Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Weekend

Last Thursday, I had mixed feelings about the weekend ahead. As it was Easter Weekend, Friday and Monday were public holidays, which meant a four-day break from school. To be honest, four days in the village without school can quickly become boring and would usually be the perfect time to travel, but deep down I knew that this was an important weekend to be with my host families. Easter in South Africa is most comparable to Thanksgiving in America: nearly everyone travels to see family or hosts family visitors. It was particularly important for me because all six of my host sisters were home for the first time since December and most likely the last time before I leave at the beginning of June. So, despite the lack of excitement, I decided it was best to hang around the area. Which was especially a shame, because a good friend of mine was unexpectedly headed back to America. Her mom became ill and she decided it was better to be with her back home. Because of where she lived, she first had to travel to Durban and spend the night before carrying on to Pretoria. And while I could have tried to rush down and see her, I realized that it was going to be a lot of traveling for a very short good-bye, and I know that I will see her again in America. But it was still sad to know she was on her way home and all I was doing was twiddling my thumbs in the dark. Such are the challenges of Peace Corps.

In the front yard with my host sisters on Family Day,
the Monday following Easter.
The rest of the weekend turned out to be even more uneventful than I imagined, but the weather was at least nice. I spent a bit of time at school labeling books and re-watching episodes of Downton Abbey for about the fiftieth time. Much of my other time was spent at home hanging out with my host family – when they were awake that is. I had no idea just how important (and time consuming) church attendance was going to be until I saw it first hand. For those of the Zion faith, like my host family, there is a church service on Friday afternoon, then again on Friday night from 11pm until 6am, then again on Saturday afternoon, with a final service on Saturday night from 11pm until 7 or 8am. Then Easter Sunday is spent sleeping. When my host sister explained the schedule to me on Friday morning, I said I was going to have to pass on the Zion celebrations, and that perhaps I would try one of the other village churches on Sunday. Although in the end, I did not bother. At least I had a few chocolate bunnies to keep me company. Luckily, by today everyone had caught up on their sleep and was out and about in the village. There still was not a whole lot to do, but I had a chance earlier in the afternoon to take pictures with my sisters one last time and play a few card games. By all accounts, it was what Family Day was for and there really wasn’t any place I would have rather been.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Preparing for Winter

The two gas tanks I use for
cooking and heating.

Living without electricity obviously means there are a few differences in the way things get done here versus what I was used to in America. Cooking and heating the house would be two major examples. I have two small gas tanks in my hut that I use to accomplish these tasks. My host family, on the other hand, has a small, paraffin tank for cooking, and a medium sized, old-fashioned looking stove for occasional cooking and to stay warm in the winter. The stove they have now is different from the one they had when I first arrived (they upgraded in May of last year), but either way, they need something to burn to make it work. For most of the year, if they decide to use it, they collect dried cow manure, small amounts of wood, and any other paper products for burning. When winter comes, though, they rely on a much larger source of fuel: a big pile of wood.

The wood burning stove my family
uses for cooking and heating the kitchen.

The tractor pulled up with the wood for the winter.
Late yesterday evening, this winter’s fuel delivery arrived. As the sun began to set, a tractor pulling a large trailer of wood drove through the front gate and up into the yard. The source of the wood was the next village over. Apparently there is a “forest” where people chop down trees and sell them. Since trees in my area appear to be few and far between, it is hard to for me to imagine that there is a forest anywhere nearby, but they had to come from somewhere relatively close, so I suspect there are villagers that plant trees rather than maize on their farms. The cost of the wood plus delivery was a R750 (about US$75): a huge sum of money by all accounts here in the village. And the order 
About 45 minutes later, the pile is nearly complete.
was placed only early that morning. When I asked my host sister how mama knew whom to call (it is not as if you can google “wood delivery” on the internet), she said, “Everyone knows that these are the people who bring wood.” Of course it is – here that explanation actually makes perfect sense. It took about thirty minutes for the three guys to unload all the wood, by hand of course, by tossing it into a big pile in the yard. My host sister said it should last through the winter, until about September. I won’t be here to see, but I have a feeling they know what they are doing at this point.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cape Town Vacation

It seems nearly impossible to believe, but I just finished my last big vacation in South Africa. It began last Saturday, with a trip to Durban to meet my friend Kelsey (a PCV living in Southern KZN) and then a plane ride on Sunday down to Cape Town where we spent the week. Although I have been there before, it is a spectacular place to travel with lots to see and do, so I was happy to have a chance to go back.

