Category Archives: Teaching

Reading Rainbow Nation: The Making of a School Library

I’ll take a break from my usual stories of fund raising and visa troubles to talk about a project that has been a long time in the making but given little attention to here on this blog: the school library.

One of the goals of the Peace Corps South Africa Schools and Community Resources Project is to help to establish and/or improve libraries at the schools where volunteers have been placed. This doesn’t mean simply getting a supply of decent books in the school (though, this is a challenge in itself). Volunteers usually face any and all of the challenges associated with starting a library from scratch: support from the school’s administration, adequate and secure room, decent shelves and furniture, and staff to oversee its organization and daily operation.

Library Door

There has been little overlap in the day-to-day work that I have done versus the volunteer who served at this school for the two years before my time here. Ryan worked mostly with kids at the high school level, and seemed to focus on math and science. I’ve been concentrating on English for kids in grades 5 through 7, putting in the bulk of my time with grade 6. He left a few months before I arrived, and though I have never met him in person and hadn’t even corresponded with him until recently, I felt like I had gotten to know him through things he’s written, photos hanging in the school’s office, and the lasting positive impression he left on the people here.

The one area I know where we do overlap is working on the library at this school. It’s hard to know exactly how much of what was available here when I started was due to his efforts, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it all came from work that he did. It seems unlikely that teachers here would have labeled books with Dewey Decimal Numbers, and there is a good chance that all of the designated library books were acquired thanks to him.

At the end of 2012 as I was just starting there, new buildings on the school grounds were getting their finishing touches and one of the classrooms was to be dedicated to housing the library. The supply of library books was being kept in the school’s office, out of sight from any child who might want to read them. The school had no book shelves except for some utility shelves where the seldom seen books were sitting. One of the first things I did as a volunteer was to help the principal draft an appeal to the department of education requesting furniture and shelves for the library, as well as furniture for setting up science and computer labs.

2012 School Buildings

At the start of the 2013 school year (in South Africa, the school years start and end with the calendar year), part of that request was fulfilled. In the classroom that was to become the school’s first fully functioning library, shelves were installed. They are very large, metal utility shelves – far from ideal for a school library, but at least a place to start. Also, at that time, Connie, one of the HODs (Head of Department) at the school, was taking a course specific to school library management and made her office within the library itself. The shelves were quickly filled with various textbooks, and the modest supply of library books available. I started planning how and when I would be able to do more for this project.

By the end of the 2013 school year, I had sent several requests to known book donors and organizations that support school libraries in Africa. Unfortunately, I had missed out on an earlier opportunity to get in on a large shipment of books from an organization called Books for Africa that was organized through some other Peace Corps Volunteers. But, I was getting some promising responses from a handful of the requests I had sent, and I made a formal plan for the remainder of my time at the school in 2014, which focused on helping in the library.

Then through a stroke of luck, Liz, a PCV in another part of KwaZulu-Natal, asked if I would be interested in another shipment of books through Books for Africa. Apparently, she had done so well with organizing the shipment earlier in 2013 that they wanted to work with her again to get more books in the hands of kids in KZN through a donation sponsored by Nigeria’s Sir Emeka Offor Foundation. With as many as 20 boxes of books coming, I started researching options for building some honest-to-goodness book shelves.

In the meantime, the 2013 school year had come to a close. Soon after, we had a confirmation date for the shipment from Books for Africa, a promise of one box of books coming directly from Darien Book Aid in the states, and Term 1 of the 2014 school year had started. But by the end of February, even though our books had arrived, I was no longer in a hurry to start on the shelves because I was devoting more time to the grade 6 class than I thought I would be. It would all have to wait until Term 2. But because of the excitement of all the boxes, we were able to recruit some kids on Saturdays to come and help unpack the books and start to organize them.

Unpacking books

I found plans online for cheap, durable, low-waste book shelves. I consulted with my dad via email to get a second opinion as to how well they would work in a school. I converted everything in the plans to metric, and put in an order of lumber for one set. My thought was, if I could build one set on my own, I would turn the plans over to the school to make subsequent sets as a school project for some of the older students.

