Monday, February 21, 2011

Open Happiness, Anywhere

Like a scene straight out of an ad man's dream, I spent a few minutes this morning observing a Coca-Cola truck making its rounds to all the local tuck shops this morning. There was the dusty dirt road, the shrieking barefoot children, the grateful shopkeeper and, of course, the bright, shiny red truck embellished with the company name and slogan in glossy white. "Coca-Cola. Open Happiness!"

Indeed, it seems one can open happiness just about anywhere. Loopeng receives regular deliveries of only two products typically stocked at a village shop. The first is bread, and the second is an array of Coke products. Should you want a vegetable in the village, sorry, too bad, that will never happen. Should you like a Sprite, well, what size and how many? Coke's commitment to using the underdeveloped world to tap new markets is both impressive and a bit scary. Of all the material goods the first world could export, the most successful and widely accepted is soda? A drink so laden with sugar it's actually detrimental to one's health?

Maybe I wouldn't be so critical if Pepsi would get its act together and get out here. In any case, way to go, capitalism! For all of the product's negative effects on health, I'm certain the company has had a positive effect on South Africa and its economy. Still, Pepsi? Are you listening?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Culture Wars

During pre-service training, I remember being told that I would encounter two different elements of local culture: the culture itself and cultural excuses. Both can be excruciatingly frustrating, but I think I have managed to adapt reasonably well to the culture. I think nothing of waiting hours for anything to happen. I greet anyone and everyone within a ten-metre radius of me at all times. I sometimes even eat with my hands. The list goes on. I consider myself about as well-adjusted to local culture as any born and bred American can be. However, while I continue to grin and bear it when culture deems it necessary for me and my fellow female educators to clean up following school events while the male educators are encouraged to leave early, I am losing patience with cultural excuses.

For example, early in the school year, I had some difficulty with discipline in my classrooms. I discussed the issue with my colleagues and, after much chatter and many insights, I developed a management plan that seems to be working. Unfortunately, one insight I gained was into the rampant use of corporal punishment by some educators. I was stunned. By high school, learners should be taught better methods of conflict resolution than violence, or at least that is my line of thinking. I approached one educator to discuss the issue and, much to my shock and disbelief, his attitude was, "It's our culture. You wouldn't understand." Physical force used as a tool to dominate and belittle a young person is PART OF YOUR CULTURE? Teachers beat children in the past, so it must be acceptable today? With logic like that, we should all be living according to Hammurabi's Code.

Similar thinking was applied to a day spent working in the school garden. While dozens of learners scampered all over the garden area outside, a group of young girls stayed behind in the classroom. They were menstruating and therefore banned from entering the garden. This was not their choice. The class teacher announced that girls on their period were not to go to the garden. Thus, a targeted group of learners was denied the opportunity to partake in a valuable learning experience because of their gender. I later learned that the ban applied not only to menstruating women, but also to women who had sex in the last seven days. If these women enter the garden, the belief is that the plants will not grow. I might be able to accept this as a genuine element of Africa culture in a remote and practically inaccessible region, but hearing and seeing it enforced by an educator in South Africa was apalling. Culture makes its intangible appearance in music, dress, diet, language and ritual. Culture is not a blanket refusal to adapt to modern facts at a serious cost to the growth and well-being of actual people. At least that is how I see it.

Needless to say, this past week has been a exercise in frustration. It's over now, I'm recuperating in Kuruman with over-dose of cricket, and I hope that next week I am able to locate and tap deep well of patience and acceptance.

First Comes Matric, Then Comes Nada

I was leaving school one evening this week when a young woman stopped by for a chat. We'll call her Thelma.

Thelma is in a pickle, a pickle that many young South Africans from rural and/or poor regions find themselves in. She worked very hard through her school years, and passed her matric. While that is an impressive and inspiring feat for a learner from Loopeng, Thelma's story does not have a happy ending. In the years, yes, years, that Thelma has been out of school, she has been doing nothing.

"I just sit at home with my parents," she reports, "What can I do?"

"How about a student loan for a tertiary degree?" My only suggestion was about 90% wishful thinking. Suggesting a student loan to someone who's never had a bank account is like suggesting an i-banker raise cattle for a living. It could happen, but it could hardly end well. In addition, passing matric alone is hardly sufficient preparation for tertiary coursework.

Thelma needs a job. She needs to figure out how to get one. She needs guidance. She needs a role model. She needs advice on a thousand things I cannot counsel her about.

Depressed yet? Yeah, me too.

Carolyn is another friend in a slightly better position. She passed just last year and earned a scholarship from the Department of Education, but is she using it? No. Currently she's volunteering in the school office at Moshaweng and struggling to wander through the application process to university. Again, she came to me for help and advice and there was next to nothing I was able to do. It's a classic case of the blind leading the blind, but at least we're floundering together.

Any less depressed now?

Marie is one of my host sisters. She did not pass her matric. Like many girls, she got pregnant and life interfered with all of her grand plans. However all is not lost for Marie. Marie has several other sisters who have done well for themselves, earning diplomas and degrees, working in cities and towns, living in decent homes and driving cars. Marie has help, guidance, people to look up to, to pattern herself after. She is in driving school now, and hoping to earn her living as, well, a driver in a few months.

