Wednesday, August 5, 2015

And finally . . . Was it worth it?

                This post, intended to be our last of our PC service, and despairing of the kind of numeric "'monitoring and evaluation" which is the holy grail of the development world and towards which the PC is prepared to sacrifice untold amounts of volunteer time and effort, tries instead to address the qualitative aspects of our 27 months here.
100s of school children (bafundzi) waving, smiling and saying good morning to us on the way to school
When we arrive at a school or the Refugee Camp, having our special friends run up to us with big smiles, news and questions, maybe a new journal entry or other "homework" we've suggested for them, or just to say hi and be with us
Every day a new adventure: dependably different and challenging, and usually rewarding
African sunrises and sunsets, the moon rising in the fields beyond the clothes lines and going down behind the latrine, both sun and moon always red with dust when near the horizon
Hlane Game Reserve and Mabuda Farm, both within 30 kilometers - each a little piece of heaven (and with heavenly hot showers!)
The possibility of a brightly-colored bird perched on every bush - maybe even a new one!
Simba salt and vinegar flavored potato chips, the kind we urge the kids not to buy for their morning snack, or even their lunch.  But at 5:15 on a hot afternoon, particularly with a precious cold Sibebe or Windhoek beer laboriously biked in from the crossroads:  . . . .   ahhh!
Produce:  tiny sweet apples (US8₵ each); potatoes that get sweet and fluffy when baked in our little electric oven; avocados; oranges; sometimes mangosa, granadilla or papaya.
Riding over to the Camp in time for Church Practice Friday afternoon, hearing the drum and singing as we pull in, seeing the pleased smiles as they see us, having someone make room on a bench or go get a chair for me, shy sidelong smiles during the singing to see if we like it, smiles and sometimes laughter as I try to clap or even sing along a little.  (My Iruwanda is weak, but the refrains are repetitive, so I try.)  One of the kids keeps a steady beat with the stick in his left hand on the taut cowhide across the section of oil drum and riffing a wild staccato with his right - that's for church?!  Little 14-year-old (but so determined!) Edither, elected to lead the "juniors" in church practice, explaining a song where they had marched around the room: "Then Musa led the Israelites . . . "; "Little David fought the giant man . . ."; and "On the Judgment Day, there will be a list . . . ."
The diurnal rhythm of sounds of our community:  tinkling of cow bells in the predawn dark on the way to the required weekly dip tank Tuesday mornings; neighbors calling to each other across fields from one homestead to another as dawn comes on; the female soloists and chorus of all students singing hymns at High School morning assembly; the primary school students at the "poorer" school starting the Lord's Prayer all together and the Grade 1s and 2s always finishing a whole line ahead, so proud; traditional dance practice from the schools and, sometimes, the homesteads after the school day with drums, whistles and singing; children playing and calling to each other as twilight comes on.
Seeing Katherine encounter a group of our children, calling each by name and their most recent encounter ("Did you re-write that essay?" "Good brave answers in class last week."  "Feeling better?"), bringing delighted smiles and making these kids feel valued and capable, making suggestions for our next meeting, making connections with needs, resources, interests and opportunities,  There has never been a better Peace Corps Volunteer.   Even on 4 hours sleep and a bad tummy.
When we bring the "'box library" (books included in the donation to the High School, but too young for them, that Katherine persuaded the High School Principal to let her take to the "poorer" primary school) into a classroom and the kids uncontrollably swarm and then will not willingly let go of a book they haven't finished even when the period has ended and the next teacher is trying to start.
89 paces to the outhouse, and when we get there, Oh the cockroaches, flies, biting centipedes and mosquitoes!  and the stench on a hot afternoon.
Living in a barnyard. There is poop everywhere, and one moment of inattention can lead to unpleasantness.  First thing in the morning opening the door,  with the tight gasket fastened to the bottom to discourage critters from crawling in, and smearing fresh wet stinking chicken poop across the porch.
Litter everywhere; when a Swazi is through with a tin foil bag of chips, a plastic bag, or a Styrofoam "take-away" box, he drops it on the ground!
The total absence of personal privacy,  for even the most intimate functions
Getting everywhere by walking, public transport or hitching.  You have to build an extra 1/3rd or so of driving time into the schedule to allow for waiting time, although we are very successful hitch-hiking - few can pass the frail elderly white couple tottering forlornly beside the road, bent nearly double under their backpacks ("Wait, did I really see that?"   Screeeeech!    Rrrrreverse.)
Always being someone else's guest:  living on someone else's homestead, who dumps or builds wherever he wants, and having to ask permission to put a nail in the wall or to use his shovel, ladder, - it's his.  And asking for a ride wherever we go, then waiting.  "I'm leaving just now."  2 hours later, still there.
The view from our kitchen/cooking table: construction the whole time, trash (though frequently good birds (sunbirds!) in a distant tree)
As soon as we get into a car that has stopped to give us a ride, being asked:  "Are you Christian?"  or "What church do you attend?"
Barnyard noises all through the night.  Couldn't the roosters wait past 1 a.m. before they start mounting the hens and bragging about it, in animated detail, to the adjacent homesteads like boys in a high school locker room on Monday?  But the dogs baying at night is actually comforting, in a sense  - no one comes on the homestead after dark without an escort from those who live here.  
Grime.  Everywhere.  On a piece of paper left on a table overnight.  On your pillow.  The shower tiles. And tiny black lizard poop, with the white urine tip at one end, on the kitchen table, utensils, your pillow.  And the dank smell things stored on the floor acquire.
Sitting in a bus in the Manzini bus rank on a sweltering summer afternoon, with every seat already filled and the aisle packed with people standing, while the umholeli (conductor) waits to summon the driver till the bus is really full.  Squeezed into 1/3rd of a seat by the 250 lb 5' woman sitting beside you holding a coughing baby.
Being passed by a speeding lorry kicking up billows of dust.  Just after you've glopped on sunscreen.  (I see why people tried to avoid being tarred and feathered.)
Misjudging the temperature of the solar shower late on a winter afternoon and not adding boiled water to it, and then a stiff north wind blowing through the cracks of our outdoor shower just as we're all lathered up and ready to rinse off.
Toilets without paper or seats on the stool.
Taking nothing for granted when we teach a class, starting with having to find a vacant, unlocked room; then get chairs; find chalk and an eraser; get the kids hanging around outside to quiet down - on game days to put away their vuvuzela; get the chickens out and keeping the goats from wandering into the classroom, especially at the Refugee Camp.
Continual requests to donate, becoming more intense as our time here dwindles.  We'll be having a nice conversation with someone, saying goodbye to them, and then they ask us for something we're wearing or carrying or using, or for a "sponsorship" (tuition) or, most frequently now, to take them with us to America.  Except to the refugee kids, never seeming to have given enough, especially as we were winding down and passing on clothes, equipment, or flavorings we hadn't used up.  We'd ask someone if they want an item, they would say yes they would, then say their child can't go to school next year and could we pay their school fees.  or take the whole family to America.  and, inevitably, our bikes.  People come up and say "Where is my present?"  It takes a lot of the pleasure out of it.  I suppose if I had as little chance of providing a future for my kids as many of these people have, I'd be a little aggressive as a possibility seems to arise.

