Sunday, January 17, 2010

First Day of School

January 13th marked the first day of school for the learners in my village. I woke up that morning excited because it was my first day, too. But this time, I would be on the other side of the desk.

The first day is always exciting—new books, new friends, new stories to tell. As a new educator, mine was no different. I was very excited to get to know my two new classes. I am teaching Grade 5 Technology (about 45 learners) and Grade 10 Physical Science (19 learners) for the coming year. My first day and first week were better than I could have imagined!

P1110574 (240x180)

Of course, as is tradition in many American families, there always has to be a First Day of School photo. (Mom, you can add this to my other first days of school.)




The learners in Grade 5 on the first day were rather quiet for me. They followed directions, but I could tell they seemed hesitant of their new teacher, whether it was my accent, my speaking English, the color of my skin, or just that I was new (maybe a combination). Whatever it was, they’d bashfully smile and giggle at my requests and not much more, but after some coaxing and gestures, they got to working on their in-class assignments. I was anticipating such a reaction, so I brought my world maps with me just in case of a reluctant class. After asking a few volunteers to help hold the map (master map holders!) and others to come to the front and guess where America was, I got a blaze of hands flailing in the air and grasping for attention just so that Mr. T (me) would call on them to come to the board and have a swing at pointing out America on the map. And with some help, we found it! Way over across the ocean, even! Who would have thought that someone could travel that far—and how long!? 18 hours in an airplane!? Woooowwww…

I wish I could say Grade 10 was prepared to have class with me, but alas, they were busy getting books and supplies for all their classes. So, our first official class was postponed until Friday. When we did finally have class, they were right there, following along with me! They raised their hands with questions and answers; they interrupted me if they didn’t understand something I said (which I encouraged any time they couldn’t understand my accent); they started working on their first homework assignment I gave to them; and after class, there were some learners who approached me with more clarification questions! It was a dream-class come true for me. Now, these things I mentioned may seem a little basic in some of your minds, but let me mention that for many reasons, this is a good sign for the first week: first off, I’ve observed as well as test-taught a class or two since being here and noticed the lack of participation by the learners overall; and secondly, I am not a professional teacher by any means, so I’m starting from the basics and taking it one step at a time; and thirdly, I’m new to them as an educator, so I can’t expect us to all walk into the same classroom and have the same expectations right away. But, we’re getting to know each other and this is a very good start. Now, I’m not trying to count my chickens before they hatch, but I can’t help but be cautiously optimistic about our year together.

Friday’s class with Grade 5 was just as productive and fun—for all of us! The learners came prepared for the lesson and had a fun review on safety using our whole body (we all stand up, point to each body part and speak together): head—think about safety; ears—listen to instructions; eyes—watch out for dangerous situations; mouth—tell someone if you see something dangerous; hands—watch where you put your hands when you work; tools (hold onto your pencil or a ruler)—keep tools clean and organized; and feet (this one makes everyone laugh: everyone grabs their foot)—walk carefully when you are working! We even drew our own picture of a person to go along with it; as a class, we decided to name him “Boy.” Safety first—it’s a lesson we don’t want to learn the hard way!

So, I guess I should explain why they call me Mr. T. Back in September when I first arrived to my village, I was given my Setswana name, Thuto (“2-toh”), by the community. Thuto means ‘education’ in Setswana—rather fitting, don’t you think? Since then, it’s grown on me to be almost as close as my real American name. I am Thuto to everyone here. I also took on my host family’s surname, Mongwaketse. I love the name, what it means and the fact that the community gave it to me. There are a few variations that I’ve come to respond to: Thutas, Thuta, Mr. T, Mr. Thuto, Mr. Mongwaketse, and whatever else someone wants to call me. Nna ke Thuto Mongwaketse (I am Thuto Mongwaketse). So, that’s the story behind Mr. T.

My final thought: the one worry that I had coming into this as a new educator, which intimidated me to no end about teaching, was the assessments and how to go about being fair and give an appropriate workload to the learners. However, in just a few short days, my fears have quickly dwindled, now seeing that all assessments and workload recommendations are given from above. The National Curriculum Standard (NCS) through the National Dept. of Education has everything set up through their guidelines so that everything is standardized down to the very basic level. I now feel at ease with a big weight lifted off my shoulder—someone already took care of the hard part and left the fun part for me: being in class with the kids.

This is going to be a good year. Salang Sentle—Stay Well

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Vacation Like No Other

What happened in three weeks felt like three months, but what happened will stay with me for a lifetime.

But first, a very happy holiday season to all of you! I hope everyone’s celebrations were safe and festive! Mine here in South Africa were as diverse as the country itself. South Africa showed me the many ways life is appreciated and the holidays, enjoyed. Here are my adventures in pictures…

My holiday stories start off with a visit from my friend, Liz Doane, who was just ending her semester-long escapade through eastern and southern Africa. She arrived on the 15th of December and spent a week in my village and was given the Setswana name, Olorato, which means God loves.

 P1110081 (240x180)

Liz and the kids playing ball. They loved her and took to her right away!



