The Time Before I Start Teaching For Real (Part 1)

School was over for the year on Dec. 10 for kids and Dec. 12 for teachers.  The new school year starts on January 19 for teachers and January 21 for kids. In between, is what I call the “doldrums.”  It is a long period of time to fill up in positive ways (or not) and when the Peace Corps wants to know where you are and limits the amount of “away time” you can have.  It is also “holiday” time and a time when you are missing the activities that you, your family and friends often do together to celebrate.  It is also time when Zulu families get together, people return to rural areas from the cities, and there is good food and family time.  You, however, are away from your family and are not part of the Zulu family life, so it enhances the aloneness.  Except for ads on TV (yes, I have a TV), there is really not much evidence of Christmas hype–no lawn decorations, no house lights, no reindeer, no Santa ringing bells on the street.  Of course, there is absolutely no evidence of Hanukah anywhere at all, including TV.  I am appreciating the lack of Christmas hype.  

I have been “at site” (home) since Dec. 6 when our 10-day training ended.  I was able to see how the last week of school was conducted.  There were very few children at school on Monday and Tuesday because the teachers weren’t teaching (they were doing year end report cards) and no food was being served.  Any children who did come (about 50 out of 470), played outside all day long.  I was able to help a few teachers with their reports and attendance registers.  There were a few meetings to finalize the “duty load” for next year and to create the new teaching schedule.  The average weekly teaching tIme is about 20 hours at the intermediate (Grades 4-7) phase. Teachers go from class to class in the intermediate phase; students stay in their one classroom.  

On the last day of school, students come to school for an hour or two. No classes are taught but attendance is taken and there are morning songs, prayers, assembly, a speech by the FP (Fabulous Principal), and certificates given to the top ten learners in each class.  The learners go to their home room teacher to receive their report cards.  They are handed out to each student and then there is a mass exodus of children going out the gate to their homes. Some are hugging and dancing and shrieking with glee. They passed! A few others are not so happy — they will be repeating the same grade!


Learners waiting for their final grades

I will be teaching English Grade 5 (68 learners, 5 hrs/week), English Grade 7 (51 learners, 5 hrs/week), and Social Studies Grade 6 (41 learners, 3 hrs/week).  There is a standard curriculum to follow with student workbooks.  As long as you teach the required curriculum, you can use any materials but it turns out in reality that teachers use the workbooks. The curriculum goes in fast-paced two-week cycles with no time for review, repetition or catch-up if there is a holiday or illness or assembly or whatever.  With that many kids in each class, I wonder how you can get to know each child’s learning style, reading level, and area of strength or difficulty.

I have been hanging out at home except for one delightful sleepover with friends in Manguzi.  I have been trying very hard to stay positive and fill the long, long hours with interesting or productive activities.  Most of the time I am successful.

I have started a garden.  Well, the garden part will come much later.  I have blocked out a 4 ft by 8 ft plot against an existing fence.  I dug a trench around the other 3 sides.  I looked online under “building a fence out of plastic bottles” and got some good ideas.  I started by collecting a lot of 2 liter plastic soda bottles.  If you have read my earlier blog posts, you will know that this area of KZN is a virtual garbage dump.  I have had no trouble collecting bottles and now folks are bringing them to me, stopping me and handing them to me. My fence at the moment is 3 bottles high but I am now convinced that this prototype needs changing.  A stray cow will have no trouble leaning over and nibbling any little green thing I choose to plant.  I cut off the bottom of two bottles, nest them inside each other and then use one uncut bottle for the top level.  The ground here is cement hard, poor, heavy, no worms.  I used some water to soften it up so I could get the shovel into it.  I went around the neighborhood and found some fairly straight sticks to set in the trench to support the bottom level.  I backfilled with dirt from the trench when all was in place, for support.  I also tied them together with yarn.  (See photo.)  I now have almost the entire three sides enclosed, a lot of the inside dug down about 4 inches, added some sand, added a bit of composting food waste.  It has been raining a lot so now the soil is wet and heavy and muddy.  I need to go up a few more levels and to figure out a “door.”  This may sound tedious but it isn’t.  It is semi-hard work, it is using trash in a good way, it takes a lot of time which I have a lot of, and if my back holds out, and the cows, goats, chickens, geese and pigs are kept out by my designer fence, I may someday be able to grow veggies.  Whew!

Soda Bottle Fence

Soda Bottle Fence

Today, I dreamed up a new time-consuming project!  I started a rock entryway to my house.  I collected small flat rocks from the vacant lots around the area, laid them out like a jigsaw puzzle in the front of my rondaval, filled up the cracks with sand, watered and swept, and there it is!  It can be expanded at any time and in any direction.  (See photo.). Two little girls came by to visit and they helped carry rocks. I rewarded them with chocolate chip cookies (not homemade).

