The new new

September is for new beginnings, for new school years, fresh supplies and shiny new clothes. But this year as I start my masters degree at Stanford I’m feeling a swirl of mixed emotions from utter and complete gratitude and joy to a vicious sense of lacking (or as my Brazilian friends might put it, saudades). Continue reading “The new new”

Books Matter

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

“Ma’am, can I get another one?” A shy smile creeps across Kgomotsego’s face as she begs me to let her in my office so she can check out a new book to read. She walks out triumphantly, clutching Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go before being shadowed back into my office by a gaggle of giggling grade six girls eager to lay their hands on books. Each child peeks at their toes or back at their friends, snickering their way through English greetings and attempting to get away with requests in Setswana, “Ma’am, nkadime buka,” One glance at my incredulous face and English bubbles through along with tales of the last book they read and how they learned about libraries or pirate ships or sneaky crocodiles.

From the moment I could read I devoured every book I could lay my hands on, slipping into Narnia or becoming best friends with Hermione Granger. Books have always been my favorite escape and a constant coping mechanism throughout my Peace Corps service through which I have powered through 130 books to date.

Watching learners eager to read stuck reading the same stories in their rainbow workbooks or textbooks irked me. These books didn’t provide the same interesting, culturally relevant, and eye-opening tales spun in children’s books. Over the course of my service I have devoted myself to procuring books for my school’s mini library. By engaging with organizations like Nal’i Bali, Biblionef, and Darien Bookaid I have been able to secure books that span reading abilities, languages (English, Setswana and isiXhosa), and that provide both windows and mirrors for students to see characters that both look like them and who push them to think critically about worlds unlike their own.

Every day at break I am swarmed with children seeking a book to read and upon walking out of my office I find learners lined up like ducks on a bench, noses deep in a book and blissfully unaware of the chaotic nonsense swirling around them. Sure, books help learners develop language and literacy skills, help them improve reading comprehension, and challenge them to learn about new subjects, but books are also an escape. In much the same way that I curl up with Cheryl Strayed in Wild to breathe in the cool air of the Pacific Northwest and feel the strength of powerful women mucking their way through tough stuff, my kids dig into books where girls are star soccer players and boys develop artistic skills.

By developing a mini library I help provide kids with a safe space to come and chat in English, a place free from corporal punishment and a place they can pack in their bags and hide away in no matter the reality at home.

The Year of Magic and Meh

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

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The new Playpump set up at school on a rainy December day.

If you had asked me a few months ago, I undoubtedly would have told you that 2017 had been the absolute worst year of my life. Although plenty of good things had taken place, the dark clouds of the bumpy realities of Peace Corps life overwhelmed them. Fairly enough, my focus remained on events that caused me anxiety, that brought me fear and frustration and that left me feeling weak.

But life has a way of reminding you of your power, of opening the door to sunshine and if you’re lucky, a little bit of magic. Term four, though exhausting and full of tedious examinations, coincided with several successful activities. I began a partnership with a local HIV/AIDS organization and created a working relationship with a drop-in center. I procured two new book donations for my learners and further developed my co-teaching partnership in preparation for co-teaching grades 4 and 7 next school year. Most exciting of all, I procured a Playpump for my school’s borehole to allow us access to water and to provide kids somewhere designed for climbing and playing on.

I reclaimed my strength in term four. When my counterpart told me she was leaving the school next year, I cried, but I was genuinely thrilled for her decision to put herself first. Her constant support this past year has enabled me to stand on my own two feet at school and has made me a kinder and more empathetic person.

And then there is the realization of the immense magic that fills my life, from the everyday variety that comes in wildflowers and “shahps” with toddlers to drinking in the vast turquoise ocean spilling out of Table Bay or embracing a group of scrambling lemurs. My life is replete with joy. Not every day, week, or even month is easy, but the slumps eventually “unslump” themselves with victories big and small, and a whole lot of compassion.

While I continue to be excited for a fresh start in January, I also recognize that 2017 was far from a complete loss. 2017 was a year intended to test my sense of self, my dedication to future goals, the depth of my perseverance. The culmination of 11 months of an emotional roller coaster brought the gift of returning to my favorite city in the world and sharing my bliss as my sister and brother-in-law visited the Mother City.

With love, Miss Goya

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

A few brief paragraphs cannot possibly express the extent of my gratitude towards my grade seven learners for an incredible (and challenging) year together. But after everything, my unexplained absence in term two, my raising my voice more than a few times, and a canceled farewell, these kids continue to demonstrate joy and appreciation for the small things. They celebrate the end of exams and by extent the end of primary school by scrawling on the chalkboard #pensdown #robapen (break pen) and quite literally dancing to the beat of their own drums as they pound their hands on the tables.