Finally, with the start of Term 2 in April, I was able to move my desk into the library and devote the bulk of my school time there. I was cataloging, organizing, and color-coding this very generous donation of books, setting up a consistent way of checking them in and out, and figuring out how and when I could manage to build some of the shelves they would sit on. Of course, there had already been several delays with my lumber order, but this is nothing out of the ordinary in rural Africa. Finally, in mid-May the principal drove me down to the lumber shop to collect the wood and I set about constructing the shelves.

Fetching the Planks

Following the plans for building the shelves was relatively easy, even though the only power tool at my disposal was a drill. I ordered the lumber in specific sizes, but this is where the problems arose. Widths, lengths, and thicknesses were all inconsistent. The shop I ordered the lumber from seemingly wasn’t able to cut things very exact (or just had little practice doing so, as most of their orders are for the rough-framing of buildings). Additionally, the wood was still a bit damp. I knew the shelves wouldn’t come out as nicely as I originally planned, and because of many slight modifications and deviations from the plans, it no longer seems like an ideal project to hand over to kids at the school. They could still try it; they have the plans and my finished model.

Shelf Construction 1

Shelf Construction 2

Shelf Construction 3

However, the plans did give me an idea of how to modify the utility shelves to be more appropriate for books. Using wood pieces from broken desks, I was able to add over 20 more feet of shelving, with only the cost of some hardware.

Inspired Shelf Solution

Which brings us to the present – a functioning school library, stocked with all kinds of books, mostly fiction for beginning readers, but also lots of resources for teachers and one entire wall dedicated to textbooks for all the subjects offered here (which comes in handy for many kids when they don’t have their own copy of a textbook for several of their classes). As of now, the library is open to students throughout most hours of the school day, and books may be checked out to be taken home (one at a time) to grade four and above.

Using the library

Flocking to the shelves

I’m happy to see the school have this functioning resource now, but I am also concerned for its viability in the future. Though the level of excitement for the availability of books differs from kid to kid, there are many who are now coming to the library daily. These children have made themselves especially valuable to the continuation of this library as they are now able to help maintain and organize the library going forward. But, as my involvement with the school is ending soon, having enough dedicated staff for the library is a concern. I hope that teachers in the school have begun to recognize the value of the library and volunteer themselves to maintaining (and even improving) it for the kids at this school in the years to come.

Finished Library


Posted by on 26 August 2014 in Community, Teaching


My New Normal and Highlights from June to November 2013

When I set up this blog before leaving for South Africa, I wasn’t exactly sure how often I would be updating it. I had read blogs of other volunteers and saw things I liked and other things I wasn’t too crazy about. But like most other parts of this entire Peace Corps endeavor, I really didn’t know how it would work for me until I was in the middle of doing it.

Also at the time of setting up my WordPress account, I subtitled this blog “a collection of (hopefully) interesting tales from South Africa.” With that, I unwittingly gave myself a mandate of what should be included here.

Interesting. Interesting.

After some time at my home in KZN and realizing how often I would actually be able to make updates here, it became apparent that for a story to be written it first had to be interesting to me. The “(hopefully)” part is that the reader finds it as interesting as I do.

For the first six months of living here at my site, everything was interesting, because everything was new: new home, new language, new job, new people in my life, new food, new societal expectations of me, new methods of transportation, new ways of getting clean water into my house, new indigenous plants and animals to take pictures of, and on and on. Anyone in the states who was interested to see what was up with me could come read a story of something that happened here from my fish-out-of-water point of view; something with a beginning, a middle and an end that describes some of the very different aspects of living here along the way.

But then, the “R” word happened: routine. My mornings, my afternoons, my evenings, my nights, my weekends: I know what to expect, and I know when to expect the unexpected. The setting may be different, but the story of living a life doesn’t feel so. I have the same successes and disappointments with my job, my family, my employer, my house, my coworkers, my friends, and … you can fill in the blanks … as anyone making their life anywhere in the world.

