Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Palala Clubs Apron Project

Started in June 2008, the Palala Clubs Apron Project blossomed out of one of the annual girls club craft projects: sewing aprons using traditional South African Fabrics. Palala Girls Club has sewn aprons for the last two years, and the Palala North Girls Club did it for the first time in 2008. In the past, Palala Clubs has been generously funded by VAST grants through the PEPFAR program. However, with the knowledge that this funding is short term, we felt it was of great importance to find a way to make the clubs self-sustaining. Using one of the pre-existing club crafts seemed the perfect start to designing an income generating project.

It has been such fun for Rachel and I to watch Maam Tema, Maam Ditsela, and Maam Khalo improve upon their sewing skills and to see them express it in each adult and youth apron, complete with a matching bag, they produce. I'm sure that when Rachel gave these ladies their first sewing lesson on an electronic machine, she had no idea how much they would love having the ability to create clothing, household goods, cards, etc. Each apron is being sold for R100/R150 with profits from the sales being given directly back to the leader who sewed the apron, and used to support Palala Club activities.

Towards the end of November, we held an apron workshop for the three above mentioned leaders to teach the Palala North Girls Club leaders how to perfect the art of apron making. Maam Tema, Maam Ditsela, and Rachel joined us in Seleka for an afternoon of talking about the project and working individually with the six Palala North Girls Club Leaders. I loved watching the women come together; seeing them teach and support one another was exciting--knowing that these women had taken hold of something, had pride in their work, and regarded it as their own. One of my goals for 2009 is to help the Seleka leaders improve their sewing skills so that if they choose, they too will be able to join the apron project.
PGC & PNGC Leaders at the apron workshop

Maam Ditsela (PGC) & Maam Motshegwa (PNGC) with a completed apron

One of the project highlight has been an invitation to bring our aprons to sell at the United States Embassy Craft Fair held in Pretoria in the middle of November 2008. Brandon, Rachel, Paul, Maam Tema, Maam Ditsela and myself spent the day at the embassy selling aprons, and getting a chance to meet some of the embassy employees. It was a great opportunity for the leaders to work on their sales skills, and to have the satisfaction of receiving such a positive reception to their product. Unfortunately, the embassy wouldn't allow us to take pictures inside the grounds, but we got some during the remainder of our time in Pretoria.
Maam Ditsela & Maam Tema at the backpacker in Pretoria

Rachel, Jessica, Maam Tema, & Maam Ditsela fabric shopping

Paul, Maam Ditsela, Rachel, Maam Tema, & Brandon

As Brandon and Rachel have now completed their Peace Corps Service and left South Africa (more about that in an upcoming blog), Paul and I will be working to assist the leaders in Klip and Seleka with the apron project and club until we leave in September 2009. Our hope is to iron out a few gaps: finding a reliable fabric supplier that will transport fabric to northern Limpopo, looking to see if there is a larger market for aprons in the States, and possibly finding a retail outlet for sales in South Africa. We are thrilled that the aprons have sold so well up until this point--our sales just topped 300---and we are excited to see what is in store for the project in 2009. For more information, or to order an apron (shipping is available in South Africa or to the States) please see the Palala Clubs website at
Celebrating after the craft fair

