Socks and Underwear

Socks and Underwear: December 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Nauseous Super-Naus

This is the last post of the week and perhaps the last post until I get back from vacation. I am headed off to the Eastern Cape for maximum relaxation. I am hoping to be the first person in the world to get bed sores from the beach. If there is already a record for that then I hope to be the first person to do it while drinking beer. I am unaware of the internet situation out there and at the moment I am not at all concerned. If there is a link, I may feel inclined to do an update while I am there, otherwise it will just have to wait.

At the end of training, one of our trial by fire tests was to make our way back from out sites to our training site by ourselves. Most people just ended up meeting up together and traveling in groups, which somewhat defeated the purpose of the exercise but that is not the point of this story. The group I was traveling with got delayed in our journey so we had to stay at a backpacker's (SA hostel) overnight in Pretoria. It was a happy accident because it turned out to be a great time. We got to unwind, which didn't happen too often during training but we also got to meet the group of volunteers who were about to leave. It was revealing to find out that only a third of their group made it the full two years. One of the things I took away from that chance meeting was that you have to break the time into manageable chunks. Plan to do something to relax or recharge in regular intervals, for us SCRP volunteers conveniently located at the end of terms, and just make it to that point. It was simple advice but it meant so much coming from people that made it through. I think I will try to do the same. This is the end of that first bite.

I am going to be OK here. Surely there will be more surprises thrown my way during the rest of my service but I feel I am well equipped to handle it. I don't know everyone that I live with very well but I have a pretty good idea of their character and am not afraid. And I am not entirely sure how the schools will be after two years but I am confident they will be better than when I got here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lost Blog Posts Volume I

I wrote these posts a while back but for whatever reason did not post them. Wanted to get it out before it's too late!

Every now and then you get to burn something in Chemistry class

The learner's here in SA have national exams every three years after they start school, in other words in the 3rd, 6th, 9th and 12th grade. Every Friday I have been going to middle school to help the Natural Science class review and prepare for their upcoming test. I feel it gives me a break from the primary schools in that I know the science they need and I present it at a pace I am comfortable with. My problem with teaching the elementary science is that I just don't know what an appropriate level of depth for any one topic is. Any shortcut I am afraid will seriously affect later understanding. I think it is generally correct that you learn about a subject long enough and you start to have to unlearn a lot of what you have already been told to make a more accurate picture. I think this is all too much for 5th grade, and probably way too pedantic overall. They have trouble enough understanding my English anyway.So when I go to the middle school I have a little more elbow room. I can be a little more abstract. They also have the more dangerous chemicals there.

Today was my last Friday before their exam so I thought I would try to do a demonstration. I rifled through my books to find something that I could do easily and would be worthwhile. I decided on making napalm and then putting it out with firefighting foam. Very simple overall and I could tie it in with what they were learning.

I thought it went pretty well. No one was injured and it went according to plan. It was a little outside the rules of normal chemical safety but we don't really have the proper equipment for such things out here and they NEEDED to see the napalm. As a side note that stuff is absolutely wicked.

Traveler of Mostly Time and Little Space

I went to get my food today which will last me another couple weeks. It was not a simple procedure. As I mentioned any travel is an undertaking so plenty of time needs to be set aside for the task. Today proved this point more than ever.Normally the journey isn't quite as bad as the one in this story but I never really look forward to it. I only go because my stupid body needs food to survive.

I live 10 km from the next town which is where the main group of taxis gather to travel to the next biggest town. We will call my town K, the next bigger town T and the biggest town G. So I take a taxi (or walk) 10 km to T, then need to take a taxi another 22 km for my shopping in G, 32 km total.

I went to the road in my village where I can get a ride to the next biggest town (T) at 12:30. It was there that I waited until 1:00 to ride, phase one accomplished. I then set-up shop at the next stop waiting for my next ride to G. This ride did not come until 2:00, I got a good chunk of the way through the Atlantic (thanks Sarah). After the short trip, It was a joy to enter the grocery store. My food stores had run low, for dinner the previous night I had a packet of tuna and a cup of coffee. So I planned stocking up in good fashion today. Lots of soup, lots of vegetables, and lots of eggs. Happy with my purchase I headed back to the taxis to head home.
It was now 3:00 and I was tired and hungry. It was a long week and I just wanted to eat my food and relax. It is extraordinarily exhausting to ignore people constantly staring at you, and I had my weeks fill. The taxi back to T was there waiting but was mostly empty. The whole taxi system in general deserves a whole post but I will just say the taxis don't go until they are full. This wait took until 4:00. We were payed up and we departed.

