Socks and Underwear

Socks and Underwear: October 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

Integration Schmintegration

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Today's post is just a short update of some of the highlights from last week. I still haven't determined if there will be any routine to my posting yet so for now you all will just have to deal with randomness. All us SA20er's have now passed one month at site now, things are moving pretty quickly.

Burglar Bars

Burglar bars were installed on my door and windows last week. It is less of a necessarily and more of a precaution. Since my roof is about 8 feet up and made of easily pierced iron, I am sure I could be robbed if someone was willing. Nevertheless, burglar bars are a common site in villages and towns, somewhat of a national identity. I wouldn't say they are appealing but if you see enough of them you start to see the merits of certain bars over others. The craftsmanship shines through when you see the standard vertical bars compared to diagonals. Why not have security and art?

The process took far longer than I had imagined. I watched as three workers spent about 6 hours installing them. To their credit the bars seem firmly in place and level but somehow I don't think it should have taken that many man hours. The shortcuts they took just were frightening. Everyone came out alive but certainly there is going to be some long term retina damage from the lack of eye protection from the intensely bright welding torch.

S counts

I have been trying to get this girl to count but I am sure now she is actively trying not to learn. I am quite sure I have made the rewards clear for just counting to 10 but I think it bothers her that I simply won't give her the candy. It has become a battle of wills. She has no idea the level of stubbornness we Prescotts are instilled with, so she is gonna break.

She gets to 5 then 6 then 9 then 6 then 10. At this point it is physically hurting me. Every time she gets to 5 I think she is going to make it 10 but no. Things fall apart at that time. She'll get it once her desire for chocolate becomes too much to handle.

Board Games Club

I had a sign up in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade for a board games club in one of my schools. Normally this would attracted the 3 or 4 nerds in the school and we would happily proceed into a world of geekdom playing chess and backgammon. In actuality, almost every single learner signed up to play. It is probably a combination of not knowing exactly what I said as I was explaining the club and also having no idea what chess and backgammon are.

The enthusiasm is invigorating though. Teaching chess to 90 elementary school kids may be almost impossible but we will see how it goes. I am quite sure after the first meeting the numbers will shrink a bit but I will just have to wait and see. First things first, I found a chess game that can be printed out and laminated for a quick fix. I think it will suit my needs. Now I just need to make about 40 of them.

The Ants vs. The Baby Goats vs. Noah

There have been a few baby goats born in the past 2 weeks. Last week it rained quite a bit. When it rains the ants go insane. When the ants cover the ground in fury they also attack anything that happens to touch the ground. Baby goats touch the ground. Baby goats are completely defenseless (like most babies) so the just get bitten and exhausted to death by the ants.

Reacting to this fact Ohm-ah put the baby goats in the room adjacent to mine (my living situation is a small structure with two unconnected rooms a few meter from the house). What Ohm-ah didn't consider though was that when Noah hears 3 goat mothers and 4 goat babies bleating to each for hours each morning for consecutive days he goes insane. When Noah goes insane he considers covering the goats in honey and throwing them to the ants. Luckily the goats have grown enough now that they can get the ants off and the rain has held off for a few days. Killing all the family goats really would have driven a wedge into our budding relationship.

I Do Some Science

I taught along with the 6th grade science teacher at one of my schools. It wasn't a complete disaster but sure could have gone better. It was kinds of sloppy and thrown together but the teacher kept delaying making any plans for the lesson until right before hand.

It was a lab experiment and a sort of boring one at that but I think any activity was welcomed by the kids. On the other hand perhaps it was for the better. I had not completely held everyone's hand through the lab so I saw how much they can handle on their own. They managed not to completely make a mess of things without being forewarned and continually warned so in the future I know how much responsibility I can expect from them. Hopefully next time I can set something on fire or blow something up. Then they will really like science.

Mail Time

I got a package from me ma and pa. Man did that just make my day. I am not even sure what I did before I got the package, my world was anew once I got it. There was a brief moment of panic when I almost didn't get it because I had to pay a customs fee that I didn't have enough for. Luckily a kind post office worker loaned me money until my next visit into town. The kindness of strangers is universal. I don't know how I would have handled having to travel back to my village and come the following week.

The package was filled with a lot of food left over from hiking the Appalachian trail (packed with lovely preservatives), magazines, and things for the learners such as stickers and pencils etc. I sat down and read a 3 month old copy of national geographic and ate 5 packages of jalapeno easy cheese. It was first class.