Rock entryway to my rondoval

Rock entryway to my rondoval

A Variety of Stories and Events


It is our culture

“It is our culture” is a statement I have heard many times, mostly from the teachers at OPS and my host mom when they are explaining a Zulu cultural activity that is quite different from cultural activities in the USA or Europe.  For example: when a man wants to marry a woman and she is willing, he must negotiate with her parents on a lobola price.  Quite often he needs to give 8-12 cows (or the monetary equivalent @ $8000/cow) for her hand.  She also gives his family blankets and woven mats. Sometimes there are two wedding ceremonies, a Zulu celebration with traditional clothing and food plus a white wedding, with the western style wedding gown and tuxedo, a tiered cake, and a sit down/buffet meal.  Not all families can afford these events so often (especially in cities) the couple just lives together, starts a family, and perhaps someday will marry, when they can afford it.

A traditionally minded Zulu wife will kneel before her husband and present him his plate of food that she has cooked for him.  One woman now in her 40s told me that when she first got married that it was hard to get used to kneeling before him.  She had thought they were equals.  As time went on, she saw things differently.  He was the King and she was the Queen, and she, the Queen, was treating the King royally, presenting him her gift of food.  Another woman said she had been questioned by well-educated women because they wondered why she didn’t mind kneeling when she brought her husband his food.  She said that she too was educated but felt totally comfortable following the traditional Zulu custom.  She said simply and beautifully, “he loves me.”

I did ask one woman if there was some equal honorific treatment of a woman by a man.  She had a hard time thinking of something.  Then she explained about the slaughtering of cows which is done by men.  There is a special tray that the sliced meat is put on and when the meat is cooked it is presented to a woman as a gift.

Kneeling before elders is important in Zulu culture.  One must kneel on one knee before parents and grandparents to speak to them.  When children come into the office at OPS, to make a request, they stoop over and talk quietly.  They are also supposed to speak in English in the office but that isn’t always enforced.  I must say that even though I am the oldest person at school, the children don’t kneel or stoop to me.

Multiple wives

In Zulu culture, it is long-practiced that a man, if he wishes, may have multiple wives.  It is legal under South African law as well. I think I mentioned previously that it is against the law for a woman to have multiple husbands.   One woman told me that when her father (4 wives) married her mother (first wife), her mother’s sister cried and cried because she knew she would be lonely without her big sister.  The man then went and paid another lobola for his wife’s sister and she, too, became his wife.  Everyone was happy with this arrangement.  When two other wives eventually joined the family, they were welcomed as sisters as well and there was harmony in the family.  The man has died but his four wives live close to each other and share their lives.  Another woman said her father had eight wives and over 30 children.  I didn’t hear how the women felt about the situation.  My host father has three wives presently; a prior wife died.  They share children and daily events, all wives are working, and they seem to get along.  They each have a separate home.  I śtill haven’t heard a full explanation about why a 35 year old woman would want to be a third wife to a 50+ year old man.  I don’t know how he figures out which wife to visit and for how long.

Bat Saga


Dead bat

The saga of “bats” continues.  A pest control specialist came over a week ago to spread some blue bat-repellant powder in the ceiling (there was a nest!) and into entrance holes around the outside of my little house.  Afterwards, I cleaned up the mess inside from droppings and powder.  I was really ill that night. Was it from the chemicals?  The man (who charged 900R) said that if the bats were not gone in a week to let him know.  They are still not completely gone although they are definitely less in number.  However, this past week, five dead bats have fallen from the gap in the ceiling into my room!  It is freaky but since they’re not flying, I can sweep them off the bed or floor and out the door to the yard.  Never in all my imaginings prior to joining PC did I think I would be sweeping dead bats out of my room!  It has made me nervous and edgy and tired, never knowing when there will be another falling bat.  The smell of rats living and dying in my roof area (between plastic and tiles) is nauseating.  I try to keep the door open when possible for fresh air.   At the urging of several volunteers, I wrote to PC staff and sent a photo of a dead bat in my room.  They were rightly concerned, called me, and said they would urge that my host family do something to fix the problem right away.  I also sent the pest control bill to them because the money for payment came from school funds.  I think the PC (or the host family) should pay for it, not the school.

It is Saturday morning, and no bat has fallen for 24 hours.  It is a relief but I am sure it is over.  The family can’t work on the problem today; it is their sabbath and they are at church.  Perhaps tomorrow!

I waited all day Sunday for the “boys” to come work on the house.  I understood it was to be the older N boys.  Thulile said they would be coming.  However, no one came at all. No one contacted me to say no one was coming.  I unpacked a few things.