I have developed a routine around all the differences living here from what an American is accustomed to, so it has become harder for me to discern the interesting stories.

Even a getaway to a different city or country doesn’t seem so remarkable in story-form, even if the place itself is. After all, I’m traveling with good friends and when I get to the destination, I see pretty much what anyone would go there to see. Those stories seem to be told better through the lens of a camera than through words on a blog. Essentially: “This is what I saw; this is what people come here to see, and now I’ve seen it, too. I’ll remember it, because it was wonderful and I have these great photos.”

This may seem like I am pining for something exotic – that I’ve run out of stories to tell. But honestly, I’m glad I’ve been able to settle into a routine. Some volunteers don’t have that luxury. Some struggle. Some go home early. I’m really happy that I’m comfortable in my living situation. Moreover, my work keeps me pretty busy and I have enough small, everyday successes to counteract the regularly delivered disappointments and failures that seem to be inherent with teaching in a rural South African primary school.

So, with all of the above serving as a disclaimer (and maybe just a big ol’ excuse as to why there isn’t more to read on this lonely little website), I’ll give you some highlights and anecdotes from the past four months.

In late June during the winter break between school terms 2 and 3, I travelled to Mozambique with PCV friends Michael and Katrina, and a new friend from the USA, Michael’s college buddy, Elliot. In a nutshell, Mozambique is gorgeous, especially along the coast. We travelled in 4×4 passenger vans (off-road versions of the Toyota Quantums that are so common for public transport in South Africa) from the southern border of Mozambique. We stayed a few days in Ponta do Ouro, a little beach vacation destination in a cool little hotel right on the beach. It is beautiful.

From there we went north to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. Many reviews paint it as a beautiful and vibrant city, but our experience was less than stellar. I think it was a truly beautiful and modern city at one time, but when I saw it, it was mostly dirty, and in disrepair. I ate some delicious bread and pastries and visited some interesting open-air markets there during the day, but the one night I decided to venture out to see some live music, I was stopped twice by machine gun-wielding police officers demanding to see my passport and visa. There were no problems, as all of my paperwork was in order, but that type of experience is unnerving to me. I was happy to come back to the relative safety and security of South Africa.

On our way back to South Africa through the dirt roads of southern Mozambique, we encountered an elephant crossing the road. Since it wasn’t in a hurry, we had plenty of time to look at it (from a very safe distance) through the windows of the van. I handed my camera to Michael, who had the best vantage point of the four Americans in the overcrowded transport, and told him to go crazy with the shutter. I’d sort them out and find the best ones later.

Why did the elephant cross the road?

Cape Town
After a few days back at my home, it was July and I was gearing up for a trip to Cape Town. I travelled south to Durban by public taxi with my PCV friend, Shawn, to meet up with another PCV friend, Ted. After one night in Durban, the three of us travelled by bus for twenty-four hours straight to Cape Town.

At the Cape Town bus station, we met up with another PCV friend, Eva. After eating at McDonald’s, watching a street magician perform some card tricks, and browsing at a musical instrument shop all right there at the station, we met up with our PCV friend, Vanessa, and another new friend from the USA, Vanessa’s family friend, Laurie. The six of us piled into a rental car (thanks Laurie!) and headed to Strand – the beautiful beach area to the east of Cape Town that housed the time-share condo that became our center of operations for Cape Town sight-seeing for the next week, as well as a bunch of sharing of movies, music and TV shows. (PCVs have to get American entertainment somehow, right?)

For that week we saw lots that you would expect for a trip to Cape Town: Robyn Island, Table Mountain (hiked up, and took the cable car down), a tour of some of the wineries of Stellenbosch, South African penguins, historical sites, a drive through a township, museums, restaurants, and beautiful views of the ocean(s).

What we didn’t expect was befriending our incredible winery tour guide, Zaahid, to the point of being invited to his house for dinner with his family. He told us of his heritage – “Cape Malay” – of Indonesian descent, though his ancestry had been living in Cape Town for generations. He is Muslim, and invited the six of us to break the fast for that day of Ramadan – which happened to coincide with our trip to Cape Town – with his family. It was educational and quite an honor. And, it was delicious. The food his mother and sister prepared beats traditional Zulu food with a stick (no offense, Zulus). We got to take some leftovers back with us, and he even drove us back and forth to dinner in his tour van.

