Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blogging Marathon: Chapter 2. Computers!

OK, I was going to write about my backpacking trip on the Otter Trail, but that really needs pictures, and for some reason, I can’t upload pics. Other people can, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. I just spent an hour in Blogger Help and all I got was “It works in Firefox.” And to that, I respond, “No it doesn’t.” But no one seems to hear me, or they don’t answer me if they do, so I’ll move to another topic.

And that topic is the surprisingly fun world of computer teaching. I have mentioned that I’m working on a computer manual for my organization a few times. MONTHS ago. I haven’t been very motivated, and have the easy excuse that my supervisor, Mma Legodi, keeps interrupting me with new tasks. Tasks that are much more exciting than writing a computer manual. But since we want to start teaching this for real in January, I needed to finish the manual and pilot test it, since I’ve never taught computers before. So, after bribing Nathan with promises of Battlestar: Galactica, we were able to get the manual into a decent draft and I was able to start the pilot-testing process.

Now, technically, the computer classes are part of a bigger job training curriculum for the youth and unemployed in Makotse Village and the surrounding areas. After doing a needs assessment (the technical term for talking to people about what they need), MWC determined that job creation is a very important component to both poverty reduction and HIV prevention. Our ward has about an 85% unemployment rate, and after MWC, the local mine is the biggest employer. Oh, and the government. There are government jobs in Lebowakgomo about 5 km away. And the unemployed, especially the youth, have a lot of time on their hands. Which puts them at risk for unhealthy behaviors. And poor health and poverty are a vicious cycle, so we do what we can to get people jobs to keep them out of trouble, keep them healthy and rise out of poverty.

The job skills training would be multi-faceted. Makotse Women’s Club has a bakery and a food garden (soon to include hydroponics if all goes according to plan) so there would be a technical component. Then, computer skills. Then, entrepreneurial skills like marketing, budgeting, and record-keeping. I think this is the most important component. Makotse Village is never going to be a hotspot for employment opportunities, so creating your own opportunities will have to pick up the slack.

To be honest, I’m a little iffy about the training. I think it’s a great idea, but there are so many factors affecting unemployment beside a lack of skills. It’s a long-term project, so I probably won’t see the impact, but at the same time, computer skills certainly won’t hurt anything and will help make people more employable. And at the very least, those working at the office will learn touch-typing which, I’ve come to realize, is probably the single most important thing in using computers well. Touch-typing may very well be my legacy. Now that’s something to put on your tombstone!

Blogging Marathon: Chapter 1. Cape Town, Women & Historical Background

First, before I start rambling on and on, a bit of background on my life in Africa. It’s relevant! I promise!

In 1993, I did an internship in Tanzania at the Tanzania Media Women’s Association, a fabulous organization that was at the forefront of women’s rights in Tanzania. They opened the first domestic abuse shelter in the country, they built latrines, and they had fashion shows to celebrate being a woman in Tanzania. They also did a lot of networking and were active both in the international and the Pan-African movements. While I was there, I noticed that a lot, if not most, of African women’s organizations were in South Africa. This was at the tail-end of apartheid, and women were a part of the resistance from the beginning. This was something that was encouraging when I got the Peace Corps invitation to come here: there is a long history of movements and NGOs and I was going to be a part of that history.

However, Peace Corps volunteers aren’t sent to the places with this history, the history of organizing for justice and human rights. There are many reasons for that, the biggest being that those organizations don’t need volunteers, while NGOs in the rural areas, in the neglected parts of the country, are just getting on their feet and can use some support. These are the organizations that started after the end of apartheid and their purpose is different from those that developed earlier. Obviously, they aren’t advocating for the end of apartheid. Instead, they provide community services like home-based health care, training, HIV prevention, micro-finance, etc.

But, another interesting thing about the NGO situation in South Africa is that, even though they are Non-Governmental Organizations, they get a lot of money from the government (in fact, they are now known as civil society organizations, but old habits die hard for me. You will see NGOs in this blog). They are seen as a tool to create jobs, not just provide services. So, you get a lot of people who start NGOs for the money. Not everyone, of course, but enough for it to be an obvious pattern. In fact, Makotse Women’s Club is the largest employer in our ward. All of this to say that I’ve seen a lot of organizations created out of greed, not compassion, and it gets frustrating and depressing after a while. These aren’t necessarily the organizations we volunteer at. MWC certainly isn’t like that. But it’s sometimes difficult to find the passionate people who attracted me to this field in the first place.

Then, you travel to another part of the country. Cape Town, for instance. And you feel like you’ve gone to another country entirely. And if you go there for a conference on women’s rights in development, then, all of a sudden, you’re surrounded by passion. Passionate women doing amazing, amazing things all over the world.

So, that’s what I did. I volunteered at AWID’s “The Power of Movements” conference doing rapporteur work, so that the content of each session could be published on their website. Everyone was wonderful and the volunteer organizers gave me sessions focusing on Africa and South Africa, as I requested. Which led to a four-hour session on reinvigorating the women’s movement in South Africa (the link goes to the report I submitted to AWID). This was a practical session about next steps and we ended up creating a listserv to keep in communication, a press statement protesting some of the more flagrant violations of women’s rights in the government, and a vision for a national women’s movement to speak for all of South African women.

So, this is all very exciting and inspiring for me. But it keeps getting more exciting. A few weeks after the conference, AWID sends out a call for proposals for projects that developed from the conference, projects that strengthen the power movements, which is exactly what we’re doing. Due date: December 15.

Now, in South Africa, the whole country basically shuts down for the holidays, starting mid-December through the second week in January. People who work in Jo’burg go home to their villages and spend a few weeks with their families. People with more means go to Durban and spend Christmas and New Year’s on the beach (it is summer here, after all). So, we have the potential to kick-start our national women’s movement creation, but no one except the Peace Corps volunteer, with no family in the country and no social life, to work on the proposal.