Cape Town!
At the top of pretty much everyone’s list of things to do in Cape Town is go to the top of Table Mountain. But since it is a very weather dependent activity, you need to be a bit flexible with your plans and go when it looks clear. Luckily, our backpackers had a perfect view of the top and on Monday afternoon, there wasn’t a cloud in sight, so we decided it was a good time to ascend. While we half-heartedly discussed the idea of walking the trail rather than taking the cable car, we came to our senses and just shelled out the cash for the ride. Kelsey was nursing a possible stress fracture in her leg, and I am just plain out of shape. Hearing that the walk could take over two hours and was at a bit of an incline, we both realized that starting off the week with an injury seemed like a bad idea. And it worked out for the best. The ride up and down was fun and the views at the top were beautiful. We tried to stay to watch the sunset, but it got pretty chilly, and frankly we were both bored. I love taking pictures as much (if not more) than the next person, but it didn’t look like we were going to see anything that remarkable – and it was just as easy to buy a postcard.

Our guide on Robben Island, a former prisoner.
We woke up early Tuesday for our trip out to Robben Island. Although it was cloudy, it never actually rained and turned out to be a nice morning for a tour around the former prison (Nelson Mandela was there for 18 of his 27 years in prison.) The 40-minute boat ride there and back was the only down side. Since it was a bit choppy, I felt pretty crappy after each ride, but luckily it didn’t last long. Upon our return to the mainland, we spent an hour or two exploring the shops and markets of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. My big purchase for the day was a hand-decorated picture album that I plan to fill with photos from my time in Peace Corps. It will be required viewing for anyone that I see within the first six months back!

Kelsey and I at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.
When we woke up on Wednesday, we were disappointed to hear the pitter-patter of rain on the window, but we had been watching the weather, and it wasn’t really a big surprise. Given the conditions, we spent the early morning taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi at the backpackers, then we decided to go to the South African National Museum since it was just a short walk away. By mid-afternoon the rain had stopped, but we didn’t feel like doing anything major, so we just went to see a movie. I realize that we didn’t need to fly to Cape Town to do most of these things, but sometimes it is nice to just have some down time.

The African Penguins at Boulders Beach on Cape Point.
On Thursday, we were back to being tourists with a trip to Hout Bay (to see Cape Fur seals), Boulders Beach (to see South African penguins), Cape Point (to see an old lighthouse), and the Cape of Good Hope (to stand on the southwestern most part of Africa). At one point we were given the chance to bike about 5km through a nature reserve, which sounded nice, so Kelsey and I gave it a go. Big mistake. I mean, I lived through it, obviously, but it was probably the least fun experience I have had in South Africa. The route was at the slightest downhill incline, which meant it wasn’t physically very demanding, but it was rather uncomfortable. Also, I didn’t realize this, but I’m scared of riding a bike. Well, I’m not really scared of riding, rather I am scared of falling off or being hit by a car. And since we were traveling on a paved road frequented by tourists in cars, that was not out of the realm of possibility. Luckily, it only took about 20 minutes, and afterwards we had lunch and spent the rest of the day traveling by tour bus or on foot.
At the Cape of Good Hope - the southwestern most
point on the continent of Africa.
We debated going on a wine tour on Friday, but since I can’t drink and we were both tired of tours, we bagged the idea and just hung around the backpackers most of the day watching TV. It was a bit weird, actually, since I haven’t seen anything for so long (this place had satellite TV with several hundred channels) but it was a fun way to spend the afternoon before we went out for our last night in town. Saturday morning, we woke up, headed to the airport, and flew back to Durban, and then Sunday I was back on a minibus taxi headed home to my village. As with all good vacations, it felt like the whole thing happened in the blink of an eye. Sigh. I do hope to visit again some day!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

American Visitors

Last Saturday morning, I made my way to town for a special event – to meet up with a former colleague from Princeton High School, Lisa and her husband, Larry who were on vacation in South Africa. It was truly a special treat. I met them in my shopping town, hopped in their rental car, and then we were off for a few days of exploring South Africa.

The Bird and Butterfly Bed & Breakfast.
We arrived in Mtunzini early enough on Saturday to be able to explore the coast and have a bite to eat not far from the water. I had never been to Mtunzini before, in fact, I had never really heard of it before, but it turned out to be a quaint town with several nice B&Bs, a beautiful beach, and a handful of restaurants and local attractions.

