New site & Drakensbergs

New site & Drakensbergs
These are the mts from our village

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Final project

Hi all - I know it's been ages since I wrote a new post. When I first got here, it seemed more important to keep in touch with people back home.  Then I got more involved at site teaching English and math.  The initial Peace Corps commitment is for 2 years at your site but you are given an opportunity to "extend" for a third year. We decided to do that and I am really glad we did.  I feel that my impact will be longer lasting because of things I have been able to do this year.
 Several volunteers in our group raised money for projects here in South Africa from people back home.  Until recently I had not found a project I believed in enough to ask family, friends and strangers to support.  With less that 4 months of our third year to go, I have a project I would like to support financially but cannot give what is needed alone.  Below is a link to a site on Fundrazr, a website that hosts various campaigns to raise money.
The project is the completion of a drop-in center for orphans in our village.  Please check it out and give if you can - every dollar helps.
(  //  )

Sunday, July 29, 2012

28 July - ZamBots

July 29, 2012

The first two weeks of school were crazy.  All the work on the data base (SA SAMS) had to be completed and turned in to the regional office.  Guess who was elected to do much of the computer work.  Actually I volunteered because I know I can do it faster than anyone else and they were all busy with mark sheets.  I also had the planning for my classes for Term 3 that somehow never got done during the break.  Any way it’s weekend again and I have some time so here is the rest of our vacation pictures and happenings.

So after two days in the village and a great day at Kruger with Hannah, we flew off to Zambia. On the flight we could see the Kalahari Desert and Makgadikgadi Salt Pans – a huge stretch of white in the desert.  As we flew into Livingston, the plane banked and we could see Victoria Falls from the air with the spray billowing out of the chasm the water falls into.  We got to the backpacker that would be our base for our time there and had some time to wander around Livingston.  The next morning we were picked up early to be driven to Chobe National Park in Botswana.  We had to cross the Chobe River that separates Botswana and Namibia on a little motor boat.

We had a two-day, one-night safari in a tented camp.  Our first activity was a river drive on the Chobe in a small boat that could get really close to the shore.  We saw elephants crossing the river to get to better grass on the other side.

We also saw lots of birds! hippos, crocodiles, buffalos and more.  Then we went in an open safari vehicle for a long game drive along the river.

The highlight of that drive happened just as it was getting dark.  I finally saw a lion!  We were quite close in the open vehicle.  When he got up and stretched, I really hoped he was going to walk the other way, which he did.  Very exciting!!! It was dusk so the picture didn’t come out very well.  But you can see how close we were.

We went to the campsite and had a nice dinner and slept in tents with lions and hyena and maybe a leopard talking during the night not far away. 

 We were assured that we would be safe in our tents because of the fire and a big light that was on all night.

The next morning we went on another game drive and came around a bend into the midst of an elephant herd having breakfast.  I could have reached out and touched them they were so close.  We could hear them crunching the wigs they were eating.  Did you know elephants have brown eyes? (at least some of them)
One of the neat things about Chobe was how many different animals you could see at one time along the river – giraffes, elephants, baboons, hippos, crocs, buffalo all at once!  The other thing that is different from Kruger is the size of the herds! – one herd of buffalo we saw  had several hundred animals and we saw elephant herds of 20-30!!  It was a good time to visit this park because it was winter – dry season – so all the animals stayed near the river.

When we got back to Livingston we went to see Victoria Falls.

Below is a picture of the bridge over the Zambezi River that separates Zambia and Zimbabwe.  We watched some people bungie juming off the bridge! CRAZY! And not for me.

 The falls were amazing! And it wasn’t even the time of year for the biggest volume of water over the falls.  The local name for the falls translates as "the mist that thunders."

There is a bridge to a promontory that is on the opposite side of the chasm from the falls.  They will rent you a rain-poncho for $.50 because walking across it is like being in a heavy rainfall. 

 When I leaned over the bridge I could see a rainbow that was almost a complete circle!!

Our last day in Livingston we went on a white rafting trip on the Zambezi River.  Pictures about that adventure next time.