PA180088 (240x180)





We hunted all afternoon in the forest for just the right mini-Christmas tree. We ended up finding the perfect one right in my backyard.  We decorated it with red and green sewing string and donned it with paper ornaments stuck on with sticky-tack.


At this point, I’d love to share Liz’s first chicken-butchering experience, with visual evidence for those that doubt. However, due to the graphic content of the photographs, I must refrain from posting them on this public site in fear of PETA advocates complaining about cruelty to animals. But, you can probably get the gist of it…

P1110104 (240x180)

We were visited by several friends one night at my house…

P1110097 (240x180)






I swear, Liz must have brought them with her because in one night, we saw two scorpions, a snake, and a skunk—all in our yard.


P1110111 (240x180)

Liz and I were baking extraordinaires! Well, Liz more than me, evidently…

(Warning, banana advocates: bananas were hurt during the making of this bread.)


P1110121 (240x180)



We hosted a braai (BBQ/party) for some of our friends in the village. Reasons to celebrate?? Liz coming, me leaving, the festive holiday season, my golden birthday, and just because!

PA180087 (240x180)


But, of course, I had to be oblivious to my friends’ preparations and find out the hard way about their impromptu birthday christening.


P1110130 (240x180)


Playing games into the wee hours of the night!

P1110138 (240x180)








It got extremely hot one day, so Liz and I decided to have a “pool” party in the yard. We gathered zinc basins and filled them with water. We put on our suits and jumped in! Fried chicken, chocolate, sangria, and music. It was heaven on earth.

 P1110181 (240x180) P1110187 (240x180)

P1110189 (240x180) We even made homemade pizzas! They were amazing—I’m not even going to be modest.





P1110196 (240x180) After Liz and I finished our village adventures, we headed together in the taxis to Pretoria on the 22nd of December.



P1110211 (240x180)


  We had our one last evening of partying for a last hoorah before Liz had to get her flight back to the States. We met some incredible people that night who offered to bring Liz to the airport. (Yet another example of amazing South African generosity!)

I then met up with my friend and fellow PCV, Gabi, who joined me to go stay with my old host family from when we were training outside of Pretoria. We spent Christmas with them and family. It was one of the most incredible ways I’ve spent Christmas and my birthday. Of course, nothing can replace spending Christmas with my true family, but if I were to spend it anywhere else, this was a great place to be! The most enjoyable part of celebrating Christmas and my golden birthday with them was the emphasis on just spending time with family and enjoying meals together. There was no holiday stress or hurried preparation of guests, or worries about gifts—there were no gifts to be exchanged! And it was great! We just focused on being with each other. I didn’t even bury my face behind the lens the whole day. Instead, how did I decide to celebrate my birthday? I napped outside under a tree. I always wanted a summer birthday, so I was taking full advantage of the incredible weather. What a memorable day.


P1110230 (240x180)

The day after Christmas, Gabi and I took off to Durban by bus, but not before a freak hail storm and flash floods ripped through Jo’burg. There was so much hail that it gathered together and looked like snow. I got my white Christmas in summer in the end!



P1110243 (240x180) In Durban, we were picked up by a friend of a friend, Jackie, who took Gabi and I in for the entire week! She’s an absolute saint. Thank you, Jackie, for your unbelievable hospitality!




P1110250 (240x180)

We had a true Durban curry dinner at Jackie’s friend’s house. What an incredible meal and even better company!



P1110239 (240x180)



This is Durban in the summer—cloudy, muggy, and rainy. But still a blast!




P1110288 (240x180)

We went to Mitchell Park Zoo (admission was only R5=$0.66!) and the most surprising part was that they had raccoons on display. I did some rodent education to some curious South African spectators. I found out our raccoons are like their monkeys—cute but big troublemakers!

   P1110360 (240x180)     P1110392 (240x180)









At the botanical gardens…

P1110395 (240x180)

P1110394 (240x180)








P1110400 (240x180)

Traditional Zulu dancers performing for a crowd. Truly an incredible dance—much different from the traditional Setswana dancing I’ve grown familiar with in my area of South Africa.

P1110402 (240x180)




My first bunny chow—curry and mutton in a hollowed out loaf of bread. Delicious!


P1110424 (240x180)


Liz’s friend, Kyle, his friend, Ruth, Gabi, and I took a harbor tour around Durban. So many great people and so many great things to do in the city!


P1110453 (240x180)



Kyle pointed out to me that these shipping cranes in the harbor look like giant metal giraffes coming to drink.



P1110405 Stitch 1 (500x137)  Durban panoramas from Currie Road lookout.

P1110465 Stitch (500x137)


And now, I’ll share with you the other side of my holidays…

The first section of this blog, alone, will lead you to believe that this vacation was just like any other vacation, full of good times with an easy-living, care-free lifestyle. To some extent, it was. However, there was a whole other side to my experience in Durban and Pretoria and I’d like to share that here because I feel it is extremely important to point out.

