Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My Birthday, Seleka Style

Yep, I'm one year older today. I read a passage from a book today titled "Somebody's Heart is Burning....A Woman Wanderer in Africa" by Tanya Shaffer that sums up my birthday here in our dusty, dry village beautifully. I wanted to share it with all of you.

If traveling has given me anything, it's given me this: the ability to float gently down the river of events--to relinquish control. In Africa, the boat leaves when it's full. You might wait an hour; you might wait two weeks. If you spend that time tipping forward into the future, you sink. The best thing to do is just to sit on the boat and look around at the other humans who are sitting there with you. You might discover you like the view.

My birthday consisted of small, magical wonders. Wonders that might not look like much to others, but to me, they have been a realization that 'I like the view' here in Seleka. I went into today expecting nothing out of the ordinary. However, I woke up to a wonderful cookbook Paul found for me (I've been searching for months to find it), a great cup of coffee from Superior, Wisconsin, a chalkboard decorated in my honor, cake, seventh grade girls looking for a little help with their homework, and a barrage of phone calls, emails, and sms from Peace Corps Volunteers, South African and American friends and family. It has been a day filled with an appreciation of what our life here is, and an acceptance that we have had to relinquish control of a number of things---special birthday dinners at a restaurant that serves more than chicken, etc., but I've come to take joy in the here and now. Often times back home we try so hard to do something special or extraordinary on occasions like birthdays, but today I was able to enjoy the ordinary routines of my life here, through the lens of greater appreciation we tend to put with birthdays, and see just how special they truly are.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

PNGC Week 9: Understanding HIV/AIDS

What a fun week at club! For the first time this week the girls were able to use the new electric sewing machines that were purchased for PNGC using the VAST grant funding. The four machines were set up in the back of the room in a line with a leader posted at each to assist the girls. For the first sewing project, the entire club is going to be making an AIDS ribbon quilt. Each girl received the pieces to compile their quilt square. They pinned them together in the correct alignment and took turns sewing their pieces together and ironing the finished product. When all the squares are finished, the leaders will work with Jessica to sew them together for the final quilt. At first glance the girls could not really tell what all these little pieces of fabric were going to make, but as the initial set of girls emerged from behind the machines, proudly displaying their new creations, it became clearer how this will eventually come together. I was surprised at how quickly some of the girls picked up the nuances of the machine. After a few different tries at the foot pedal they were finding the right speed, learning to manipulate the fabric with their fingers to keep it on line and so on. There were definitely hitches along the way with bunching, some rather curvy stitch lines, needles losing their thread or jamming, and fabric off center, but these were to be expected. Jessica spent much of her time troubleshooting on the machines while I monitored the ironing board and tried to keep up with my photography responsibilities. There was even one point where I ended up sitting at a machine helping to guide a girl through sewing her piece. It turned out that she did most of the guiding and I learned probably as much as she did! With only four machines, the remaining 50 girls who were not sewing got a packet of beads and some metal wire to continue practicing their beading skills. In no time flat we had a room full of multi-colored bracelets. These girls are truly mastering their crafts.
The starting of the quilt coincides with the heart of the PNGC curriculum, based on HIV/AIDS. This week was an introduction of the topic in club. We learned from the leaders that these girls have already received a great deal of information about HIV/AIDS in the classroom. For this reason, we designed an activity for the week that placed girls in groups of six. They were given a slips of paper in green and white. The green slips had questions relating to HIV/AIDS and the white slips had the answers. Their job was to match the correct answers to each question. In under 15 minutes all the groups were finished and the leaders reviewed with the girls as a large group, asking for individuals from each group to read their answer to a specific question. Almost every group answered the entire stack of questions correctly! This is great news given that all schools in South Africa are required to incorporate this curriculum into as many aspects of lessons as possible, but many do not. To know that our school is doing this well is a compliment to their commitment to the learners and their education. We were very proud of our girls, not only for the display of their knowledge on the topic, but also their willingness to read and discuss such a sensitive topic aloud with each other and the leaders. It was a big step for club in an area of discussion that we are putting a great deal of importance on for this year.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cape Town - Long Overdue

Again, it seems that time has slipped through my fingers. Looking back at recent posts I realize that, other than our weekly PNGC updates, I have not written since June. Over two months have passed and so many things have happened. I really do not know where to start, so I will go chronologically and start with our adventure in Cape Town. Future entries will catch everyone up on the rest of our life here.