As I mentioned with teaching S how to count, my method is positive reinforcement (aka bribing) them to learn. "You got an A on your test? Here is a sparkly pencil. You actually did your homework? Have a butterfly sticker." That's not wrong, I don't think. Appreciating knowledge for long term benefits or even for its own sake is preferred but that has to come gradually and with much contemplation. First they just need to know how to read and write.


Last night I was called from my room with urgency from Ohm-ah, "Itumeleng come quick! Come out side now!" Somewhat worrying, so I got out as fast as I could. The whole family was out with eyes directed to the sky. There was a satellite making its way across the sky at a decent clip. This is cool enough in its own right and with the sky the way it is here, it was enough to grab anyone's attention. The especially spectacular part and reason I was called out was that there were large concentric circles around the satellite as it moved through the sky.

I have seen large circles glowing around the moon on nights when it is clear and cold and with just enough moisture in the atmosphere. I had never seen this phenomenon before and I am not even sure it is caused by the same circumstances that cause the circle around the moon. I got chills and if I wasn't the type of person to look for plausible explanations I would think it was UFO or supernatural (gasp). Unfortunately I wasn't and still am not able to explain what caused the satellite to look like it was in the center of three massive bubbles. Can anybody give me more on this? If not, I fear my first test as a voice of science in the community will fail.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Kids Are Alright

Last week was my first full week in the schools. I think it went fairly well. My goal was to observe all the classes and for the most part I was able to do that. There were a few different styles I noticed this week but there was a common thread to all the classes: there is a lot of room for improvement.

For the most part the classes were brutal. Not in the sense of difficult content. The stuff is easy or at least it should be easy relative to their grade, it is tough in the sense that it is void of any activity or thinking. It is almost entirely repetition and rote memorization. No conceptualization or thinking about the subject. Any questions posed to the students have mostly likely already been asked a hundred times. Generally all the classes are way behind, some classes are still on material from the first term when it is now the fourth (last) term. I can certainly update the content or at least help the teachers with it, that is low hanging fruit. Sure, I can explain fractions, "if I take two slices of this delicious pie, what fraction of pie have I just devoured?"

In one particular class, I watched in shock as a teacher had a class copy down a board of notes (not entirely accurate, Dr. Edward Jenner discovered penicillin in 1400 B.C. ) then have everyone say aloud what was written on the board three times. "Conduction, Conduction, conduction is when heat flows through an object easily. Insulation, insulation, insulation..."(three times back to back). And believe me, they weren't saying it as fast as you are reading it either. Each word is loud and drawn out and monotone. Completely lifeless and dull. This entire exercise lasted about 30 minutes. Unfortunately I couldn't just boot the teacher out the door and shake the students out of their delirium. I am not just here to teach for 2 years because that doesn't really leave much lasting change. I have to be careful not to cut out the teachers because they were here long before I was and will be teaching after I leave.

In another class, a teacher humiliated a student because he did not copy a census survey correctly. By correctly she wanted all the information to be only on one page like the example in the book. Instead he had simply flowed over to another page when he ran out of room, making it a two page affair. She focused on the most trivial aspect of the assignment when in fact the student had completed the meaningful content of the survey. This is a general problem in a lot of classes. The point of the lesson is lost entirely in tedious formatting issues. A ruler is used for everything when the page already comes with lines.

Some teachers have nothing prepared and just read something out of a book for an hour or write on the board for 10 minutes then have the learners copy it. Some teachers leave the class alone for huge chunks of time. Classes run way over time, some classes teach an entirely different subject. All this is of course something, arguable stimulating. Some teachers don't even show up. I don't know if it would be better to have no teacher or bad teaching.

If it seems like I am being overly judgmental of the teachers, that may be. They were mostly likely taught in the same fashion or indeed much worse. For those of you who are familiar with apartheid, you know Bantu education stunted an entire race of people for decades. The echoes are still present after the fact. To those unfamiliar, Bantu education basically allowed for a severely excised content base. Technical skill training was forbidden and the funding to all black schools was insufficient just to name a few of the policies. Most notable, all sciences and math were not taught. If any subjects suffer the most in the schools in South Africa it is certainly math and science. For instance one of my schools has a very well equipped science lab that goes unused simply because no one knows how to use it.

The teachers often complain that the students just don't "get it". Rather than thinking it may be their teaching style or at least considering it, they blame the students attention span or the parents. These are of course important but learning something new in a foreign language is difficult when not combined with examples that supersede language. You can say "magnetism" and its definition over and over again a hundred times and it may stick but if you play with a magnet for a couple minutes the concept sticks much better.

There is really a lack of activities (fun). I am not one to want to get up an work with other people or brainstorm or do a skit but I know other people do. That is just how some people like to learn. So it should be provided every now and then. People learn in different ways, and everyone learns better using as many angles as possible. This is what I need to get across the to the teachers...among other things.