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

PNGC Week 16: Fetal Development

The last week of PNGC for the year has come and gone. It is surprising how quickly time passes. The day felt like any other day as the girls quickly organized the room, set up the sewing machines and turned up the volume on the latest Rihanna song. The leaders finished attendance, made announcements, explained the schedule for the day and off they went. The smoothness and ease with which the they orchestrated club for the day belied the true passage of time and how far everyone has come in embracing PNGC, making it their own.We had saved one of the more interesting lessons for our last day and were pleased to see how excited the girls became as the weekly story was related to them. The topic was Fetal Development and the lesson walked through the different stages of development from the early weeks to the last months. Along with the lesson, PNGC was able to borrow a set of Fetal Development Models from PGC in Klipspruit. The models are made to specific size and weight according to the various stages of development. Towards the end of the lesson, Ma Motebele began passing around the models as she explained in more detail each stage. The girls were giddy as the cradled these small and very lifelike models in their hands. Passing from one girl to the next, the models were accompanied by continuous cries of amazement, curious eyes, giggles and laughter. Pregnancy and birth are very important in the villages and the lesson brought new understanding for the girls and the leaders that was applicable to their daily lives. One of our leaders is currently about five months pregnant and there are a handful of students whose mothers are as well. At the end of the day, Ma Motebele even took the models home with her so that she could show her children and read them the story from club. Truly it was a perfect lesson to end this year's club.Once the din of the girls receded following the lesson, it was back to work on aprons. Almost half of the girls had the opportunity to sew their aprons the previous week, and the remaining girls had their chance this week. They modeled their finished product for their friends and were extremely proud of their own craftsmanship. Those who were not sewing began making up as many sets of earrings and beaded wire bracelets as they could. The hope is that the girls will be able to sell these extra items in the coming month as a fundraiser for next year's club. When they heard that this was the purpose of their work, they seemed to continue with ever more fervor. By the end of the day we had over 60 pair of earrings and even more bracelets, all with different patterns and colors. It was wonderful to see that the girls want to help in any way they can to make sure that PNGC continues for next year's 7th grade girls.The day wrapped up as any other day would. Dust settled from a final sweep of the room as the leaders put away all the supplies in the cupboard and the girls returned a few tables and chairs to their respective rooms. Bags were shouldered and thank yous were exchanged as we all waved goodbye to one another in the waning daylight hour. Walking home we felt a strong sense of pride in the leaders and girls. In a few short months they had taken a small set of lessons and crafts and turned it in to an incredible weekly program. It is an experience we hope the girls will carry with them throughout their lives. There is no question it has been a profound experience for both of us.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


The first rains of the season arrived this week! It was a very welcomed relief from the intense heat that has been scorching the area for weeks. Not that it has completely cooled down, because we do still have hot days that are a bit more humid now, but there is now a chance each night for a cool and refreshing rain to wash away the heat of the day. The morning clouds that used to melt into flat, thin wisps of white and then burn away by late morning now remain large billowing cumulus bubbles that tell us the start of the rainy season has come. With moistened ground to walk on the dust has abated and we no long fear getting swept up in whirlwinds of red sand and trash that were daily occurrences only weeks ago. As we move further into the season our hope is that temperatures will drop slightly, at least into December. Never have we been so happy to see rain. We stood out on the front stoop with our cat and watched the storm roll onto the village. When the downpour came Jess tried hopelessly to chase the goats from our garage, but it was a losing battle. In the end, I would rather have to shovel a bit of crap out off the garage floor in exchange for the arrival of the rains.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

PNGC Week 15: Physical Fitness

It was a hot, humid and tiring day at PNGC this week. The first rains of the season came the night before which is great news, but it also makes the air heavy and sticky. Combine that with construction at school in some of the rooms and packing 54 girls, 6 leaders and the two of us into a small space makes for an uncomfortable start to the day. It was clear from the looks on every face that they were tired and hot and ready for a nap. We felt the same way, but put on a smile and some energizing music and went ahead with club.The girls were discussing physical fitness and the importance of exercise this week. Many of them love playing netball and football (soccer) and our hope was to hold some track and field type events for the girls outside. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and we did not want to have the girls out running under the oppressive afternoon sun. Instead, we unpacked the sewing machines and started the last project of the year, aprons.Each girl began sewing their very own apron out of traditional fabrics. The leaders were each manning a sewing machine and assisting the girls that were sewing. It was clear that these fabrics are a special commodity in the village and the girls were very excited to know that they would be getting their very own. As the leaders and their girls hummed along on their machines, the girls who were waiting for their turn spent the time finishing up their 5-strand beaded necklaces from the week before if they had not already done so.These are a more difficult beading project and require many more beads to finish. I spent most of my day troubleshooting with broken crimp beads and clasps as well as handing out beads. This quickly turned into a very hectic affair. Everywhere I turned there was a girl who needed more beads or help tying off an end. I quickly realized that some girls were just asking for beads because they wanted to take some home, even though they had finished their necklace already. Some went so far as to hide beads under books, in shirt pockets, behind their felt squares and any other place they could find to put them. Then they would come to me saying they were out of beads and needed more. I began to get pretty frustrated with some of them, especially when I had to deal with two or three girls in a row who were blatantly lying about not having beads and demanding more, interrupting, snapping their fingers or flailing their arms to get attention and more.