                When China's Premier, Chou En Lai was asked in 1972 whether he thought the French Revolution had been a good thing or not, he is said to have mused for a few moments and then replied "It's too early to tell."   We think we can say we personally have benefitted; whether others have . . . we hope so, but maybe it's too early to tell.
Is the world better? 
                We taught a lot of classes on topics that are important here: nutrition; hygiene; sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV.   We think the demonstrations of condom use we taught each year to every student in the high school probably had impact, although we cannot discern that the number of pregnancy dropouts has diminished.  In terms of behavior change, however, classroom time is probably not the most effective approach.
                We think we did some good, but it's really hard to measure on an overall basis.  We feel a little more confident about some individuals.  We feel very good about the prospects for our African son John, but on a strict net improvement analysis, all we did was help him get into a slot that was already available; we did not create the position that he took, and had he not been admitted, it would have been offered to someone else, so we benefited him, but created no net improvement in the world.  And it was his talents and qualities that have enabled him to succeed so well; we urged him and provided some timely assistance, but he probably would have done about as well without us.
                Some of our students and young friends may have been inspired to study harder, take charge of their education and lives, think creatively rather than reciting memorized responses, and treat each other better.  I think some feel better about themselves, having been warmly greeted, listened to and sometimes advised by someone older.   Whether the lives of any have improved by our efforts is hard to measure, especially because we are resigned to losing track of nearly all of these special young friends; telecommunications is primitive here and, although a few have cell phones (and sometimes they also have air time!) and we've set most of our young friends up with email addresses for themselves and for us, getting internet access will be a challenge for them, and so we're reconciled we'll never hear from most of them again. 
                In addition, this is a country with zero or negative economic growth, 40 to 60% unemployment (no one really knows) and tens of thousands of young people trying to enter the workforce every year.  For what have we trained them?  We know some fine students who graduated a year or 2 ago, who have no jobs, no prospects, and nothing to do.  Prospects for refugees are even more discouraging, despite their resilience and drive.
Was this the best use of resources?
                I don't know.  Rather than the roughly US$110,000 the PC spent to bring and keep us here (Yup.  That's around US$ 150 per day; there have been days when we were not sure we'd felt the full benefit of all of that.), would that money have been better spent building a school, or just passing out 200 Emalengeni (about US$18)  bills at random?  I dunno.
                Would the world be a better place if we'd stayed in Denver, I'd kept doing what I was supposed to be good at, and made big donations to targeted NGOs?  Maybe, but that's not the point - we personally needed to be involved in this adventure, and working another 2 years in Denver was not part of that.
We benefitted.
                We were blessed with a window few others have: we had health; stability in our immediate family (but we missed some never-to-be-repeated gatherings); and some financial security (we hope! Chou En Lai was onto something about not counting chickens too soon!)
                We think meeting some of the challenges and savoring some of the rewards here developed parts of ourselves that we like.  We've loved our visits with our young friends in our community, and becoming part of the PC group, all less than half our age, who have been through this together.
                As we hear, however, of the number of our friends back home who are dealing now with serious illnesses or surgeries, and as we consider the toll the last 2 years have taken on all of us, it would be too bad if we have spent our final healthy years doing this.  We certainly hope that is not the case, but we know we have aged.  Certainly we have lost a little more of our dwindling supply of energy.  We see pictures of ourselves, and our friends here, when we first arrived, and I fear we've all left behind little pieces of our erstwhile immortality.
                We certainly learned a lot about ourselves and each other.  We've lived together in really close quarters, depending on each other for backup when an idea or recall ("What is his name?  We just spke yesterday!") or phone fails or something doesn't work, or we're frustrated, angry, short of sleep, or having tummy trouble.  We've also done most of our work together, which few married couples do, and mostly we've really liked it.  As regular readers of this blog know, since we landed I've been in awe of Katherine's ideal match of skills for this task: manifest warmth, interest in and affection for people; memory of names and prior connections; cleverness in spotting opportunities; fortitude; energy; cheerfulness.  And thank God she's resourceful cooking with limited ingredients.
                We learned a lot about the world, even though we've lived in only a small corner of it, and vacationed only in southern Africa.  It's hard to explain, but I've often thought that sometimes you learn just as much from drilling deeply into a little patch, as you do from visiting many sites.  Kind of the reverse of the 80/20 rule, where you get 80% of the value out of your first 20% of effort on a project.  Sometimes, however, the 2 years in this dusty little village seemed very long.
                Part of our satisfaction, having made it now nearly to the end, is simply the joy of attempting something hard and doing it - not so different from paying good money to be dumped at the top of a steep bumpy slope of snow, or starting off up a mountain.  We did it!
                Have we engendered fonder feelings for Americans?  In this absolute monarchy where the will of the people is of little consequence, and especially the needs of the poor people among whom we have been living, what difference does that make? 
                So, in the end - ?  We're glad we did it.  We're proud we stuck it out to the end, although there have been times when it wasn't clear if we would.  We think some of our young friends are better for our efforts; we certainly gained a lot.  And we're really glad to be coming home.

