An update from KZN, heading toward the end of Term 3

Being in the Peace Corps is often quite difficult.  There are many challenges that are difficult or impossible to overcome.  You are often challenged by your own personal emotional crap you brought with you from the easier life of the first world.  You are challenged by trying to find your way in a culture you don’t know, don’t fit into very well, and oftentimes find distasteful.  You are a servant of a system (government and/or education) that doesn’t function easily and is mired down by its own paperwork, corruption, and bureaucracy.  But you are a representative of America and just the mere fact that you are from America is awe-inspiring (even when some folks don’t even know where America is). You wonder how this can be but still try to be a polite, respectful, tolerant ambassador from your country who has had a program for 50 years to land and support volunteering Americans in foreign countries who have asked for our assistance.

This past week has been difficult for me personally for all the above reasons.

1.  Two nights ago, a neighbor’s herd of big, hungry cows came into our compound (yes, the gate was left open) and began munching on everything handy.  One cow came onto my porch and was headed for my five yogurt containers of plants.  Of course, I heard the damn cow, banged on my window to head him/her off, and while the cow backed off, I went outside, got the containers and brought them indoors (saving the few tomato sets, lettuce, wildflowers, and lavender).  Outside, the munching continued.  One very large cow trumped right through my plastic bottle fence, tearing some of it down, and proceeded to eat all my plants–the kale, the tomatoes, the alyssum, the cosmos, the other flowers.  I was sad, angry, heartbroken, and had no skills to get rid of the damn cows who were destroying all my hard work. I am a city person!  What do I know about herding cows? (It has since been explained to me that the cows will be afraid of me if I yell at them, wave a broom at them, throw stones at them. They will move if I tell them to, loudly.)   Yeah, I know that it was inevitable; I have worried about goats and cows from the start.  Yeah, I know it was a spindly little nothing of a garden that barely survived on infrequent and inadequate doses of dishwater and laundry water and bath water. But it was mine!

My trampled fence. I have put it back in place but haven't yet wrapped the yarn to secure it.

My trampled fence. I have put it back in place but haven’t yet wrapped the yarn to secure it.

My garden area, without plants, following the cow vandalism.

My garden area, without plants, following the cow vandalism. “The cows were hungry,” I was told. Should I replant?

Cows still in the yard, still munching.

Cows still in the yard, still munching.

The ancestors house, after a cow attack. The loose straw has been raked into a pile and has been burned.

The ancestors house, after a cow attack. The loose straw has been raked into a pile and has been burned.

2.  My Cherry Pie in July book group, with Lori as the coordinator, has sent me five boxes of “stuff” since I have been here.  (THANK YOU TO ALL THESE WONDERFUL WOMEN!). The last four have been mostly books, wonderful books, fabulous books.  Inside the 5th box were a few “non-book” items, including chalk, soap, and 3 frisbees.  There were also two small baggies full of an assortment of ballpoint pens.  You want to know what the most desired things were?  The pens!!!  Free pens from America!  Different colors! Different designs!  Teachers were SO happy to get them!  (America! America!–wherever that is!) (The pens are probably all made in China–wherever that is!).  The wonderful books got barely a glance.  I was heartbroken, again.  Of course, this says as much about me as it does about them.

3.  In South Africa, teachers are required to follow the state-mandated CAPS curriculum.  There are textbooks for each subject and each grade level, with all the curriculum and assessments (called Tasks) that the teacher must do within each term.  I have these textbooks for Grade 5 English First Additional Language, Grade 7 English First Additional Language, and Grade 6 Social Science.  We do not have enough textbooks for each child; they share.  The English textbooks (even FAL) are way too difficult for my learners.  They are also poorly written and there are errors in English.  If I only used the textbook, they would be totally lost.  I supplement or change some of the reading passages and all the spelling words to make it more accessible.  Even when I use material from a lower grade level, many are lost.  There are mandated assessments (11 this term for Grade 5) in Listening/Speaking, Reading/Viewing, Writing, and Language/Conventions/Structures.  I am getting behinder and behinder.  I haven’t finished listening to all 65 Grade 5 learners read to me.  I have given up part of every break time to do this because I want class time to be teaching time.  I have three weeks of Term 3 left and haven’t started the next round of assessment.  It is a similar situation for Grade 7.  There is an assessment for writing an Agenda for a meeting.  There is an assessment for writing Minutes of a meeting.  There is an assessment for a narrative essay and a descriptive essay. When am I going to do these things?  And teach the jam-packed daily curriculum?  When?  For the first time, I have been told that you just can’t do it all!  I get sad for the children, anxious that I can’t do it all, angry that the department is even thinking it is possible to do this, curious as to how other teachers are handling the dilemma, and stressed by the entire package.