I kept my cool through the rest of club, packed up and went home. As Jess and I sat enjoying some cold drink and unwinding from the afternoon I tried to pin down what my frustrations were with the girls that afternoon. Part of it was the heat that made everyone a little edgy, and some of their behavior can be chalked up to teenage attitudes and life, but there is part of the way that they acted when demanding this or that through the afternoon that still bothered me. It is not just unique to the girls, but to many people in South Africa. There is a sense of deserving among many people in the post-Apartheid era. It is very rare to hear please or thank you, to form a line instead of crowding and pushing for a space in front, or to wait patiently for someone to finish speaking or working instead of interrupting. These attitudes seem to be born from the idea that since people have been freed from an oppressive life, now they deserve to take it back when and where they choose. I think part of the reason why some of the girls acted the way they did was a learned behavior from their parents and friends. They have been given many things throughout club and perhaps now just expect to get even more instead of looking at everything as a gift and a privilege.

Yet this is not everyone. As I looked back on the day I also began to remember the other girls who were bringing back their extra beads, helping others to finish once they had completed their own work, assisting in cleaning up and organizing all of the supplies. There are a number of these girls and they are kind, considerate young women. They are the bright spots of club that let us know what we do with them and the leaders is worthwhile and important. There will always be struggles when we work with young people in a culture that works differently from our own, but at the end of the day it is worth every minute.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mary and Vanessa Visit South Africa

The first of our family members to visit South Africa arrived at the end of last month to spend a couple weeks with us in our village and exploring South Africa. Mary and Vanessa, Jessica's mother and sister, arrived at O.R. Tambo International Airport after a two long, yet uneventful flights. In 14 months we had not seen anyone from our family, so as they rounded the corner and exited customs, needless to say we were slightly excited to see each other!

