Sunday, May 15, 2011

I'm back baby!!!!

I was SO excited to be back to the village this week! While I was in the hospital many of my fellow teachers called and sent text messages to say they were thinking of me. And this week it was amazing to see them all again. I was given an extremely warm welcome back home.

Gogo and Mkhulu (who called almost every day to see how I was) bear hugged me at the gate. It was the same response I got from my naughty little 3rd graders. They are usually quite reserved, but they pelted me with tight hugs and sticky kisses... And I loved ever moment of it. I really missed them.

So the rest of my week was spent helping out in the classroom, and digging in the garden. Instead of writing a long blog I thought I would post a few pictures!

Here you can see Prince Jabulane (a community member) helping with the garden. He was really grateful for the gardening gloves that I was able to bring with me! Everyone got new ones to use! This is thanks to all my friends and family who sent them :) Love you guys!!!!

Oh, it's also Avocado season! We have a huge tree in our backyard that we have REALLY been enjoying!!!

There is also a picture of me at my first attempts of brick laying (which is much harder than it looks--at least for me). We still have a long way to go, it looks like I'm going to spend most of next week digging in the dirt again. More pictures to come!

Hope you all have a blissful week!!!

A rough week... (that turned into a month).

*This is an update of the past few weeks, I haven't had internet-- so I cover the last few weeks at once! Sorry!

As we say in South Africa, “Eish!”… So, the past week was difficult—as predicted. Monday started off with a very depressing staff meeting where we decided how we were going to solve the “issue of the school garden.” It ended inconclusively. As depressing as it was to hear a lack of interest I completely understand! Teachers at my primary school are already spread incredibly thin! They have to educate classes of 50-80 students who are at completely different levels of comprehension (not to mention the age range of students; example, there is a 17-year-old 4th). Because there is no school nurse or counselor they also take on responsibilities like: administering ARVs (HIV/AIDS medication) to students at school, they also make sure that the 246 Orphans/Vulnerable children at our school have food at home, as well as encounter many instances where children come to school and tell their teacher that they are abused at home. Oh yeah, then there are the typical “school issues” including: lack of funding for programs, decaying/ broken infrastructure, bullying, and classroom management. I don’t blame them for being showing a lack of enthusiasm over school gardening projects. Unfortunately, due to a lack of resources, and a plethora of issues that typically arise out of poverty—their priorities are where they need to be. I constantly battle to find a way to help create a sustainable difference. It’s difficult not to fill a void for several reasons. One is selfish: when a volunteer fills a void they have a role, and feel purposeful and needed. It feels good. The other reason it’s difficult not to fill a void is because there is a lot of pressure from teachers and management for Peace Corps volunteers to just “do this task” (like type up a letter, make copies, write something in English). However, that void would be a void again at the end of my Peace Corps service. The only difference is that I would only dig the hole deeper, and the lack of my presence at the end of the two years might actually do damage. One has to be very thoughtful about the tasks they do, and the role that they play in “building capacity” it’s about empowering the people, and not being short sighted. It’s just hard not to fill these voids—there are too many to count.

Anyways, to add to it all, but without divulging too much information: on Monday things with our family got a bit more difficult. Jabulo (the oldest boy, age 17), was suspended from school… This was extremely embarrassing for the family because the community knows Sibu (Buddy) and I as teachers. The community also knows our Mkhulu (grandpa) as a vey respected elder in the village, and our Gogo (grandma) as a very integrated spiritual leader. The Mnisi family (our surname) is not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but we are respected.

Jabu is clearly working out some issues. And the community sees Jabulo as our “child”, because of age and our marital status. It is the “role” that we have in our family (but its not the same way that most would see a parent figure from an American perspective). Anyway, I don’t think that pressure of “parents as teachers” is helping him. Especially since we have only been a part of his life for almost a year, though it feels much longer than that. I am growing extremely worried about him (in the same way I worry about many young men trying to understand the difference between “being a man” and “being a good man”). This is like making a choice between what is right, and what is easy. And in a country where like expectancy is 47-years-old doing “what is easy” may even seem like that only real option.