To end on a positive note I will relate my side project for the week. One of my tasks is to draw a map of the community. Basically a bird's eye view including major landmarks and roads etc. While I did do this myself, I also made it a competition in the sixth grade class to see who could draw the best map of their section of the village. Just an optional assignment to do over the break. Pretty genius idea but I cannot take credit for it because I heard it from another PCV during training. To the principals surprise, there were a lot of students who actually completed a map. Furthermore most were very well done, showing a lot of detail and care. I was pleasantly surprised and the exercise gave me a lot of information/results for very little work, which is certainly the best kind of exercise.

Before I left the U.S., I decided to head into D.C. and pick up a bunch of Obama paraphernalia to hand out as prizes. This competition was a good occasion to hand some out. The response from positive feedback as well as reward for job well done was overwhelming. It definitely made my day and gave me hope. So that is how a sixth grade student in a rural village in Northwestern Province South Africa won an Obama t-shirt on the same day he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


South Africa is unique with respect to PCV living accommodations. Everyone is required to live with a family. It definitely has its pros and cons but overall I am enjoying the experience. Here is a brief look at what my host family is like. I haven't put their names in to protect the innocent (maybe later, also pictures!).


The matriarch, the head of the of the clan. Technically not really, but as far as I am concerned she is. During my site visit I went over a family tree with her and her granddaughter and it was most impressive. Impressive in the sense that she could do it all from memory and that so many were close by (next door neighbors). The real matriarch is her late husband’s mother (her mother-in-law) but she doesn't figure much into my picture so far. She lives next-door in a rondaval, a traditional African home, it is circular with a grass roof. Apparently they keep quite cool, I hope to find out for myself some day.

Anyhow she is the top dog. I don't know exactly what her income is to support the children of the household. If I had to guess I would say it is a combination of money sent by her children, possible a pension, and money left by her husband.

Interesting Note: She grew up in Pretoria and Afrikaans is her first language. She learned Setswana when she came up to this region. I'm thinking she will help a great deal my language learning. It also seems like she is a bit of a "fixer" in the community, if anyone has problems she is usually on the shortlist to help. She also occasionally bakes some seriously tasty bread. I have been enjoying "fat cakes" quite a bit. They are not as sweet as you might expect from the name but very tasty nonetheless.

The eldest male in the house- except for me HAHAHHAHAHHAHAHHA. No, he is the one responsible for everything really, well him and his cousin (the next eldest grandchild). I am basically the youngest because I can't talk to anyone and whenever I try to do something for myself everyone thinks I am doing it totally wrong...and sometimes I wet myself. I am not completely helpless, I don't think, it's just I don't do everything the same way they do. For instance they insist I actually scrub the clothes when I wash but I would much rather let them soak for a good hour and then rinse and dry with some slight agitation mixed in. The work to clean ratio is just right. I really just want the clothes to smell clean, actually being clean is not important.

Anyhow he is in High School therefore I can carry on the most conversation with him. The language of instruction in the schools switches to English in grade 3. So everyone who makes it to and through High School can manage in English. His English is still limited so I don't think he exactly likes talking with me but he does occasionally.

Interesting Note: He likes to sing, but not in the modern sense. He likes to sing with a deep opera voice. He's good too. It's the funniest thing to wake up to him belting out some song operatic style while he is off to school or herding the goats. Speaking of going off to school, he has to walk to the next nearest town to go, which is 7 km away.

The eldest female grandchild. She is in middle school and my reading is that she is right were a typical middle school-er would be. Very concerned with looking cool and generally disinterested with school/important matters. If I have offended any middle school girls with that sweeping generalization, deal with it.

She is a little harsh to her younger cousins (basically her siblings) but I've also seen her take care of them with great empathy. All attempts to speak with her have proven unsuccessful. She will either nod yes, no, or will just nor reply. Will be a tough nut to crack but time is on my side.

Interesting Note: South Africa is a religious country and that religion is Christian. Only the Grandmother in my host family goes to church so I don't really know about the kids. Her grandmother was off to church one particular Sunday and requested K to grab a bible from a neighbor and bring it back to the house. Upon returning she jumped up on to the porch stoop, and shouted with her deepest Tswana conviction some verse. At the time I didn't know it was the bible but the act was unmistakable, she was channeling the spirit. I am unsure if she meant it to be mocking but that's how I took it.