We made our way directly to the village to start off their South Africa adventure in Seleka at PNGC (read previous PNGC Week 13 post for details on their experience at club). Their fun filled first day was tiring in the heat, but also exciting to be able to show them all about what we do with PNGC each week. A few more days in Seleka and the surrounding villages allowed Mary and Vanessa to see our schools, our village, meet our teacher and the women at the drop in center, explore the bushveld with our friends at their homes and out on the farm and see pieces of our day to day life in Africa. Needless to say they were in for a number of new experiences. They got to help carry water, bathe in a bucket, brave the dust and heat of the day, eat warthog voers (sausage), braai, have a spitting contest with Impala dung, and much more. It was a truly jam packed first few days, and despite their long flights they were up to the challenge of meeting and greeting the whole village.However, Seleka is not the only part of Southern Africa worth seeing and our next stop was Lesotho. After a 15+ hour drive that included a few stops, bad traffic, a wrong turn, a near miss with a couple cows in the road, shady border crossings and some rough last few kilometers of gravel road we arrived at Malealea Lodge where we spent our next five days. Arriving so late the first night to a place with limited electricity hours and complete darkness otherwise, we spent the first day sleeping in and enjoying our first views of the mountains of Lesotho. The lodge is set on the edge of a beautiful valley surrounded by high peaks offering stunning views and cooler weather. Our leisurely day was also meant as preparation for our coming 3-day, 2-night pony trek into the mountains.Our trek began early the next day with a short introduction to our horses. Having packed our bags earlier in the morning, we stuffed a few apples, sandwiches and water into the saddle bags and set off with our guide Thato and his apprentice Jappie. In Seleka, I am also known as Thato, which means 'God's will' in Sotho. We felt this was a good sign for our trek. We bounced our way out of the lodge and started down the road. Malealea is a small village and soon we were out in the valley and the road narrowed to a thin dirt track that led us for about 6 hours down and back up gorges, across rivers, through small villages teeming with excited children and smiling parents. At times mountains loomed directly above us casting long shadows over our horses and at other times they were far in the distance leaving us in the spread of another valley under the intense sun of the day. We arrived in the village where we would sleep for the next two nights saddle sore and happy for the chance to stretch our legs.The village of Riboneng is accessible only by horse or walking. They buildings are predominately circular rondavels of stone, clay and stick with thatch roofing. With no electricity or running water, villagers fetched water from the springs up the mountain, washed clothes in the river below, and lit fires as the sun set behind the western peaks. We came to love this tiny village in the short time we spent there. The young boys telling us about their sheep and goat herds, the men playing an interesting game with stones on a carved rock, the women cooking in their communal reed kitchen, the old transistor radio bringing news from far away places and more importantly the South African soccer matches; all this was quite charming as we settled in for our two nights on thin foam pads with a gas burner supported by field stones for cooking.The second day of the trek brought a sunrise and the sounds of the goats and sheep in their kraal (pen) directly outside our door. We saddled our horses for a day ride up the mountain pass to the top of the Riboneng waterfall, instantly aware of how sore our backsides were. Yet after a few hours, the combination of gorgeous scenery to distract us and numbness setting in made for an very enjoyable day of trekking that included lunch at a cool mountain stream, stories from Thato about Lesotho traditions in the area and meeting a man and his brother hiking to the other side of the mountains to go meet up with his fiance and present her with a traditional Basotho Blanket. Upon our return to the village we had the option of striking out on a three hour hike to the base of the waterfall that we had just stood atop, however a short conversation with our bodies concluded it was wiser to work our the aches and pains with a stroll through the village and a glass of wine (yes, we packed wine all the way out to the village. It was delicious!).Winding our way back over the mountains on a different route we made our way back to Malealea the next day. Our trek had been extremely exciting, awe inspiring and scenic despite sore rear ends, Vanessa's midnight stomach bug and having two horses strike out for home without us on the last morning (somehow Jappie tracked them across the valley and up the mountain to a village about one hour's ride from our hut). We were glad to be back to a hot shower and some clean clothes, but part of us wished our pony trek adventure could have lasted for much longer. Our final day at Malealea found me in bed in a nasty disagreement with my stomach, but gave Jessica, Mary and Vanessa the day to explore the village and meet Thato's family. As we ascended out of the valley leaving Malealea we stopped at the top of the pass to look back on a once-in-a-lifetime trek through a unique mountain kingdom. With having done so much, what more could we possibly do? Next stop, curio shopping.Over the next few days we made our way through Lesotho, back into South Africa and on to Graskop near the Blyde River Canyon. Along the way we stopped in a few small villages to peruse the local craft markets. We met a fellow PCV from Lesotho at the weaving group she works with, enjoyed a fantastic meal in the artsy community of Clarens, and continued the theme of good food with Harrie's Pancakes, Portuguese beef entrees, fresh coffee with chocolate cake and more. The girls were able to take advantage of the Graskop area's excellent collection of crafts from South Africa and other parts of the continent. We took in a classic African sunset over the canyon as well as the rolling green hills and valleys that are in such contrast to the flat bushveld of Seleka. It was a time of relaxing and enjoying some of the best that South Africa has to offer. Yet with a few more days left, we continued on to what some describe as the best of South Africa, Kruger National Park.Early in the morning we packed up the car and drove the hour from Graskop to Kruger. The day was overcast and perfect for viewing wildlife. In our two days in the park, we had hoped to see the Big Five, but came up one short. Despite that, we had an incredible drive through one of the best game viewing parks in the world.On their last day in South Africa, we were back in the city and took a trip to the Apartheid Museum. Expertly designed and explored in detail, the museum offers a clear historical account of the history of Apartheid from factors leading up to its inception as well as the events that eventually led to it's end and culminating with the 1994 elections and Nelson Mandela's presidency. It was a sobering, yet important reminder of South Africa today and a good way to bring our trip full circle. As we sat having dinner with our friends that night prior heading for the airport, we candidly discussed the time Mary and Vanessa spent in South Africa. It's beauty, wonder, promise and hope as well as the struggles, challenges, obstacles and turmoil. They had experienced it all and at the end of the day found South Africa to be an incredible country.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