One of my favorite parts of the end of the school year was always getting my yearbook signed by my teachers. Getting someone I admired to commemorate that year with a special note put a smile on my face, and these notes in my yearbook continue to be treasures that I cherish when I need a bit of motivation. Although my learners don’t have expensive yearbooks to sign, I adapted this tradition with the use of a pen, markers and a sheet of A4 paper. I wrote 62 unique letters, hoping to convey even a tiny piece of the love that I share with all of them (even the troublemakers).

When the kids finished writing their history paper they were eager to run home, no longer primary school students, but at my behest they stuck around for another 10 minutes and a brief reflection on the year. Their reaction to personal letters was beyond anything I could have imagined, pushing me to the brink of joyous tears; my heart so full there was nowhere for it to spill but back into the universe.

We shoved our way outside where the kids hammed it up for the camera, asked for my number (a decision I may or may not regret…), and gave me some of the best hugs ever.

IMG_3769This year was never about me. This job was never about me. The exhausting work I do is for these kids, to bring them a sense of confidence and for them to know that someone believes in them despite their circumstances. My students remind me daily that it is not through grand gestures that cost thousands of dollars that we impact each other but through our small actions that we effect change.

Some of my learners may never finish high school, some may go work on the farms, some may become pregnant as teenagers, some may go on to vocational colleges or even university, but hopefully all of them remember that they once had a teacher from America who laughed at herself and believed that they could all achieve anything they put their minds to.IMG_3764

the volunteer in the zoo cage

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

There is one experience that most volunteers would consider universal in some fashion or another; the feeling of being a zoo animal trapped for the viewing pleasure, commenting, and ogling of curious onlookers. Today I returned home from a fun weekend away, exhausted and ready to rest and prepare for the week ahead. Instead, I came home to a gaggle of young children chattering and beating on my front door, “Sesi Rea… Tshameka le rona”, a roaring soccer game on the field directly across my house attended by nearly half the village, the villages animals in rare form, and of course the persisting drum beat resonating from a nearby tavern. My peaceful afternoon disappeared in a split second.

As volunteers, we are on and working 24/7, and 90% of the time, living under scrutiny like this is manageable. It pushes me out of the house to learn netball with my neighbors, encourages me to go on walks with crèche learners, and enables me to determine the plethora of ways I could potentially serve my village. By now, most people are used to my presence, recognizing me simply with a standard greeting or wave across the field, but for the days when it seems that preschoolers incessantly pass by shouting “Shahp!” or “Sesi Rea!” and when a flurry of excitement and curiosity burgeons as visitors from neighboring villages stop by, the microscope zooms in, and even a trip out to the pit latrine requires greetings and conversations.

On these occasions, my home is simultaneously my safe haven, providing a space where I can close doors and windows and shield myself from the onslaught of spectators seeking a piece of me, and my cage in which I cower, waiting out the exhaustion that accompanies the wave of enthusiasm and the guilt for ignoring the interest of others.

But here’s the thing: it’s impossible to be on all the time. On most days, I humor the curiosity, allow kids to gently pet my hair, ask questions about America, and greet me at every turn. Monday to Sunday I (somewhat) gracefully handle stares from department officials and insurance salespeople stopping by the school, I engage with the taxi drivers and the array of people gawking as I clamber rather ungracefully onto a full taxi at the rank, and yes, I even greet people as I walk from my home to the toilet.

So maybe today it was just one (or three) stimulant too many calling my attention and fueling a sense of unsettled fatigue. But really, it’s just another reminder that life as a PCV is never simple or calm. And in the end, is a never-ending line of adoring toddler fans and shy smiles from preteens really the worst welcome home?

 

When Violence is Normalized

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

There is a culture, certainly far from unique to South Africa, whereby violence has become an accepted and condoned aspect of society. Under the Apartheid government, violence in South Africa was pervasive and permeated all aspects of society from police brutality to the necessary actions taken by protesters to fight for their vital human rights. Since the transition to democracy, violence has not disappeared from the daily lives of South Africans; rather it remains present as those socialized in violence continue to impart those values among the youth. It is not to say that this is wrong, rather that this is the reality of growing up as a tool of a system of oppression.

I witness violence daily- amongst my learners’ families, between learners, and imparted by teachers and other respected community leaders. The links connecting these various forms of violence is not lost on me, when children see adults committing violent acts, they learn that these behaviors are acceptable and in turn partake in similar actions. But at what point does learners hitting each other in class, or beating one another with sticks stop being just “playing”? And how does one impart values of love, caring, kindness, and mutual respect in children who have been taught that hitting, shaming, and throwing stones are acceptable actions?