                Now, because "What's a book without pictures . . . ?"  I close with a picture of 2 of our special friends, Grade 7s, who had never been to our homestead but walked over after church, the day after the farewell at the Camp, to say their own goodbyes.  Smart, determined, resilient, hardy, (mostly) self-confident.  Have I mentioned, I love these kids?

    PS:  We just had an emotional lunch with our African son John at a lovely restaurant near the capitol (where the Bushfire music festival is held).  He leaves for Germany in 2 weeks.  We are at HQ with 15 of our group for a final dinner at a US staff members house.  Then a 7 a.m. khumbi tomorrow morning to Jozie and up to Frankfurt tomorrow night for the direct flight to Denver Friday.  This is our last night in Swaziland.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A happy/sad farewell at the Camp

                 The kids at the Refugee Camp gave us a farewell Saturday afternoon that was perfect in every way, and one of the most moving events of our lives.   We had a suspicion something was up when they kept asking us our schedule for leaving and then asked us to attend a Youth Committee meeting Saturday at 1:30, a time they do not ordinarily meet, but it fit our schedule and the various events of the families - mostly church.
                When we entered the camp we saw none of our friends, but we were waved over to the library by the  Chair of the Youth Committee.  When we entered  our friends burst into a song one of them had written, for which the refrain was "Thank you for coming into our lives."  More than 2 dozen of them, including almost all of the ones we have taught in regular classes and then tutored individually and in small groups, had gathered there, plus a few others.  They had made, on a white board provided by PC which we had donated to the Camp Library, a sign saying "Thank you Mark and Katherine for coming into our lives." 
                When the song finished 8 of the younger girls slipped out, we visited with the rest for a few minutes, and then we went to the dining hall, where those girls danced for us.  I joined them, but the steps are harder than they look. 

The little ones who always follow around their older sisters and brothers were doing their own dancing and Katherine jumped in.

The Youth Committee Chair (on the right)  and one of the older young men got into a more frenzied style.