PNGC Week 14: Eating Healthy

After a few weeks off due to school holidays and our visit from Mary and Vanessa, PNGC was back in action this week in the run down to the final few weeks of club for the year. Despite yet another gruelling day of 100 degree heat, the girls arrived back enthusiastic. Of course their first questions to us for the day were all about our family: How was their trip? Where did you go? Will they be able to come to club again? and more. It was clear that the short time they spent with Mary and Vanessa was memorable for them and we were happy to know they enjoyed that day as much as we did. After recounting our holiday with the girls, we moved on to our first order of business for the day, birthdays. Each month the PNGC Student Council gives out nice new pencils to anyone with a birthday in the coming months. The girls really enjoy having new things for school and always look forward to the first club of each month. October was no different and this month we have seven girls and one leader celebrating their birthday!The lesson for the day revolved around Eating Healthy. Nutrition is something that is severely lacking in Seleka, and most other villages in South Africa. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not found in many homes. Partly this is due to a lack of produce available in the villages and also in part it is that not many families go out of their way to purchase them when they are in town. Sometimes this has to do with expenses. Maize meal, used to make bogobe, is inexpensive for large quantities. Heavy in starch and with the consistency of soft mashed potatoes, it is not an ideal food to eat day in and day out. Yet, for most households, it is eaten as the main course for one, if not two, meals each day. Along with that there may be a small amount of meat or vegetables served, but again they are unvaried and not helping to round out a food pyramid anytime soon. The other inexpensive way to eat in the village is to buy sweets. Zimbas, the equivalent of homemade Cheetos, are the most common. We see students on a daily basis buying them for 50 cents for breakfast, lunch and after school snacks. They also pocket a lolly pop or two if they can afford it. The result is an entire diet built on high sugar and starch intake with nothing else to balance it out. Fruits like apples and oranges are available in the village sometimes. We even see fruit trees in yards and gardens when we are out and about. The trick is actually getting the kids to choose these over their beloved sweets. The leaders emphasized to the girls the importance of this change of behavior, pointing out problems that many children and adults face with tooth decay, diabetes and other illnesses. The girls seemed to have a solid background in healthy eating as they discussed the lesson, though putting it in to practice will prove a larger challenge. The leaders asked the girls to spend this week trying to substitute fruit for sweets each day. We will see how it pans out!

Having exhausted the topic of food for the day, the girls then turned to their craft, a 5-string beaded necklace. At this point, the girls have done a number of beaded projects and at first they seemed to be rather complacent about the craft, thinking it was just like all the others. A few girls, however, tackled their necklace quickly and soon they could see how this project was different in look and style to anything they had tried before. Word spread about how cool these necklaces looked. They were different from the single strand work the girls had done in the past and as we tried to wind down club for the afternoon, many girls sped up their beading to finish before the end of the day. The day finished in a whirlwind of beads as girls secured their final threads and clasps to begin modeling their work. Using a number of different color beads and patterns the girls showed off their creative sides by designing many different styled necklaces. They posed proudly with their finished product and talked about how their mothers and sisters would really like this new look. We are now starting to see the girls realizing that other people in the village are interested in the types of things they are making. There is potential for PNGC to use these products as a way to raise money for future club projects and that is getting people very excited to keep learning new techniques. Our hope is that one or two of the girls came away from today learning that they can eat healthy and look good at the same time!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