This particular taxi ride was stuffed to maximum capacity, although they usually are. Everything I had was on my lap and between my legs. As it was with every other passenger on the taxi, 14 in all. Sometimes I deal with these situations pretty stoically sometimes I have difficulty keeping good humor. In any case it takes concentration to fore go my defense system when people breech my cherished bubble space. The ride back from town is always longer since several people get dropped off close to their homes. The progress was slow but I finally made it back to T.

Since the journey up to that time had taken so long it had diminished my chances of getting a ride back to my village, K, the taxis become scarcer the later it gets. So I posted in some shade waiting for my ride because I had too much food to carry back. So I waited and hour and then finally got a ride on a donkey cart to a crossroads a little closer to my village. I have wanted to ride on one since arriving in SA and it made up for the awful experience of traveling so far. At the crossroad I waited some more, read some more, started considering how long it would take me to carry everything back with frequent breaks. Finally a taxi came by to take me home. Arriving at my doorstep at 6:30 this journey of 64 km to the grocery store and back took about 6 hours. Food was good though.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Maq Daddy

Get it!?!

Today was laundry day which was a long time coming. There have been water shortages for the past couple weeks, so getting enough water to do laundry required a concerted effort that I was not willing to make until I absolutely had to. Today the water pump was flowing vigorously, so I ran with it and decided to wash.

One of the unforeseen pleasures of moving here is that my wardrobe, which I now realize was far to large for one human being, was reduced to a much more appropriate level. I think at this point, I will never need to buy another piece of clothing. I will just slowly wear out all the clothes I have acquired up to this point, maybe replacing essential items like socks. If I need a tuxedo I can just rent it. For this reason, washing is now a pretty simple affair with only a few articles to be dealt with. On normal occasions, where I haven't worn everything I own, the hassle of doing everything by hand is not overwhelming.

I intend to make some sort of agitator like contraption to make my life even easier. In the meantime I have started using my feet. I just put a bunch of clothes in the tub add water and handwashing powder and sort of stomp on it. I try to make up for the lack of directed scrubbing by going at it for a while. It is somewhat effective and it cleans my feet at the same time, and there are no downsides at all so don't try and burst my bubble by telling me the downsides.

While the actual washing part I don't find particularly appealing, I do like the air drying. I find it satisfying to hang up wet clothes knowing that in a little time they will be nice and dry. It is not so much the drying part that is satisfying but the notion that I want something to be done and the way I make it happen is to leave it outside and then it gets done without me doing anything.
Additionally, there is something about wind and sun dried clothes that makes the clothes a little nicer, someone needs to spend a lifetime researching what that is and then put it in a bottle or teach it to a dryer. Billion dollar idea!

There is another bonus about hand (foot) washing clothes that I discovered just today. With washer/drying machines, my two loves of carrying chapstick and not checking my pockets before washing my clothes were incompatible without consequences. Many a time I have discovered oil splotches and empty chapstick tubes in the dryer. By doing the opposite of cleaning my clothes and wasting all my chapstick I would feel like a total failure. But that is no longer the case. I can leave chapstick in every single pair of pants I own indefinitely and no longer worry, everything will be just fine. Don't worry chapstick, the gentle breeze and beating sun, while very hot, won't melt you. At least I hope not that would be a bummer.

Side note: I just hope everyone is aware that school ended last week and that is why these last couple of posts have seemed somewhat trivial. I am not that great about the serious things and really thrive on the trivial but in time there will be more substance to what I write. But come on they can't all be about race relations and educational hardships!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I pass by cows just about any time I walk in the village. Going off to school means a trip through cow territory. During my most recent encounter, I had the realization that most cows are sporting horns. Some are well formed and sharp, some gnarled and broken. I have seen some that can look very menacing with horns properly aligned and upright. Then there are other cows that look like their horns are about to grow right into their own face.