He is at a very vulnerable age. He needs to see how to navigate the dangers of “thug life” as they refer to it in South Africa. Thug Life ( Th a-ug lif) n. —meaning a life of crime, sex, violence, and easy money. This life also strongly associated with hegemonic African-American culture seen in rap videos (which are always on TV). It often includes drugs, alcohol, and teen pregnancy… There are so many challenges for men, and so much pressure for men to fit this mold. Being a Black man in South Africa is especially challenging for men like Jabulo (an orphaned boy who takes care of his two grandparents). He sees few options, and the life he sees in music videos looks really great. At 17 he is forced to make very adult decisions that most 17-year-olds are not prepared to make. The whole family is worried for him, and you can feel it around our house. It’s just taxing—on the family, but mostly on Jabulo.

Ok, if you are feeling depressed you might want to take a break from reading for a while and come back to this later.

*insert Debbie Downer’s “wah, wah, wah” here… This section is crap. Literally.

So, all of these other issues I encountered Monday were really just the tip of the ice burg, because there was something even more severe brewing under the surface. On Monday evening I started feeling a new level of “bad”… I have been having some, how do I put it lightly, “stomach issues”. These had been kind of on-and-off for about 2 weeks time. However, Monday night shit got real… Literally if you know what I mean… You know, the kind of cramps that wake you up at night and force you to double over, and the kind of diarrhea that makes you think you left part of your intestines in the pit-toilet, and the kind of pain doesn’t even allow you to have a proper cry—your eyes just water on their own.

If you are like me and happen to be with a someone who loves you unconditionally—then the worst part of your illness is seeing the look on their face. Unlike almost everything else, Buddy can’t fix this—he has to watch the whole thing unfold. Having been in his position before I can say with confidence that though I felt horrible, I think he suffered far more.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday within sprinting distance of the pit-toilet. The Peace Corps Medical Doctor advised me to let it try “resolve itself”. Which in most cases is the way to go. These episodes are a typical experience for Peace Corps Volunteers all over the world—quite frankly, I just felt like it was my turn.

Though this was horrible, one of the great things that happened was that Gogo and Mkhulu would come to check on me while Buddy was at school (I made him go). Gogo would come over and sing African Spirituals followed by a prayer. And Mkhulu would come over mainly to make me laugh (I think)… haha. I told him that I was going to try to walk up to the store to get some cold drink (what they call pop/soda). He STRONGLY insisted that he give me a ride—in his newly restored 1978 Ford Pickup. To call this car a “death trap” would be gracious… Anyways, as we drove down our “driveway” we got stuck in the sand trying to get onto the dirt road. Mkhulu told some younger men walking by that they must push us (when you are an Mkhulu you can pretty much do/say/demand whatever you want, age is highly respected). After the scraping sounds under the car had ceased and we were on the “road” Mkhulu looked at me and smiled his toothless grin and said, “Thandi (my name), I got no hand breaks!” He then squinted his left eye (the one he can’t see out of due to cataracts), and drove down the street. A small group of my grade 3 learners saw his care driving down the street and sprinted into the ditch. I’ve never seen such little legs move so fast! I arrived at the store (which is 1 k down the road), and instead of the traditional greeting of “sawubona sesi”, Mama Mbuyane said, “Thadni, ulungile?” (Em, are you alright?). I just started laughing, the cold drink was on the house—and Mkhulu and I managed to get back home: hand-break-less.

On Thursday I was still ill and had developed a case of what I have come to call “the wicked shits”. The Peace Corps Medical staff told me to make my way to a private hospital in the area. They pumped me full of drugs (I've never had so many in my life), and they accidently gave me not one, but two pain reliever shots! I had a big fat smile on my face as I stumbled out of the hospital. I wasn't feeling the best when I left the hospital, but they said I should give it a few days and I should feel better...