Although the names are not real, all of these stories are true. I'm sharing them for many reasons, but mostly to emphasize the importance of the involvement of community and family members in the process of improving the lives of their fellows. While Thelma and Caroline are bushwacking their way to a better life, Marie is on a packed road. It may not be paved with gold, but it's a start.

You know who doesn't have to carry a machete to move up in the world on their life journey? Any learner lucky enough to earn a KLM scholarship. They have faculty mentors, peer mentors and, of course, each other. They are also expected to give back to their communities in their final years at Uplands and, in doing so, provide the sort of role models underdeveloped villages so desperately need.

Many, many, many thanks to everyone who has supported KLM both this year and last. I've already doubled the minimum fundraising required, but if you've got funds available I assure you KLM is a cause worthy of your support.

And if anyone has any leads on a job for Thelma or admission to a June course at the Univeristy of the Free State for Carolyn, do get in touch.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ghost of Staff Meetings Past

School has been stressful since the teaching staff was reduced. If only our old educators would come back...

Well, one of them did. I waltzed into a staff meeting one morning, took my seat, and there he was, our English and History teacher, back from Limpopo. His new position fell through, and while he's less than thrilled, I'm quite happy he's back (and I'm not paranoid/seeing things). Now that he's taken over a few classes, life is perceptibly calmer. We still don't have a timetable, but at least every classroom has a teacher.

In other news, my power continues to be on and off. I don't know why exactly, but my host family has been better at fixing it in a reasonably timely manner. Shaka has not been sent away. In fact, he seems to be growing on the family. They get great enjoyment out of the fact that he can fetch. I brought home a frisbee last week that he loves. Once it lands, he has the hardest time getting his jaws around the flat surface. Poor flummoxed little puppy! Also on the bright side of life, the computer lab at school has air conditioning. To the point I actually need a sweater. It's pretty awesome. Theoretically the library is air conditioned too, but it doesn't work as well.

In Longtom-related news, thanks for all the donations that have been flooding in! Actually, I have no idea about the state of my fundraising. I have not been sent any word as yet, but I should hear soon. I offer my thanks on faith (and a few e-mails).

In local news, the Kuruman postal workers are on strike. I'm looking forward to a flood of mail approximately six months' from now. Unless it all gets stolen. Such is life.

That's all for now, folks. Nothing much is going on here. I just wanted to let you know I'm alive and kicking.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Mighty, Mighty Moshaweng

The village where I live is located in the Moshaweng valley, along the banks of the Moshaweng River. Except that for the first 8 months of my residency the "river" was nothing more than a dry riverbed with the odd puddle once in a while. Nowadays, however, with the wet season in full-swing, water has been pouring into the riverbed and it currently resembles, well, an actual river.

Loving water as we do, Shaka and I have spent a lot of time in past couple weeks scrambling up and down riverbanks, sticking our toes in the water and generally scouting around. It's been like a Lewis and Clark expedition, as reenacted by the Three Stooges and Beethoven. I'll be trying to gingerly pick my way across the mud when the dog goes wild over a dragonfly and I start teeter-tottering like playground equipment. I haven't actually fallen over yet, but it's a matter of time.

The river was highest a couple weeks ago after it rained for several days straight. It made a nice, idyllic, English country-side scene. With all the rain, there are now tons of grasses and wildflowers along the riverbank. Many of these have been momentarily drowned by the river, but they generally recover. The water doesn't last very long. Even at its highest, it down to mere puddles in a matter of days. Oh well, the rainy season is hardly over, and I expect the river will return.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Do You Know What It Feels Like?

Let's play a game. Based on the content of this post, what song does this blog title reference? Ready? Set? Go!

Today was a day just like any other, until a colleague motioned for me to start following him. I did. We first went to the storage cloest, where he pulled out a box. From this box emerged a ping pong ball and two paddles. We started to play right then and there, as well as we could, in the middle of the storage closet. It did not work so well. We moved the operation to the *ulp* computer lab. There was a decent sized table only partially covered with books. Besides losing the ball under deska and between piles of wires occassionally, it worked pretty well. Still, a real playing surface would have been nice. We had paddles and balls, did we not have a table anywhere?

"It's broken. The learners broke it."

"Really? Can we fix it?"


We ended our game and trekked back to the storage closet and then to a classroom where two learners were recruited. The whole company trudged out to a tin shack in the back where the boys disappeared inside. Moments later, they reemerged, struggling under the weight of a ping-pong table.

They carried it over to an empty classroom, where we attempted to assemble it. The playing surface needed some serious cleaning, and the legs of the table needed to be propped up, but other than that it was fine. We wiped the dust off and set some sturdy rocks under the legs, and then, in the middle of the school day, it was game time.

Okay, we didn't actually keep score, we just volleyed as best we could, which was not particularly well. Still, it was a quite a bit of fun. I hope we can interest more people in the game. I wouldn't mind a bit of friendly competition at Moshaweng.

So there you are. Now, what classic American song have I had stuck in my head all day?