Well I was wondering, what are the kind of bulls that people get gored by during bull fights or bull riding? Are those some special breed of cow? Are those cows fed scrap metal instead of grass, are they insulted as calves? If not, what if one of the local cows got up the guts one day to not flee as soon as I am a few feet away, what if one goes insane, or even mad? I am narrowly escaping potentially deadly cow attacks several times a day.

I have planned a defense if the situation should arise. I think a good strategy would be for me to distract the crazed bull with something red (always carry something red) and then hide right behind him. I am working under the idea that cows are not pack hunters and the other cows won't tip off my rival to my whereabouts.

You wouldn't know it to look at this picture but this is a killing machine waiting for the right opportunity to strike. I never turn my back on them, NEVER! You don't know the lengths I went to just to get this picture, I was in the cow's den.

Do you have more questions about cows? Have you ever wanted to know what a cow looks like without its skin or even how much grass a cow could keep in its stomach at one time? Fascinating!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Eskom RULES!

The power went out yesterday and just came back on a little while ago. It went pretty well I think, I survived in top form.

Having electricity is a luxury certain Peace Corps volunteers do not enjoy. I don't know where these volunteers are in the world but they have to exist. I am not aware of any in South Africa but there may be a few. The problem is that they won't have a computer or internet access to tell me so.

Most of my life is organized around the assumption that there will be electricity flowing or at least there will be soon. So without power I almost did not know what to do with myself. I prepared my dinner, sans hotplate, which consisted of canned beans. This is not an abnormal meal but I do like them a little warmer. I also enjoyed some reading by candlelight which was particularly funny considering I was reading from an e-reader. It was probably a lot like how Abe lincoln felt when he was reading his e-book reader next to the fireplace.

The sole energy producer in South Africa, Eskom, seems to be coming up short in their efforts to power the country. For the most part I have electricity but on a weekly basis I go without power for at least a few hours, this most recent event was the most egregious of blackouts. I find it hard to complain but it is really just bad business. I think mayhaps they need to let somebody else have a shot at the power business, a little capitalism, some healthy competition. That suggestion may just be the American in me.

I suppose angry calls from small African villages finally got through to them or maybe it was the multi-billion Dollar/Rand platinum industry but Eskom knows its shortcomings. In an effort to curb the shortages of the recent years Eskom has decided to up their production of power stations and also to institute "load shedding". Load Shedding is a planned blackout in certain areas when supplies are low and demand high, to be fair it is on a rolling basis certainly split evenly among small villages and enormous mines. Shortages can be monitored during television shows wherein a little meter pops up giving a rough estimate of the national power supply. "We're in the red, shut the t.v. off!"

I would just like to say at this point that I LOVE ESKOM and that they should not feel the need to punish me by shutting of my electricity. Canned beans are so much better warmed up.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Peaks and Troughs

The schools are coming to a close this week so I thought I would post a quick message about how it has been progressing.

I have been having serious problems at one of my schools brushing me aside. I have been asking the teachers to list areas they particularly want help with on a request sheet which up until today (the last day I am at this school until next term) has gone untouched. I ask the principle for brief meetings to go over different functions of the school, he agrees and doesn't show up to school or he comes to the meeting but is easily distracted and strays from the task at hand.

This last week I thought I had broken through to the other side. One of the foundation teachers approached me to help them teach numeracy lessons. It was exactly the sort of thing I want to do much, much more. The South African government has supplied this school with a good deal of resources that are not used. For example each of the foundation (grades 1-3) teachers get a big set of foam shapes, counters, dice, and the like to help teach numeracy as well as a guide book that is basically a recipe of how to run the activity. I was more than happy to go through the book and it seemed like the teachers got something out of it.

I was also able to hold a meeting with the principle where I basically forced him to sit down and tell me the things I needed to know. If he didn't know the things I needed to know I got my answer anyway. I thought he understood at that point that I don't care how behind he is or what he thinks I might think, I just want to get an idea of what needs improvement and if I can do anything about it. It is of no use hiding something from me.