4.  The Annual National Assessment (ANA) will be held in mid-September to assess all South African learners in home language (primary), English and Maths.  We are all cramming the learners full of “teaching to the test” activities.  We all also know they will not do very well. Fortunately for them, the pass rate on an exam is 40%.  Unfortunately for them, the rest of the world considers 40% failing.  How will they take their place in this competitive world if they have a poor education?

5.  As you know if you read my previous post, Grade 7 is a problem.  I am now working with them on Saturday mornings trying to get them prepared for ANA and high school.  They do so poorly on any independent assignment that I really need to go back over it and have them redo their work. But, is that a good use of time?  Should I complete the assessments?  Should I give them a “skim the surface” approach to test preparation?  Having taught in a school for high-achieving and gifted kids may be a disadvantage.  I go fast!  I have high expectations! I expect a lot!  Wait!  That is good!  Right?  Yes. But the kids aren’t used to it.

Nombulelo came to show me the wire car she made. These wonderful creations are about the only toys I have seen children playing with.

Nombulelo came to show me the wire car she made. These wonderful creations are about the only toys I have seen children playing with.

Phakamile (Grade 7) and Lungelo (Grade 4) are off at my house. Phakamile comes to me for

Phakamile (Grade 7) and Lungelo (Grade 4) at my house. Phakamile comes to me for “things” like yarn and crochet hooks. She is in my class and a good student! Lungelo checks out a new library book every day at school, brings me water, and once brought some lettuce. She comes to my house to read books and even to do some writing! We often walk to school together.

Okay. Grade 7.

Friday afternoon.  Second time with Grade 7 that day. Their other teacher was absent and I explained to them that her mother was seriously ill and she needed to take her mom to the doctor.  They wondered why they had to have English twice.  I was filling in and catching up, I thought.

I lost control.
They lost self-control.
They acted like adolescents.  The age range is 12-17.
I acted like a tired, fed-up, almost-seventy-year-old.
I was SO tired of saying “Please sit down and be quiet.  Please make a line and be quiet.”
30 times (perhaps).
I was SO tired of being a cop rather than a teacher.
I was trying to read and mark their papers in class, give immediate feedback.
I should have stopped the on-going activity and gotten the class under control.
I wanted to complete the week’s curriculum.
I forgot that you can’t teach if no one is listening (or cares).
I forgot about mob mentality.
I asked them if they wanted me to call in the principal.
A gasp.
No. They didn’t want that.
Okay. One more chance.
They immediately blew it.  Couldn’t shut up or sit down or make a line or correct their mistakes.
I sent a calm student to get the principal.
She arrived soon enough and got them to sit down, be quiet and tell her what was going on.
They all admitted they were misbehaving.
She told them to come to school on Monday with a parent.  They were told they would be sent home to get a parent if one didn’t come.  Meeting at 9 a.m.

I was upset, shaking, practically in tears as the school day ended.  I left the classroom and went to the office and apologized for losing control and resorting to calling her in.  It was my responsibility as the teacher to maintain control.  The FP (fabulous principal) talked to me, telling me not to blame myself, that I was new to South Africa (eight months on the job), new to that grade level (true)(but what about the 21 years of teaching experience?), and that it was their responsibility to behave while I was teaching.  True.   But…..

Tough weekend.
Thinking about teaching.
Thinking about teaching in South Africa.
Thinking about teaching seventh graders–they are tough everywhere.  I have always thought that successful seventh-grade teachers should be given Medals of Honor.
What was I doing here anyway? Maybe I should go home.
They win!

Monday morning.
I taught both my Grade 5 and Grade 7 classes.
Grade 7 behaved themselves.
Meeting started at 10:30 a.m.  Only 10 parents attended.  Three were teachers at our school.
No one was sent home to get a parent.
51 learners. 1 principal.  10 parents.  4 Grade 7 teachers.
Everyone got an opportunity to speak.  Only one person spoke in English and that person had an IsiZulu translator.
The children were told by parents, teachers and principal that their class performance, homework and behavior were not good and they better get serious about their schoolwork. I told them, with the principal translating, that I hoped that at sometime in their growing up that would learn to behave properly because it was the right thing to do and not just because someone was yelling at them or hitting them.   I realized that would take time to learn.  Parents told them to behave in school and listen to their teacher and take advantage of the opportunity of having an American coming to teach them English.  And, it doesn’t matter whose period it is, just be ready to learn!

