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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Starting the Final Two Months

Starting the Final Two Months

We are now less than 60 days from close of service which will happen September 6th culminating our 26 months of Peace Corps service.  As we approach the end, we feel some but not a great deal of the sadness some predicted.  Rather, we are ready to put South Africa with all its problems and frustrations behind once and for all and move on while holding onto the good memories and experiences.

The last few months have been varied.  When the first school term ended in March, we took a two week trip to the Drakensburg Mountains, visited Saint Lucia on the coast, and travelled into Swaziland.  A friend from the US, Bob Davis, came and accompanied us for these days then Bob later took in a game reserve.  He was good company.

We had been to the Drakensberg Mountains a couple of times previously and this time we were able to visit areas we had not seen during those former visits.  One day when we were staying at a place called Witsieshoek we took a hike up onto the top of the escarpment.  This involved climbing up a vertical chain ladder about 100 feet to get into Lesotho where we were met by a friendly border guard carrying an automatic rifle.  Apparently rustling of cows and sheep of the Lesotho herders was common.  The same day we hiked onto the top of a waterfall that went about 900 feet off the escarpment. 

One afternoon just before dinner the lodge owner asked us to help out with a man with a flat tire.  We came across this giant of a Russian man named Dmitri in a rented car who we quickly helped.  He ended up staying the night at our lodge because a serious thunderstorm came up and told us his story.  He had left Russia several years ago, studied at Ohio State, worked in Canada, and then returned to Russia where he gambled it all in a speculative deal and now is set for life.  He travels sometimes alone and sometimes with his family who are living for a couple of years in Portugal because they wanted to see what it was like there.  The next day we came across him on the road driving along slowly in his rental car with its donut spare tire.  He was a character.

Our trip continued on to Sani Pass where we hiked around in Lesotho and got to see the herders there wrapped in their wool blankets.  One day when we were on a guided hike, the guide pointed out to us a couple of fellows carrying loaded backpacks stuffed full of dagga (marijuana) and being smuggled down into South Africa.  Lesotho known as the mountain kingdom is landlocked by South Africa with a lot of rugged terrain and poor rural populations.  But the mountains here are beautiful probably the nicest we have seen in South Africa.

From the Drakensberg we drove to the Indian Ocean to a small resort town called Saint Lucia which is famous for the wetland park nearby.  We took an early morning boat ride into the wetlands where we crept up next to groups of hippos and saw the estuary up close.  We spent a couple of days lazing on the beach enjoying the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.  We tried to see some of the crockidiles that live along the shore and to see the hippos which come into town at night and wander around but were unsuccessful.

Our last stop was in Swaziland which is another land-locked country like Lesotho and is one of the few African countries ruled by a king.  We stayed in a really nice B&B with a pool and took in some day hikes in the nearby reserves.  The weather was exceptionally good for our entire trip which ended with all of us driving back to Mmakau.  This will probably be our last sightseeing trip in South Africa. Over the last two years we have seen much of South Africa and its surrounding countries. 

Mid April found us back in our village and working at the schools.  Gary has been doing improvement projects and Merideth has been teaching.  We have decided that when the second term ends in June, we will be done teaching and doing any improvement projects concentrating on doing some final special projects.  These include raffling off our bikes, doing a vision screening project, and distributing a donation of about 500 stuffed Teddy Bears to the younger children.  We have also decided to take it easy and relax more during these last few weeks.  Our work here is done.

To prove this point let us tell you about a couple of our South African experiences:

