soda is very popular, and the sugar industry is very powerful here. Though soda tends to be a bit more expensive than in America (because sugar is more expensive than high fructose corn syrup which has only made it’s way into a few products), people still might drink a liter or so a day. Processed foods such as juice blends that are maybe 3% juice and soup packets with who knows what inside are essential to the South African kitchen.

There have been some efforts by the South African government to promote healthy eating. Wheat bread is always cheaper than white bread, and school lunches must follow a certain menu, but in general the shift is towards eating more and more processed foods, particularly those that are high in refined carbohydrates. Diabetes is already killing lots of people, and most people I know have been told to cut down on eating something or another because of high cholesterol or high blood pressure or whatever it may be. In fact, I have been asked multiple times for vegetarian recipes because people have heard that being vegetarian is healthier.

What’s scary though is how the foods that are responsible for these problems have institutionalized themselves into the food culture. Drinking soda is an important social ritual for the teachers at school. Every afternoon, they buy a few bottles of soda to share. When people ask if I’ve had anything to drink, and I say water, they laugh because water is not a drink like soda, juice, coffee, or tea is.

Like in rural America, being fat in rural South Africa does not have the same degree of stigma that it does in the urban and suburban areas, and that goes not just for black South Africans, but for white South Africans as well. Gaining weight is a sign that you are well fed, happy, and economically secure. And sugar is addictive. Eating processed foods and foods high in refined carbohydrates is easy, and it tastes good. But in many ways this epidemic is affecting a greater number of people than HIV which is pretty scary.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

back to school

We've been back at school the past two weeks, and it's been nice getting back into the swing of things after a month of break. It's also a bit weird to return to the beginning of the year energy so fast. In America, with a longer summer vacation, it feels like ages before school starts again. Here, it's like we just finished and now it's time to get back into it. This isn't particularly a big deal, but I guess I have a hard time feeling as motivated as the teachers do right now and taking advantage of their motivation. Still, it's definitely been nice. I've got two new computer students (teachers) so far who didn't express any interest in computer classes last year. I'm also working more with the math teacher on improving the 6th grade math class at one of my schools. I helped her once last year with a lesson about patterns which was a lot of fun. My first task is to teach decimals which is a bit daunting, but the thing I like about teaching math is that once you figure out how to explain it, there is just one right answer. I wish teaching English were so straight forward sometimes...

The other nice thing about this school year so far is having more down time. The end of last year was more than hectic so it's nice having time again for things like exercising and reading.

I wish I had more exciting updates to share, but for the most part our life has become pretty uneventful. We are looking forward to James' parents visit in 2 months and wrapping up our work here before heading to Kinshasa. It's weird how these two years are almost over. It's really flown by...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

a whirlwind holiday

A lot has happened since our last update. We finished up the school year with a few more parties including a creche (preschool) graduation. I somehow got roped into photographing this event which caused a lot of stress for me. I have resigned from any further photography duties. Creche graduations here are a very big deal. There were multiple wardrobe changes. Kids came in their Bafana Bafana jerseys and did the first part of the program in those. Then they paraded around in their underwear before changing into their formal attire (bowties and sunglasses were quite popular for the boys, white dresses and make up for the girls). Finally, they donned caps and gowns. It was an epic event.

Then the day of the camp finally arrived complete with pouring rain. The camp was definitely a success in that all the kids really enjoyed themselves and the life skills classes were actually substantial and they learned something (they did role plays and other things relating to decision making, peer pressure, etc facilitated by our wonderful counterparts), but the rain prevailed every day. Only one day was the weather good enough to play outside for more than short periods of time so we improvised, replacing sports with drama and more indoor games. We got kids pretty sweaty with indoor dodgeball and chair netball. I mostly led the crafts which were a lot of fun, but when we finished early, I got to play some games too. Four square is a new favorite. Unfortunately, because of the rain, our attendance was a lot lower than expected. Lots of parents did not want their children walking to the camp in the rain and getting sick which is understandable. On a good note, we did not have to worry about the heat or having enough water since we could collect rain water. Including middle school kids also worked well as we got them really engaged in everything.

Then, after the camp ended we were off to Botswana. The first day we drove really far, to Nata, and didn't get in til maybe 10 o'clock at night. It wouldn't have been so late but it took us a while to get the rental car and do some errands in Pretoria. The next day we had a much shorter drive to Maun. We stopped along the way to see the salt pans on the side of the road, to really see the salt pans you need a 4wd and GPS but we walked around a little bit to get an idea. We also stopped at Planet Baobab a really cool lodge with lots of giant baobab trees and had a drink. On the side of the road, we saw some elephants and giraffes. Once we got to Maun, we hung out and did some grocery shopping.

The next day, we left in the morning for our mokoro trip. They took us on a speedboat to the village where the guides and polers stay (you need a poler, it's like a gondola). We met our guide Martin there and poler for the other boat, Luka, who was only 16. Mekoros are traditional dugout canoes and the coolest thing about riding in them is how close you are to the water. Before we went I was afraid of putting my hands in the water because of crocodiles, but they said it was fine. We rode about an hour and a half to our campsite (not a developed campsite, just a place to pitch tents and dig a toilet hole). You go through small channels in the reeds that are cut by hippos. They are pretty narrow so you are constantly getting smacked in the face by reeds. There are also tons of waterlilies everywhere, it was beautiful. We arrived at our campsite and set stuff up, hanging out for a few hours while it was hot. We went swimming at a nearby spot where the water was pretty clear and deep. Once it got cooler, we went on a couple hour walk looking for animals. We saw some giraffes in the distance and a buffalo skull but that was it.