They acted beautifully on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  By Friday, they were once again chatty and doing crappy work.

Passive culture.

I don’t want to.
I won’t do it.
It’s not important.
I will just put down any old answer.
I forgot my homework at home.
I forgot to do my homework.
He stole my homework.
I will do it while she is walking around collecting the papers.

Do they think we have never heard this crap before?

I am not leaving.
14 more months.

Should I teach Grade 7 next year?


An error in the last blog, now corrected.  There is hardly any water pressure at the tap at school.


Guess who came to Africa!?!  Guess who wowed the welcoming Kenyans!?!  Here he is, on my TV that only gets yellow, blue, gray and black colors.

My garden is doing a little better.  I have kale and two almost red tomatoes and cosmos and alyssum, and wildflower seeds coming along.  Kale and cosmos and allysum are unknown in these parts.  Will the tomatoes taste soapy because they are only watered with dish water and laundry water and bath water?

Luyanda came home from boarding school for a while in June/July.  Before she returned, she came over to my house and we made vanilla muffins together for her to take with her when she returned to school.


These two beautiful young women came to visit me for one night.  Mikayla on the left (a PC volunteer teaching near Nqutu) and Kim on the right (a PC volunteer teaching near Manguzi) were delightful company.

Mikayla and Kim

Nombulelo is 12 and lives near me with her extended family.  She is in my Grade 6 Social Science class.  She is curious and kind and helpful, always willing to bring me water, carrying it on her head.  She sometimes takes her little nephew around on her back, tied with a towel, as women do here everywhere.  She is not shy about practicing English and communicating with me!


And then, life went on…far, far away from California…

Term 3 has started and it is interesting, rewarding, insane and quiet right now.  Interesting because it is new material.  Rewarding because there are eager children ready to participate (grade 5).  Grade 7 is not much interested in anything and I will have a future blog devoted to them.  Insane because the Formal Assessment schedule requires 11 different tasks for grade 5, not realizing that with 65 learners it is nearly (or really) impossible to complete those assessments in a two week period and teach at the same time.  Quiet because most of the teachers and learners are busy working.  This is the term of the national standardized tests and teachers are busy preparing the learners (teaching to the test).

It was lovely to greet everyone after the long winter holiday break.  There were so many questions about how my family was, did they enjoy their trip, are they back in America now.

There is now running water from the tap at school!  It is a miracle! Not really. After many years of working on it, the water scheme is “complete.”   However, it does not run with a lot of pressure because (so I’ve heard) they are still using old and inadequate pipes and pumping equipment.  It is slowly coming to neighborhoods along the main highway.  It is about 2 km from where I live. I wonder if it will reach the tap in my yard before I leave.

Maureen (another older Peace Corps volunteer) visited me August 1-2. We went for two long walks in my area, meeting adults and learners (children from my school) along the way.  Everyone waved and shouted “Sawubona Ms. Fine” or just “Hello!” and one woman offered us stalks of fresh sugar cane.  She used her machete to cut it in small pieces and peel the outside.  We also met up with some of the kids from my class/extended host family.  Here, everyone is a brother or sister if they are a blood relation.  I asked one of the boys how many N’s there were.  He didn’t know a number but said that if they were all there they could eat a whole cow at one meal.

This is a photo Maureen took of all of us together.  The children are all cousins (our word) or brothers and all from a polygamous family.  They are all Shembe/Nazareth believers.  They are wonderful children, all very bright, fairly good English speakers, hard workers, and all wanting to go to university some day.


Along the way home, we encountered a woman carrying wood for her cooking fire.  She let Maureen take her photo.

We also saw a dry stone wall built around an old seemingly abandoned house.  It was not in good condition and will not last like the stone walls of England and Ireland.  But, I was stunned to see it!  There are rocks everywhere but this skill/art does not seem to be prevalent in this part if the world.

I want to show you some of the plants that grow around here.  This is really sort of a desert, very dry and hot for much of the year.  There are cacti, aloe, thorn trees (acacia) that all thrive in this environment.  It is winter here — winter wildflowers here are very different from what I am used to.  Can you identify them? Let me know if you can!

1. Some sort of Aloe, blooming now everywhere.  Here are two views:


African impatiens. (I think).  There is not a lot of it but it is delightful to find it along the track.

Another kind of succulent, about knee high or a bit more, blooming everywhere now.


Another hardy succulent.

A low-growing cactus

Broad-leafed plant near water

Small dusty plant with yellow “berries”

I think this is a fever tree.  It has a yellowish-green bark.

Thorn tree (there are lots of varieties).

Gigantic tree with gigantic pods.