Bye for now,

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Started this before we took off for our trip – no good way to send from there.  More to follow this soon. (July 10)

June 24, 2012

Wow! Lots has happened since I last posted to the blog.  We’ve just finished Term 2 of the school year. We are on the 2nd day of a nice long (3 week) break between terms.

Since last time we have gone from fall to winter.  Once in a while I actually feel cold and have to put on another layer.  No one has central heat in the village and some houses in “white” neighborhoods have no heating system either.  We have a space heater that we used a couple of times last winter and haven’t yet had to break out this year. High 50’s/low 60’s at night – mid 70’s during the day. Glad for a blanket at night but often in a T-shirt by the afternoon.

Richard’s snap peas came up well and are flowering.  He planted both American and South African “snap pea” seeds.  It will be interesting to see and taste any differences.  To Richard’s surprise, after reading the seed packets, the S. Africans bloomed 1st.

The regional (Limpopo Province) Peace Corps gathering I mentioned last time was a success.  The new Country Director agreed to pay for the conference space and came up from Pretoria to be a part of the program. It’s nice to have supportive competent staff in our SA Peace Corps office. Our session on gardening was well attended and became a sharing of best practices session.

My daughter, Megan, had a great visit. She stayed in the village for over a week!.  She visited Kgopong and got to see where I am working and meet some of my learners and co-workers. She brought 4 gross of pencils for me to give to learners. She also got to Dipone, the high school, and helped Richard with his large Grade 9 & 10 Maths classes.

While Megan was here I had my sixty-first birthday.  She wanted me to have a birthday party while she was here.  I invited Didi & Kobus and the young cousin I help with school work. It was nice to have people from different parts of my life together.  Sophy created a real South African feast for us all to share.
The last weekend Megan was here we took a day trip to Kruger. Richard and I have been to Kruger 4 times now and each time there seems to be one animal that stands out.  The first one (with the school) was a bit different because everything we saw was new.  We even got excited about seeing impalas.  The second trip, with Sarah, was the giraffe trip – we saw more giraffes up close and got to see one run. They are so graceful!  With Adam the elephants were most spectacular – especially the big bull elephant that stared us down! With Megan it was Zebra day.
Megan left May 28th and the last 4 weeks of Term 2 flew by.  School felt a little too much like a regular job – teaching 5 different grades – lots of lesson planning and time in the classroom.  Sometimes I feel I am doing the fishing instead of teaching the educators how to fish but at least the educators are in the room with me most of the time and can pick up some new ways of doing things.  I was glad for the semester break to start on June 22nd!

More later.

July 10, 2012

Much later…

Richard’s oldest, Hannah, arrived in country June 26th.  We rented a car (something Peace Corps only allows when we are on “annual leave”) and picked her up at the airport, took her to meet our friends, Didi & Kobus, and have a hot shower after 2 days of traveling before going to the village.  Then she spent a few days in the village meeting our host family, having an African feast, Seeing where her dad lives and works and meeting some of the learners at Dipone.  On June 29th we left our house at 4:30 am for a day in Kruger with Hannah.  That day was rhino day!  We saw lots of the animals that live in Kruger from the small “dwarf” mongoose
to the very large rhino. We had two great rhino sightings. The first was 2 rhinos sleeping in the road where we could drive slowly right past them!
The next day we got on a plane to Livingston, Zimbzbwe.
I’m going to post this part now and post the rest of our vacation the next time.


Sunday, April 29, 2012

April 15, 2012

The weather has broken!!  We weren’t sure when we got back whether the cooler weather we had in Pretoria was because it is at a higher elevation of if we had entered Autumn.  Instead of highs in the high 30’s C (high 90s -100+) they have been in the high 20s to low 30s and down to the teens at night (20C = 68F). – a really nice change.  I’m afraid it won’t last yet.

April 29, 2012

The cooler weather did last for a while.  In fact we had one day where the high was below 25C (77F) and a night when it got down to 13C (about 55F) but it’s warming back up again.  We are on a welcome looong 5-day weekend from school.  We spent Friday planting in the garden.  The cooler weather made Richard decide to get some peas in the ground and I planted some green beans and carrots.  We started a new compost pile.  Our host family has been using compost now when they pant new seeds.  I hope they will keep making compost after we’ve gone.  If not, at least the soil will be better for a while.  We’ve added quite a bit of compost in the year we’ve had the garden.  It’s interesting having been here a year now we can look back at what the weather was like a year ago and have some concept of how the arc of the weather will be.