However, a week later and I wasn't feeling better. Same symptoms, a new case of reactive arthritis, and I started mysteriously throwing up bubbles. On Tuesday evening a car was sent from Peace Corps headquarters in Pretoria 4 hours to my house in Clau-Clau. And I was taken into the capital. My body couldn’t have chosen a worse time to get sick. There were 3 public holidays on this week and most offices has shut down for the entire week. I saw the Peace Corps medical doctor, but had to wait until the next week to see a G.I. specialist.

My "GI guy" as I like to refer to him was a really nice Afrikaans man. He said that the best thing for me to do was to be admitted to a private hospital where they could do a bunch of x-rays, and put a much needed IV in me. By the end of the week the reactive arthritis cleared up, and many of my stomach issues resolved themselves. However, the GI guy said that my body had been under some serious stress the past month and that I would be healing for some time...

So, that is where I have been the past few weeks (month)... However, I'm excited to get back to Clau-Clau this week and get back to work. I miss my community, and my husband a lot!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Over Due Update!

So now I am going to, rather abruptly, fast forward! Hold on to your hair! In the past week:

Over the past week I’ve begun to feel a new and even stronger sense of community in my village. When I walk up to the store I rarely get a look of, “What the heck is this person doing here.” I feel like I’m beginning to not only be the “white woman”, but to also be “me”—an individual who happens to be white, but who is also a unique person. I feel like I’m living outside the box. And though this transition from “white person” to “person” has happened slowly over the course of the past few months with our host family, it’s been a painfully slow process within the village and within the schools that I work at.

But it’s happening at last. And it feels really, really good.

The village environment is changing in other ways as well. “The sun is becoming less” as the Swazis, say. The mornings are becoming a bit brisk. Beautiful clouds of fog float through the valleys and mounds of clouds hang upon the mountain caps, it makes for a majestic walk to school. I can comfortably wear a long dress, or pants, and have even put on a long sleeve shirt and sweater in the morning. Most of my students arrive in down jackets and hats—their little teeth chattering. On these mornings I laugh and say, “My Northern Michigan is showing”. By mid-morning break (around 10:30a.m.) the sun is out! In the afternoon it warms up to comfortable t-shirt weather. I’ve been told that the months of June and July actually do get quite cool, but I’m skeptical of my South African sources.

I’ve gathered that in the winter it actually doesn’t get too cold, but that there are very few heating sources. Even 40 degrees can seem quite cool if you have no heating sources! Most homes (like ours) have no insulation, no flooring, and a few millimeters of zinc protecting us from the elements.

Apparently in the “winter time” visitors move into the village as well... They are called Vervet Monkeys or tingobiyane in siSwati. The food sources in the mountains start to diminish during the winter months, and they come to the village in search of food. They arrive hungry and mischievous.

On Wednesday night Buddy and I heard something strange outside. We heard footsteps, and rustling around our house and the mango tree at our backdoor followed by a huge tin clamor, tons of dog barking, and lots of animal traffic. After making sure that no one was trying to break into our house, we went back to bed. In the morning Gogo wobbled over to our little house and started speaking in a crazy siSwati frenzy about the dog/monkey fight that was in the backyard. Apparently the monkey won, but our dogs are resilient so they only walked away with a few minor scratches. Many people are scared of these monkeys because they have killed small infants before (or so Gogo tells us). Having lost 9 children of her own (yes, nine), she takes these matters seriously. I think they are funny and cute, but I’m not going to get too closed to them.

This update can’t go without mentioning the latest Whitmer-Scarborough home project—the shower. A few weeks ago the Buddy’s parents sent us the solar shower we had back at the states. This is a must bring for PCVs, by the way. Anyway, this shower was enough inspiration for us to get our act together and finally make the shower we have dreamed about for so long!

Though we didn’t spend a single rand, the project turned out quite nice. We used spare boards from the family as well as a few random palms for the walls. The “shower floor” is composed of a bunch of flat stones I found around the neighborhood (you can see it in the areal view shot). The door opens and closes thanks to a nice collection of wires Morricie (our little brother) found in an old rusting toy car.