                We returned to the library, where 5 of the older boys and the oldest girl (hmm, need to get more girls speaking up) spoke beautifully and movingly of their gratitude.  Things they said included:
We will miss you.  We will think of you always.
In our language, we say only mountains don't move.  People do.  We hope some of us will see you again.
You gave us confidence that we could stand up and give speeches.
You urged us to study.  You helped us organize the library and made it nice for us again, so that we are reading now.
You weren't like other white people who came and talked to us and took pictures and then left and we never saw them again.
You taught us to keep time.
You helped us.
Our Sunday afternoons won't be the same.
You had us learn 3 irregular verbs every time we met.
You loved us.

                We had been bringing over to the Camp the clothing we will not take back with us to the US, and some of the other volunteers have come by in the past few months and done the same.  As we looked around, we would sometimes be startled by a shirt or pair of shoes that we recognized on one of these kids.  They looked good!
                Our African son John had planned to come to the Camp for this sendoff, but he was detained at his school; it turned out his friends at the school "hostel" (the boarding area) were throwing a surprise farewell party for him that day.  It was probably OK to let the ones still at the Camp have their day in the sun; when John is around the others are reluctant to push themselves forward as much.

                This was a wonderful time for us, sending us on our way feeling sad and very good at the same time.  "Parting is such sweet sorrow."  Seldom have we felt so special.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Final visits

                We've made some last-time visits to some of our favorite places here in the past 2 weeks, because classes have ended and the students are taking end-of-term tests.  All the classrooms are in use for testing, so we can't even get in to teach them when they are not taking tests.
                So this week we spent 2 days and a night at Mabuda Farm, the beautiful B&B on an estate 20 miles (and worlds away) from our site.
                We saw 4 new birds (in order of importance): pink-throat twinspot (so unusual here it is not even in Katherine's excellent Pocket Guide showing 440 Birds of southern Africa); forest weaver; grey-headed bush-shrike; and grey sunbird. Katherine said she could leave southern Africa after finally seeing the pink-throated Twinspot!  This brings her southern Africa bird list to #257!!
                In addition, we saw some old favorites: eastern black-headed oriole; black-headed heron; 4 different sunbirds; green-backed heron; crowned hormbill; hammerkop (pictured below):
and the fabulous trumpeter hornbill.
The proprietor of the Farm, Jono Pons, took us for an early-morning bird walk with the young man he is training as a birding guide for tourists.
Thursday the High School English Department took us out to a delicious braii (grilling) restuarant, where they brought in picnic baskets all the fixings other than the meat, which was grilled at the braii stand.  The woman standing on the left was our once-a-week siSwati tutor and she was the one who helped us set up a tutoring program with most of the High School students from the Refugee Camp.

       African children are ingenious in creating entertainment out of minimal supplies: games with some string or plastic bags taped and tied into a ball.  Here children from neighboring homesteads show off the cars they have created from wire and boxes.

And we caught our last Friday afternoon church practice at the Camp:
We really love these kids.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Life Skills, some learned the hard way!

Holding, touching and hearing Baby Matthew
Varied food (I plan never again to eat rice and beans.)
Being able to pick up food from somewhere else (pizza, Mexican, Chinese . .. ) when we are tired or rushed, or just have a craving
A microwave.  (notice that food features prominently in this list?  Where would I be without Katherine's ability to make pretty much out of pitifully little?)
Hi speed internet, reliable communications
Current news (careful what you wish for; on reflection, blessed isolation from bickering partisan politicians should be added to the "things we will miss" list; is there another election cycle due soon?)
Taking a shower whenever we want.  For as long as we want. 
Running water.  Hot, whenever we want!
Some media in addition to what we brought with us in 2013, what we got from other volunteers (How can they watch Game of Thrones?), and some thoughtful downloads from our children and their spouses over our 2 visits home; it's time for something fresh!