We’re now visiting a couple we met last month.  Didi was a PCV in Botswana in the early 90s where she met Kobus a South African man. They married and now live outside of Hoedspruit on the side of a mountain in a beautiful house with a gorgeous view of the lowveld.
Here is a picture from their porch:

Kobus is from an Afrikaaner family that has been in the country since the 1700s.  I have found someone to play “word” games with!  (Richard is not fond of word games) I think Didi and I have played 6 + games in the two weekends we’ve spent here.  Kobus is just starting up a spring water bottling operation as a business venture.  They have really good water from a well that puts out a lot of litres per hour.  We’ve enjoyed good conversation and laughs.  Didi said she knew how hard it is for older volunteers to get to know people in the Peace Corps.  It’s nice to have English speaking friends outside our Peace Corps group.

Next weekend is the regional gathering and Richard and I have been asked to share some of our successes and challenges in the garden with the PCVs at the gathering.  We’ve asked another person to help us, hoping it will be more like a seminar than a “presentation”.

Shortly after that my daughter Megan arrives for 2 weeks!  Also Richard’s daughter, Hannah is coming at the end of June.  I think she may come with us for part of our trip to Botswana &/or Victoria Falls.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Midway Point

April 2, 2012
Sorry no blog entry in March.  Teaching so much means I have lesson plans & preparation to do almost every night.  This is something else I’m trying to model.  Educators here are supposed to have lesson plans but I’ve not seen much evidence of them.  Most have been teaching the same classes for years and feel they don’t need to plan or change their approach even though the learners are failing to learn much.  I have been assigning homework to my Gr 4 Maths class and checking it at the beginning of class.  My co-teacher was helping but marking wrong answers as correct.  I’m not sure if he was just not looking carefully or really didn’t understand the topic (fractions) any better than some of the learners.  The end of Term 1 everyone takes “Common Tests” written by the Provincial Education Dept.  I was disappointed that even my best learner only scored 48% and only 8 out of 55 scored well enough to “pass” – 40%.  Learners are already so far behind by 4th grade!!  Richard’s Gr 9 Maths did even worse and he was very disappointed and down for several days.  He feels he has to keep up the pace of topics in the work schedule even if the learners don’t have the background to learn the material.  He wishes he could spend more time and teach fewer topics with some remedial work so they could really learn something.  When material is taught so fast in such large classes and a learner fails, the next year they get the same stuff they didn’t learn the first year at the same pace.  It is very frustrating!!
We’ve had a break from school the last week + because we had our Mid-Service Training in Pretoria.  It ended Thursday but we are still here (on Monday) because Richard had his 2nd cataract operation last Tuesday and has a follow up appointment today.  It seems to have gone well but it will be several weeks before he can get a new lens for the 2nd eye.

MST was good.  It was wonderful to see everyone from our training group again and hear their successes and challenges both in our formal sessions and just catching up.  We did some typical “look back at your 1st year” and “imagine your COS (Close of Service)” exercises that were actually quite helpful.  I realized in a more significant way that my strength in teaching is one-on-one, rather than in a classroom situation.  I knew that on one level but will try to do more of that during my 2nd year.  My biggest success has been little successes with individuals.  I’ve been tutoring the two 2nd graders in our host family and Promise can now put all the letters of the alphabet in order and knows the sounds of all but a few.  She has also learned to sound out three letter words well and can read several stories in a US 1st grade reader. Her “uncle”, who is less than a year older, has a bit more trouble but he is coming along.  I have also been working with one of their cousins, a Grade 6 girl.  She can speak English pretty well because her father spent a year or two in the States in graduate school but she could not sound out new words or read well at all.  She told me before we left for MST that she had tried to sound out some of the words on her end-of-term English test.  I asked her if she could and she said, “Yes, and my teacher told me I was #1 in the class!”  I’ve been helping a few Grade 7 non-readers after school and have seen some improvement already.
We were told at MST that the 2nd year will go really fast.  It’s hard to believe that we have been at our site for a whole year.  We don’t get to see the rest of our group as a whole until our COS conference in December but the volunteers have planned a Provincial get together in May so we’ll see some of our friends and some of the PCVs from other groups in our province then.  Another thing we realized – if we only have a year left, we only have a few more vacation times.  Three weeks in June - We think we want to do a “Zim-Zam-Bot” tour (Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana) which would include Victoria Falls.  Many PCVs do that and there are several option of how to go about it.  We have a week + in October which is too short to go far so we haven’t made plans for that yet.  Over the big break next Dec/Jan quite a few of our group are going to Cape Town – a must see before leaving S. Africa.  There’s an overnight train which sounds like fun and a plane ride back. But that is all yet to be seen.
Most exciting is that my daughter, Megan, is coming for a 2-week visit in May!!!! And Richard’s daughter, Hannah is coming in June/July.