And that’s the story of how I’m helping to start a national movement in South Africa. And I couldn’t be happier.

Of course, I’m not doing it by myself. There are several others collaborating with me. And the due date’s now December 22, so that’s helpful, too. But, it just makes me think about the cycles in life. Fifteen years ago, I was discovering the strength of South African women while working in Tanzania. Now, I’m working with that strength first-hand. Life is truly amazing.

Blogging Marathon: Introduction

Once again, I’m sitting here with too much to write about and not enough time to get my thoughts on paper, so I’ve dedicated this weekend to be a blogging marathon. I think a lot of why I want to write so much now is to remind myself what an amazing life I’m living, even though the day-to-day can get mired in frustration, loneliness and isolation. But I only feel that when I’m focusing too much on what I believe is missing. In reality, I’m missing nothing. I have a loving family, fabulous friends, amazing co-workers and South Africa as my teacher, reminding me that it doesn’t matter what life does to you, but what you do with your life.

OK, before I start sounding like a Hallmark card, it’s time to move from sappy sayings to specifics, but I really don’t know where to start. Do I write chronologically and begin the intriguing tale of Makotse Women’s Club’s hydroponics project (still in process)? Do I start with the present, which includes computer training (FINALLY) and the year-end celebration at MWC? Or with the women’s conference I went to last month and all the inspiration I got from that? Or my amazing backpacking trip along the South African coast with Jaceson and Virginia, where we saw dolphins, humpbacked whales and more ocean sunsets than you can shake a stick at?

Well, the goal is to write about all four, so I guess this is the prelude, the tantalizing appetizer to the up-coming four-course meal. Enjoy! More to come…

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack Ba-Rocks South Africa!

OK, sorry about the lame pun, but we were full of them last night, from “Barackin’ Hot President” to “Baracking Absentee Ballots.” I can’t even describe how giddy I am, which is primarily shown by the fact that I am updating my blog twice in one week. I can’t contain myself! My cup bloggeth over!

Last night has to be once of the best nights of my service here. A bunch of PCVs with Obama pictures taped to various body parts, dancing to music selected by DJ Robb, which included the Neil Diamond classic, “Beautiful Noise” (that dance was for you, mom!), popcorn and Smarties (brought back memories of popcorn and M&M’s, introduced to me by the lovely Sonja Dahlin in, what, 6th grade?), and CNN. Wow! What a night. Obama meandered through my dreams after I subtly and successfully kicked Joel off the couch (well, maybe not so subtle), and when CNN announced Obama’s win, my eyes popped open and that was all the sleep I got.

But watching this is South Africa was incredible and surreal. There have been times when I was disappointed that I was in Peace Corps during this election. I would have campaigned for Obama until I got fired from my job for missing too many days. This man had my vote since I listened to him read “Dreams From My Father” in 2001 (books on tape, of course. But I wouldn’t have said no to a personal reading, either). But, other times, I was happy to be missing all the ugliness of campaigns. I could pick and choose what I read, and wasn’t bombarded with nastiness. I walked into last night confident he would win, without fearing assassination attempts or the Bradley affect. Distance gives perspective, and I’m glad I have it.

And being in Africa! They are of course claiming Obama as family, and after years of living in, working for, and losing my heart to Africa, here was a presidential candidate who could not only identify Africa on the map, but has family in my first-visited African country. Africa isn’t an afterthought of Obama, but part of his identity. His travels to Kenya showed him a world that few Americans have seen and fewer would want to. But this is where I live, and this is how so many people of the world live: few options, less power, dying from diseases that should have been eradicated, crime, violence, corruption, and the fear to hope for a better life because those dreams have been crushed so many times. And not only that, but the quiet, incredible strength that shows itself in unexpected places. My experiences in Africa have been some of my most painful but absolutely the most life-altering. The lessons I have learned here have influenced my love of community, my appreciation for diversity, my spiritual journey, and my nascent ability to look reality in the eye and say “Thank you.” And to see something similar in the man who will be my president… Well, now.

But enough about me (boy do I ramble). I’m in SOUTH AFRICA! A country with arguably the most tense racial relations in the world. South Africa, in many ways, is America’s little brother, with similar history, similar parents, and similar struggles. There are shopping malls with putt-putt golf and drive-in theaters. (Just like America!) There is resentment towards affirmative action, yet the HUGE need to address past injustices. (Just like America!) There are no easy answers, but there is the steady, if uneven, march towards equality. One thing Peace Corps brings to places like South Africa is hope. We tend to be an optimistic bunch and we see potential where others see despair. This is a huge generalization, I know, but the point I’m trying to make is that Obama is saying “Yes we can” to the whole world. Yes, we can have a better life than our parents. Yes, we can triumph over racism. Yes, we can create a better world.

Mandela to Obama: “Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place."

Desmond Tutu said Obama's victory tells "people of color that for them, the sky is the limit."

How lucky and blessed am I to be seeing this victory with the dual lens of the US and Africa. How lucky and blessed is the world to see that Americans can step away from white, patriarchal entitlement and move in a direction that acknowledges that we are all family, we are all in this together, and we are all connected.

All though this euphoria will pass away, as all things do, there is no doubt that this moment has profound and global significance. THIS is the America I’m proud of. This is the America that so many of us have fought to bring into existence. It’s not often we see a dream come true.

Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”

Or does it get buried in a mound of shit, only to flower, fertilized and breath-takingly beautiful, when the world is ready? I think now we know.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Today I saved a goat from almost certain death...