Unfortunately, this week has gone back to the ways of the past. The meeting with the parents and SGB (PTA-ish) that I was told would be held this week was not scheduled. Moreover, since exams are over with at this point there is absolutely nothing going on in the school. School technically ends tomorrow but most learners haven't been showing up and those that do goof off until lunch is provided and then go home. I cannot blame them, I would do the same thing. It makes it seem like the point of school is exams and that once those are over, school has lost its purpose.

The other school I help with is usually a lot more in tune with how I work and is much better about keeping me updated. It has had its fair share of canceled meetings and unscheduled appointments but I am still usually kept in the loop. This week things kind of fell apart too. My plans for Monday were completely dashed when all the things I requested for the day weren't done. As a Plan B, I focused on organizing the storage room since I couldn't find anything in there and it would be useful to do an inventory. I also just wanted to shut my brain off and lift things. It is looking a lot nicer in there but I need to send a memo to keep it that way.

On a positive note, the middle school invited me to their report card ceremony today, which I was more than happy to attend. The middle school runs quite well and I think the primary schools can learn something from the principle there. I really only need to go there in my capacity as a science resource.

There was a fair showing of parents for the meeting. There was, of course, an itemized agenda for the meeting as well as a school financial budget for the year and the report cards for the students. At the end there were awards given out to certain students for academics and sports. Certificate go over pretty well here so it is an easy way to bolster confidence. I was employed at this time to hand out the awards which I did with grace. It can be confusing but you give the awards with the left and shake with the right. I almost dropped an award but recovered in time. I then assumed I would "be given the opportunity to speak" for which I was prepared this time. I was even going to open with a joke, "You all clap like the people back home clap" (pulled from Rambling Jack Elliot). I mean that would have killed. Then I was going to launch into the importance of parent involvement in education and to not be complacent about their role, really golden stuff. But to my surprise I was not called upon. I was certainly ok with it though, I'll just put that opening joke in my pocket for another day.

I took this picture before the meeting started. Many more people came throughout. Trying to get people in my village to smile is like pulling teeth. In fact next time you are pulling out someone's teeth say to yourself this is like getting a Tswana to smile for a photo, it will be funny. I think the lady in the corning was smiling because of my inability to make anyone smile.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


My last Peace Corps assignment for integration was to collect community stories. I have a notion this was sort of thrown in as a way to stay busy when the school is closed. Surely there are many stories I can and eventually will collect, I just feel that it will happen naturally over my two years so I need not force it this week.

Nevertheless there is one story in particular, that I was told by one of the teachers at school, that I want to briefly share. He had initially told me this story a few weeks back when we were both waiting for a taxi to head into town. We were lazily chit-chatting when we saw a donkey cart go by our post. The basic set-up of the donkey carts is an axle and wheels stripped from a car with a make-shift seat built on top which is all harnessed to a couple of donkeys. Certainly thrown together and shoddy but I give credit for initiative. After this teacher saw the donkey cart, he was prompted to tell a story about the Setswana homeland during apartheid, Bophuthatswana.

I was completely unaware of this history before hand. It is somewhat strange that this information wasn't given during training. All history was much more broad even though some specifics about the province I was heading to might have been appropriate. That is beside the point though. During apartheid, a homeland was setup for the Setswana people just like there were homelands for the Sepedi, Xhosa and Zula etc. I think superficially these homelands were presented as a compromise but I think the goal was also to keep the groups separate and keep the idea of tribalism relevant. Employing the tactic of divide and conquer.

Bophuthatswana, which translates to "the gathering of the Tswana people", is roughly the same as where the Northwest is now situated. During the time this story takes place, the president of Bophuthatswana was Lucas Mangope. Near the end of apartheid when the writing was on the wall and Mangope perhaps saw his presidency coming to an end, he pulled an almost unbelievable stunt. He sent out messages to rural areas requesting they bring in their donkeys to be injected with medicine and/or vaccines. Many people jumped at the opportunity to help safeguard from disease their donkeys which act as a means of transportation, as beasts of burden, and in some cases food. When the people brought their donkeys for treatment they didn't find it. Instead they found armed soldiers who opened fire and killed all of the donkeys, and in doing so a substantial part of some people's wealth. It is hard for me to imagine that kind of carnage. This man said that more than 400 donkeys from his area were slaughtered by the presidents troops. This directive was carried out many times in many different areas.

