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.