After our first shower we noticed that our feet got really dirty on the journey back to the house. Hence, the “walk way” was born. A few weeks ago we had a construction crew stay in the lot behind our house. They had some extra planks of wood from their project and they gave it to the neighborhood. Buddy took some of the planks and created a pathway from the shower, under our mango tree to the backdoor. It’s quite nice.

And now I understand my own parents on a whole new level… They used to do these crazy projects all the time when I was a kid, I never understood… But now I totally get it! Home improvement is like a FREAKING DRUG! Well, once we started we couldn’t stop… We found ourselves wanting to spend more time outside! So we went around the neighborhood looking for random bricks (which there are always tons of). We made a small patio for our backyard! It’s awesome! We bring chairs outside and sit and drink tea now. We frequently end our days with a cup of tea and conversation—all while watching the sun slip past the mountain range at our back door.

Not to get entirely sappy, but just to be honest… During these times I am overwhelmed with gratitude for Buddy. He is the most amazing man I’ve ever met, and sitting with him in the evening is the highlight of my day—everyday. Over the past few weeks we have both been reading books on religious philosophy and our evening conversations have been dynamic and rich. He is the only man I know who can make an event out of two chairs, and some air.

So, our place really feels like home. This is really it—our first home! Life is so damn cool.

Another really cool thing about having your own place is that when you get a care package in the mail filled with footballs (thanks Make and Babe Scarborough), no one can tell you NOT to play 2-person dodge ball in the office/ yoga room. Hypothetically, of course…

(This is a picture of our little sitting area outside where we share many cups of tea and coffee).

But with the good, sometimes comes the bad… On a completely different note, I had a really hard day on Monday. I arrived at school only to find that the garden net of our school garden had been destroyed by a huge storm that we had over the weekend. Not only had it been destroyed, but part of it was taken as well! I will never understand why people decide to steal from schools (or their future in my mind)… It breaks my heart.

Needless to say all the work I had done a month ago with many parents and community members was completely ruined. So disappointing. I can’t write much more about this, it just makes me angry and sad. But I’m at square one again, only this time there is a lot less moral in the community, and even some cynicism. Next week will be difficult one.

On a lighter note:

Last Wednesday was also the launch of my SMILE program for term 2 (in South Africa the school calendar is from January to December). So it’s term 2, and I have 30 new grade 4 learners who are participating in a Service Learning program at Uplands College. At Uplands College they do a 6-week after school program where grade 11 learners (from this extremely posh boarding school) teach (and reinforce) conversational English in an interactive and fun way. The grade 11 learners also reflect and process the experience of working with disadvantaged youth. We have group discussions at the end of each term about class, race, and peace—in a nutshell. I hope that these reflections are seeds that continue to grown in South Africa long after my service. The students at Uplands College are the next leaders in South Africa—and I hope this experience helps them to recognize how to lead with compassion, understanding, and peace. There is currently no other program of this nature at Uplands College (meaningful service), and some teachers have begun to ask questions about it. I take this as a good sign. We will see.

I also wrote a report about the SMILE program from term 1, commenting on the highlights, analyzing the data from the pre and post-tests given to the grade 4 learners, and proposing goals for the future. It was meant as an internal document to help us improve the program (at Uplands Outreach the non-profit I within Uplands College that I work at—confusing I know). However, my fantastic supervisor Nicky re-vamped it (in a donor friendly way) and sent it to the headmaster (Austin, who is actually quite a visionary). He looked it over and immediately sent it to every single Uplands College parent, as well as the Board of Directors, and the Uplands College teaching staff… He told me this casually in passing. He said, “Your approach is dead-on. I just really wanted to spread awareness… Hope you don’t mind.” Hahaha! Hopefully this means more funding in the future. I have some wild ideas about what one could do in South Africa with Service Learning. I’ll include the report below:


April 2011

The SMILE literacy programme at Uplands focuses on conversational English among fourth-graders
from partner schools in Mpumalanga. SMILE works to build bridges between the Uplands learners
and their counterparts in rural government schools. By facilitating English language acquisition,
pupils at Uplands are joining hands with rural schoolchildren to build a stronger South Africa –
creating a community-mindset where issues can be solved together.