It is hard to put down on paper (or onto a computer screen) exactly how interesting and incredible this trip was, so hopefully the pictures we have posted will help to show what I cannot explain.

At the end of June the second term of the school year came to an end. It also marked the close of our first full term of teaching. During the last week of school we, along with the other teachers, compiled each student's work, and signed report cards. The last day of school was a whirlwind of students running around with excitement at the dawn of a three week break as parents filed into the school grounds to collect their child's marks. Not only was the school buzzing with anticipation, but so were we. Our full-time teaching schedule coupled with the kickoff of PNGC had really kept us driving in high gear all term and we need a break. Physically, mentally and emotionally we were exhausted. It had been the most productive term of our service and also the most demanding.

Our relaxation came in the form of a two week road trip adventure with our friends Brandon and Rachel. Our destination was Cape Town and we took off with a full tank of petrol and empty memory cards in our cameras waiting to be filled up. Being on the road again in South Africa was a wonderful feeling. After a few months in Seleka, we begin to forget that there are places in this country that are not as dusty, dry and hot as our area. Though we have come to appreciate the beauty of the bushveld, we were excited about our opportunity to take in some new landscape. Driving south we passed through the rolling hills and fields near Bloomfontein, through the valleys and cliffs near Grahamstown, where we stopped for an afternoon at the annual National Arts Festival, and emerged on the coast of the Indian Ocean at Port Elizabeth. After a day of safari through Addo Elephant National Park we continued to make our way South and West along the Garden Route towards the Cape. Stops in Jeffrey's Bay, Mossel Bay, Cape Agulhas (the southernmost point of Africa) and Hermanus showed us incredible coastline landscapes. The Garden Route follows the highway as it winds its way between an impressive mountain range and the coast. Mountain peaks stand like infantry men, shoulder to shoulder, and march off into the distance as far as the eye can see. They are an imposing threat to anyone wanting to enter the interior of the continent. The coastline is just as rugged in some spots and strikingly beautiful with deep ravines carry water from the nearby peaks out to meet the waves crashing against the shore. One of the most breathtaking views (and harrowing when you are behind the steering wheel) was when we came through the last mountain pass leading to Cape Town. The sun was just setting on the Western horizon beyond the distant Atlantic, silhouetting Table Mountain and the city around it. The bays were a silvery grey dotted with ships and boats making their way to port for the night. Cape Point could be seen far off to our left and the city lights were beginning to pop on as daylight faded. The wind was whipping fiercely through the pass and it took careful maneuvering and steady nerves to navigate hairpin turns past semis and other vehicles on the descent down to the flats. It is hard to fathom how anyone every made it over the mountains before the road was built, but easy to see why someone would want to stand up there and look over this area.

Our time in Cape Town was magnificent. We took in sites like Cape Point, Table Mountain, Robben Island, and the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, and also ate incredible food (which was actually what we had planned the entire trip around). Our evening at Anatoli Turkish restaurant was unmatched by anything else we indulged in for the two weeks on the road, even the fantastic dishes that we enjoyed in the Stellenbosch wine region. Despite some rainy days in the vineyards, we warmed ourselves with a taste or two of local wines and met wonderful people at all the local wineries. Nestled between the mountains and littered with vines as far as the eye can see, the Stellenbosch region is truly a place to come to stay for a long period of time. In fact, we found ourselves saying that about almost every place we visited. Frequently we caught each other expressing 'I wish we had an entire year to stay here and explore'.

As we made our way back from the Cape via Kimberley to complete our large circle of almost half of the country, we found it hard to describe in words how incredibly diverse this country is in people, culture, landscape, economy, and feel. Every corner we turned gave us something new to experience and yet oddly, it all still fits into an overall sense of still being South African. We met country farmers, retirees in a golf course community, Zulu dancers, Indian shop owners, villagers from rural areas, people from cramped townships, fishermen, surfers, and more, all of whom spoke different languages, were from different backgrounds, yet all call this corner of the world home. It is both a blessing and curse to a country newly reformed and working to re-imagine itself and it's place in the world.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

PNGC Week 8: The Effects of Alcohol

This week marks the halfway point for PNGC. The last two months have been a whirlwind of glitter, glue, beads, bracelets, laughter, and learning. Most importantly the girls and their leaders have become a close knit group, as was shown by everyone this week.