Mangope's reasoning was that the donkeys were grazing too much and in doing so were eating up all the food for the cattle. So these seemingly useless animals were taking away from what was clearly the more profitable animal. This man was leading the province 16 years ago and still resides here. Although this action was enough to forever show his character, he is far more notorious for his forceful use of the military to suppress the protests and demonstrations of the time. When I last talked to the teacher who told me this story, he said that Mangope was helping support the campaign of a local politician. I am at a loss as to how this man can still be influential and in some form of power after doing so much to subjugate and oppress his own people. It really just fills my head with questions that will surely go unanswered.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Television Rules the Nation

In an effort to bond with my host family and absorb some Setswana I decided to start watching the show Generations with the family. Yes sitting down to stare at the t.v. is considered bonding in South Africa too. The show is a prime time soap opera. Actually a lot of shows in the prime time slots are soap operas. I don't know how they became so popular, they are so incredibly cheesy. Well anyhow I am in the mix now and I think it will have been a good idea in the long run.

The show contains probably 4 languages with an English subtitle. Some characters quickly change between 2 or 3 languages in one scene. Setswana makes its appearance every now and then and I have been able to pick up bits and pieces. More importantly I have been able to decipher what everyone around me says about the show while it is going on or during commercial breaks, which can very entertaining and enlightening themselves. If I'm able to keep it up, I will probably end up knowing how to say "adultery" and "coma" in Setswana in no time.

I have no idea what it was originally supposed to be about but it so far it is just a bunch of different stories of people living in some city in South Africa, I have little experience with soap operas but that seems to be the gist of it. There is actually a lot more to talk about concerning the show and its influence but I think I will just mention it for now.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Wake Up

I once saw an alarm clock on the internet where a piece of bacon was placed in the clock at night before sleep. Then when it came time to wake up, the machine would cook the bacon waking the user up with the smell of delicious bacon. I like the idea of using some sense other than hearing to wake up. I also like the idea of not waking up from displeasure but because of something appealing. Not long ago I tried to make my alarm clock my coffee maker automatically turning on and giving me the pleasant aroma of coffee not to mention the instant access to caffeine to keep me awake.

My alarm clock these days has turned into me not being able to handle the flies constantly landing on my face and rattling on top of my roof. I then wake up in a panic because it is fully day light outside despite my aim to wake up at 6:30. I check my alarm and it is slightly before 6:30, at once I am assured then angry that I will miss a few minutes of time allotted to sleep. You might think that it would be dawn that early but South Africa does not participate in daylight savings. Sunrise has made a substantial shift since I first arrived.

My fly swatter was destroyed the second day I bought it just because of vigorous swatting, Flies 1 - Noah 0. Then I got some fly strips from home which have really been doing a great job. At once they are both disgusting and satisfyingly effective. I try my best to keep my domain fly-free but they always a few that seem to pass my defenses. On top of that, they seem to wait until morning often times to antagonize me, when I am at my most vulnerable and groggy moment. The fly may be the king of pests, at least until something else comes along.

As far as the racket on top of my roof it varies. Sometimes it is birds or large bugs that land with disregard for bodily safety. There is also some other object that gets tossed around whenever a strong wind blows, which is most of the time these days. This morning I couldn't take it anymore so I ventured up my window sill to grab onto the roof and peek over. There was all manner of debris up there: bicycle chain, hubcap, animal bones. There were animal bones up there! Who keeps throwing bones on top of my roof? I demand an explanation!"Hey there is a bone let's chuck it up on top of that roof?", truly bizarre. I got some off with a broom but much of it was out of reach. Hopefully what I got was the source of the rattling but I will have to wait and see.