Sunday was our big day out. We started off the day hiking a short trail to see the nearby Raphia Palms. To be honest, I don’t know why these specific palms trees are so special – it may be because they grow very, very tall, or live longer than others, or just because they are here in South Africa. I couldn’t say. But I was happy to be out and about. After our brief journey in the forest, we headed up to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park just outside of St. Lucia for a look at the wildlife and beaches. We ran into warthogs, buffalo, and zebras, as well as a variety of birds along the drive both before and after we stopped at Cape Vidal for a dip in the ocean. We finished up the day with a nice dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in St. Lucia and then returned to Mtunzini for the night.

Lisa and Larry at the Raphia Palms. 

Our last morning in Mtunzini.
Monday I headed back to site while Lisa and Larry carried on to Joburg and then my favorite vacation destination, Namibia. For the first time in many trips, I was a little sad when I arrived back at home. In addition to eating several fantastic meals, it was surprisingly nice to catch up on things from America as well as answer questions about the work that I have done here. In fact, I realized just how much I miss people and am looking forward to going home. Emails and the occasional phone call are nice, don’t get me wrong, but it really will be fun to finally see everyone and talk face to face again. It won’t be much longer before that becomes a reality.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Community Volunteers

Ntombi helps a learner in grade 5 at the computer.
To my surprise, last Friday morning, the day after the big “march,” my principal came to me and asked for the phone numbers of the community members who were interested in volunteering in the library and computer lab. She said she wanted to call them and tell them to start coming on Monday. I was half shocked and half elated – I mean, I have only been waiting two months for these phone calls to be made. Better late than never, I guess. I give much of the credit to one of the grade 6 teachers. She decided that she, too, wanted the learners to keep going to the library after I was gone, and she recognized that was very unlikely to happen unless we brought in some outside help. So she asked the principal nearly every day if the volunteers had been called. Then she started telling a few other teachers to ask the principal if the volunteers had been called. Eventually, the principal realized that even though I was no longer bothering her, the issue was not going away. The principal got the hint and made the calls.

Nobuhle watches as the learners complete their work.

Fundiswa makes certain the grade 5 learners
with signing out a library book.
Of course, it remains to be seen how things work out long term, but the first week seemed to go rather well. On Monday when the volunteers arrived (two came, although the goal is four), they were introduced to the Library Committee, given a tour of the library and computer lab, had a brief computer lesson, and then we took grade 6 to the library. Their only comment when it was over was, “That was easy.” Yes, I agree. It’s just like Staples. On Tuesday, a third volunteer arrived to help, recruited by one of the original two, and things went equally well with grade 7. I was a little nervous about Wednesday, because we would be introducing grade 4 to the library for the first time. Although some of them had come to visit during open library time on Fridays, they had previously never come as a class and never been allowed to checkout a book.  With the Zulu-speaking volunteers at my side, we brought in the first half of the class and things ran smoothly. We gave them a tour of the space, read through the rules, and allowed them 10 minutes to work on a puzzle or play a game. Next week, we will show them how to look for a suitable book and sign it out. When it was the second half of grade 4’s turn to come, one of the volunteers ran the whole class and did an amazing job. Since there was no school on Friday (Human Rights Day), I wasn’t sure about the schedule for Thursday and if we would be in school late enough to take grade 5 to the library, as we usually close school early the day before a holiday. Sure enough, we ended around noon; so unfortunately, we did not take grade 5 to the library as intended. But the whole rest of the week went so well that I wasn’t concerned.

For the first time in a year and a half, I feel like there is a chance the door to the library will stay open even after I leave. Which would be nice for everyone.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Electricity March

This past Wednesday, the talk of the village was the big march (or protest or strike or demonstration or whatever you want to call it) scheduled for Thursday in my shopping town. My host sister briefly mentioned the possibility of this to me few weeks ago, but it sounded a bit ambitious for the people in my village, so I dismissed it as a non-event. Turns out I was quite wrong and plans were underway to show the elected officials of the area that the people here and in a few other nearby villages are frustrated by and dissatisfied with their lack of access to electricity. I was informed there would be no school on Thursday because taxis would not be transporting teachers from town to the village. The drivers agreed only to provide transport to those wishing to participate in the march.  I was also informed that many of the smaller shops in town would be closed for the day to show support for the villages. Lastly, the teachers and principal at my school said that the best thing for me was to stay at home with my family that day – I was not to go to school or go to town. That was slightly disappointing to hear, because this seemed like a pretty big event to witness in person, but in the end, I knew they were right and it was not worth the risk. If something bad happened, I would only have myself to blame.