("Life skills" - that's kind of what we teach (although we are blessedly free to teach whatever we want - what fun!  Mostly, it seems, we talk about sex.))  We've discovered some rules of general application, which may be useful to others:
1)      The rule of unpredictability:  Whatever you dread will surprise you with delight.  But beware the class or trip you assume will go smoothly, just as it did last time - it will blow up in your face.
2)      Children change:  the 17-year-old non-speaking 200 lb tsotsi (thug) in the back of the class in 2014 can become a humorous foil and kind of fun in 2015.  And the bright young girl in the front row who would run up to greet you in 2013 can become moody and demanding in 2015.  Doesn't that happen with grown-ups, too?
3)      When a Swazi tells you one morning what she plans to do that afternoon ("I will join you for your class."), you can be fairly certain that it will occur.  A statement in the afternoon of what will be done the next day may be indicative of some likelihood of accuracy.  Any statement of activity beyond 18 hours is based mostly on the speaker's perception of what you want to hear, and relying on that as a commitment is pure fantasy.[i]
4)      It is so hard to put oneself in another's shoes because you don't know what you don't know.  Swazis have no idea their 4+ syllable 1st and 2nd names with the triple-consonant diphthongs in nearly every syllable are hard to remember.  And when they ask "Is it hot in America?" or "Do you grow maize, or have chickens, at your homestead in America?" they are just extrapolating from their experience - how would they know?
5)      When a Swazi asks you why there is so much bad weather in America, they want you to admit that Americans have been bad and God is punishing them.   They don't want to hear about the drought in Lubombo.
6)      There are certain items of universal application and utility, no one could survive without them:
             a.            Duct tape is amazing.  As our service winds down and we try to make groaning, tattered, worn-out goods make it to The End, we find duct tape repairs:  solar shower bags; bicycles; shoes; clothes; coffee mugs; backpacks.
             b.            Montreal Steak Seasoning, and Sriracha Hot Chilli Sauce - there are few things that are not improved with these.  Even the 4th night of rice and beans (no, that was 2 nights of beans and rice, alternating with rice and beans the other nights).
             c.             Dry red Tassenberg  5 liter box wine.  The taste of Mpaka (our village).  The bar up at the crossroads pretty reliably keeps a supply for me.  I provide them with free condoms, they sell me boxed Tassies!  Deal!
             d.            Salt and vinegar flavored Simba brand potato chips.  Our guilty secret.
             e.            Cardboard packing boxes make good furniture.  When we moved in I was taken aback when the domestic worker on the homestead at the time asked for the box the small refrigerator had come in, and I said, sure.  Big mistake.  Could have been a table.  I was quicker on the electric oven box - good bedside table, although sagging a bit, now.  But then, so am I.
             f.             A high capacity flash drive (at least 8 gig) - never leave home without it.  You never know when you'll see another PCV who has the last season of Mad Men or The Newsroom.  But, as a courtesy to your compatriots: keep a clean stick.  Scan and reformat every time - as we say in the public health biz, multiple concurrent partners spreads disease.
7)      What seems at first like an advantage - hey, everyone here speaks pretty good English - can turn out to hold you back: no one wants to hear me butcher siSwati, it's easier just to say it in English.
8)      Plumbing causes longevity.  I know, I know, correlation ≠ causation.  But Katherine has determined that every one of the 5 volunteers from our group who is extending for a 3rd year had indoor plumbing at their 2-year site.  Nam sayin'?  (That's a Trevor Noah formulation: "Know what I'm saying?"  Those of us from this part of the world are very proud of Noah, a really funny South African comedian, making it in The Big Time as new host of the Daily Show.)
9)      Listen to Katherine.  I learned this within days of our arrival.  She is the best PCV there has ever been.  Cheerful.  Clever in seeing what is needed and what resources could be brought to bear.  Capacious memory for names and minutiae of people met once, a year ago:  "And how is your son doing at Nazarene High School?"  Hardy.  So when she says "A good lesson plan would be . . . " or "Let's stop and visit Thembe," just do it.
10)   Old PC wisdom, helpfully passed down from one Returned PCV to another:  Don't let the Peace Corps spoil your Peace Corps experience.
                We were tested twice on our acquisition of siSwati during our initial 9-week training.  At the end of that training, in August, 2013,  we both were rated "Intermediate Low".  I then spent hundreds of hours trying to learn siSwati vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.  We were then tested at the Close of Service conference this May because many volunteers apply for jobs in international work and it is relevant how adept they became at the language here - some became quite facile.  (Also, the Peace Corps statute requires volunteers to become fluent in the local language.)  Katherine found keeping up with SiSwati discouraging, after all she took Latin, a dead language, in college to pass the language requirement.  She found her time was better spent on lesson plans and helping Swazis learn English.  She was grateful to make the language cut off during training, but alas went down in our final test.[ii] 
                At the end of two years of study, I got . . . the very same grade I'd received at the end of training: Intermediate Low.  Here is the report in all its brutal detail:
-able to formulate sentences on day to day issues such as family, travel, work, education and hobbies
-uses a lot of SiSwati words.
-answers are filled with reformulations, vocabulary and pronunciation are strongly  influenced by his heavy English accent
- can be understood by a sympathetic listener accustomed to working with non-natives
-able to ask and answer appropriate questions

- Breakdown[iii] at advanced level when asked to describe his house in SD
- Breakdown at advanced level when asked to differentiate his house in SD from that in the US
- Breakdown when asked to narrate about his visit to Mbabane, however was able to construct sentence when talking about his visit to Hlane

I spent hundreds of hours, 1/2 hour to 1 hour per day on this.  I'm actually a whole lot more conversant in siSwati now than I was 2 years ago, but the description above is pretty accurate for my current ability.  And it's  very discouraging.   (Our instructor in 2013 was under strict scrutiny (justifiably) and I think he wanted to juice his results, so my score in 2013 overstated my abilities;  good thing for me!)
                 I think the problem may have been that they tested me on the wrong subject matter. I've made a point of learning words for private body parts and their respective fluids, activities involving them, and the like, because saying those words in siSwati helps me make sure I'm understood and focus attention ("Did he really say what I think he said?"); remember, a big part of our subject matter is transfer of HIV.  So on the Language Proficiency Interview, why couldn't they have asked me about sexual intercourse - I know at least 4 different ways to say that! 