Club got off to a late start because of some miscommunication from the school. An outside organization had put together a film showing after school on Monday, but those involved in planning never explained it to the remaining staff (which includes all six of our PNGC leaders). Therefore, when the lavender cowbell rang at half past two Monday there were a number of girls missing. Initially I thought there was a misunderstanding about having club because Jessica and one of the PNGC leaders were gone this week at a Life Skills Training seminar for Peace Corps. Talking with the other leaders, I thought perhaps some girls figured without Jessica around, there was no club. The leaders, however, knew otherwise. They quickly took control of their club, talked to a few other teachers and found out that the movie was something that only students who had paid could watch, though it was short in length. It was decided that club would go on as planned and the girls attending the film would come in immediately following the film and catch up with the lesson. Clearly club has become very important to the girls and the leaders for them not to cancel but continue, and on top of that make sure everyone can get the lesson and craft time in. Each week it seems to be a different leader taking charge and making sure things happen. This week it was everyone and they moved with speedy, quick decisions that I rarely see in our schools. I was thoroughly impressed.
Soon we settled in and club began. As we move into the heart of the curriculum for the year, the lessons have begun to cover more serious topics. This week was no different. As the story for the day unfolded I could see girls nodding slightly in agreement with different situations that they could relate to. When it the leaders followed up with discussion questions asking if anyone had ever had to deal with alcohol being pushed toward them, inebriated family or friends, and unwanted attention near the tavern the girls were in agreement that most people had experienced this in some form or another. Alcohol is a serious problem in many corners of the world and especially in the rural villages of South Africa, but it is seldom talked about openly. Being able to educate these girls about alcohol and it's effects in a safe environment is critical to helping them make good choices. The lesson seemed to take hold and the leaders are very good at bringing the lesson home in ways the girls can understand. It was an important day for everyone to be present and I was so pleased the the leaders had worked hard to have everyone in club involved.
After some serious discussion it was time to lighten the mood some. The leaders distributed tools and beads to the girls for this week's craft, chandelier earrings. A quick explanation was all it took for everyone to get started. No longer novices with pliers and wire cutters, the girls deftly maneuvered their way through the process and in no time were showing off their dangling earrings to anyone who would look. They have become so good at these earring and bracelet projects that we have begun to sell extra beads to the girls who want to make more earrings at home. The funds raised go toward buying sweets to enjoy during club in future weeks. It has proven to be a hit and even people not associated with PNGC are wanting to learn from the leaders and buy beads of their own. Hopefully this can continue to spread beading skills throughout the village as well as provide a regular source of income for club in the future. In the end, sustainable, fun, and practical projects are what we hope to leave behind.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

PNGC Week 7: Sex vs. Abstinence

Week 7 was a critical week for PNGC. We had one of our most important lessons of the program: Sex vs.Abstinence. Paired with the lesson was decoupage--a chance for the girls to cut out anything from magazines that struck their fancy and paste it onto their very own pencil holder. My, what sticky, glittery fun!
Going into this lesson the PNGC leaders and I felt very strongly that the girls should walk out of club with the who, what, where, why, and how of sex and abstinence. They wanted to make sure the girls felt comfortable asking questions freely and having the correct information when making decisions about their own sexual health. Watching our leader’s give this lesson was a tribute to their abilities as teachers. They were engaging, made the girls laugh, and conveyed the importance of understanding what sex is, what is responsible sex, how to abstain from sex, and why.
Learners in our village are becoming sexually active at young ages. At our last leaders training, Jacqueline (PNGC leader and 2nd grade teacher) told all of us that one of her second graders knows 'how to do' sex and likes to talk about it with his classmates. From spending time at the clinic, I know the percentage of babies born to Seleka women under the age of 18 are about 30%. Most of these young women will never graduate from high school as child rearing becomes their primary responsibility. You don't have to walk around the village very long before seeing young girls walking around with babies on their backs. One hopes that the baby doesn't belong to her, but too often it does.
It is my hope that our seventh grade girls will have the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. Get an education, have good health, family and friends, a sense of spirituality, a comfortable home, an engaging/stimulating career, to provide for one's children, and to make South Africa a better place for all. I wish we could be around long enough to see how their futures unfold.


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.