Youngest male in the home. He is in one of the primary schools I am working with so I guess that is good for me but bad for him. I am going to be all over him to get his homework done plus extra special bonus work! I have had the least interaction with him so far. Maybe shy, maybe he just doesn't like the way I look. Conversation is also difficult, instead of yes or no however, he will most likely always say "yes".

Me: Do you want to play a game?
S: Yes
(walks away)

He gets picked on by his older siblings but that is just the plight of the younger brother, I can sympathize. It will just make him stronger.

Interesting Note: Marbles are a big thing amongst the little boys around these parts. I am not sure if it is the same game played in America 40 years ago or not but it looks interesting. I once saw him line up a shot from 4 feet and ricochet off two marbles like it was nothing. He also always carries them around all the time. You can tell when he is near from the clacking of marbles in his pockets.

She is a little firecracker this one. Her voice is way to scratchy and deep for a 3-4 year old, but it gives her character. She is probably the only one that came up to me on her own accord. I'd like to think I just looked too much fun not to play with but I think she just wanted the attention. Very mischievous, since she is always with her little cousin, she is most likely the source of the little one crying. I don't think she is naturally cruel, I think she just gets bored and will just taunt or tease her. Probably my greatest ally here, if I can learn to speak well enough to speak with her I will be in the family.

Interesting Note: I tried to teach her the different cards in a deck of playing cards. She would guess randomly until she got one right and then stay on that number for the next 10 cards. Eight, No, Eight, No, Eight, No, Eight, No. It was interesting to say the least. Something to work on.

The baby of a family. Not just because of birth order, she is actually still a baby. Maybe toddler is more appropriate. I think maybe 2. She can stand but has not been potty trained so there is that.

"How smart can they be? They still poop their pants!" my friend Eric once said to me after seeing the cover for Baby Geniuses. This is the struggle I have with this baby girl. She is very clever and very stupid at the same time. For the first couple of days she would cry her face off at me until she got what she wanted, after which time she would completely shut it off as if she were totally even keeled. Played me for a chump. She has also been caught eating toothpaste, dirt, and plastic. I am pretty sure she would have died by now if not for supervision. At the same time, if you can't read and nobody has told you, why not eat toothpaste? It is like liquid mint candy! And if you don't know any better, dirt could totally make you super strong if you eat it by the handful. Totally adorable though. When she is not crying or completely filthy she is a delight.

Interesting Note: She is amused by the most mundane which I find fascinating. Why haven't I been hanging out with more babies. I can do my same tricks for hours and they are still entertained. Surprisingly, trying to decipher her Setswana is the most difficult . You would think it would be super simple and basic. I guess it is but it is also mixed with baby rambling and with nonsense words. Not to mention the poor grammar and pronunciation! During one
particular attempt to crack the code, I broke down and asked the Grandmother what she was saying, it sounded really profound and coherent and with such conviction. "She is saying 'Uncle Itumeleng over and over". Itumeleng is my Setswana name here, so I really should have nailed that one.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I Never Let School Get In The Way of My Education

I guess I should talk about my brief experience with the schools. I only got to spend a day at each but I got a lot out of it I think.

My first assignment from Peace Corps was to interview the teachers. I think the intention was to get everyone to know one another better and for me to learn what the teachers' views were and what their lives were like. It may have come off as a very official (dry) way to become more personal but I think just having them all have to come talk to me was a good thing. Otherwise they probably would have just ignored me until my 2 years were up. It’s not that I think they don't appreciate someone coming to help, I think they just don't know what to say or maybe are a little embarrassed.

So I had my outline of the interview prepared and was ready for my first school. I was primed and ready to go in there, ready to interview like no one has ever interviewed before.

My first school is a short distance to my house about a 5 minute walk. It is two long building divided into several classrooms. Theoretically it is supposed to have the administration room and grades R-2 (R=K) in one building and then 3-6 on the in the other. There are however, two overflow classes that had to be made to accommodate the extra kids in the community. An extra grade 1 and 3 I believe. One of these classes is a standalone unit, probably the nicest class in the whole school (brand new at least) and the other is a shack with corrugated steel for its walls and ceiling. The rest of the facilities are very bare bones and extremely worn in.

There are about 300 learners (students) and 12 educators (teachers) including the principal. This was my second visit to the school so everyone had at least seen me before. I don’t automatically receive smiles but inquisitive looks from the kids. If I smile at them they always crack, even the toughest looking ones which is certainly reassuring. I have to initiate conversation with the teachers but that is ok I am willing to get the process going. My plans for the day were kind of thrown onto the principal, my supervisor and main liaison in the community, but my agenda was simple enough that it would work. My idea was to talk to as many of the teachers as possible in their free time that I could. The key part there is “in their free time”. During training, the principal I worked with would often pull teachers out of class for the most trivial detail which easily could have waited. Can’t help the education system if teachers are not teaching, this may not sound like a problem but just you wait until I get to the second school.