Going home today, I looked in my yard (well, yard does not conjure up the right image. Think of a mini-farm with nothing growing on it) a saw the usual herd of goats. I don’t know why they like my barren mini-farm, but there they were. Then I saw the funniest thing. My neighbor, Pa Mello as I call him, put water in a can for the goats. Unfortunately, the can is deep, and is about the circumference of an adult goat’s head. So, while reaching for the dregs at the bottom of the can, the head got stuck, and I came home to a goat running around with a bright yellow Nesprey can on its head. And you know when you’re blind-folded and in unfamiliar territory, you walk a little cautiously, slow and with your hands out in case you fall or bump into something? Well that is not the style of goats, especially since they don’t have hands. This goat was running, running! right towards my house, which is not a soft and cushy thing to run into. I was about to have a goat mishap on my hands. But there I go to save the day and I pull the can right off the goat’s head. Just like that. And then, I fill up the can with water to see if it will happen again.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

And now for something completely different...

I wish I could somehow capture the sounds of my village at dusk, but I don’t think that any recording device could really do it justice. Tonight, I heard the serenades of two amorous birds, chirps and whistles and delicate little trills. Well, it was more like one bird serenading the other bird, who seemed to be playing hard-to-get. Then, the cows. Oh the cows. They seem to have an opinion about everything. “This kraal is too small. I’m not finished eating yet. No, YOU hurry up. What do you think about the possible split in the ANC? Is that a kick in the pants, or what?” Then, if you look up, you’ll see the bats fluttering around. For some reason, you have to see the bats in order to hear their high-pitched whistles. I don’t know why, but you do. Then, kids off in the distance. Someone’s whistling. Loud gossip in the next yard. The sub-sonic boom of the bass of some song in some shabeen.

Back home, the most common sounds are traffic, lawnmowers, and, if you’re lucky enough to live where I live, bird song. Oh, yes, and the dogs. I think dogs barking late at night is universal. But so much of life is lived indoors. Behind the wheel. Not herding cows or whistling at your donkeys to drive the cart a little faster. I am lucky to live in a place where the sound of a car is a big deal. Not that I haven’t thought about getting a car and camouflaging it as something common here. Like a group of giggling girls. But still. With every loss, there is a gain, and without a car, I can slow down to appreciate what I have.

I’m sorry I’ve been so lax in the blogging department. I don’t know who I’m apologizing to, but I’m sure I have a secret fan base who is sorely disappointed that I haven’t been sharing my life on-line with them, so, to you, I apologize. It’s not that I haven’t had something to write about. Too much, actually. It’s a little overwhelming now, to be honest. In fact, I started writing up my latest adventures over a month and a half ago, and the story got too long and I got too busy and my internet connection was too frustrating, so nothing. (I think that my frustrating internet connection is my most consistent them here. Maybe I need to rename this blog to “Difficulties with Technology. Oh, and I Live in South Africa.”) But, my procrastination is about to stop! At least for now. I have decided to give a little continuity to my life here and blog about the trials and triumphs of making improvements in our vegetable garden. It’s one of the most positive and inspiring things about my time here so far, and I don’t have to pull any weeds! Unless I want to, of course. So, this puppy will be spread out in installments so that I don’t have to write so much at any one time. Maybe that will keep me going! So, stay tuned. The best is yet to come (man, am I a cheesy self-promoter! This is what South Africa has done to me.)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Northern Sotho Lesson #2

Now, I know that many people have expressed extreme gratitude to know the Northern Sotho word “hlamukela,” to besmear one’s mouth and hands with fat. So, here’s my follow-up lesson, which I’m turning into a contest, because I have no idea what the English translation means. So, are you ready?

OK, here it goes:

Mašiagodiša (ma-shi-a-ho-di-sha)

Meaning: “herd-funk”

So, the contest is, what the hell is “herd-funk?” Depressed cattle? The strong odor of herds? Give me your guess in the comments section of the blog, and whoever comes closest to the actual meaning gets their name mentioned in this very blog! So, get guessing! And stay tuned. Results will be announced whenever I get around to it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


A lot of significant marking points over the past few weeks, Mandela’s 90th birthday, my year anniversary in South Africa, my 36th birthday… Lots of moments to assess what’s going on around me and what I want to do with the remaining time I have here.

Mandela’s birthday came with lots of articles about the man and the current situation in South Africa. Has South Africa betrayed his vision? Is he really the man everyone thinks he is? And why is he so star-struck? Sometimes it’s a challenge when the legend lives to old age, instead of martyred like Biko, King, and Kennedy. He has more time to reveal his flaws. Yet, most African heroes who lived and went on to lead their countries ended up being corrupted, megalomaniacs, like Robert Mogabe in Zimbabwe, or Joseph Kenyatta in Kenya (among many, many others), and Mandela avoided that fate. He is truly a remarkable man. He fought against the oppression of apartheid, and when that was dismantled, he fought against the tyranny of AIDS, when others in the ANC were dismissing it as another tool of the whites, a myth to panic everyone and make money off of ARVs, or as a plot to kill all the blacks. He is one of the rare ones who has seen what needs to be done, and then gone on to do it.

I’ve realized how much I have romanticized many things in the past (those who have known me over the last 15 years can attest to that!), but the thing that stands out the most today is how I’ve romanticized oppression. All my heroes have been born in oppressive situations, and their ability to strive for love and hope and forgiveness in spite of everything that has happened to them has inspired me to go down the path I’ve chosen. Yet, living in South Africa has shown me the other side of oppression like nothing else. Most people living in poverty, cruelty, and injustice do not become heroes. They become like most everyone would in these situations, wounded, bitter, frightened and angry, surviving the best they can, trying to take what they feel is owed to them if they have the opportunity to do so.