                PS:    There are no classes this week because the students are in end-of-2nd-term exams, so we are doing some last-time things, and treating ourselves.  At Hlane, the game park near our site we enjoy so much, we saw bird #253 (spectacled weaver) and some old friends:
a crested barbet
and black-headed oriole on an aloe bush - aloe bloom in mid-winter!
plus hoopoe, marabou stork, scarlet-chested sunbirds, black-collared barbet, and others.

[i]   Suppose I were to promise they could “borrow me your bicycle?”
[ii]   This is Mark:  I'd gladly trade whatever I can remember of the top 300 most frequently used expressions in siSwati for Katherine's instant recall of names, faces, interests, and family members of practically everyone she meets.
[iii]   I think "breakdown" here refers to vocabulary and grammar lapses.  Not emotional instability.  At least, I think not.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Last Classes

                Mindful of the time demands on our audience for this blog, and also because we are now doing things here we've been doing for about 2 years, I had resolved to post no more blogs addressing our current activities, as opposed to summations, but yesterday morning was too rich.  And I had my camera.
                This was our last week of teaching.  (All 3 of our schools have end-of-term exams next week,so all classes are cancelled,  and the following week is our last at site;  neither we nor our students will want classes then.)   We tried to make the last session for each grade kind of special, so after reviewing some imitsetfo ymphilo  (rules for living: eat healthy food; study hard; read books; avoid sex or use protection - the usual) we brought to this 6th grade class the "box library" of books Katherine had culled from the High School, for use at the nearby "poorer" primary school where these books might be more age-appropriate (although we get 20-year-olds in Grade 5 - sitting next to 9-year-olds 1/3rd their size!).  The kids had been begging for a chance at those books. 
                Distributing the books is always hard, because the students, in their eagerness, become very physical, but we've gotten better at managing that situation.  We were about 2 books short, but we'd brought some other books visitors had left, so we had enough, although some of the books were in a context these kids could hardly appreciate: a book of Texas history; about golden retriever dogs; or fluffy show cats.  But as they got back to their seats and got into the books, a most unusual silence fell (which does not happen much in our classes.)  They read on, and on (some working word for word through the copyright notices and acknowledgments!).  And at the end of class we had to pry them away.  To appreciate this, you have to know that these kids have an English vocabulary of may 500 words, few with more than 2 syllables.  But they really wanted to read these books.  And when the books were a little hard, or unfamiliar, they wanted to read them more.

Those of you who have helped us with Books For Africa should know that this addresses a strongly felt craving.  (You see one of our name tags: Gift, a common name - actually, my name - Sipho.  My Swazi name Sipho translates to Gift.  We teach 240 students a week, plus other classes we pick up nearly every week, and I still need the name tags we have the students put on their desks. Katherine can keep track of more of the students, at least the ones with personality;  personality can cut both ways.)
                Here is the morning assembly at that school.  I've been recording on my iPhone some of the singing I especially like, such as "church practice" at the Refugee Camp, but it's not the singing I wanted here.  At the end of assembly they recite the Lord's Prayer in English each morning, all beginning together as instructed by the teacher.  Invariably Grades 1, 2 and 3 race ahead and proudly finish at least a line or more before the Grade 7s.  Those are the younger kids to the left, up to Grade 4 on the right edge.

                Here's a little girl who lives near us, whom we teach in Grade 5, bringing wood home from the acacia forest 1/2 mile away.
                We are going miss those special moments: the voices at morning assembly and the morning sun catching the smiles; that moment in the classroom when we connect; greeting one of our special friends.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Valedictory: by the numbers