Anyhow I just went through my outline, trying to make it sound as unthreatening and unofficial as possible but it could not be helped I guess. I think people everywhere just don’t like being asked questions and then seeing their responses written down. The language barrier was yet again a significant problem. Patience was the only way to get things done. Say it once, wait, rephrase, say it again, wait, rephrase, and interpret. At one point I felt like I was answering questions for them but then I realized that that would be missing the point, I am not filling out a worksheet. This is supposed to be for my benefit, no sense in putting words in anyone’s mouth.

One of Peace Corps recommendations is to take all the teachers’ picture and then make a poster of the school staff. A good idea I thought, it would at least give me something to do, and match the name to the face. The picture was definitely the best part of the “interview”, they aren’t the best at taking pictures but they liked it. I had to get them to look at the camera and then say something to make them smile. I think it left them happy. People’s memories are short; perhaps they thought the interviews were fantastic based on the picture alone.

Since my village is divided into two major sections, my second school is about 4 km away. I am using the metric system while I am here; it is a better system anyway. The walk is nice, I just have to wake up a little earlier on the days I go to that school. The second school is brand new. It has a whole building devoted to the staff, a classroom for each grade as well as spare classes. It even has a library, computer lab with about 30 computers and multiple storerooms. It also has about 100 less students than my other primary school (8 teachers). Quite the disparity and it is within the same town 4 km apart.

While my day at the first school was more freeform, my day at the second school was a little more rigid. The principal there, while supportive and a hard worker, is a little controlling and overbearing. I think his constant prodding got him a new school but I also think it makes all the teachers resent him, since he is down their throats all the time. It will certainly be different in the second school.

The interviews went pretty well in the second school as well and they enjoyed the pictures. The only problem was that the principle was pulling the teachers out of their classes to do the interviews, which I disapproved of but thought it better to just get it over with than have a battle. Overall a necessary trade-off, the interviews flowed a little faster the second day. I anticipated the problems I was going to face after experiencing the first school’s batch of interviews.

For instance one of my questions was: What is a professional goal of yours for the future? This got some responses from most teachers. Usually the replay was to obtain another certification or degree, occasionally there were promotion prospects. My next question was almost universally a stumper: What is a personal goal? The lines between what you do for work and what you do for yourself was not clearly drawn. Moreover I think the idea of self-improvement was lacking for the most part. Then again, I always have to remember they are getting an interview in their 2nd or 3rd language and something like that is a bit difficult to understand, maybe it just needs to be put in different terms.

Most people wake up ~5 to get chores done and head out the door to school. Most of the teachers in each school do not live in my village but in neighboring villages. This then requires transport on the khumbis (taxis), which have a very liberal sense of punctuality and there is never a guarantee. Both schools start at 10 till 8:00, so most teachers try to be here at 7:30 and for the most part I believe they make it. Primary schools are split into foundation and intermediate levels. The foundation classes are the typical elementary style format where it is one teacher all day; the intermediate is a period bases system. It is then their task to teach and prepare and do all the things a normal teacher would do. Closing time is anywhere from 3-5, I would bet it is more often 3 than 5 but I shall see. The teachers make the journey back then it is chores and relaxing. It was unbelievable difficult to get even that small amount of information. Very little elaboration and any mention of anything that was not cooking, cleaning, or watching t.v. was absent.

After living here for a week though I can see that there is very little to do. If there is no work to be done then people just sort of sit around with each other. That is all well and good but come on. I shall bring hobbies to my village, they shall rejoice.

Now back to my day at the second school. I had mentioned that the principals sometimes take teachers out of their classes for meetings. Well I was lucky enough to witness one such meeting. It was for the SGB (School Governing Body), which is the rough equivalent of the PTA. Well that meeting was called during school hours which brought in about half of the teachers. The meeting then carried on for the last 3 hours of the day. I will spare you the actually content of the meeting because very little got to me. The principal would occasionally translate but I missed most of the content, very little got done it seems. It was in my opinion and immense waste of time.

There is a problem with holding the meetings after school I have been informed. Things just don’t carry on after dark. There is a narrow gap between when school ends and when it starts to get dark, moreover it would only delay the time until teachers to go home. Since they mostly rely on the khumbis which also don’t run after dark they would be stuck. A bit of a stumper, first order of business though would certainly be to shorten the meetings.

That was all about a week ago now. When school starts again I will complete my interviews and start classroom observations to get a view of what the teaching is like at the schools.