Gary’s recent fiasco with the tribal office is an example of how things work here and why we feel frustrated in our service.  One day Gary received a call from the school Administrative Assistant (AA) asking to meet the next day at the tribal office to help with a flagpole problem.  He went at the agreed upon time but no one at the office knew of the meeting so after 45 minutes waiting he left.  The AA later explained she tried to call to cancel but gave up when there was no answer – she lives about 100 yards from our house.  The project the tribe wanted was to fix their flagpole which was being obscured by a large tree.  Gary took down the flagpole and painted it.  The chief wanted to cut down the tree but Gary suggested they move the flag’s concrete base.  He dug out the dirt around the base and had a cable to pull the bottom to its new location.  The chief said he’d come collect the cable one morning and Gary waited until midmorning then called.  The chief was busy in meetings but agreed to come the next day.  The next day once again he didn’t show up or call.  When contacted, the chief said he was very busy – no apology and no attempt to reschedule.  All of this means driving about 1 mile to haul a heavy steel cable to the office, connect to the pole base, and drag it all out of the old hole to the new spot.  Probably about 45 minutes of effort.  So today Gary is waiting for the chief to get around to this job which the chief says he doesn’t do because he is busy with other work which appears to be a lot of just plain doing nothing whatsoever.  With leaders like this character, it is no wonder South Africa is in such miserable shape.  Individual initiative and gumption are rare.  Countless times we have planned to do something only to find out at the last minute that the activity has been called off and we were not notified.  Common courtesy and consideration do not exist.

In April Merideth presented in front of a meeting of Department of Education (DoE) staff in Rustenburg where she was supposed to discuss what she was doing.  She took this opportunity to point out to these officials that their practice of taking teachers out of classrooms for seminars of questionable practical value was counterproductive to learning.  She asked why DoE inspectors visiting schools sat in an office and looked at a sample of the children’s workbooks rather than sitting in on actual classroom teaching in order to provide constructive criticism.  Some of the audience embraced her points while others just dozed off because change and effectiveness are not in the vocabulary of South African education.  It’s no wonder South Africa education is frequently rated at one of the worst systems in the world.

In April Merideth was able to secure some books for the pre-school she works at one day a week and enjoyed distributing them to the children last month. 

In June Merideth received a gift of stuffed bears from a US group called the Mother Bear Project and distributed about 200 bears to Grade R and 1 learners.  For most of these kids this is probably the first toy of this type they have ever received. She is going to get two more shipments in the next few weeks and will give out over 500 of these bears to the children. 

About ten weeks ago we rescued four little kittens abandoned along the road who may have fallen down into a deep drainage basin or dumped in there.  They were about three weeks old.  We brought them home and started feeding them canned food mixed with warm water and after a couple of weeks they graduated to kitty chow.  They all survived.  We named them Buster, Mango, Opal and Thato.  A few weeks ago we gave one to a village lady and took the other three to the vet in Brits who found homes for them all.  We think our big cat Zazu will be adopted by one of the priests but are still looking for a better home for him.

A couple of weeks when school term 2 ended, we attended a close of service conference put on by Peace Corps in Pretoria.  This three day event was the last get-together of those in our class.  We came with 58 volunteers and are now down to about 46 people remaining.  More than half of those remaining will leave early before our official end of service in September.  About ten are extending service to complete a school term or to do another year doing something different.  Generally it seems most volunteers are ready to finish and, like us, have experienced frustrations during their service but leave with an overall positive but done-with-this attitude. 

After this conference we went to Mauritius and Reunion Islands located out in the Indian Ocean for a week at each island.  We decided to splurge with a comfortable trip to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary.  The islands were nice and warm and we ate well and enjoyed the beaches.  It was like we were in another continent somewhere like Hawaii and the Caribbean.  Mauritius is culturally very blended and Reunion is like a slice of France transplanted into the middle of the Indian Ocean.

We return here a few days age and will start our seven finals weeks.  At the end of August we will go to Pretoria for a week of final medical and administrative stuff then fly away from South Africa on September 7th.

 We are in the middle of figuring out the route for our return home in September.  It will most likely involve a safari week in Tanzania, a self-guided bike tour in Normandy, a week in Paris, a train trip across Norway followed by an Arctic 12-day cruise, a visit to Iceland, and then landing in New York for family visits.  We expect to be back in Idaho by mid November.  When we get settled back in Idaho we will issue a final posting of this blog.

 And that’s the way it was.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Our Last South African Summer

Our Last South African Summer


Two months ago we posted a blog entry which was long so this update will be shorter. Since November we have finished off the school year, had two sets of visitors, and now returned to our routine. 