                We are approaching the end of our service, leaving in just 30 days. This and the next 2 posts are intended as a wrap-up.
                 First, thanks to the Home Team.
                 The support of friends and family back home has sustained our spirits, added taste to our dinners, our mid-day cold drink and our morning coffee, and provided us with essentials unavailable here. (Scott, we used up both solar showers!  Thank God for duct tape and bike tube patches.)  I hope we have sufficiently thanked, and we will again upon our return thank, those who have sent and brought us "Care Packages."    Our "Home Team" of Cathy Darnell handling business affairs, Barry Patton managing our house, my sister Martha attending to what needed attention, our children helping with finance, investments (with sage advice from Steve Marsters), signing up for Medicare (unbelievably difficult from here) and issues as they arose,  our neighbors and friends seeing what needs to be done - you've all made this adventure possible and allowed us to focus on southern Africa, knowing you had things well in hand.
                 Visits from my sister, the Franklins, Yus and Hollises, made us feel connected, and kept us going.   Donations from many of you for Books for Africa supported a project that has demonstrable impact on a critical skill - and, Oh! - those smiles from children as they hold and start reading a book!!! They will wrestle each other to get to a book, and will surrender it with extreme reluctance at the end of a class, even books that are about a world they could not know.  And your donations reminded us of our friends on the other side of the world and your generosity and support.
      The PC belabors us regularly with the necessity of compiling detailed reports, such as listing the exact number of boys aged 14 to 22 whom we have benefitted by improving their employability or their use of condoms (yup!  How exactly are we supposed to know?) and the like.  We comply, carefully saving our backup data.   I think the intent is to justify the expenditures to keep us here.  (It costs $155 per day to keep a PCV in the field, but only about half that is spent in-country;  the rest must be spent in DC, or . . . God only knows.)
      So as we approach the end of our service, I thought I'd try to quantify our efforts here.  The categories are not in any particular order, except the first, which is of course of foremost importance.
Number of birds identified: 252 and counting  (So glad we got over that 250 hurdle.)

Number of times we ate beans and rice for dinner: around 400
Estimate of the number of 5 liter boxes of cheap South African dry red wine we carried (usually on our bikes) from the bar at the crossroads 1 1/4 mile away and consumed at our homestead: 40
Number of times we walked the dusty 1 1/4 miles into or back from the crossroads with the main paved road, which passes for a town here:  100
                Number of times we got a ride (usually in the back of a pickup) for part of that journey:  30
Percentage of times, as we walk back from the store, someone has come to us rubbing his stomach and said "I'm hungry":   30%
                If we are visibly carrying a plastic grocery sack:  60%
Number of times a Swazi male, seeing Mark riding his bike, has said "Please may I borrow me your bike":    Every one of them, I'm pretty sure.  Every time they see me.  My bike is of more interest to a Swazi man than sex (and there's plentiful evidence that's a major preoccupation.)
Number of other white people living in our county: 0     
Number of times I used fairly expensive internet data to check the stock market in:
                2013: at least once a week
                2014:   several times a month
                2015:   checked it twice
Number of times we'd get a pretty good Voice of America or BBC signal and, just as it was saying "And now for international news . . . " a far stronger signal covering 1/3rd of our band would come on with a "praise service" or scripture reading, in siSwati:  most of the time, I think.

Number of careers launched, at least where we see fairly good likelihood of achieving exit velocity:  1 (our African son John, with the United World Colleges full scholarship to UWC’s new Frieburg, Germany campus)
Number of students provided the opportunity to practice putting a condom on anatomically-correct quite explicit plastic models of male and female genitalia: around 600
      estimate of the students who actually put condoms on the models in our practice sessions: around 300 (Some would not do it, some refraining certainly for religious reasons, but others  perhaps because of embarrassment?  I'm just not sure.)
Number of separate primary school classes we taught:  around 300
Number of primary school students we taught in formal classes each week when we had a full week of school:  around 240 students a week
Number of separate, informal tutoring sessions we pulled together to address particular needs of refugee students or the Swazi students facing national tests (Grade 7s; Forms 3 and 5 in the High School):  around 180
Number of times we have appeared at the High School 7:30 morning assembly to present a "Word of the Day" to try to improve their vocabulary, and maybe a comment on news of interest:  around 200
Number of students who merrily greet us on their way to school - nearly every one of them.  Enthusiastically.  Usually waving with their whole arm.
Number of times we have shown up at a school to find its schedule changed and our class canceled:  35[i]
Number of times a school administrator advised us in advance of a schedule change.  Or of any other change of any kind, affecting our work.   0  (But once a fellow teacher SMSd us.)
Number of mandatory forms, surveys, and questionnaires demanded by PC:  at least 120.
                Number of mandatory PC  forms,  surveys, and questionnaires for which there is the slightest evidence that it was even opened or looked at:  maybe 10.  But all demands come with short turnaround.  (The younger volunteers caught on first: just fill something in and send it back.  Spend no time on it.  It doesn't matter to them; why should it to us?)
                Number of mandatory forms, surveys, and questionnaires  in response to which PC ever taken even the smallest action: 0.  Nada.  None.  Not a single one.  In 2 years!  
Is it time yet for a cup of wine?
Want some chips?
Are you hungry?
How long have you been awake?
Your tummy OK?
Think we can get another meal out of these beans, if I add more veggies and cook a lot of rice?
How does pasta sound tonight?