Here are some recent pictures.  A walking stick to show how big some of our insects are.  There are really big praying mantises too! 

Some of the neighborhood kids who come by “draw”.  If they draw pictures and have me write the English words for them, they get a “sweet” (a gum drop).  The girl in the back can now write - house, flower, tree, apple, carrot, person and several other words in English by herself.
The last picture is of Promise being carried by me over some wet cement In a “home improvement” project at our house.

Bye for now,

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday February 28

February 26, 2012

Once again life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in our little village in South Africa has become very busy.  After Sophie’s big party that I wrote about last time, the last week of our holiday break went really fast.  We are now well into our first term of the new school year.  This year I am teaching Gr 4 Maths (not “Math” – here it is “Maths”) and English for Grades 1 – 3 for a total of 14 hour of teaching a week. I am enjoying the Gr 4 Maths a lot.  We have overcome the language issue (my lack of much Sepedi and their lack of much English) by havening a regular teacher at the school co-teach with me.  Some of the learners are really bright and catch on to new concepts quickly but many others are struggling.  I’m surprised at how many do not know how to carry or borrow when adding or subtracting. They do not really have a good grasp of place value.  I’ve been demonstrating with cubes and towers and squares for units, tens and hundreds but some are still not catching on.  It is hard when there are 55 in a class!!  Finally we just have to move on.  I know most of them will get passed on to 5th grade and will be even further behind next year.  I hope my co-teacher is learning that concrete demonstrations and lots of practice problems can be helpful.  The teaching style I’ve seen mostly is lecture once and do a few practice problems.  Give the right answers so the learners can write “corrections” and then move on to the next topic.  Richard ha said that at the high school, the Department checks the learners notebooks to see that all the topics have been taught and educators (teachers) are judged to have taught well enough if the material is in the learners notebook never mind if they have actually learned anything.  And they wonder why so few pass their senior year exams!

Life here (as anywhere) continues to be a challenge.  I am writing this blog entry by candle light because our electricity went out about mid-afternoon (no obvious reason why (no storm or high winds?????).  We have an alcohol “gel” stove that we can use to cook on when the electricity goes out – but it is a pain.  It happened more often when we first got here but hasn’t happened for months.  Last week it took me 4 hours to do 5 days laundry (and the bed sheets).  That doesn’t mean throw the clothes in the machine and come back an hour later to throw them in the dryer.  We wash everything by hand and hang it out on the line.  Everything smells really nice but it is a lot of work.

Adam came to visit the first week in February and brought his girlfriend Lisa.  We had never met her since he started going out with her after we left.  We had a wonderful time.  They flew in on a Saturday and we spent the night at our fellow PCV’s place on a game reserve (where we had Thanksgiving last year).  We saw a few animals there – monkeys, zebras, several deer like animals and some neat birds.  Then they came back to our village and Sophie cooked a traditional African meal for them.  Below is a picture of Adam and Lisa with our African family.

The next day they visited both our schools and met some of the learners and educators we work with.  Then Adam treated us to a 3-day safari in Kruger National Park.  We went with a very knowledgeable local guide and got to see many different animals.  We saw lots of my favorites – the giraffes, and lots of elephants.  One herd had a little baby who was hard to get a picture of because momma kept herself between us and the baby but I finally succeeded.