When I was in Kenya and Tanzania, I could overlook much of the aftermath of colonialism and brutal governance, either because I was there for only a short amount of time, or because I was with people who were working hard to make things better. I chose to be with people who were a lot like me, at least philosophically. In Peace Corps, however, choices are a luxury that few of us have. I’ve seen friends cheated out of money by the organizations they were there to help, or, even more common, watching communities get cheated out of money by other South Africans who said they were there to “help.” Directors trading sex for food parcels, health workers not getting paid while leaders buy new cars or put additions on their houses. The corruption is overwhelming, not only the amount, but the pettiness of some of it. Health workers earn less than $100 month, yet that means a lot to them. If they don’t get it, their families might not get fed.

However, I also see, and am surrounded by, people who are making a difference, and who aren’t doing it just for themselves. My definition of hero has changed since I’ve been here. It’s the people who live their lives, and with the strength, energy and money left over, dedicate that to those around them. Oppression doesn’t make heroes. It just makes people more human. Parts that can stay hidden if you grow up in easier circumstances don’t stay hidden here. And at the same time, those parts aren’t really hidden in the US either, but we can avoid them easier. When I didn’t like where I was living, I moved, When I didn’t like my job, I found a new one. And even though I have plenty of issues about the lack of control that Peace Corps volunteers have (sorry, Gene!), I’m realizing that this is the way most people live their lives, no choices about where they will live, where they will go to school, or if they even have a job. And let me tell you, it’s no picnic.

So, what will I do with my final year here? How will I spend my 36th year on this planet? I guess I’ll continue doing what I’ve been doing and building on what I’ve learned. My major lesson is that people who are making a difference are everywhere and that it’s crucial for me to find them, to search out hope while walking hand-in-hand with reality. My organization isn’t perfect--the management style tends to vacillate between yelling at each other and laughing with (and at) each other--but they are definitely doing a lot of good here and I will do what I can to see them better off than when I first got here. Fortunately, they make that easy. They are a good group. We’re working on starting a poultry project to sell fresh eggs to the village, and I’m working on starting computer classes which should help people in their search for jobs. We’re also working on an entrepreneurial/job training program, and we’re also working on getting the existing bakery to become more profitable. By the time I leave, I think Makotse Women’s Club will have a strong financial foundation that they can continue to build on.

I also want to visit other strong organizations in the country. South Africa has a lot of them. They’re just not where Peace Corps volunteers are placed. I’ll keep learning what works and what doesn’t as far as development is concerned. I’ve seen a lot of different theories put into action, and then your basic good intentions meeting reality head-on (reality tends to win in these situations). My friends and I spend a lot of time discussing if outsiders can really make a difference, because there is so much misunderstanding, and so much development creates dependency, instead of empowerment. Not too different from social work, actually. But, I still believe there is a role outsiders can play here. It’s just that grand theories and good intentions are not enough. As much as I am not a cynic, a little cynicism and disillusionment can actually be a good thing here, if it means that you look for what works, not what you want to work.

So, stay tuned for my next installment. I’ll be giving another language lesson, and maybe even a contest! Should be fun and much more lite and fluffy than this here soul-searching, re-evaluating session has been. But, after all, that’s what anniversaries are for!

Till next time!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Besmear One's Mouth

So, I've been busy. I've been writing business plans and grant proposals, and plotting and scheming on how to turn youth into plotting and scheming entrepreneurs, and, of course, computer solitaire. This is all good, and I feel productive (except for the computer solitaire, but it does promote problem-solving skills), but I haven't had much time or will to study the language.

Oh, it's so easy not to study. Most people know English. Although Northern Sotho is spoken by 4 million people, all of them live in one general region in South Africa, it doesn't count for another language when applying to Johns Hopkins PhD program in international development, I'm not good at learning languages, etc., etc. However, what I learned in Japan, and again learning kiSwahili in Kenya and Tanzania, is that nothing gives you more insight into another culture than by learning the language. Plus, everyone at the office is bugging me to learn it. So, I'm learning. Or, as they say, "Ke a ithuta."

I found this great website that has an online Northern Sotho dictionary, with some audio files attached to some words ( for those of you who are interested), so I was going through the "hl" words trying to find a good audio example. It's a tricky, lispy sound that I often confuse with the tricky, lispy sound of "tl" and I wanted to tell the difference. As I was going through my dictionary, I found the word "hlamukela" meaning to besmear one's mouth. Now, my English has gone to hell, but I can't ever remember using the word "besmear" even though I vaguely know what it means. But to besmear one's mouth? What does that mean? So, I enter the word in the handy-dandy online dictionary and find this: "besmear one's mouth and hands with fat when eating."

This is now my new favorite word.

And, you know what, it does say something about a culture that has a word that means to besmear one's mouth and hands with fat when eating. I don't know how much the word is used, but that word exists. And what it means about the culture is that people eat with their hands and eat a lot of meat, meat with fat that can be besmeared. And yes, I have experienced that result. I live here after all. I just didn't know there was a word for it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What Was That?

I glanced over at my friend's house the other day and though to myself "Wait. Is that a HORSE in her backyard?" Then I thought, "No, silly! It's a cow." And so it was.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Day in the Life Of…

Friday wasn’t exactly typical, but it wasn’t exactly atypical either. For those curious to what I do all day, this blog entry is intended to enlighten and explain. So sit back, crack open a cold one, and enjoy.

It’s autumn here, so getting chilly and extra hard to get out of bed. I eventually flipped back the covers, knowing that I couldn’t be late. We’re going to Polokwane, partially for doing our annual planning with the management team, partially for a candlelight memorial service for AIDS victims. Our peer support group came for the memorial service, a group of HIV + women who have been together, in some cases, for years. The service will be part support group and part candles. A busy day.

