Tuesday, May 27, 2008

PNGC Week 2 (Peer Pressure)

Week two of Palala North Girls Club has already come and gone! Our days are packed with planning, prepping and organizing everything for club and then in two quick hours on Monday afternoon club has successfully happened again. It was obvious last week's first PNGC meeting was a positive experience for the girls. Immediately after the bell rang to signal the end of the day we had girls ditching their bags by the doors to the school hall and diving in to help the leaders set up. I sneaked in quickly to put a few songs on for the girls and then unpacked the camera to play the intrepid PNGC reporter. Luckily for me there is always something going on at club, making my job rather easy.

Unfortunately two of our leaders were at home sick from school and were unable to make this week's meeting. There was some initial stress on our part early in the day because one was supposed to be teaching this week's lesson, Peer Pressure. Our anxiety was quickly replaced by reassurances when the leader who could not make it phoned us ahead of time to let us know and another leader jumped in to take over the lesson. We had given a copy of the lesson to all of the leaders the previous week and they all had read and prepared themselves. Seems as though we have found role models in each and every woman who is helping to lead the club.

The lavender bell rang once again and the girls filed in to their seats. To begin club, we were able to hand out bright new purple folders to the girls to hold all their PNGC materials. With this folder, we also distributed brand new, laminated membership cards to all of the girls with their names and pictures on them. Last week I photographed each of the girls from club, but they were not aware of why the photo was taken. When they held their membership cards in their hands, hung them around their necks and showed them off to their friends, it was clear that the little things in PNGC are just as important to the girls as the bigger things. They beamed with pride to see their name and photo listed as an official member of such a fun club. One more special item was part of the day; two prizes made by Palala Girls Club for PNGC. Two lucky PNGC girls were the winners of a new pair of sparkling earrings and a bracelet. As you can see below, the girls were thrilled with their gifts. It really hit me that this concept of an after school program designed just for girls is such a foreign concept in the rural schools of South Africa. There is palpable sense of amazement and joy surrounding a club meeting. It is truly a unique experience for everyone involved.

This Monday was the beginning of the weekly lesson series at PNGC. Peer pressure was the topic and proved to be a perfect opening lesson. Not too difficult or personal, but gets the girls thinking relationships with their friends. Mma Motebele read the lesson in both English and Setswana to make sure the girls understood. As the story unfolded for the girls they laughed at the jokes and thought seriously about the actions taking place. Jessica then followed the story with a series of discussion questions. I anticipated the girls being perhaps timid and shy for their first discussion, but as the questions came, hands shot up around the room. A true discussion ensued. Having the leaders convey the messages to them in a way that they could understand and appreciate seemed to make the difference. The interaction between the girls and leaders was wonderful to see. I might even go so far as to say the girls even enjoyed it! The lessons throughout the year will follow the lives of two girls about the same age as the PNGC members and cover a variety of topics. If you are interested in reading more about the development of the curriculum that PNGC has adapted, please check out the Palala Clubs Curriculum page.

I had thought there was a good amount of energy in the group during the lesson and discussion, but that energy grew exponentially when it came time for crafts. Sealed in small single plastic Ziplocs for each girl this week was a group of multicolored threads to make a friendship bracelet. The girls were organized in groups of about 10 and leaders dispersed among them to begin giving initial step by step instructions and following up. The girls needed only to hear the word 'go' and they were off. At first it took a few times for girls to pick out the pattern to their work, but before long most of the girls could see their design developing as they wove the threads. Munching on peanut butter cookies and steadily working their way to a finished product, we wound down the remainder of our day.

Sunsets are earlier in the winter and it is probably my favorite time of day. Now on Mondays I get to watch after club as a group of outstanding young women trot off home with long shadows behind them, clutching a school bag over their shoulder, a friendship bracelet on their wrist and a friend on their arm. Just what middle school should be about.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Palala North Girls Club Week 1 (Introductions)

PNGC kicks off in Seleka!

Palala North Girls Club came to fruition for the first time yesterday afternoon. As many of you know we have been working closely with our good friends and fellow volunteers Brandon and Rachel Johnson to expand their model of after school girls clubs to our village. Boys and girls clubs have been a big success for Brandon and Rachel and our teachers were eager to begin a club of their own. To find out how the clubs began and what is involved in starting and running these clubs, visit the Palala Clubs website that Brandon and Rachel developed at http://palalaclubs.wordpress.com.

Palala North Girls Club is held at the Seleka Higher Primary school hall on Monday afternoons for two hours. Jessica has been working side by side with six educators, three from Seleka Higher Primary and three from Baphoting Lower Primary, to prepare the materials and lessons for the start of club. Yesterday afternoon at 2:30pm, Jessica, her leaders, and 55 7th grade girls gathered at the hall to see what all the hype was about.