The end of the school year was like what we saw last year.   Teaching ended in early November, exams then took place throughout November with school ending the first week of December.  It continues to amaze us why teaching ends at a month before the end of the term.  During this month students are left idle in the classrooms while the teachers busy themselves preparing exams, marking the exams, and recording the results.  South African education will continue to rank among the worst until teachers focus on teaching, adopt a professional attitude, and stop trying so hard to satisfy the education bureaucracy.  Schools need to be first and foremost about the kids. 

In the two to three week gap between giving final exams and the end of the term, Merideth and I taught human development to Grade 7 learners.  This happened when we asked if parents and guardians ever talked about sex and most of the kids said never.   Our guide was an excellent book we stumbled across in the high school library called Understanding Sexuality, Volume 4 of the World Book’s Managing Your Teenage Life series.  Merideth started with just the girls and Gary started with just the boys.  After a few days, we switched groups and then wound up with everyone together.  Hopefully these classes will give the kids a better understanding of their bodies and sexuality so that when the time comes they can make knowledgeable choices.

Merideth finished up teaching Grade 7 English at Tlhophane Primary School.  Since her students were moving to other schools, she organized a celebration of visiting a nearby water slide park called African Island.  Although the logistics and financing were complicated, the trip was a success. We donated twenty large pizzas for the kid’s lunch and the costs for about a dozen learners who could not afford the trip (80 Rand or $10) because we felt it wasn’t fair to exclude anyone. The school was broke so the entire trip was financed by money from the learners.   The photo above shows some of the kids having fun in one of the pools.  Here in Mmakau there is no place to swim except a large polluted pond containing crocodiles so swimming anywhere is a treat.  While we joined in by going down the slides and giving swimming lessons, the ten teachers who came along stayed off by themselves and had their own braii (barbeque) lunch.  They never bothered check how the kids were doing.  Very few of these teachers could survive as a teacher in the US.

This is some of Merideth's Grade 7 learners on the last day of school.  You can barely see Merideth's face in the middle of the group.  She is addressed "Mme. Mpho" which means "Mrs. Gift."
For Thanksgiving we went to Polokwane to have dinner with about thirty other Peace Corps volunteers gathering together at a resort.  We drove there with a former Peace Corps volunteer who is now working nearby at a new private school that focuses on providing a rigorous high school education to good students from under-privileged backgrounds in the townships and villages.  Fourteen of Merideth’s Grade 7 students were selected to attend this school.  When these students finish at this school (matrix), they are almost certain to be given bursaries (scholarships) for an all-paid university education of their choosing.  Being successful at this school can be a ticket to a good education and a decent paying job that lets these lucky ones escape the poverty and unemployment they face if they stayed in the village schools.  In spite of a light rain, Thanksgiving dinner was delicious and we enjoyed seeing many of our fellow volunteers once again.

In early December Merideth’s sister Jen shown with Merideth above visited us for ten days.  The prime focus of her visit was to see African wildlife.   Our first trip was to the Madikwe Game Reserve located about four hour’s drive west of our village.  We stayed at a place inside the reserve called the Mosetlha Eco and Bush Camp where we slept in comfortable tented cabins and bathed using water heated over an open fire.  Each morning we got up at five and rode off in the back of an open Land Rover in search of game.  We returned at nine, had breakfast, relaxed until lunch, and then went off again for a night drive.  Mid-day can be hot and the animals tend to be hiding out in the shade to escape the heat.  During our three days at Mosetlha we were able to see everything!  The animals are not afraid of the Land Rovers so you can drive very close to them.  The highlight was sitting in the Land Rover about 50 feet from a lion roaring to gather his pride.

This is a picture of a wild dog which was part of a pack that we came across.  Wild dogs are endangered and known to be one of the most successful predators in Africa.  The next day we came across the site where a pack of six wild dogs had cornered and killed a large antelope called a kudu.   These wild dogs had gorged themselves on the fresh meat and were sprawled about the area unable to move because their stomachs were filled to the maximum.  

Our next animal adventure after the game reserve was a visit to a lion park where efforts are underway to study and promote lion populations.  At one point we were allowed to mingle with and hold the young cubs.