It occurs to me now that I have mentioned roofs in three different posts now. Fascinating aren't they? Well these are the sorts of posts that will be coming if I am to post more often, you know quality or quantity. Well the quality wouldn't really be there either so I will just try to post more.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It is too hot for Christmas-time


Just a short word on the holiday. I decided it was a good opportunity for some cultural exchange. I spent the remaining dregs of my stipend on food for a meal for the Okha family. I went to the grocery store hoping to scrounge together enough for a decent meal. It was a success because I was able to get a turkey and some potatoes for the delicious mash.

I had asked Ohmah if she would help me cook the turkey since I had never cooked one before. When the day came and she had brought out a gigantic pot to presumable boil the turkey in I realized she had never cooked a turkey either. While boiled turkey may have been delicious I felt that roasting it was surer choice. It turns out you just have to turn the oven on and then put the turkey in the oven. I am learning all sorts of life skills out here.

Everything turned out very well. A mix of the traditional American Thanksgiving food, turkey and mashed potatoes, and some South African staples like rice and fried cabbage. It was quite the feast. Family meals aren't really opportunities to bond here. They mostly just sit around the t.v. and eat. I found this bizarre and despite my wanting to sit around a table and eat I didn't feel it was my place to force the family to sit down and talk to each other. Especially since I would not be able to talk with them or understand them.

Windy City

During this rainy part of the season also come the winds. A couple nights ago was the most awesome wind storm I have ever encountered. A brief stroll through my village will reveal that bricks line the perimeter of most roofs. I always thought this was ugly and somewhat unnecessary. All the roofs are usually, nailed to wooden beams within the house as well, the bricks were overkill. The wind storm last night really made apparent the need of those bricks.

The wind was whipping by at such a rate that it seemed like water was crashing into the side of my house. My roof was being tested at full capacity as all the bricks and debris were scattered around on top. Despite the mortar filled along the top to prevent sand from coming in during such storms, the stressed roof pried open enough to dump plenty of the Kalahari into my room.
I was going through in my head what exactly I would do if I was suddenly without a roof.

Upon waking the next morning, I found that although my roof had made it through the night, not all roofs were as fortunate. Ohmah's husband was a minister before he passed away and had a church across from their house. This church goes mostly unused except for Christmas time when people migrate home from the mines and larger cities to be home with their families. I had initially planned to use this church for after school or even weekend help in school, most likely in science. I would have found it deliciously ironic to be teaching science in the church but I guess God did not like that plan and ripped the roof right off. It didn't have the bricks to hold the roof down, I guess utility beats style when it comes to roofs.

Even worse now, Ohmah feels compelled to use what she has saved for renovations to her own house to fix the church. It is her money to spend but I feel like it would certainly be better spent on her house which 6 people live in now rather than a church which no one uses but maybe once or twice a year. Hopefully she can get money from the churchgoers to put it back on.

So Fresh and So Clean

I have built myself a little shower. A very. very crude shower but I am more proud of it than maybe anything else I have ever made. The novelty of bucket baths had worn off about the second week of use. I just don't feel like I am getting adequately clean in a bath. And now that my hair is growing out again, washing hair is something baths aren't well suited for. Anticipating increasing stinkiness in my life I decided to make a change.

Basically, I sacrificed the bucket I was going to use for my laundry machine for my shower, then used my workout band. The band went largely unused because working got me all sweaty and then I would have to take a bucket bath. I just poked a hole through the bottom of the bucket and inserted the band which also happens to be a rubber tube. I then fill the bucket up with water of appropriate temperature, put it on top of my dresser and voila I have invented the shower. I use less water and feel more clean, truly amazing. I even got a shower curtain to somewhat cut down on water going everywhere. It is more for show since water still gets everywhere but it did with the bucket bath too. I feel my credibility is rising because I am just so much better smelling.


A short word about the end of this integration and my plans for next term. This integration period has been very informative and frustrating. I think overall it is a good call on Peace Corps part to require volunteers to just sit back a while and let everyone get comfortable with each other and for the volunteers to see how they will really function before to many plans are made. I have certainly made some modifications.

I have decided to teach the grade 6 natural science class in both schools. I think it will be a good way for me to feel like I am making a direct impact and keep me busy when other projects require other people to do work. The rest of my time will be divided into community help and general school management. I plan on also teaching some basic computer classes but I am currently in a power struggle with one of the principles on this issue and we will see how it plays out.