The next morning we left at 5:30 for another longer hike. This one was a lot more rewarding in terms of animals. We saw a big leopard tortoise, then Martin told us he saw some zebra in the distance. We got closer and ended up being less than 100 feet from tons of zebras and wildebeest as well as a few tsessebe. It was extremely cool to watch the animals in that setting on an island in the Okavango Delta without a car or anything. Martin told us some crazy stories about his encounters with hippos and other guides with lions and leopards, but we didn't see anything dangerous.

The rest of our time in the Delta was spent relaxing, riding around the mekoros, learning how to make Delta necklaces from waterlilies, and swimming. We headed back to Maun the next morning. Back in town, we went shopping and got gas. Botswana was in the middle of a short and unprecedented petrol shortage so the line at the gas station was really long. We waited about 30 minutes. A few hours later though, the line had expanded (they were now the only place in town with petrol left) to at least 200 cars. It was crazy. We went to a crocodile farm which was a disturbing experience. There were hundreds of crocodiles in each pen and the smell was overwhelming. They were on top of each other and there really was no space to move around. The older, like 100 year old, crocs had more space to move around, but they were so fat it was just gross.

The next day we drove to Kasane in the northeastern corner of Botswana near the border of Zambia, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. On the drive, we saw an ostrich and lots of elephants on the side of the road. Some were in the midst of road construction, just hanging out on the closed portion of the road. Once we got to Kasane, we saw warthogs just walking around in the middle of the town.

The next day we we went on a game drive in Chobe National Park in the morning. You need 4wd to go in the park so we went with a group organized by the place we were staying. The shear numbers of animals we saw was amazing, we saw hundreds of elephants, Cape buffalo, and impalas. We also saw lots of baboons and vervet monkeys. We saw some warthogs and giraffes. In the water, we could see hippos and crocodiles. We saw a monitor lizard near the water. We also saw lots of cool birds including vultures, maribou stork, and hornbills like Zazu from Lion King. Sadly no lions though the guide had heard they were about and we followed some of their footprints for a while.

In the afternoon, we returned to the park this time in a boat. From the boat, we got to see lots of hippos close up as well as lots elephants playing in the water as well as litche (a type of antelope). We saw vultures eating a buffalo that had been killed by a lion earlier in the day. It was a cool way to see the animals, but it was a little bit colored by the obnoxious drunk Australians on the boat.

The next day we left for the border in the morning. We were a bit nervous about getting to Livingstone because we left our car in Kasane rather than deal with border crossing fees. It ended up working extremely well as we found taxis right away on both sides of the border. The border crossing is a short ferry ride from Botswana to Zambia. The ferry is much smaller than the Islesboro ferry and can only fit one truck at a time so the truck line must take days. On the drive to Livingstone, a black mamba crossed the road right in front of our car, it had to be at least 6 feet long. Once we arrived in Livingstone, we headed to a market. There are no markets in Botswana or South Africa so it was quite fun to wander around. Cloth was really cheap so I bought some even though I didn't really need it. That night, we went to a Mexican restaurant for tacos and margaritas, quite exciting since South Africa has maybe 2 or 3 Mexican restaurants in the whole country.

The next day it was time to see Victoria Falls. We headed out early to do the walk to Livingstone Island to swim in Devil's Pool. We had heard this was amazing but didn't know much about it. We met our guide and proceeded to walk about a kilometer across the top of the falls. We had no idea we'd really be walking across the water to get there. I guess when the water is lower, it's less like walking in water and more like walking across rocks, but we were up to our knees at times just 50 feet from the edge of the falls. We got to look over in a few spots and it's pretty amazing. It's a lot different from Niagara Falls because it is a gorge on both sides. It goes straight down and the cliff on the other side goes straight up. Upon arriving on Livingstone Island, our guide instructed us that we would swim the rest of the way. It looked a lot scarier than it was, but you could theoretically go over the edge if you got knocked out or something. The pool itself is just separated from the edge of the falls by a rock about a meter wide. You can jump in which was really scary, but exhilarating. We all jumped in a couple of times. It wasn't fun to stay in the water long because these fish kept biting our feet.

After heading back, we spent the rest of the day looking at the falls from lots of different viewpoints and marvelling at where we jumped in. Ryan did the bungee jump off of the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia which was cool to watch, but I'd never do myself. Oh yeah, and that was Christmas day. It didn't feel very Christmasy but it was lots of fun.

The next day we went white water rafting. Everyone warned us it would be crazy which made me a bit nervous since I never really thought of it as something scary when I've been in the past. I ended up feeling similarly, wasn't scary but was really really fun. You start just below the falls, and the first rapid is pretty huge. Some boats had to try 4 or 5 times to get across it. We were fine the first time. The morning was a ton of big rapids. We did flip once and spend a few minutes being tossed around before making it out of the water. The afternoon was much calmer, but still fun.

The following day it was time to head home. We returned to Botswana and drove to Palapye, and then the next day back to Pretoria and home. Since returning home, we celebrated New Years with our extended host family and have been relaxing and getting ready for school to start again next week.