I continue to urge my staff and learners to remember that violence cannot possibly lead to the same cohesive nature guided by a society built on mutual respect- but my background is not theirs. I grew up in a society where I was taught to respect authority, because authority had my back. I was taught not to hit others because there were systems in place to handle students who broke the rules. I was shown that violence is not the answer by living in a loving and caring household where my voice was valued from an incredibly young age. In other words, my childhood was incomparable to that of many South African children- and my values, entrenched in the largely privileged set of cards I was dealt at birth, naturally differ from those I am now experiencing.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to me to set an example of love and respect for my learners. In my classroom, we apologize for hitting others, sticks are banned, and I strive to learn each learner’s name in an effort to demonstrate the importance of their humanity to me. Hugs, high fives, handshakes, and sharps (or thumbs up) are prevalent in my classroom, simple methods through which I aim to sow seeds of understanding in my kiddos.

So while the reality is that I cannot change the violence witnessed and experienced by my children outside of my classroom, I can demonstrate to them that there is another way, that by using our words we can combat our perceived, and sometimes very real sense of helplessness and by so doing, we can more deeply connect with other humans as we work towards similar goals.

Good Enough is not Enough

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

“The greatest single challenge facing our globalized world is to combat and eradicate its disparities” – Nelson Mandela 

            With the seemingly unending string of attacks on American institutions taking place at home, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the systems that exist here- particularly when it comes to education. As a proud product of the public education system (kindergarten through bachelors degree), I can attest to the necessity and value of a public education, but I also know I was lucky. I attended school under the best circumstances- parents who pushed me and held me accountable, teachers willing to engage with me and encourage me to pursue my interests, and the opportunity to partake in advanced placement and honors courses.

But here in South Africa, the significance of a public education is driven home. For at least 90% of the almost 900 learners at my school, the absence of a public school would mean no access to education. Due to their socioeconomic situation, the government in almost every way imaginable provides for these learners: free lunches, textbooks, stationary, and even uniforms if need be. But it’s not lost on me that these kids still receive a poor education. With 50 plus learners per class, a dramatic lack of resources, and exhausted teachers it’s little surprise that they struggle.

The brutal truth is that these kids, who have such a zest for life, and already encounter problems beyond my imagination in their daily lives, are shoved in three to a desk in a classroom and expected to master a menagerie of subjects in a language that is completely foreign to them. And yet we wonder why it is that “more than 85% of primary pupils make the transition to lower secondary in most countries in Europe, Asia, North and South America, but in 19 out of 44 African countries, more than half of all children will not complete primary school” (UNESCO Global Education Digest).

And while, providing these children with a safe space to be, where they may learn something is certainly better than nothing, the reality is that “the focus of development should (and must) look forward, beyond universal primary education”. So while people continue to attack the public education system at home, I urge you to consider that increasing barriers to access will not only disproportionately harm minority groups, but that it will in the long run build a society unable to keep up with the social, economic, and technological advances and demands of the globalized world. There is no single greater (or more crucial) investment in the future for, “ Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” (Malcolm X). And, as I hope we can all agree, the future belongs to every child, and for them, an education that is “good enough” is simply not enough.

The great language debate

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

South Africa’s immense diversity continues to astound me. This country truly is the Rainbow Nation in so many different ways. Linguistically, South Africa plays home to 11 official languages although many more tongues can be found. This great linguistic spread can create confusion when dealing across ethnic or traditional boundaries. Luckily, many South Africans are capable of speaking numerous languages and can navigate the divide between languages with relative ease.

Unfortunately, this ease does not tend to translate into the learning, teaching, and speaking of English. In most schools in South Africa, learners study in their home language (in my case, Setswana) from Grade R-Grade 3. During those early years, learners will (ideally) complete one hour of English each day. When learners reach Grade 4, English is no longer just the First Additional Language, but the language of instruction. This means that all subject content (math, history, science, etc.) is expected to be conducted in English.

For those attending schools in a deep rural area, this immediate switch can be disconcerting and even impossible. Many teachers feel incapable of communicating the subject material in English and rely upon the home language to make their points.

So the question often discussed by educators is whether learners would be better off completing all their studies in home language and completely disregarding the use of English? While it seems to me that it would be almost guaranteed to improve scores by teaching solely in home language, I feel it would deprive learners of access to the outside world and inhibit future opportunities beyond the village. Similarly, I believe it would create a disconnect across the nation, making it devoid of a common language to share.

That said, I understand that many feel that by using English, we are perpetuating a system of oppression imposed by the British.

Language selection remains a far from easy decision. Many teachers in my community opt to send their children to private schools where they study in English and Afrikaans, a language protested not long ago for its own oppressive links. Some schools opt to identify English as a home language, beginning instruction in Grade R and supplementing the traditional language as a First Additional Language.

While I am certainly no expert, I do know what it feels like to look at a math test and have the gut wrenching feeling that I have no idea what is on the page in front of me. For my learners who see nothing more than specks of ink splotched across a page, I am sorry. For me, the importance of mastering a second, third, or fourth language has never been more clear but the path to success remains murkier than ever.

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