But, first things first. My toilet is a pit latrine, not bad as outhouses go, but it’s made out of corrugated aluminum, so it’s a little shaky. I use it as little as possible, about once a day. The rest of the time when nature calls, I use the outhouse at work (cement and sturdy, although not comfortable for someone with long legs, as Angela, my tall and leggy step-mom, can attest to) or my “chamber pot,” a cute little bucket that is now one of my favorite possessions. On my way to the outhouse, I was joined by the neighbor’s dog. She’s trying to get me to adopt her, so she spends a lot of time at my house. Unfortunately, it’s not a good idea to give dogs too much attention here (they get out of control, then put back in their place, something I don’t like to be a party to), so I don’t give her too much. Still, she knows there’s a dog-lover just beneath the surface, plus I scratch her head and occasionally give her my left-overs, so she follows me around. So, I go to the toilet, enjoy the view of the maize field, keep the dog from getting too frisky, then continue on my way.

As I leave my house, I catch up with Pheladi, my neighbor and co-worker. She (and everyone I meet after that) make a big deal of my new shoes and the fact I’m wearing a skirt. It’s not often that I look pretty! I catch a lift with the van hired to take us to Polokwane, a whole four blocks. Nnana, another manager, is already on the van. I get to the office at 8:30. We’re supposed to leave at 9:00. (Cue the foreboding music).

I printed out the draft I made of the annual plan (I promise, this will get interesting soon). Then I wait. Sometimes I sit in the van, sometimes the office. I’m especially shy today because there’s a lot of new people, and although I’m studying Sepedi, I’m not speaking or understanding much, so I get a little intimidated. It’s 9:30, and people are starting to pile in the van. I pick out a seat, but no one I know sits near me. The peer group mostly avoids me, although everyone says hello, and then, we’re off!

[Flashback] Once, in DC, I went to a club that set up their sound system so that you could FEEL the music if you stood in a certain place. The bass would throb under your sternum and your joints would pulse with the drums. Although this was supposed to be a good thing, it wasn’t an exactly pleasurable experience for me. But this is what I thought about as we traveled to Polokwane, although the music was gospel and we were in a van. Pretty soon, there was dancing in the aisles, and loud singing complementing the loud gospel on the MP3 player (of course they have MP3 players in the cars here! They just don’t work very well). I loved seeing how excited everyone was, and although I was stuck in a seat where I couldn’t dance, I started learning the songs and singing along. One was pretty easy, and with the help of my dictionary, I could actually translate it: “O ska ganana tu.” “O ska” basically means “Don’t” and “ganana,” according to the dictionary, means “reject each other.” “Tu” I have no idea, and still don’t. However, I thought this was an amazing message for an AIDS support group, especially since stigma is such a problem here and keeps people from getting the care they need. This song, along with about five others, was played over and over on the 40 min trip to Polokwane.

Oh and for those of you sad for me because I was sitting alone, we picked someone else up in Lebowakgomo, my shopping town, and she sat next to me. She had no choice. But she was very nice about it.

From there, we went to the hotel that I had been at before for management training (see previous post). We even used the same room with the mints on the table and bottles of water. So, the peer group did their thing, and we went and worked on our annual plan, which I am actually quite excited about. We’re going to start a job training program for our older orphans, and right now, I’m working on the computer training part. But that story’s for another day…

Then was a tea break, and what should be on TV, but wrestling! And not just any wrestling, but World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), with their master villains and corny, obnoxious posturing and smack-talk. I have a lot of moments like this in South Africa, where I wonder, “Where am I? What is this doing here?” But wrestling, like KFC and Beyonce, is EVERYWHERE. I mean, I knew that “American” multi-nationals were taking over the world, but it’s still so strange to go from goats to WWE. And the funny thing is, I was downloading podcasts from NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and they had Jesse Ventura on as the special guest. So, I had a wrestler for governor and wrestlers in South Africa within two days of each other. Go figure.

After the break, we went and joined the peer group and had our candlelight ceremony. The speaker had just given a very inspiring talk on going out and working with other HIV+ people, and these women seemed ready to do it. There were 16 women, from early twenties to mid-fifties, all HIV+ and all there for each other. After the ceremony, more singing, more dancing, and then, best of all, lots of hugging. I was pulled into the middle of all these singing, clapping whirlwinds of inspiration, and I just felt so surrounded by peace and love. And that’s a rare feeling for me these days.

But these moments are here, lurking beneath the surface. It’s so easy to see the violence and feel scared, or sad, or angry. But I’m lucky enough to also see the people who are doing what they can, in spite of personal struggles, bad luck, children, death, lack of education, and lack of money, and those are the people I want to work with for the rest of my life.

On the journey home, I got a seat where I, too, could stand up and dance. So I did. And sang along with the best of them. And when I told Mokgadi, my supervisor, the translation of “O ska ganana tu,” she laughed and said “no, no, no.” You see, I had forgotten that “k” often sounds like “g” (which I should know, because my African name, Karabo, sounds like “Ga-ra-bo.”) “O ska kanana tu,” or whatever the actual words are, mean “We’re all going to Canaan.” Oh well. Not quite the message I though it was. But it’s still a catchy tune.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Management Training, South Africa-style

A very interesting cultural experience this week, although management training’s not generally known for its exotic nature. But still. Non-profit management training here is and is not the same as in the US. For instance, every day starts with a gospel song or two and a prayer. The topics are taught in English, but then will slip into Sepedi (which I know a little bit), and sometimes Shangaan or Ndebeli (which I really don’t know). The amazing number of languages I'm surrounded by never fails to awe and frustrate me.