Unlike any other vacation I’ve ever  taken, this one was truly a learning experience and an unforgettable one at that, which I’ll explain. I find it somewhat ironic how vacations are usually thought of as an escape from reality, and this one was everything but that. It slapped me in the face with cold, hard reality.

The reality of this “vacation” first became evident when I experienced a slight, but noticeable, amount of culture shock coming into the “developed” part of South Africa. For three months, I had been living a “simple” life where I fetched my own water, bathed without plumbing, and used one foot of gravity for water pressure. I lived daily with bugs and other creatures that go bump in the night (not a problem at all!). I constantly heard the sound of roosters and farm animals, and rarely the sound of traffic. But in Durban, everything changed. I was given a shower with water pressure like non-other (even in the States); I had the luxury of a full kitchen at my disposal with a grocery store nearby; coffee shops, restaurants, clubs, movie theaters, a swimming pool, paved roads and sidewalks, an ice-skating rink, giant shopping mall, etc…and I had basically every other “luxury” that any “developed” region would consider standard. In many ways, I felt like I was back in America.

Upon getting over my culture shock, I quickly adapted to this new life in Durban for the week. I soaked it all in for all it was worth. But in the back of my mind, I truly missed my village and couldn’t wait to get back home to it. Strange, but true.

The conversations I had with the people I had met were as diverse as the country itself. I shared my experiences in the village with my newly befriended Durbanites and Pretorians. Some were pleased with the Peace Corps’ mission and my work in the village, some were empathetically weary for me living the way I was, but most had never experienced being in a rural village. Now, here, I believe it is important to explain clearly that I mean absolutely no disrespect to anyone who relates to these people I speak of. I don’t, by any means, mean to preach, but rather, I want to share honestly how I felt about the separation I noticed between these two worlds that share the same flag. Many times it was hard to have a conversation and explain myself clearly about my perceptions of village life because I felt misunderstood or that I simply couldn’t convince someone of how truly amazing and life-changing my experiences in my village have been. I was often met with skepticism. Many times since arriving in South Africa, I’ve been given opportunities like these to share my experiences and give a new perception of rural South Africa with those that a curious appetite for life outside of their known world. And I usually appreciate the conversations because it gives me a chance to be a “representative” of the village (sort of) and try to dispel any misconceptions of village life. They are truly teachable moments! However, I don’t know if it was just the sheer quantity of these conversations happening on a daily basis, the intensity of them, or the fact that it was happening while I was supposed to be on “vacation.” But either way, it started catching up to me and really affecting me internally and I started to see a new South Africa. It allowed me to take a step back and see even more than what was right in front of me in my small, sleepy village, and start to see what South African urbanites see.

It was when I got to the taxi rank in Pretoria heading back home that I had time to think and let it all hit me. I had a seven-hour taxi ride home and during the entire trip, I couldn’t get my mind off of what I had experienced, nor could I wrap my mind around it.

Now, having time to think, pray, and talk about it, I understand just a little better what happened on my vacation. My vacation was not just a vacation like I thought it would be—it had become so much more. It was indeed a life-changing experience.

When I first got the news that I was going to South Africa, I was excited to know that it had metropolitan areas within hours of where I’d be living. It made me excited because I thought it would be easy for my family and friends to come visit. I now appreciate being in South Africa for a totally different reason. Allow me to explain: if I had been in a “deep, rural, African village” somewhere in the bush, I would have spent two years there and gotten used to my new lifestyle and surroundings, only to experience the culture shock Peace Corps cautions us about when we integrate back into American life at the end of two years; it would be then that I would become truly sympathetic to the situation I just came out of. Being in South Africa, however, our situation is unique: we, as South African Peace Corps Volunteers Villagers, have so many opportunities to travel to these "developed” cities and be constantly reminded of the huge separation (both, economically and socially) between these two worlds. Having said this, I can now come back to my village with a new understanding that I couldn’t have gotten, had I not come back from a “developed” city and experienced what I did…and what’s more, I can now come back to the village, refueled and ready to continue to do something about it. Seeing and experiencing this inequality is extremely motivating on a personal level, now, more than ever: it’s not about just any two, non-specific demographics of people. One is a life I used to be a part of; the other is the life I now live with a family that’s taken me in as their own; I feel inseparable with both communities, and that’s the hardest part to explain. It’s not fair and it’s not OK. These people—my friends and new family—deserve to be given just as many opportunities. Whoever said life isn’t fair is speaking the truth, but that doesn’t negate the fact that life should be fair and we, as human beings, shouldn’t turn a blind eye to our neighbors or stop caring anytime soon.

Too, I realize that the next time I go back to these cities, I will have to be mentally prepared and ready to have more conversations and more teachable moments to those willing to listen—to listen not only with their ears, but with their empathetic (and I hope someday, sympathetic) hearts. I appreciate South Africa so much more for the diversity, and where it is in its journey in becoming a true Rainbow Nation.

Quoting my friend and fellow PCV, Dave, who’s words brought me peace of mind to this toiling juncture in my service, “I know it’s not a good feeling, but it’s heartening that you feel it. Your service is already more meaningful because of it.” (Thanks for your words, Dave.)