In any event, early on Thursday morning, taxis drove through my village to pick up the people that planned to participate in the rally. Neither my host mom nor any of my host sisters were interested in attending, but the “other mother” (a.k.a. the second wife of my deceased host father) was eager to play her part in the event when I saw her headed to the road around 6:30am. Transport was provided at no cost, but was strictly limited to those going to the march – there was no sneaking into town for free to buy a few groceries and then returning later in the day. The rest of the day in the village was quiet. We didn’t hear anything until around 5pm when the marchers began to return home. For the most part, I was told that there was a lot of singing and chanting as the group marched through town and ended in front of the municipal building but not much else. One of the teachers at school told me on Friday that the participants also threw a lot of garbage at the municipal building and made quite a mess. Otherwise, I did not get a lot of details.

An old picture of my family's house with their electricity
account number. Today, it is no longer visible.
Regardless, I truthfully and unfortunately, don’t see things changing any time soon. For starters, the municipality is claiming that the 2015 budget includes supplying electricity to villages like mine, but that has been said for two past budgets. In fact, it has been said for the past six years. Sometime in 2008 or 2009, six-digit numbers were painted on the fronts of many of the houses in the village in order to “prepare” for electricity to be installed. At this point, there are almost no houses that have the number any more – nearly everyone has painted over them at some point. It didn’t take long to realize it was more or less useless. The municipality always seems to run out of money before the project ever gets started.  Secondly, Eskom, the company that supplies all of the electricity in South Africa, has serious infrastructure problems. When I was in Pretoria last week, they were “load-shedding,” which is basically a rolling blackout to various parts of the city. When I asked one of my South Africans friends how the company could not even provide electricity to the capital full time, he gave what I can only describe as the best answer ever. Twenty years ago, he explained, Eskom only had to provide electricity to 5 million people (think Apartheid). Then one day, they woke up and were expected to provide electricity to 50 million people. Their response was to build exactly zero new power stations. The system has been stumbling along ever since. In the mean time, the people in the village make due with paraffin lamps to light their houses, wood burning stoves for cooking, paraffin stoves to heat items like water or irons, gas cylinders to heat small areas of the house, and small solar panel set-ups to charge cell phones and radios. 

Homework by paraffin light. The only way to see.

A small paraffin stove is used to heat up
an iron for ironing clothes and blankets.

A solar panel on the roof charges and old car battery
which is converted to electricity for charging cell phones.

Sadly, I have a feeling my 5 year old host sister is going to be doing her secondary school homework by candlelight.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Last Trip to Pretoria

The lounge and work spaces in the cleaned-up IRC.
I left site this past Thursday morning and headed to Pretoria for what I hope is the last time before I leave for good in June. I will be the first to admit that I saw more of Pretoria than I expected to during my service. Some of my trips, like this one, were for committee meetings or PC conferences, some were for medical visits, and some were for travel. Between June and November of last year, I think I was there once a month. By contrast, there are volunteers that manage to avoid the place except for the mandatory mid-service training conference, close of service training conference, and then when they leave to return home. I was clearly over-involved.

Since I was just there to take the Foreign Service Officer Test in early February, I had mixed feelings about going only a month later. On the one hand, it was likely to be the last time I would have the opportunity to see a few friends on my committee as well as anyone else that was passing through town. Not to mention that the committee had big plans to reorganize the resource center at the PC office – something I had been keen to do since I first saw the place in August of 2012 when we visited the office for the first time.  On the other hand, there was a lot I was trying to get done at school, and with my departure date rapidly approaching, leaving for a few days felt like a waste of precious time. But there were also a lot of little, personal things that I wanted to get done – most of which are far easier to do in a place with good internet: my taxes, for example, or updating my blog! So even though it was not my first choice for timing, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to travel.

Books for pleasure reading and reference.
Hopefully now much easier to find!
It ended up being really nice to see everyone, both planned and unplanned. It was weird to start to say goodbye to people permanently, as it is highly unlikely I will see most of them again before I return to the U.S., but I did think it was important to start that process. I managed to get almost everything done that I was on my list. The meeting and reorganization of the resource center went well. We threw so much stuff away it was insane: nearly two pick-up trucks full of out-dated materials that no one was ever going to look at. And what we did not throw away, we tried to organize in such a way that volunteers would actually find what they were looking for when they stopped by for a visit. I also had a chance to write a few essays for the next step in the Foreign Service Officer application process (since I actually passed the initial test.) New music was purchased and downloaded. Taxes were filed. Updates were emailed. Doctor appointments were made. Overall, I was just a busy little bee. It’s amazing how motivating electricity and fast internet can be! A good sign, I think, for my return to the US – hopefully I will be motivated to find a job and a place to live rather quickly.