In surprising ways, the training in very American, in that the sessions generally start on time (a big deal, here), the presenters are organized, and there are times for individual reflection, group work, and lectures. At the same time, these are community development organizations in the poorer parts of South Africa, so there are interesting discussions about development, culture, what blacks can learn from the whites, what whites did to the blacks, how Robert Mugabe (the Zimbabwean president who is largely responsible for 150,000% inflation rates) is admired because he stood up to George Bush. I love it and find it incredibly surreal at the same time. A lot of South Africa’s like that, in that you never quite know what country you’re in, but to be sitting in a training that I’ve sat in before in the States, listening to debates about post-colonial politics from the African perspective… Well, that’s just my idea of a great day.

Tonight is the training’s social event, so people are very excited to see me dance. I’m not much in the mood, since I’m just getting over a cold, but then again, when did I ever pass up a dance party? Never! And I will not start tonight… Tomorrow’s the last day, then it’s back to my chickens and maize field after a week of hot water and television. I’m looking forward to it.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A Fearless Vacation

Hi everyone, and sorry it’s taken so long to update this thing. I just got back from a two-week vacation with Angela (my step-mom, for those of you not in the know) and in the midst of elephant herds, beautiful deserted beaches and long bus rides, my cell phone got stolen, which means no internet, no email, no blog updates. For those of you keeping track, I AM having lots of pickpocketing “incidents.” Frustrating, yes, but as long as I stay intact, I’m a happy camper. Well, maybe not happy… I mean, it is my cell phone and connection to the outside world after all.

So, I’m back at the Peace Corps office for an exciting meeting (all Peace Corps meetings are exciting!), and first on the list is a cell phone, and warm pants are a close second. It’s fall here, and the evenings are starting to get nippy, and the office and my house are no longer saunas. The sun is still warm; it just means that I have to get outdoors to warm up.

So, my vacation was fabulous. Angela played the adventurer role extremely well as we experienced almost all Southern Africa has to offer (i.e. elephants, giraffes, pick-pocketing, crowded backpackers, mosquitoes, palm trees, turquoise oceans, noisy buses, poverty, luxury, and the occasional cockroach). It also gave me a chance to think about my time here as well, to process why I’m here, and why I choose to stay on a daily basis. It’s such a mixed bag since I have such a wonderful community in the States, and I’m the permanent outsider here. South Africa is no piece of cake, but I love the work I’m doing here. But life is also extremely tough. There is no escaping the crime, the racism, the corruption, and all the legacies of apartheid. The loneliness is like carrying a heavy blanket all the time, and it clouds the beauty that’s all around me.

One thing Angela said to me has given me lots to think about. She called me fearless, and I laughed out loud when she told me that; I’m scared or anxious or neurotic every single day here, but I realized that being fearless doesn’t have to mean I don’t feel fear. It just means that I keep going, keep making tough choices regardless of the fear. That’s the way you learn who you are, what you can and can’t do. I feel stretched to my limits almost every day, and facing my limitations isn’t my cup of tea. I’d much rather feel competent. Here that means looking at the little things: I’m competent at not getting head-butted when I walk through a herd of cows on my way to work, at fixing the printer at my office, at writing grant proposals, drinking tea with my co-workers, and knowing when I need a long nap. There are so many things that can't be changed here, at least right now, and at least not by me, so I look for the things I can do. If all goes well, Makotse Women's Club will be funded to start a job training and business skills program for the orphans they care for. We'll start a organic food garden to bring fresh veggies right to the village, and strengthen the community in a lot of little ways. And that's what I'm helping with; sometimes it doesn't feel enough, but it is.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Whew! Made it...

This will be a quick update since I'm off to pick-up Angela, my step-mom, from the airport. My first international visitor!

But before I go, I just wanted to thank everyone for their support for the half-marathon fund-raiser. We raised over $20,000, enough, we think, to send two children to private school. This is the best fundraising total yet, and I thank you again for your financial and emotional support.

I realized that I'm certainly not an athlete, especially since my exercise has been the occasional yoga and a slow, African saunter to and from work. So, I started last and never looked back! But still, walking 13 miles is no easy feat. My feet got swollen, my toes got bruised from all the incessant walking, and there were many times where I was ready to call it in. However, I guess I have enough pride to keep going in spite of achy feet and general grumpiness.

It was a beautiful walk, though. As soon as I figure out how to upload pictures, I will do so. So, I'll write more on the flip side!

Peace and joy,

Monday, March 3, 2008

Making a Difference in South Africa

It's always a challenge in Peace Corps to know if you're actually doing any good, and those moments when you realize you CAN make a difference in someone's life are precious and cultivated. At the end of the month, I'll be participating in a half-marathon to raise money to send a young, bright thing to school (notice I said "participate" and not "running." Fortunately for me, there is a walking option!). Education is THE most needed thing to get this country on the right track. After years of apartheid education, which focused on preparing blacks for a life of low-level service and labor, there are so many more high-level jobs here than people to fill them. Education is necessary for community development, eradicating HIV/AIDS, stopping domestic violence and child abuse, creating alternatives to crime and violence, and basically every other challenge that South Africa is facing.

So, KLM, a non-profit founded by returned South African Peace Corps volunteers, provides a full scholarship to a disadvantaged but motivated, intelligent youth with leadership potential. This is seriously one of the most effective ways to change South Africa's future for the better, to help the kids who have the potential to do great things, but are hampered by poverty.

And this is a fabulous way for people from the US to help with this. The half-marathon is one of the few opportunities that I have to receive money from the US to help with the work I'm doing. Check out the website and if this is a cause you'd like to support (and I'm a person you'd like to support!), click on the "Donate" picture and donate by March 27. Any amount is appreciated. Just make sure you put my name in the space under "Longtom Marathon." If you'd rather write a check, you can mail it to:

KLM Foundation (US)
c/o Bowen Hsu
461 So. Bonita Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91107

Again, make sure you include "Longtom Marathon: Ronda Ansted" in the memo field.