In 2011, Uplands redesigned and re-launched the SMILE programme, thanks to Em Whitmer, our
talented and energetic US Peace Corps Volunteer who is based in the Clau-Clau community for two
years. Em has a passion for meaningful service learning programmes and has provided invaluable
input and direction to the SMILE programme. It gives Outreach great pleasure to present Em’s
report on the first term of the SMILE programme.

Participating Uplands Pupils:
Every Wednesday afternoon, the following Uplands pupils meet and host thirty Grade 4 learners
from Maqamela Primary School: Georgina Betton, Robyn Boucher, Christy Hagelthorn, Sinentokozo
Matsebula, Khanyisile Ndlhovu, Erica Nkini, Shannon Pearson, Lerato Rambau, Sesenele Sukati,
Nicole Theledi and Lané van der Merwe.

Maqamela Learner Feedback:

"My favourite part of the SMILE programme was my teacher. She was very nice, and wanted
me to speak English well. I love her." - Sithembiso Mhlanga (referring to Shannon)

Many learners commented on how much they loved their teacher (Uplands pupils)

"I like to colour pictures, and to practice writing English." - Thabo Thwala

“I feel good when I speak English now. It makes me happy to know English." -Xoliswa

General Observations:

Maqamela Grade 4 Educator J.J. Mashego says that, "I can tell a difference! The students
who go to the SMILE programme have much more confidence in English language. They are
excited to speak in class, and they are starting to express themselves in English too. I think
this programme is very beneficial for Maqamela Primary School."

The learners who entered the SMILE programme speaking a low level of English came back
to class showing great motivation to learn more English, and actively seek English learning
opportunities now. It’s not uncommon now to hear these learners speak English to each
other outside of class, without a teacher present – a good sign!

Results of SMILE from Term 1:

After the baseline tests and the post tests were analysed, we found that learners who
scored the lowest on our baseline test showed the greatest amount of improvement.

On average the students of Maqamela scored 45% on the baseline test before the SMILE
programme. At the conclusion of the SMILE programme, the average score on the post-test
was 80%, which is fantastic!

New Developments and Plans:

This past Wednesday 12 April, a new group of 30 grade 4 Maqamela learners went to
Uplands College for their first SMILE session. They were warmly greeted by 10 returning
Uplands College pupil volunteers as well as 1 new volunteer.

This term each SMILE Uplands pupil volunteer has received a facilitator binder, which
includes all of their lesson plans and worksheet copies for the entire term. Uplands pupils
gave extremely positive feedback about these binders and are very excited to teach a new
group of 30 Maqamela learners.

Uplands Outreach is making plans to measure the learning experiences of the Uplands
College pupil volunteers, along with measuring the Maqamela learners’ progress.

An end-of-the-year celebration at Maqamela Primary School will take place during term 3.
During this celebration Uplands students will receive a tour of Maqamela given by their
previous and current SMILE students.

A Very Special Thanks To:

The amazing Madds Warrener and the Dugga Boys who make this all possible!

Sharon van Reenen for her boxes of coloured pencils and her organisational skills!

The Maqamela learners, for their enthusiastic participation

The Uplands pupils, for their kindness and dedication, and for making a tangible difference
in the lives of little kids

The KKS team for the mounds of jam sandwiches and their jolly demeanor

And everyone else who contributes to the success of the programme: the teachers and
management at Maqamela, Bridget Gibson, Erna Krause, Beauty Mashego and Vicky Nkosi
for her warm patience with needy Americans!

(The version she sent out was much for colorful and nice... Don't know what happened here... I'll try to add a few pictures from SMILE for you to see :) Below you will find some of my kids holding a "Thank-you" sign that they made for their teachers. This picture is taken at Maqamela Primary School before we went to Uplands.

