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.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Students' Writing

Today, during some down time at the local high school, I started reading over grade nine students' English assignments. One of the first assignments was a simple "who I am" list of questions, and I found the answers encapsulated many of the cultural values of rural South Africa. So I have decided to share a few excerpts:

My Favorite Food

The answer to this question always started with porridge (also called pap, a thick white starch made from ground maize meal), bread or rice. The food here places heavy emphasis on such starches as a way of gaining empty calories, as often meat or vegetables are in short supply.

My Hero

The two most common answers were: "God" and "my mom and dad".

Here we see both the substantial emphasis placed on religion and on family. But you can also look at this and see a lack of strong role models within South Africa today (in the past there have been Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, but few new people are stepping up to take an important role as a model individual or hero).

Things I Like to Do Most

This one is divided by gender, with boys giving very generic responses (reading, playing soccer, etc). But the responses of the girl students all mirror this one:

"1. Wash myself
2. Wear clean clothes every day
3. Read my books
4. Cook for my grandmother"

I think that this response speaks accurately about a lot of the cultural values of the rural communities. The first two reference the very heavy emphasis placed on cleanliness, which is often associated with not being poor (people have often expressed to me that the poor wear dirty or wrinkly clothes). And regular baths are also a manifestation of this, with my family members often bathing twice a day – before work and before bed. You can see these values in other parts of life here, such as how dirt yards are often swept on a regular basis, to remove the slightest debris. Houses are also cleaned on a regular basis, with sweeping and polishing often happening weekly. I believe that this value of cleanliness stems from a number of sources, but it is a way of expressing control over one’s life and developing an outward appearance of success (especially in rural communities, where there are so few things to strive for or succeed at).

Describing My Family

Again, the answers here speak to the importance of families, with people often writing about their aunts and uncles as well as just their immediate family. These familial connections are extremely important here. For example, uncles play an important role in life, negotiating things like bridal lebola (the price a groom must pay to the bride’s father for her hand in marriage), but also stepping in if the father is absent from the picture. In addition, the answers to this question also emphasize the size of the family, with some children describing six siblings.

One answer:

"I have my younger sister her name is Asanda. And my big brother his name is Tshepiso. Also my mom and dad. They don't want to see me with dirty clothes or sleep without washing myself and dishes. And also my granny she wants me to cook for her."

This answer harks back to the previous description of the importance of cleanliness. But it also provides insight into how children are treated here. They are seen less as independent future adults, and more as helpers who can aid in the day to day activities. At home, young women are often put to work cooking and doing dishes and other tasks before they even reach adolescence. At school, teachers regularly ask the students to sweep or carry their belongings or go fetch them water, even during class.

Things I Like Best

I am going to just end with quotes from the answers to the last two questions, because I feel there are some very beautiful ones. One note first is that you see the work of the life-skills classes (classes that talk about everything from hygiene to self respect to preventing HIV/AIDS) in some of these responses, and it is nice to see that the message is sometimes getting through.

"Love myself the way I am"
"Respect the old"
"Eat too much"

My Greatest Ambition is

"Help people who are sick"
"Pass grade 12 and go to university"
"Believe god and love other people"
"To be proud of my culture"
"Be a pilot"
"To care for myself"


Thursday, April 30, 2009

My Latest Endeavour

Upon returning from my trip back to the United States, I began a secondary project within my community. Although I have enjoyed my time with my primary organization (Fanang Diatla, the care-giving organization I was originally placed with), there were many times where there was little work for me and I felt isolated from the rest of the community, as I only worked with a small number of people. So I decided to make the 25 minute walk over to a nearby high school, where I spoke with the deputy principal and offered my assistance with tutoring and career guidance. This was inspired by the number of 11th and 12th grade students that previously approached me asking for those exact things. But the school had other things in mind, and the deputy principal asked me if I could assist with teaching mathematics and computers (the school is still severely understaffed and does not have any qualified computer teacher).

Coming in the first week, I found that although the school had 12 new computers, they were useless (Windows was not activated, so you could not even turn the computers on). On my first day, I was able to fix the computers (it simply involved calling Microsoft to activate each computer), which was a welcomed change… now students could learn through practical work, instead of theoretical lectures.

Since then, I have also helped teach the 12th grade math class, where we spent a lot of time reviewing basic concepts (such as how to graph a line, and what the word arc means). In addition, I have helped with other math classes (one with over fifty learners in it) and have taught a number of computer classes. But now that the second term has begun, I have started to back away from doing too much teaching. As the end of my service is fast approaching, I realize that it makes more sense to work with interested teachers and help give them the computer knowledge or math knowledge they need to teach the classes. So now I have partnered with a few of the teachers, to help give them the computer and math knowledge needed. As I am not an ideal teacher (little teaching experience, and my language skills are not advanced enough to explain either computers or mathematics in Sepedi), this seems like a good situation; the teachers, who already have teaching skills, can then learn certain concepts from me and better pass it on to the learners.

Working with the school has provided some variety in my work, and a great opportunity to work and talk with more members of the community. Although there are some disappointments at the school, I am glad for the new addition to my Peace Corps experience and am glad to have something that will keep me engaged during the remaining months of my service here.