The previous Friday morning we asked the 7th grade girls to congregate in the schoolyard after assembly because we had a surprise for them. I stood snapping pictures of eager faces as the club leaders and our principal, Mr. Mfisa, explained that a unique club, solely for them, was going to begin next week. Each leader handed out the brightly colored invitations to each of the awaiting girls. As they turned the invites over in their hands and exchanged excited glances, it was clear that they knew something special was taking place and seemed slightly awed by the fact that it was for them and no one else.

As the girls dropped their bags by the door and formed a line to enter club they cheerfully waved their invitations high in the air, giggling and talking as they glimpsed the leaders through the windows setting up for the day. After switching on the CD player and turning up a mix of songs I had compiled the night before, I went outside to begin my duty as the only male involved in club; photographer/writer. One of the girls, hearing the music, quietly asked if what was playing was for them. I stood back so all the girls could hear me and began to explain that each week they would have music to listen to while preparing the room and working on their crafts. They immediately burst into chatter and smiles, asking if they could request songs, if I would make them copies of the CD, posing for photos with their friends and just being flat out silly. It was clear that it was a special day for these girls and we had not even officially started yet!

While we finished setting up, Mma Makhura came to the front of the line holding a freshly painted lavender bell. It rang clear and crisp to announce the beginning of club and the girls filed in one by one to take their seats, showing their invitations to the leaders as they went in. Whispers and curious glances filled the room as the girls beheld their tables laid out cleanly with purple and lavender fleece squares, earring making supplies, club information and a newly baked chocolate cupcake with purple frosting and pink sprinkles for each girl. (You may have guessed that purple/lavender is the official club color).

After a short prayer the leaders introduced themselves and began to explain what Palala North Girls Club is all about. They talked about the lessons that would be taught, the crafts the girls would learn and expectations of the girls in club and also at school. Very unlike some of the classes I had been teaching all day, the girls listened attentively to each word, smiling as Jess spoke in English/Setswana and then nodding in agreement as the leaders emphasized the finer points and added in their parts. To get the girls going they played a game involving chappies (gumballs) and the winner of the game got to take home all the chappies at their table. When the winners realized they would be taking between 25-30 chappies home with them at the end of the game, their eyes grew very wide and we heard whispers of 'nnete?' (seriously?). Yep, seriously girls, they're all yours.

Once all the intros were completed, information distributed, and mouths full of chappies and cupcakes, it was time for earring making. Initially it was to be a short demonstration followed by the girls beginning, but that quickly turned into a sort of learn as you go. The girls were so eager to get started they began to follow the leader's every move with their own supplies that were displayed in front of them at the table. Luckily the other leaders recognized this and began to circulate around the room advising and helping the girls where they needed as the demonstration wrapped up. From there on out it was up to the girls to finish. Many of them caught on right away and finished in a snap. They would then turn to their friend and help her finish her set as well. It was as if all we had to do was put all the pieces together in the same room and everything just started happening.

The preparations that Jessica and Rachel made, along with the two trainings that were held as an orientation for all six women leading the club were clearly a huge reason why the day went so smoothly and was such an amazing afternoon. I strolled through the tables taking pictures and heeding requests for a repeat of a song or two that the girls liked. They posed wearing their earrings and proud smiles.

The last item of the day was to get each girl's photograph. As they finished their craft I took them outside to line up for individual shots. They all wore their earrings and grinned as we snapped pictures, wanting immediately afterward to see themselves in the camera. Nearing the end of my line I noticed girls volunteering to help clean up, carry bags, sort papers and reorganize the hall so it could be used the next day for class. The sun sat low in the sky as we locked up the gate to the school and were accompanied home by half a dozen glowing young faces. They chatted us up about our families and friends back home, talked about where they lived, asked to come over this week to see Safiri, get help with homework, or just sit on the step and talk. We have already had girls stop by today just to see Jessica and say hello.

It is clear that an impression has been made that we think these girls and their leaders are special people and that we want to spend time with them. Our goal is for them to learn for themselves how special they are and what they are capable of achieving. As we collapsed into bed last night we were so tired that we could not even speak, only smile about the first day of what promises to be an incredible string of Monday afternoons in the months to come.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you 'not' to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
-Nelson Mandela

This quote was read as part of the introduction to Palala North Girls Club and a copy was given to each girl to take home.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


There is nothing like coming back from a holiday with a few surprises waiting for you. It takes away all the rest and relaxation felt during those short days off, though without it the surprises might never be survived. In our case, the surprise came in the form of one of our 5th grade teachers not showing up for work on our first day back. A few quick inquiries to the other educators as we stood exchanging greetings and stories from our respective leisure of the previous weeks informed us that the reason behind our beloved teacher's absence was that he had taken pension (aka-retired) over the holiday. Substitute teaching is not an institution in much of South Africa, so the absence of one teacher means that those students do not attend that teacher's classes for the day and are split up among the other classrooms. In the case of our newly faced retirement, unbeknown to us or the remaining staff, our colleague had up and left us without a Math or Technology teacher for all of the grade 5 students. We were not initially expecting to teach when we came to South Africa, but looking around at the frustrated faces of our teachers at the thought of adding even more students to their already crowded classrooms, we offered up the question: 'Can we help?'