So those were just bits of my week for you all. Hope you enjoy ☺. If not, I want feedback! I would also not be opposed to answering any questions you may pose/ topics you would enjoy hearing more about!!! Please send me a little message!

Sunday, June 13, 2010



stuff: [stuhf] –noun
1. Mater, or materials of indeterminate kind.
2. A persons’ belongings, equipment, or baggage.

Does anyone really understand how much stuff they have? I certainly didn’t. Maybe I still don’t. Let me explain…

This past week I have spent a majority of my time and energy sorting through all the things I’ve acquired throughout the past 24 years of my life. I consider myself a minimalist. I don’t have much, materially. However, as I was sorting through my things I found myself approaching my things with intense emotions. An old mirrored belt I haven’t worn in years, an old 60’s scarf my mother gave me, an old guitar strap from my father’s guitar (may I add that this guitar strap is ugly as hell). These things, I have, and I hold onto them so dearly. I won’t let go, and in some ways I just can’t. These are things I don’t use, and can’t see myself using!

Buddy too, he is terribly attached to the few things he has. For example there are six pairs of old destroyed football gloves that we must keep. Though, he will likely not play football again in life. My inquiry about the gloves made him edgy and protective.

My conclusions are that our things are the material manifestations of our memories—of our human experience. As much as we try to resist that they are—they are. As much as I try to say, “things are only things”, I admit that I am left entirely scared of getting rid of my stuff. If I get rid of my green cardigan will I still remember what happened while I was wearing it: my confirmation, my first date with Buddy, wearing it in high school to dress up before basketball games. I’ve had this ugly green sweater for ages. And I think of these memories from time to time as I wear this sweater. I love it. The truth is, that I may not remember those things without it. They may become obsolete. Forget-able. It’s scary to think that what has been done could be undone. What has been done exists in our memories. And my human memory may fail me. Sorting through stuff conjures up all the emotional baggage we carry with us. We are forced to sort through what we have been holding on to, and what we can risk no longer remembering.

This week has been entirely emotional for me, because I have faced what I hold onto—materially, and emotionally. The next time I look inside these plastic tubs I will be someone completely changed. The prospect of certain memories growing faded is the price we must pay to live rootless. This week I’ve been questioning what is more valuable: to hold tight to old memories simple as they may be, or make new ones and risk the fading of what was my reality.

I’m finding there is no simple way. Wish me luck as I sort through my stuff.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Today Bud-man and I finally bit the bullet and bought a new one. A really nice one: 7'10 x 5'6 x 4'3. Plenty of room for two. Our very own mosquito net. Complete with black stuff sack and hight adjustable draw string. It's ready to go: we are ready to go. To move to South Africa for the Peace Corps.

Tonight, as Buddy was work I opened up the mosquito net and let it drape across the kitchen table. I crawled under the table and let the green mesh spill across the kitchen floor. I laid on my back and listened to my own breath. I didn't realize how heavy my shoulders got, how labored my breath has become. This year I've been slowly suffocating. But not tonight. Tonight everything seemed different under the mosquito net. I felt safe, assured.

Maybe that is why we purchased the net in the first place--because we need a literal net to compensate for the metaphoric "safety net" we lack in our life... You see, I recently resigned from my job. To most, this was a great job. A wonderful opportunity for a young professional just out of graduate school! A position filled with responsibility and challenge that is located 2.5 hours away from my family and the home I grew up in. Salary and benefits even a retirement plan, this was a great job to "land" with. A perfect place to pop out a few kids and call it good. Most 24 year old women I have encountered here have done just that-- married, reproduced, and then tried to fill the rest of the void with stuff. You should see their shoes here in Holland Michigan, seriously, great shoes.

But it just feels wrong. Everything in me is restless. I sleep next to Buddy and his arms and legs shake-- I think his dreams are too big for even his body.

So we gave it up, the security, the money, the "American Dream". We leave in July for South Africa to join the United States Peace Corps. I'm finally breathing my own air.