This is a snapshot of us holding a young lion cub.  Although they were about two months old and had been weaned from their mothers, they were still a little bit aggressive and would bite. 

In the following days the local cheetah recovery park was visited and we tried to take in an elephant riding activity but were turned back when lighting cancelled the experience.  However Merideth and Jenny were both “kissed” by an elephant and I got drenched when one elephant doused me with water sprayed from his trunk.  All in all it was a good visit.  Jenny went home having satisfied her desire to see African wildlife and was talking about another trip to East Africa to see the big migrating herds and such. In South Africa all the wildlife is contained in large fenced game reserves and there are no massive migrating herds like in Kenya.

A few days after Jenny left, we rented a car and drove to Cape Town (600 miles) where we met Devon, Rowan, and Rowan’s girlfriend Miranda.  We spent a week in Cape Town where we got to explore the city, took a trip out to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and others were held during Apartheid, went surfing (the 20 year olds), hiked and visited Cape Peninsula Park, toured the wine country, and hiked up and down a windy Table Mountain.  Cape Town is known as the Mother City in South Africa and deserves its reputation as a very unique place with the crashing oceanfront and Table Mountain backdrop.
Here are (left to right) Miranda, Rowan, Devon, Gary, and Merideth during one of our hiking days in Cape Town.  And below are Miranda, Rowan, and Devon going surfing in Muisenberg near Cape Town.
The five of us left Cape Town and drove east along the southern coast of South Africa stopping overnight in the towns of Knysna and Chintsa and eventually ending up at Port St. Johns where we started out on a five day Wild Coast hike.  Unfortunately, the weather had turned very hot which made the hiking grueling because it involved a lot of jungle and upland trails.  At the end of the second day, we decided to stop. Rowan was experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion and was wiped out.  We were too far from any medical help to safely continue.  We were also struggling to get food for lunches. Our guide was unable to provide us with an ample supply of safe drinking water – he wanted us to drink rainwater collected in barrels.  So due to the heat exhaustion, extreme heat, lack of water, and the disappointing route, we quit.  If it had been cooler and the guide better prepared, this might have been enjoyable but for us the conditions and problems ended the hike three days early.  Here's a picture of the coastal scenery along the Wild Coast.

A short hiking trip meant we could spend four days at our next stop which was the Drakensburg Mountains, South Africa’s most famous mountain range.  We stayed at a really nice lodge run by a former attorney from Durban who built the lodge specifically for backpackers.  Although the weather was cloudy and wet obscuring views of the mountains and Rowan was still recovering from the heat exhaustion, we managed to take some very nice walks up into the mountains.  As during the rest of this trip, we managed to eat well which always adds to the enjoyment of travelling.  On our last day the skies cleared and we had an unobstructed view of this part of the Drakensburgs as we drove off on our way home.
The rest of the visit consisted of a few easy days here in the village.  It was sad to see these three leave.  We hadn’t seen Rowan in 18 months, got to spend some good time with Miranda, and were glad Devon got to come and see parts of South Africa he missed last summer. 

Since they left we have returned to the routine.  Merideth is showing Foundation Level (Grades R-3) teachers at two schools how to introduce English to their learners, doing a library class at a third school, and trying to get home language books for the crèche (pre-school).  We both worked on a library project that placed about 1000 books at one of the schools that had no books.  Gary has started a bike repair project with the kids and is working on projects at two schools (composting, clean burning incinerator, installing a new portable classroom, soccer goals, and water/sewer stuff).  Although we still get frustrated with the way things are done here and are sometimes tempted to chuck it all, we are resolved to relax and take it easy for our remaining six months.  It helps that we have five weeks off during these six months during which we are planning trips to see more of Africa.

Tragedy struck our village last November when a 12-year old boy was brutally murdered.  And then two weeks ago another young girl was abducted, raped, and killed by a neighbor man who was caught and has now confessed to also killing the boy in November.  Although we did not recall either of these kids, we had them in class in 2011 in Grade 4.  We attended the girl’s funeral last weekend.  Throughout South Africa the cry is going out that something needs to be done about violence, theft, corruption, and crimes against women and children.  It is a very big problem.

And that’s the way it was.