Updates and Introspection from Peace Corps life in rural Kwa Zulu Natal province

***Electricity Money

We got the grant! Again!  From Massmart (WalMart).
This time it is for R20000 but without the added transport costs (R3000).
We do not yet have the money but it has been granted and the grant now needs final signature by Massmart.

Soon you will be asked to donate money to a designated Peace Corps site so that we can complete the job of bringing electricity to the school.  Writing the grant is a big hurdle for me but I will try very hard to learn how and post it eventually on the Peace Corps site in Washington, D.C.

****What am I doing here?

Perhaps it is my own disease or dilemma or rut, but I am always wondering what I am doing here.  Granted, at home in California, I was doing the same thing.  I have recently been told by colleagues that I am thinking too much, that I look far away, and they try to bring me back.

I am thinking that year two in Peace Corps is much more difficult than year one.  The novelty has worn off.  The bright, new, different, curious events are fewer and the routine is paramount, especially for a school teacher.  Every weekday you are off to school, teaching the same kids, trying to make the curriculum accessible, seeing the same people, coping with the frustrations of life in rural South Africa.  This is what it is like for an outsider living a long time in a foreign country.  Although you are forever an outsider, you are somehow also a part of the fabric of life in your school and your community.

After the one-year mark (July or September depending on how you count), you know you will be home in America in a year or less, depending on your chosen Close of Service date.  It has an effect on your mind, even when the days seem so routine.  Personally, I am ready to be done right now but there are still 8 plus months to go.  I don’t really see what extra good staying half a school year into 2016 will do.  But…I am not yet ready to go home. Going home has its own pile of uncertainties.   Odd, isn’t it?

So what am I doing here?
* Teaching English and Social Science to 155 children and wondering if any progress has been made.
*  Playing card games with children and wondering if this is the only human contact I will have all weekend.
* Teaching children to crochet and wondering if they will ever learn to say thank you for all the yarn and crochet hooks I have purchased.
* Meeting some wonderful new people and wondering if I will ever be invited to hang out, have dinner, go for a walk, talk about things we might have in common.
* Being the sole white teacher and resident in my area, and wondering if my presence will alter how anyone thinks about race.
* Being one of a group of 120 or so Peace Corps Americans living in South Africa, wondering what that presence will mean to the development of the country.
* Being an older woman, riding on taxis, walking to/from school, wondering how that will be interpreted.
* Learning about a new culture and language but not really being any good at isiZulu.
* Learning to live without indoor plumbing.
* Learning to live with water scarcity. My province has been declared a natural disaster area due to the drought.
* Learning to live alone, and without close family and friends.

These thoughts are ongoing, random, troubling, and ultimately without answers.

****Literacy

I am here to help children learn to read, write and speak English.  It is an uphill learning curve all the way.  There are huge classes so it is difficult to give any individual attention.  They hear very little English outside of their one hour/day with me.  Although all their other classes (except isiZulu) are supposed to be in English, they are not.  The children do not know enough English to learn content in English.  The teachers do not know enough English to teach content in English.  They translate into isiZulu to assist the children.  The exams are in English so they don’t do well on the exams.  Lose, lose situation.

1

Two girls from Grade 5 happily sharing “The Princess and the Pea”

2

Three boys from Grade 5 also happily sharing “Stone Soup”

3

Neighbor kids sitting on Ms Fine’s porch reading books!

****Corporeal punishment

There has been an incident at my school that really bothers me.  Five of my Grade 5 learners (girls) came to the office crying.  They just sat for a while, sobbing, unable to talk.  For one hour/day, these are my girls and I care about what happens to them.  I took each one of them aside and heard the same story: their teacher (a male) hit them on the head with a stick.  I do not know what provoked the punishment. However, corporeal punishment is against the law in South Africa.  No teacher is allowed to hit children.  But…from what I have heard from other volunteers, it does happen at South African schools and rarely prosecuted.  I now know it is happening at my school.  The school administration knows that this is happening and the teacher has been advised that it is not allowed.  However, the teacher has not been fired or put in jail or any other obvious punishment.  The principal says she will seek advice on how to proceed from the ward manager.  She took me aside to explain the situation.  I am worried about the possible physical and psychological effects resulting from children being hit.  It makes me furious!  There is nothing I can do about it.

****Painting the school

Our school was chosen to get a new paint job!  It really needed it!  The job was begun during our last term break (one week).  Things were taken off the walls, furniture was moved into the middle of the room or away from the walls.  The smell of paint permeated classrooms as Term 4 began and the job was nowhere near completion.  Our school is to be repainted, yellow and green.  The green paint was not available.  A few workers come each day to do a few hours of work, then leave.  They leave behind the paint fumes and an as yet unfinished paint job.

