August 11, 2014

Hello again from M_____ in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa. I’m done with half of my training program and am now looking forward to our swearing-in ceremony on September 15, 2014. They have not yet decided where that will occur but it will most likely be close to where we are now and NOT in Pretoria.

Last Tuesday, August 5, our training schedule was rearranged to accommodate a request from a local high school principal who had seen volunteers in his village and coming and going to the nearby Tribal Court building, our training hub. He asked if these Peace Corps volunteers could come to his school and talk to his learners (students) and answer their questions.

When we arrived, we found a huge “hall” filled with at least 1000 learners, all in their tidy school uniforms, sitting or standing with their teachers. All 34 of us plus our isiZulu teachers, our third-year Peace Corps trainers, and our training director (Mr. Baker) were on the stage facing the learners. One of the teachers (I think) was the emcee and he introduced the principal. Both of them spoke to the students about being on their best behavior and to ask good questions about education in America. Some Peace Corps volunteers spoke about how important education was, to remember to follow their dreams, to stay in school and study hard, to go to university. When the learners were allowed to ask their questions, they amazed us with their depth, their concern, their variety: how were students disciplined in America, how was American handling HIV/AIDS, did Americans care about the human trafficking crisis in the world, what happened when a teenage school girl got pregnant in America, and how important was proficiency in math and science. They cheered when a volunteer told them that teachers in America could not hit students but used other methods of consequences for bad behavior.

The learners cheered when Peace Corps trainees spoke some greetings in isiZulu and used their new isiZulu names. (Mine is Sihenhlahla which means good luck.)

When the learners got restless with the speeches and the steady stream of exhortations to do well in school, we changed the pace. We trainees sang “Shosholoza,” a song Mr. Baker taught us. (Keep on moving in those mountains, the train is coming from South Africa, we are running in those mountains.) Some talented students sang Zulu songs and showed us the high kicks and stomps of traditional Zulu dances. There was an incredible happy cheering din of noise as volunteers attempted to dance as well.

In the odd wrap-up, just before we left the stage, one administrator said the learners got corporal punishment (which is against the law) to motivate them (!!) and another man said they had a real problem with lateness and not studying hard. By then the students were done listening, but wanted more time to shake our hands, take photos, hug an American, all of which they did in the parking area right before we got into the vans and drove away.

Afterwards we debriefed and someone said we were treated like rock stars! Most of us wished that we could gone into the classrooms and answered their questions in smaller and more personal groups.

My second interesting cultural event was yesterday, Sunday, August 10. I went to an Anglican church service with Mama and Thanda (13) in nearby eMondlo. As you know, church and religion are not exactly my thing, so give me lots of kudos for sitting on a hard oak pew for 5 hours paying “attention” to the service which was almost entirely in isiZulu!! It was a LONG 5 hours! Mama and about 25 other women were dressed similarly in black skirts, stockings, shoes and hat, with white blouses/jackets. Among that dedicated group there were some wonderful singers, and their voices kept me going. The Reverend wore a white cassock and a robe with lime green accents and embroidery. There was incense, hymns, boy and girl helpers in red robes with white robes over the red, special attention and blessings to the children (imagine 5 hours to them!), communion, recognition to the women for Women’s Day (the previous day), a sermon, a guest speaker, an election of officers, and handshakes with people sitting nearby. Finally, in desperation during communion, I started reading Mama’s English Bible. There I was, sitting there reading about Joseph in the land of Egypt, taking good care of the people in times of plenty and times of famine, when Mama stands up next to me. I stopped the reading and realized she was talking to the congregation about me living with her and learning isiZulu and my isiZulu name. Then the Reverend came over to me and asked if I’d like to say something to the group. I spoke into the hand-held microphone and explained that I was being well-taken care of by Mama, that I was one of 34 Peace Corps volunteers who have come to KwaZuluNatal to teach English. I thanked them for allowing me to come to their church and welcoming me there. I was calm, spoke clearly (in English) and wasn’t freaked out about public speaking! And after another hour, we got to leave the church and head for the eMondlo taxi rank.

Mama and I put Thandi on a taxi going to Vryheid where he lives and goes to school. She and I got onto one of the worst taxis in South Africa, just the kind the Peace Corps told us never to get into (unless we have to). But I followed Mama and we both ended up laughing: all the seats were ripped, the front grate had fallen off and was slipped in behind one of the bench seats, the rubber casings on the windows were torn, the back door was broken and wouldn’t stay shut, the sliding side passenger had some trouble staying closed, there was a crack in the windshield. When the Khumbi was full (14 adults plus 2 small children), the driver came over and filled one of the tires with air and drove next door to a gas station for a “bit” of gas, not a fill-up. We departed for M_____, slowly, bumping along the gravel road, several of us laughing, wondering if we’d make it. At first, I thought it was the worst taxi in Africa, but we made it back safely. The worst taxi would have died along the way and we’d have to walk home!

Oh, I DO get a bit of news occasionally, from TV and newspapers. I am appalled at the Israeli bombing of Gaza, ISIS actions in Iraq, and U.S. bombing in Iraq. My dear English friend, Sue Hepworth, texted me that she went to the anti-war demonstration in London with 150,000 other people. Good for her!!! Is there any way at all we can stop these wars?

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