      The PC has had around 250,000 volunteers serve, and has a feel for the fairly predictable rhythms of the typical service.  Curiously, they have found, and we too have heard from Returned PCVs, that the toughest period of PC service is typically after it ends, moving on to the next step.  Many of these PCVs have many obstacles and complications to face:  looking for jobs; starting graduate school; ill parents or issues with siblings for which they will have to take responsibility upon their return.  Some have found love here, either becoming engaged to someone[ii], or becoming like a parent to a particular child.[iii]  
        We don't have those issues, and we have much joy awaiting us.  But we still feel a little like Rip van Winkle stumbling back into Sleepy Hollow.  He too probably had to get a new phone plan; new car; download and figure out apps he'd never heard of when he started his nap that have now become essential to civilized life; endure undecipherable references in magazines (the ones we read here are 2 to 8 months old), mass media, and from friends, to events back in 2014 he'd never heard of; sign up for Medicare (they don't take email, only fax, and they think "Why don't you just come in to the office?" is an adequate response); renew prescriptions; tackle deferred maintenance on his house and yard; adjust to living in a 4G environment when catching some 2G here is considered a Big Deal.  For how long was Rip napping?

                The 4th of July celebration at the Country Director's House is the only time when 3 volunteer groups get together in this country.  The new group has just arrived a week earlier and are brought in a bus, still jet-lagged, exhausted, with a deer-in-the-headlights look of "What have I got myself into?"  The oldest group is already starting to exit, and the middle group is stepping into the daddy shoes. 
                This 4th we met a similarly mature couple with much experience in health and education and great attitudes, who said they felt they knew us because they had been following this blog!  It felt as if I'd put a message in a bottle and thrown it into the ocean, and the bottle had then washed back up over here with an unexpected reply; except that Google's search algorithms are probably more precise than ocean tides.  We love the idea of "passing the torch" and reading Laurie and Dave's blog, when they shake off the PC shackles of 9 weeks of training and get some internet access.        

                Here's a recent picture from the "poorer" primary school, taken by some Americans from Virginia who are opening a facility beside that school, for abandoned infants.  We are really going to miss some of these kids.  I'm grieving a little already.  The girl facing us on my left is a refugee from Burundi, one of our special friends.

[i]   The Ministry of Education advises schools in the afternoon that they will play in an athletic competition the next day, which invariably means no classes are held, when 11 boys in a school of 450 play football.  The government of this country actively discourages advance planning and education.
[ii]   Visa issues are complicated, and then employability is daunting.
[iii]    But adoption is wholly prohibited, even for a double orphan (so plentiful here) with no one to care for him, so she plans to come back to visit in a year.

Friday, May 29, 2015

COS Conference

    The Peace Corps get each group of volunteers together for some training and R&R a month before the first ones start to leave (called Close of Service "COS" in PC-speak).  We met for 3 days and stayed 3 nights at a really nice lodge 40 km from here, with hot showers, a fine restaurant, hot showers, great views, and hot showers.  It was really good to be with our group one last time before we start to disburse.  I'm very fond and admiring of nearly all of them.  This was a nice way to wind up.  As one could anticipate, the PC drags all kinds of forms and procedures into the COS process, and part of our assembly was to talk through that; they just can't help themselves.  They also help the volunteers with the transition process, which has frequently proved to be as difficult and stressful as any of the transitions during PC service.  Many of our group will enter graduate schools in public health, public policy or foreign affairs.  Others  will need to get jobs right away, and are daunted by that prospect.  The Country Director asked Katherine and me to assist him in a presentation on resumes, networking, and interviews, which we think went well and was useful.  In the evenings some brought draft resumes to us to review.
      The first morning some of us who used to exercise regularly together during our trainings in the first year got together for one last morning Insanity.

    Some of what we did was a little high school cheesy, but I loved it, and was deeply moved.  We were offered the chance to write notes to each other.  Many we received are deeply touching:  "role models,"  "supportive," " steadying," "caring."   Many referred to "mom" and "dad," and to especially vivid times we've shared over the two years.    Some comments I did not understand:  my "goofy jokes" -  what?   But all are very moving.   Brief encounters and comments over these two years have often been strongly felt.
    Here is a group picture we took.

      Now on to Bushfire, a 3-day music festival in a beautiful part of this country, where we'll see again many of our buddies, plus many from the group that came last year, now replacing us as the veterans, and also PCVs from all over southern Africa, plus lots of NGO types who drive up in their big SUVs.  Then back to "real life" for  9 weeks of teaching, tutoring, trying to move some special friends to a new stage of their lives, and closing up our life here.   But after COS conference it feels very different; we've moved on now to the leaving stage.