I had been disappointed my two previous visits to Kruger because I hadn’t seen any of the “cats” – lion, leopard or cheetah.  This time we saw a leopard two different times.  One was a young one beside a river.They are truly awesome creatures.  The other we saw EARLY in the morning as we were heading out to take a guided dawn walk with a ranger.  Usually you are not allowed to go wandering around in the park.  You can only get out of your car at specific viewing spots or picnic areas but on this walk we were walking through the bush.  At one point the ground was very uneven with big depressions  - they were elephant footprints (!!) made in the mud when we had a record-breaking rain storm in mid-January.  Kinda cool to be walking in elephant footprints.

The most exciting part was when we came upon a herd of elephants crossing the road.  Most of them went across the road and kept going into the bush but one VERY large male decided to walk down the road toward our vehicle as if to say “This is my road! Are you sure you want to be here?”  Our guide was a bit nervous which made us very nervous.  We backed down the road and he finally wandered off into the bush but there was no doubt whose road it was.

We left Kruger and Drove back to Johannesburg, taking the “Panorama Route” and staying overnight in a little town called Dullstrom.  The Panorama route has many stops where you can view interesting “natural” phenomena from waterfalls to rock pinnacles to potholes made by two converging rivers to wide vistas of the lowveld.  We stopped at some but not all of these.  We spent the last night at a nice guest house in Johannesburg and said goodbye to Adam and Lisa on Saturday morning when they left for the airport to take a plane to Cape Town on the other side of South Africa, where they spent another week before flying back to the States.  We headed back to our village and another week of school.

In 3 ½ weeks we have our groups MST conference (MST=Mid-Service Training) where we reflect on our first year at site and plan for our 2nd year.  It will be good to see everyone from our group again – or almost everyone.  Ourgroup was special in that we were only the 2nd out of 23 where everyone who came to training was sworn in as a volunteer – no one left during training.  So far only 6 out of 46 have left, which is a pretty good retention rate.  The ones who left did so for a variety of reasons but most of us have stuck with it and from all reports are glad they have.
My garden has not done so well I the 100°+ heat we have had as a high almost every day this month but I can still get fresh mint, & basil and we would have had more chard if the goats hadn’t gotten to it first.

Enjoy spring.  It’s my favorite season.  I miss being there this year as we swelter in the African summer.  We will see some relief toward the end of April.  We bought a big fan last month which helps as long as the electricity is on. (which it is now – I’m writing this the evening after I started it.)

I’m certainly glad I am here and believe I am making a bit of difference in a few lives but I will be glad to be back home when I get there.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

January 13, 2012

So on December 27th we arrive back in our village after ten days of travel – fun in the sun (and rain) in the mountains and at the seashore.  We still have almost 3 weeks before school starts so plenty of time to get garden and school work done!? Right?  Things should be pretty calm in our little village after the holidays – BUT…there is a very important ceremony/party happening at our compound on January 7th.  A year earlier, our house “mother”, Sophie’s husband died.  In this African culture a widow wears only one (or two) subdued dresses/outfits until this party a year later. A year after her husband dies, a woman has a party called ”the unveiling.” I thought for the longest time it was the widow who was being “unveiled.”  Actually, it is the tombstone of the deceased that is being unveiled.