Cape Malay Ramadan Cuisine

(I think it should go without saying that I highly recommend him as a tour guide for anyone planning to go to Cape Town, but just in case:

Last on our Cape Town itinerary was going to a Friday morning service at St. George’s Anglican Church, the home church of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, where Bishop Tutu himself would be presiding over the service. Eva found out about this regular little occurrence from the lady working at the used book shop adjoining the church earlier in the week. Unfortunately, she and Shawn were sleeping off some drinks from the night before, so Laurie, Ted, Vanessa and I went to the service.

There were quite fewer people gathering for this service than the four of us had anticipated. It was held in a smaller chapel off to the side of the main church auditorium at this historical cathedral. With such a small congregation, the Archbishop had all the visitors introduce themselves. Of the roughly 30 people in attendance, I think half of them were Americans, mostly in South Africa working, studying or both. After the service, there was time for photos with Desmond, and everyone was invited to go across the street to the cafe for a nice breakfast with the man.

Archbishop Tutu with Americans

Later that day, Eva boarded a bus to start the journey back to her site in Mpumalanga, as Shawn, Ted and I got on our bus to take us back to Durban, ultimately for us to make our way back to our individual homes in KZN.

Bus chase
On a 24-hour bus ride, there are plenty stops made. Many of these stops are specifically for dropping off or picking up various passengers along the way. A few are for fuel. Fewer still are the stops that allow everyone to get off.

In the middle of the night, we stop at a fuel station/rest stop. All the lights are turned on in the bus. I wake up and pull the earphones out of my ears. I nudge Shawn and ask if he has to use the restroom. He says no, and let’s me pass him to go. Apparently, he promptly fell back asleep.

I saw a few people getting off the bus, but it didn’t occur to me that they had bags with them. I followed one of them off, right into the restroom. Then it occurred to me, that I probably shouldn’t have gotten off the bus.

In the short time it took me to use the toilet, I returned to where the bus was and saw an empty parking space. A short distance away, I see the bus, ambling slowly towards the on-ramp to the highway. I start running to catch it. I’m nervous, but confident I can catch up.

Then, in the shadow of the back of the convenience store, I can’t see any of the ground below me and manage to fall in the parking lot. I got up as quickly as I could, with scrapes on my hands and a fresh charlie horse on my upper leg from where my wallet in my pocket broke my fall. I start running again, and catch up to the bus, even more panicked now that I’ve taken a spill. I pound on the door to get the attention of the unsuspecting driver.

Meanwhile, in the bus, the guy who was sitting in front of me wakes up Shawn and informs him I am running outside the bus to catch it. Shawn makes it to the front of the bus just as the driver brakes and opens the door.

“I need to get on!” I shouted.

“Who told you to get off?” he shouted back.

“I don’t know … I saw all the lights on and people getting off!” I complained.

Then, quite condescendingly he quickly replies “No no no no no no no no no no. Don’t get off the bus unless someone says you can get off the bus.”

I limp onboard, now quite obviously covered in dust from the parking lot. I followed Shawn back to our seats where he, Ted and I discuss the near disasters of the past few minutes before we all fall back asleep. Had I been left behind, it would have been a really big inconvenience. Had I gotten badly injured in the fall while chasing the bus, it could have been a lot worse.

About an hour later, we stop again at an officially sanctioned stop for passengers to get off and stretch their legs, use the restroom and buy a refreshment. As soon as they are finished making the announcement over the bus’ PA system, Mr. Helpful in the seat in front of me turns around and says, “You can get off the bus now.” Then he laughs.

Under my breath I say, “Yeah, thanks for the heads-up, Jerk.” Where was his helpful advice an hour ago?