PNGC Week 13: Personal Hygeine

This week at PNGC we had very special guests visiting. Jessica's mother Mary and her sister Vanessa had come to visit us here in South Africa and their very first day full day in the country brought them to our village to see club in action. As has been the trend over the past month, the day was hot, dry and windy but with such honored guests, the girls and leaders were all excited for club to begin. They had been hearing for a couple weeks now that Mary and Vanessa were coming with special craft supplies from the United States and were eager to see what everything was.
The girls lined up in front of the school hall as usual, chatting and gossiping about their day at school, while the PNGC Student Council and leaders helped to set up for the day. We first introduced Mary and Vanessa to the leaders and they happily assisted us in preparing for the day while learning about how this year at club has been going. The leaders were eager to share their stories and show off some of the necklaces and earrings they had made. When all the tables were set with a few supplies, Vanessa was asked to be today's bell ringer. Snatching up the bell and popping out the door to the hall, she rang the lavender bell, much to the girl's delight, and week 13 was underway.
The girls took their seats quickly, inspecting the containers of interesting looking sweets that had made the journey across the ocean for them, as well as the small tubes of paint in the baskets on each table. Their eyes were already lighting up and we had barely started. As Jessica introduced our special guests the girls applauded after almost every sentence. They could just not contain the excitement of having our family here to visit. At this point we probably seem rather ordinary to the girls, but our family had just stepped off the plane from America and the girls wanted to know all about them. However, before they could be bombarded with inquiries from the girls, Ma Masenya stepped in to present the lesson for the day on Personal Hygeine. It was clear to her and the rest of us that the girls were quite enthusiastic about the day and their attention was not easily focused on the lesson. Keeping that in mind, Ma Masenya improvised as she went, cracking jokes and incorporating anecdotes specific to daily life in Seleka to keep the girls listening and laughing. It was difficult to grasp everything she was saying as it was rattled off in Setswana, though it was clear that everything she was doing was bringing the lesson closer to home for the girls in a light hearted way. I was amazed at how she was able to maintain a level of participation from the girls on a day when they were easily distracted by so many other things.

After completing a short discussion at the end of the lesson, the big surprise for the girls was finally here. Jessica began explaining that the paints on the table in front of the girls were fabric paints, and that today the girls would be decorating their very own PNGC T-shirt. More applause came quickly, but was soon drowned out by oohs and aahs, hushed giggles and knowing glances from girl to girl as the leaders began to distribute the T-shirts. Not much explanation was needed on what to do and soon every girl had a bottle of puff paint in her hand, aimed at her shirt on the table. At first, most of the girls took the initial suggestion that they could write their name on their shirt. Almost every girl started with that, though soon word spread around the room of other creative designs and patterns. In no time at all, simply designed shirts became elaborate mazes of different color paint that covered entire shirts front and back. Paints were being passed around the room, ideas shared and expounded upon, and everyone was having a fantastic time. Mary and Vanessa meandered through the girls, stopping to talk, or sometimes just to admire a shirt or two. As the girls neared completion of their shirts (meaning we started running out of paint!) They, along with the leaders, began to help the girls hang their shirts over chairs and tables so the paint could dry overnight. Once finished with their T-shirts, the girls now had their chance to ask the questions that had been burning the tips of their tongues all day. The two new Americans soon found themselves surround by eager young faces asking a range of questions from 'Do you know Beyonce?' to 'What does your house look like?'. They posed for pictures, laughed, joked, made funny faces and thoroughly enjoyed themselves for the entire afternoon. No one was too quick to leave at the end of the day, wanting instead to stay and keep talking, but we assured them that the following morning we would be back at school to take a group photo with all of their shirts. Knowing that, the girls and leaders all helped to clean, sweep, pack and organize shirts to dry. We made our way home with a troop of girls that continued to delight us with questions and conversation all the way to our front door. The evening was starting to cool down and we sat on the front porch talking about what an incredible day it was for PNGC.
The following morning we arrived at school to find all the girls already there, sporting their freshly dry PNGC shirts. After assembly we gathered everyone together for a large group photo. The girls grinned from ear to ear as they showed off their new look and posed for even more pictures with their new friends.

We would not have been able to do this craft without the generous contributions and support of friends and family back home. Please know that your donations will be worn with pride in our village. From all of us at PNGC, thank you.


The opinions expressed are our own and do not reflect those of the Peace Corps, the U.S. Government, the Republic of South Africa, or and other person, party, or organization mentioned on this website.