You guys are fabulous, and I thank you for all the support you've given me so far. I hope you can take advantage of this way to not only support me, but to give a talented young South African a change to make a difference in his or her life.

Much love,

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Living in a Maize Field

I have no idea how a place can have such consistently beautiful sunsets, amazing clouds, wispy colors floating in the sky, but here they are. Makotse, my village, is a beautiful town. Not take-your-breath-away gorgeous, but reddish-brown dirt roads, rocky foothills in the distance, gardens everywhere and big blue skies. Just yesterday I realized why I kept thinking of the beach whenever I walked out of my house. Basically, the air is so fresh and clean, one of the few places in the US that has such fresh air is the ocean. Plus, the elementary school teachers use whistles just like lifeguards.

Let's see, I've been here a little over a month and am still settling in. I have been gone almost every weekend, and last week I was at training for the incoming volunteers, but I like it here. It feels like home. I have a house to myself, rare for volunteers, but it suits me well. I'm living in the old office of Makotse Women's Club, the NGO where I'm volunteering. In fact, the backdrop for my living room is a big hand-painted banner that reads "Makotse Womens Club Empower and Develop our Community With Pride" and my "rooms" are actually makeshift cubicle walls. But it's a fabulous set-up. I live right next door to the founder, Ma Mello, who owns this land. When I first moved here, the land was being used as cow pasture, which meant that the flies were insane until all the cow patties dried up. Now, they plowed the land and planted maize. It's up to my knees now and starting to grow over the path to my pit toilet.

So, even though I feel like I'm not here that often, I'm happy to be here and content. I have to catch myself not to stress myself out with all of my ridiculously high standards and what I "should" be doing here, but that's just me. Makotse Women's Club (heretofore known as MWC) is a great good of hard-working women, well-organized and dedicated to the work. After living through and hearing horror stories of corruption, lack of motivation, and pettiness, I'm lucky to be with MWC. And I get to do cool stuff for an NGO-geek like me. Currently, I'm helping with the strategic planning implementation (they have a strategic plan! Non-profits in the US don't even have those!), a fund-raising strategy, development of their training center, and various typing projects. A new priority is to get them to be faster typers so they don't automatically look to me for that. If my mom comes to the center with her 90+ wpm, they might just explode! They're just impressed that I don't have to look at my fingers.

It's odd. I'm finally where I'll spend the remaining of my Peace Corps time (barring those wacky unforeseeable circumstances), and the situation was almost exactly as I hoped it would be: rural village, fabulous woman's organization, internet access through my cell phone and a place of my own, cooking my own food while gently exposed to traditional food (if you ever wondered where the chicken feet and chicken heads go, I think they're deposited at Makotse for stew. Not so easy to eat, those chicken feet). Things I didn't imagine were the cows jogging through the streets at sunset, their bells jingling as they go. A much nicer alternative to sitting in rush hour traffic on the Beltway. And the butterflies that swarm the puddles by the pumps. They look like yellow and white flowers growing out of the mud until you get close, then the flutter away for a minute and go right back to drinking (or whatever they're doing).

My goodness, this entry is much too positive. And I'm not making anything up just to feel better! Fortunately, since this is life, everything is subject to change. Check back later for the next installment. Ya never know what it'll be!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

This Too Shall Pass (and other words of wisdom)

It’s amazing how time can so quickly zip by, yet feel like it’s barely creeping by when you’re in the middle of it. Einstein gave one explanation, but I have neither had my hand on a hot stove nor been in the presence of a pretty girl. Well, that’s not exactly true. All my girl friends are pretty! Anyway, time has passed me by and I’m trying to catch up with my blog and email, and with all the other endless hours of distractions I now have access through the internet. Ah! So that’s where the time went. Just realized that I was supposed to call Peter May and Izolda on their birthdays, and royally screwed that up. Hi guys! You’ll get an email and belated call soon!

So, my meditation retreat or “How I Spent My New Years” (answer: by missing it completely! One day, it was Dec 30, then Jan 1 the next.) At one point, I would have said that it was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. But living in South Africa for two years seems to be winning that prize, even though I’m not even half-way through. But meditating for ten hours a day is no piece of cake. Meditating, not talking, no eye contact, no touching, no reading, no writing, just you and your thoughts. Rambling thoughts, sarcastic thoughts, nasty thoughts, depressed thoughts, weird dream-like thoughts. One the first day, I was wondering to myself, “and this is the way to happiness? More like the way to completely make myself crazy, not that I need any help.” Oh, and the songs. Songs I haven’t thought about or heard in YEARS! (“What’s that on your head? A wig!”) But the ego is a strange and slippery thing. It will fight, beg, and negotiate, anything to stay in control. But it’s not like the ego doesn’t have a place, it just needs to be trained (so Vipassana teaches). So I started thinking in terms of training, and my thoughts became a pile of puppies (“Look at me! Whee! Let’s play! Let’s go over here! Let’s scratch! Let’s scratch some more!” “OK buster, back in your box. And you, too, back in the box. Yes, you too! And you. And you.”) A bit more manageable. Everyday got easier, but every day has some major, major challenge.

The whole point of Vipassana is awareness: aware of your breath, aware of your body, aware of reality, not as it appears to be, or how you want it to be, but how it really is. And along with that awareness is the absolute certainty that this too shall pass. The good stuff passes, so why bother clinging? That only leads to addiction or misery. The bad stuff passes, so why bother fighting it? You can’t avoid it, but it will pass. Accept it, and you won’t be so likely to make bad decisions just to avoid pain and loneliness (oh, yes, I’ve made a few of those).

