Peace Corps Blog

This is a blog of my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, working in South Africa. My job title is a capacity builder, which means I help increase the effectiveness of a local NGO that does AIDS/HIV related work.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

A week late, but nonetheless, happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

The actual day of Thanksgiving was like any other, but last weekend I got together with a number of other Peace Corps Volunteers, as well as a few South Africans and a doctor from the Congo. It proved to be quite a relaxing get together and a welcomed break from life in the village. I started out my Saturday by seeing a movie (Heartbreak Kid) at the nicer mall in Polokwane. It was a poor romantic comedy with Ben Stiller, but after having not seen a movie for quite some time, it was surprisingly entertaining. From there, we began meeting up with other Peace Corps volunteers from the surrounding area (a total of eleven of us), and spent the afternoon doing the final food preparations. In the end, we had two smaller turkeys (you can’t really find normal, big turkeys too easily here), gravy, green bean casserole, stuffing (delicious), butternut squash, mashed potatoes (nice and garlicky), rolls, and my own contribution of roast bell pepper tarts. The day before, I spent the whole afternoon working on my first real attempt at cooking here, but I managed to pull it off, spilling flour on the floor only a few times and baking everything in my little electric hotplate/oven combo. And, of course, for dessert, there was pumpkin pie, apple crumble and even some chocolate chip cookies. My, was I stuffed by the end!

The whole experience was quite positive and it was so nice to catch up with the other volunteers, as well as meet some new people. Tomorrow, I head off for phase 3 of the Peace Corps training, where all the volunteers in my program will get together and spend a week doing additional training and debriefing about our first two months at site.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Quick Update

Just a quick update on life here:

  • I had first communion at the Methodist church in my little village (a new experience for me). I always thought the transubstantiation was just a Catholic thing, but I guess not. It was the second time I have gone to the Methodist church here that my host mother attends (and is quite dedicated to, she signs and wears the uniform that essentially looks like a red and white sailor uniform). Upon arriving, I learned that the preacher from a nearby city comes once a quarter to give out communion. So he gave a sermon, which was translated to English by one of the other men in the church, simply for my benefit. And best of all, he interrupted the sermon halfway through, just to chat with me, ask where I am from, what I am doing here and how I like Mathabatha. At the end of the sermon, we went forward and were given tiny little shot glasses with the blood of Jesus (it tastes surprisingly like red grapetizer, a sparkling grape juice that is quite popular here, very delicious) and a little cracker (tasted like cardboard, kind of a let down). But luckily we were given seconds on the blood, because there were more shot glasses than people at church that day. And to top the day off, there was a meal afterwards, and one of the church leaders told me to stay for, even though it was just the church leaders eating.
  • Three nights ago, I found out that my room, in addition to millipedes, has centipedes. Or at least it had one, until I promptly removed it from the premises.
  • For the holidays, I am planning a trip down to Durban. I am going to spend Christmas on the beach, in the summer. Crazy! But it will be nice to meet up with a lot of the other Peace Corps volunteers.

Hope everyone is doing well and happy Thanksgiving (in two days)!

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Disconnect between Understanding and Action

Thursday and Friday of this last week, I attended a workshop to SAQA accreditation. In brief, SAQA is an organization that has defined educational standards for certification; and my organization is interested in getting its training program accredited, so that the home-based caregivers we train actually receive certification. The workshop confirmed for me one of the overarching challenges hampering development in South Africa. For this particular workshop, we were working on writing policies and procedures necessary to achieve accreditation (for example, assessment and moderation policies, to ensure that testing is fair). For part of the day, we broke into smaller groups in order to draft sample policies for our own organizations, based on provided samples.

The big challenge that we continually ran into was a disconnect between the policy and procedure we were writing and the reality of the individual organizations. The people at the workshop could easily take the sample policies and procedures and rephrase them, but people seemed to not understand that these policies needed to reflect how their organization would actually function. If the sample procedure (which was from a large corporation) had six different departments involved in the process, then the newly written procedure would also reference six different departments. And when you ask the person, they will readily acknowledge that five of the six departments do not exist at their organization. Then pressing further, asking why they then included them in their procedure, they will answer that it was in the sample.

This sort of thought disconnect occurs often here. The most notable example is with HIV and AIDS. Talking to the average person, they will acknowledge that HIV is a huge problem and the majority of people know most of the basic facts of the disease, including how it is spread (there is definitely some misinformation and myth, but I was surprised by how many people knew the basic information about HIV). Even further, people will talk about how risk behavior and multiple sexual partners are contributing to the spread of the disease and that such behavior is a fundamental part of the spread of the disease. So then after such positive initial conversation with a person, I might ask him, “And what about you, do you use a condom? Or do you sleep around even though you are married?” And then contrary to the whole conversation, they will say “no, I don’t use a condom”, or “yes, I cheat on my wife” (maybe not as direct as that, but you get the idea). People have the knowledge and understanding about HIV and AIDS, but that information does not influence their behavior.

Numerous other examples of this disconnect between understanding and action exist. Another one worthy of mention is religion. The vast majority of people in South Africa are religious, especially in the rural areas (in fact, stating that you do not believe in god can result in exclusion, such as not getting a job). The majority of the religions are Christian based. And each person will talk about the important of Christian values, of dedication to your wife, of abstaining until marriage, etc. Yet, the statistics on multiple sexual partners, premarital sex and other similar behavior is staggering. One specific church (ZCC: Zion Christian Church), which is based in the Limpopo province and has a huge number of followers in the rural area, bans alcohol. Yet again, we find that the majority of the ZCC members still drink, although they will explain that it is not allowed.

The important thing about all these examples is that: 1) people understand the situation and have basic knowledge about what they should or should not do; 2) the behavior of people is contrary to that knowledge; and, most importantly, 3) people do not connect their own behavior with their understanding, they won’t even understand that they are doing something contrary to their thinking. This disconnect results from a series of different things, but I will address that in a later blog post.