On Monday morning, Mr. N came by and told me that he had been waiting all day too and the guys he had hired did not show up.  He said he would have someone for the next day. I asked him to please let me know if someone was ‘really’ going to come.  About 5:30 pm he came with two young guys. They looked over the inside of the house and agreed to come back in the morning at 6:30.  I packed again. When My Fabulous Principal came by at 7:00 to get me, the guys were just arriving.  We all carried stuff to the garage to keep it safe and dry.  We went off to school and expected the job would be done when we returned at 2:45. But no. There was a pile of mud and debris and dead bats on the porch and a pile of torn plastic on the ground in front of the house.  Inside, there were still chunks of stuff clinging stubbornly to the exposed rafters. I wasn’t sure if it was bat nests or concrete from the past installation of the roof tiles. It was dry inside the house so that was a good sign that the roof wasn’t leaking. The Fabulous Principal  called Mr. N and explained that the job wasn’t completed and she was taking me off to her home in Jozini.  He said they would return and complete the job.  Granted, it was a disgusting job but they did agree to do it!

Cultural issues: PC told us in training that Zulu people do not like to take blame/responsibility for something that goes wrong and do not apologize for the event.  The Fabulous Principal  said this is particularly true with the men.  This bat incident played out according to cultural norms. I was at a loss on how to handle it and just listened to his excuses (without really believing them).

We returned this morning to find that the dirt and plastic were removed to outside the gate, and my things were locked away. However, the roof leaks and I can’t move back in. I do not like imposing, I want to be independent, I want my own space, my own lonely routine, my things.

And so, after school today, I moved home. The Fabulous Principal  poked at the hanging cement bits with a long metal pole, I swept, she mopped, and the family girls brought my things back.  I convinced the Fabulous Principal  to go home, I thanked her for her help and hospitality, and she left for her home in Jozini.  In two hours, I had my house back together, almost.  I don’t even care if the roof leaks! It has rained for two days!


My home laundromat on the porch of my rondaval

Ways of dressing for women

In this area of South Africa, women in general do not wear pants.  They wear skirts, blouses, tee shirts, dresses.  Very rarely, you will see a young woman wearing jeans.  Most older and/or married women also cover their heads with a wrapped scarf.  A manufactured wig can be worn instead of the scarf or in combination with a scarf. Most women wear some form of sandal.  I am wearing skirts to school!  Imagine that!  At home, I change into jeans.  Hey, I stand out like a sore thumb anyway, why not add this to the mix!  I recently saw a photo of some teachers in their staff room at a large (1000+) high school.  There were women teachers in jeans! They can teach wearing jeans! It is OK!


Me with the Head of Department intermediate phase from Okhayeni. We are attending a Peace Corps workshop together on literacy, teaching English, and classroom management.

Carrying babies

You will see many women carrying their babies and toddlers on their back, using a big bath towel to wrap the child tightly and securely, fitted under the kid’s butt and tied in front.  Sometimes instead of or in addition to the towel, they will use a large acrylic baby blanket.  The babies are comfortable with their legs spread out to the side against mama’s back, and their head able to be flat or popping up to see some of the world.  They sleep easily in this position and crabby children can be comforted from this position they’ve known since infancy.   She can do her daily work or walk around town with baby on her back.  When a woman gets on a taxi, she unwraps baby and settles him/her on her lap.

Library being used

One of the little neighbor girls who comes to my house to crochet told me she wants to read books.  I told her to come into the office/staff room/library at school and say to me, “Ms. Fine, I want to read a book.”  I honestly thought it wouldn’t happen! But the very next day, there was Nombulelo, asking for a book.  I showed her the three shelves of English picture books and she happily selected a book to take home.  The next day, Nombulelo and four other Grade 5 girls came, all wanting a book! Now, it has mushroomed from Grade 5 boys and girls, to Grade 4 and some Grade 3!!!!!     I am excited!!!!  They are reading!  The deal is they have to take the book home, read it, bring it back in good condition the next day, and then they can get a new one. Later I will see if they understand or are just decoding.   It has become too labor intensive for me to write down their name and the book because there are so many of them.  Time to devise a new tracking system (that does not involve bar codes, a computer, a card catalog).


These neighbor children are learning to crochet, sitting on the tile floor of my rondaval. I brought yarn and hooks from the USA but I have had to shop for more yarn in a Jozini shop. They all wanted many different bright colors!


Funding for electricity hookup at Okhayeni

OPS has three building blocks, two of which were mostly funded by Anglo-American corporation who visited a long while ago and saw learners and teachers working under trees.  There was no school when it rained.   Only one of the three blocks of classrooms is wired for electricity.  I asked my fabulous principal what the cost would be for wiring the other two blocks, kitchen, security building, and storage area.  She efficiently found two prior estimates, one relying on the school rather than the contractor to directly purchase materials (less graft and corruption when you remove the middle man).  The range was 36,00 to 50,000R ($3600-$5000).  If I had my checkbook with me, I would have taken it out and written a check! (Rich American that I am!)

I want to find a way to fund this expense! We have already collected $1000 from my going-away party.  My principal is talking to our active local NGO about how to process the incoming funds.  There may be a way to allow American donors to get their tax credits.

Anyone want to help?  Don’t send money now! Just think about it and let me know.


Amahle wearing the hat she crocheted. She is just finishing Grade 2.