I tell you, this retreat was tough, but so much what I needed. I needed to see the good side of South Africa. I needed to see its beauty, to meet people who weren’t crazy racist, or psychopaths, or depressed, or drunk, or sick, or or or… And this was the place. I took a train to Port Elizabeth, a beautiful town with a gorgeous beach, met a great guy there who made me think of Greenbelt in his fun, laid-backedness (yes, I said laid-backedness), met a fabulous woman who picked me up in PE (as the locals call it) then drove me back to Pretoria after the retreat. I met artists and activists, spiritual adventurers, and people just trying to do the best they can in the world. Afterwards, I met up with the fabulous friends I’ve made in Pretoria, and we went to the best gay bar EVER!! and sang our hearts out to the Grease soundtrack and Abba. And then went to my site, which I love, LOVE, LOVE! So things are looking up.

Or were.

See above: this too shall pass.

A good friend of mine was badly hurt. She’s OK, she’ll be OK, but it’s been hard for me to not shake my fist at the heavens, swear heartily, and get morose all over again. I blame it on South Africa, of course, but it’s not South Africa. It’s life.

This too shall pass.

I'm grateful for the retreat, just wish I didn't get such a quick and sucky way to practice what I learned. But at least I have something. South Africa, this is for you: you are a place of beauty, and place of pain, and this too shall pass. I will experience more beauty, more pleasure, and more pain before I'm through, and I thank you for all of it (please give me something nice next, though. I'm tired of all this crap).

I am happy with my site, however, and will give more details in my next installment. Stay tuned for cow rush hour, chicken feet (well, maybe not), maize fields, and hard-working women. MWAH!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Catching Up

Finally, after months of struggling, long nights sobbing over my lack of internet access, I have managed to force my cell phone and Mac to work together to make my dreams of email and regular blog updates come true. I am trying not to get too self-satisfied, but just take advantage of the time I have. Who knows what will happen next.

However, it has been an eventful couple of months, and, along with internet access, every other component of my life has changed. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Last time I wrote, I was still processing all the changes that had taken place in my situation and trying to figure out how to make this all work for me. I kept on trying to make the most out of it, to keep my optimism, but one thing after another happened, and I saw myself slipping into a funk, just waiting for something, anything, to get better. But then Lulu decided that enough was enough and got herself another job. The struggle was just too much. This was after finding that the general manager of one of the projects we were working on was a very slick manipulator, the type that would stab you in the back then convince you that you had done it yourself, and that my boss was likely to resign as soon as she got back from leave (this was the end of November, and she took the whole month of December off). I updated Peace Corps on my situation and Kori, my PC boss replied that she could find a better situation for me.

Then comes a breather, a week of training when all of your Peace Corps peers get together and swap stories and commiserate and watching Simpson’s episodes on your laptop and remind you that you’re not crazy. I felt like I was grounded again, gulping down fresh air, surrounded by love and understanding and a bunch of people who were all a little stir-crazy. But lots of people were struggling and it’s a little hard to figure out exactly what’s going on. Is it Peace Corps? Is it us? Is it bad luck? All of the above?

One thing that was also lovely about our training was that I got to speak with Brioni, the Training and Programs Coordinator. Abby and I had worked very hard to writing up suggestions to improve the technical training portion of our pre-service training. It was something we were both passionate about, and came up with a very detailed training schedule and list of recommendations, ready to run the training ourselves if it came to that. Peace Corp was a little less enthusiastic, correctly assessing that it was not our responsibility to train the incoming volunteers, but to get down to the business of being volunteers ourselves. However, Peace Corps is dealing with staff turn-over issues and when we talked to Brioni, she really solicited our help and we ended up spending a day with her after our week of training.

While we were working on this, I got another blow: one of my best friends, Lauren, had to go back to the States. We’ve been together since the beginning, and were planning our New Year’s Eve get-away to Durban, but life interfered and I struggled with another loss. Ironically, after Kori found out about this, she encouraged me to consider moving to Lauren’s site. She said it was fabulous, the organization was excellent, and that it would be better than what I was currently going through.

This was a lot for me to take in. First of all, I was really in no frame of mind to make a huge decision about my life. Also, I don’t like to quit projects until I’m in intolerable pain, and I was considering how much I could learn working with manipulative project managers. After, there is an abundance of them, and if I worked with one for two years, imagine how good I would be dealing with them! I talked to Lauren about it for hours and recognized that they sounded like a great organization, and Kori finally decided for me that I would move. It wasn’t easy going back and telling my boss that Peace Corps decided that I needed a new site. After all, she hadn’t resigned yet, and there was work I was supposed to be doing, but I can’t tell you how happy I was to leave my small, dank, mildew-y room and say good-bye to Bushbuckridge, the town, through no fault of its own, was the site of much sorrow and frustration.

However, there was another complication. I had the best holiday plans ever, spending Christmas with Lulu’s family, then off to Durban with Lauren. Well, Lulu with her new job decided not to go home for Christmas, and Lauren had just left, so I had no plans in mid-December, when things have been booked for months already. My emotions were shot, and South Africa was starting to look like a corrupt, racist sinkhole where nothing good ever happens. I didn’t know how I was going to make it for the next year and a half. But then the good side of SA showed itself. The fun, funky part that is often just out of reach of us volunteers. SA has a Vipassana meditation retreat center that gives 10-day silent retreats. I had read about it in the States, and one morning while I was meditating, and realized “I need a hell of a lot more of this if I want to be happy here.” And whaddya know, they just happened to have a retreat from Dec 27-Jan 7. I called, and they just happened to have a ride from Jo’berg down to Grahamstown that I could connect with. I signed up on the spot, and the results of that retreat will be the next installment of my blog... Stay tuned!