4

A half-painted school building, waiting patiently for the arrival of green paint to go on the bottom half.

5

The outside top-half of the building has been primed, spackled, touched up and painted with yellow. Someday the green paint will arrive. No one knows when.

During the term break, the office was wired for electricity and sockets and light fixtures installed.  Wonderful!  However, the already cramped space has gotten more cramped as the boxes, library book shelves, copiers, tables, etc. were pushed toward the center for the walls to be painted.  Three of us are sharing a desktop for marking and prep.  The principal has less privacy than before.  The paint job can’t be finished, of course, because there is no green paint.  The children do not have access to our small library. I do not do my library job.  All because the paint job isn’t finished.

6

The office is crammed with boxes, copiers, desks, books all pushed into the center.

The American in me wants to grab a brush and just finish the damn job!  Work all day long!  But, of course, there is no green paint.

****Kitchen update

Remember those photos I posted long ago of the women working in our school kitchen? They now have an updated work area: fire pits outside place to do dishes standing up.  Still no electricity or modern appliances or plumbing but an update nonetheless.

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Behind the kitchen building are the fire pits that use wood to heat the pots for cooking food for 500 children each day.

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Inside the kitchen, there are new places to put the cooking pots. There is also a washing up area with inserts for the plastic buckets to rest in.

9

The women who cook and clean for break time each day are hardworking, friendly mamas.

****Garden update

Nothing at all is growing in my garden. Nothing grows in a drought.  I replanted after the cows ate everything.  While I was gone for Term 3 break, there was a terrible heat wave and the person designated to water my plants couldn’t provide enough water and the plants collapsed and withered away.  On my return, I kept a few going but they didn’t thrive at all.  Then we had 40 hours of gale force winds, nonstop, and the fence collapsed at one end.  I was disheartened.  I decided to rebuild the fence, partly because I don’t know what to do with all the bottles.  While I was out behind my house rebuilding the fence and weaving the yarn/string in and out for reinforcement, the peacock was on my porch, eating my radish plants I had started growing in a yogurt container.  That was my “tipping point”: I fumed, I cried, I despaired, I vowed not to grow one more thing!  But, even as I was crying, from loneliness and frustration, I thought, “it is just a radish plant!  Think about people in the world who have real troubles!”

I now have 6 yogurt containers with plants growing in them.  Four are in the house, away from the peacock. I let them see real sunshine every day, safely behind the burglar bar door. They are prisoners.

****Good People

In September, South Africans celebrate their heritage.  My school did not have any specific event but various teachers wore traditional clothing with Zulu beadwork or African fabrics.

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My friend and Intermediate phase Head of Department, Mam Zulu (on the left), and my friend and Principal, Mam Ndlovu (on the right) dressed in traditional clothing and looking beautiful.

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Me! I designed and hand-sewed the blouse I am wearing.

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4 thoughts on “Updates and Introspection from Peace Corps life in rural Kwa Zulu Natal province

  1. Dear Karen, I love your introspective blogs and understand that you have time for thinking away from your family, friends and daily American life. I believe this is healthy and we should all take that time for ourselves.
    And if you don’t think you are doing anything, you have those excited children reading on your porch with such intelligence and joy in their faces. That’s a big deal!
    And you look really great in that “African” piece you put together. Much love

  2. Dearest Karen,

    I’m afraid we of the “New World” are rather spoiled and have great expectations. But then our society is rather rich and our country has enormous resources. No wonder you get frustrated. I presume that the children and even your fellow teachers have lesser expectations of everything including when work will proceed and be finished–like painting the school. Makes me want to fly right over there with paint in hand and help you paint the lower walls green. Hang in there. I’m pretty sure that the children think you are amazing and different and wonderful, even if different, because here you have flown half way around the world to be with them and teach them English and share marvelous books with them. I love the photos of the boys and girls reading !
    Hang in there! Regards, Tempe

  3. Dear Karen,
    I absolutely love the expressions on the faces of your learners who are poring over the books together. There is such pleasure in their looking through the books. This is, of course, due to your presence and your providing the books, and for that alone, you will know why you are there. The students will remember you, will know that you cared about them, and in one way or another you will have influenced their lives. That’s what motivates teachers, and those are the returns. Hang in there and enjoy what you can, despite all the frustrations and difficulties. Fondly, Eileen

  4. Karen:
    A P.S. Your new haircut is so becoming. It suits you beautifully, and frames your face so well. It must be easier to take care of than the long hair was.

    Eileen

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