Things have been happening around here for quite some time to get ready for this big event.  The “patio” area in front of the house was paved several months ago and in the beginning of December the wall that defines the patio was redone.  And a big load of fire logs was delivered. Activity really picked up after New Years.  Sophie started a big batch of “African beer´ Sunday and the kitchen was moved from a covered shed to the space behind our house.  The people who were cooking and helping with the beer making gathered Monday & Tuesday to work on the beer, plan and bring tables, pots, bowls etc. Wednesday tables were set up, extra electricity was purchased and a small batch of live chickens was delivered.  I thought they were for the party Saturday, but this batch was to feed the cooks & family for the next two days.  Thursday, the outdoor kitchen (five fires including a 2 ft X 10 ft “oven” made of a rectangle of bricks on the ground with a big strip of corrugated tin for a top) were set up.  Sophie did a big shopping expedition and a t least 2 dozen chickens were delivered.  Several people spent the night.  Early Friday morning the serious preparations began.  Yesterday’s chickens were killed, plucked, gutted & cooked.  A cooler was brought over (the reason for the extra electricity).  Biscuits were made by the very large bowlful – 2-300? and baked in the makeshift oven.  That afternoon, I looked out by my garden and 12 cows were walking through it to the lower field. A little while later someone picked out one of the steers which was restrained and the rest were sent away.  The women had been doing all the other cooking prep but it was a group of men who killed and slaughtered the steer.  The indoor kitchen had been cleaned to the walls – all the cabinets were moved.  The serious beef cutting happened on the floor on sheets most of the evening and into the night – Richard was invited to help - he declined.  When I offered to help I was put on dish washing, biscuit making and potato peeling.  Many people stayed the night, many of them cooking & talking  - staying up all night long (including Sophie).

The day of the “unveiling” started very early (since it never really stopped!).  The tarp was put up, cooking fires were lit and then the people who had been here all night changed into “church” clothes.  More and more people arrived.  About 9:30 everyone started gathering at the gate of the compound.  Some started walking with the band. –Oh, the band.  I forgot to mention that a 6-piece band (4 horns & 2 drums) arrived on Friday and played a few times that evening.  They too had spent the night so they could lead the morning procession to the cemetery.  Some of us walked the 1+K to the cemetery while the family, the preacher and the infirm rode up in cars in a line behind us.  We gathered around the shrouded tombstone and a ceremony of remembrance was held.  Of course, I couldn’t understand more than a word or two because it was all in Sepedi, but the preacher talked, people bowed their heads, other people talked, the band played appropriate music etc.  Then the tombstone was unveiled.  It was one of the largest in the cemetery all shiny, new and black.  More people talked.  Many family members and groups of family members had their picture taken in front of the new tombstone.  Sophie wanted us in one too.  Here is a picture of us with Nelson’s two sons.

We all went back to the house where the members of Sophie’s church (ZCC – Zion Christian Church) did some traditional dancing and chanting/sinning.  They did finally get me to join in.

Another church type service was held on the patio.  The ZCC members attended while others cooked and chatted.  There were over a hundred people at the cemetery. By the time the service at the house was over and it was time to eat, there were about twice that many.  I’d guess that over 250 adults and children were there at some time that day.  For once there was not more food that could be eaten, but I think everyone who wanted to eat got a big plateful.  The home brew and much commercial, bought beer was consumed – mostly by the men but I noticed some women were drinking too.  Sophie smuggled some bottles to us in our house.  I don’t think it is cool for women to be seen drinking in “public”.  The band came and marched on the patio or in the yard and played a bit every now & then.  The party finally wound down in the wee hours of the morning.  Sophie called it a night much earlier.  It was another two days before everyone that had been helping left and the place returned to a semblance of normal.

From a ministerial point of view, it is an interesting custom.  The “Unveiling” party gives the widow something to do as the year anniversary of her husband’s death approaches. She has family and friends around to help with physical and emotional work.  She has a ceremony for herself and the community to say good-bye again to a friend, son, father or husband and move on with their own lives.  From a purely financial perspective it gives the widow (and family) a year to pay for the tombstone – which can be quite expensive.  I was a bit concerned when I first learned that the father in our host family had died less than 3 months before we moved in, but it has been alright.  3-4 months ago, Sophie told me she was glad we were here .  She’d forgotten how she was before we came.  By that I didn’t think she didn’t remember how she had been feeling then but rather that she wasn’t feeling like that anymore.

It was quite an event!!!  I’m glad I was able to experience it firsthand. (Although I was glad when everyone had gone and the compound was back to its state of relative calm.)

This week, Richard is in Pretoria having a cataract operation.  I’ll be glad when he gets back (probably Sunday).  He can send this out school.

It’s Friday now so school starts in 3 days for the educators (teachers) and 5 days for the learners (students).  Maybe I’d better go make those plans I was going to do over the Holiday break.
(It took an extra week to get this posted – Richard had to stay in Pretoria and then we had internet problems in the village – I hope it can go out Jan 23rd)