Immediately the response was 'Yes, you can start teaching tomorrow'. Startled at our sudden plunge into the classroom we worked out a schedule where we were able to work with the current 5th grade teachers and assess where the students were in their Math and Technology classes thus far for the year and begin in a couple days. This being the way of things here sometimes, between school holidays, meetings and other engagements, the school was not ready for us to begin for over two weeks. Nonetheless this gave us a chance to prepare some lessons, look over the curriculum and feel as prepared as we could for our first day at the chalkboard. As we stood in front of our Grade 5C class (we have four 5th grade classes A,B,C and D) on our first morning we realized that while English is taught in the schools here, they do not really formally begin until the 4th grade. Therefore, we quickly found that 5th grade students are not overly experienced in English. Those who are, due to speaking at home with family or friends and picking up much from television, are often reluctant to speak in English for fear of making mistakes in front of us. We have been slowly learning more and more Setswana as the months go by here, but our learning curve just increased exponentially. After day one, we brought our dictionary. Much of our first week was spent learning appropriate terms (kopanya=to add, ntsa=to subtract) to convey our lesson to the students. The students often laugh at our feeble attempts to speak their language, let alone pronounce some of their names while taking attendance but our attempt in itself has been a big help in getting them to come to class ready to learn. As we become more comfortable speaking, they become more comfortable asking questions when they do not understand. Some days it feels like our progress is incredibly fast, other days excruciatingly slow, but progress is progress and it is better than no class at all. Yet there are so many hurdles for these students to overcome.

The students here attend classes in concrete and brick rooms first built in the 1960's and not repaired since with one chalkboard, no decorations, pock marked floors, broken chairs and tables beyond repair. Regularly there are more students than chairs so the last ones to class end up sitting on tables or the floor. This leads to children running, pushing and shoving their way to class to try and get a seat. Our first day we had classes of 90 because two of our four teachers were absent. Discipline, order and structure are difficult to obtain and with class periods of either 30 or 60 minutes, less the time spent traveling back and forth between classes and getting 90 students situated in one room. Little time remains for an actual lesson. The rapidly rising cost of food means many students are distracted by hunger during the day. As winter descends on the area those without proper clothing will either stay home to keep warm or have difficult concentrating during class. Materials are scarce. We spent almost a week trying to unearth a teacher's guide for technology from the bottom of the library stacks that remain unused and out of date. We have a learner's book that we are able to work from, as do most other teachers, but none of the students actually has a book to hold in front of them. There is a photocopier to copy pages for distribution in class, but paper and toner are limited. Students have only the few notebooks they are given at the beginning of the year to work in. If they have work to take home, some may not have electricity to flip on a light to do their work at night once the sun goes down. The school qualifies for government funding but as of the end of this week the funding is months late and there is no definite knowledge of when or if it will arrive. The funding that will come is often already earmarked for critical repairs or supplies of which the list is just too long. Having spent just two weeks fully in the shoes of our fellow teachers here we realize even more how difficult it is to make meaningful and lasting changes to the education system. The curriculum that is in place is actually very well thought out and presented, but it requires time, materials, space and knowledge that most rural schools just do not have. Without being able to meet even minimum requirements in so many ways, it is plain to see how much work is still needed to produce the type of generation South Africa needs to continue all of the success it has enjoyed since 1994.

Despite the enormous challenges faced, students and teachers still come daily. Our teachers are trying many new and innovative to use the sparse resources they possess to educate their students. Projects for class are made out of anything and everything that can be found in the village. Bottles, cans, boxes, magazines etc. are brought to school each day. Activities and hands at work seem to be what our students have craved in the short time we have been working with them. They eagerly await class to see what strange new 'American' game or idea we will bring to class each day. The teachers have seen some of our ideas and we are working together to share what works and what does not with each other to try and get all of our students on the same page. Already we have reorganized the classroom layout to cut down on the longer distances the students used to travel to get to class, giving each teacher a few more precious minutes of face time with their learners. Our principal has been working diligently to acquire an adequate number of computers so that students can catch up on the current technology to those students in urban schools (one of the largest knowledge gaps in the country). Having really enjoyed just a couple weeks of having us as colleagues in the same boat as them, the other teachers are eagerly awaiting the hiring of a new teacher so that we will have more time free to devote to helping them personally with their classrooms as well. It is inspiring to see such unabated optimism in the face of daunting obstacles and it only increases our desire to continue working hard for our teachers.

For many months it seemed as though we may never be able to give our schools the assistance they need, but now that the right avenues have opened and small steps have been made, both we and our teachers see the possibilities that lay ahead. We have been busier and more productive in the last two weeks than any other two week span in our service. There is no sign of it slowing down anytime soon and none of us want it to. We may be living and working on what some call the Dark Continent, but the sun continues to rise every morning on our way to school.


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.