Back to school sadness
A few days later I was starting term three at the school. Right back into the daily grind, as if all the traveling of the past month didn’t even happen. I did have lots of new shows to watch on my laptop though, so I was excited for that. Maybe unreasonably excited, but I really had no idea how much I would enjoy all seven seasons of 30 Rock.

About two weeks into the term, I arrived to school to see one of my grade six students crying in the teachers’ staff room. I quickly learned that one of the other sixth grade boys had died a few days before in a freak accident that involved a home remedy for sinus congestion. It’s hard telling exactly what went wrong, but Joseph “Arizona” Khoza was no longer with us.

I teach grade six in the first class period on Mondays. I walked into what was one of the most surreal moments of my life. Most of these 46 kids in grade six learned this bad news right before starting their school day, just like me. They don’t prepare you for this in Peace Corps Pre-Service Training. Then again, I doubt there is much training for this included with a four-year university teaching degree. I had the kids write whatever they wanted to – it didn’t have to be about Joseph, just whatever might make them feel better. They could draw pictures and use my crayons.

Mr. T's write up for JAK

Ms. M's write up for JAK

That evening I started writing with the intention of putting the story here on the blog, but it didn’t feel right at the time to post anything. Not that I would have gotten anything for it, but it seemed exploitative to me to tell the world a story about a matter that really needed to have some reverence to it.

The following is what I wrote at the time. It is something of a eulogy, though I never delivered it publicly, nor would the majority of the people in attendance at his funeral understand what I was saying.

At times, he tried my patience. More often he made me laugh. He was never the best pupil, but he always attempted the work. I called him “Mr. Arizona” in class, which was a selfish way of reminding myself of home and an easy way to remember his name. He had so much personality … he wasn’t afraid to talk to me and speak loudly enough to be heard (as so many of these kids are). I enjoyed being his teacher; I enjoyed more that he was my friend. I will miss him.

Which brings us to his funeral. It was pretty standard, as far as Zulu funerals go: two circus-sized tents, hundreds of people, multiple pastors preaching fire and brimstone, and a closed casket.

Earlier that week, I was told that Joseph’s family had no photos of their son; as in zero. I had lots since I had brought my camera to school a couple of times throughout the year so far. Joseph was a bit of a ham, and not unlike most other kids in South Africa, loved to have his picture taken. It could be just that the family didn’t have any recent shots. Either way, I had prints made of all the shots I had that he was in for them to have.

Joseph at school

I also helped to layout the program for the funeral during the school week leading up to it, using a photo I took of him at the end of term one. It was just a snapshot, but the lighting and his pose made it seem almost like a real, planned portrait. After cropping other kids out of the background, we had a suitable, recent photo. It was then blown up and hung on the tent poles at the front of the main funeral tent.

Joseph Headshot Print

A bit more sad was the fact that there were so many kids there, all dressed in their school uniforms. Luckily, my friend Vanessa was in town that weekend and accompanied me to the funeral. We got tired of listening to Zulu preaching and went outside under the trees with the kids. We showed them photos on our phones of things in America. It softened the whole event.

Lastly, why was his nick-name Arizona? I don’t know. I just know that he had that name before I met him, so I don’t think it had anything to do with me. But, how could I not like him with a name like that?

Later in term three – late August – I grabbed my guitar and traveled to Limpopo by way of Pretoria to serve a week as one of the PCV trainers for the next group of education volunteers in their PST (Pre-Service Training). My PCV friend Monica met up with me in Pretoria, and we traveled to the training site in Limpopo by way of comfortable, air conditioned Peace Corps transportation with Peace Corps driver, TK.

In Limpopo, we stayed at a rented house with electricity, indoor plumbing and all modern appliances (including a microwave!) for the better part of a week. The house and the neighborhood – even the mountains in the near distance – looked like they could have been plucked from a Phoenix, AZ suburban community. I felt really at home there.

Limpopo, like Arizona

We took turns cooking and hung out with other Peace Corps staff, most of whom we don’t get to see all that often, like Victor. Victor is in charge of training new volunteers and is a big George Harrison fan. When I saw him in June, he was disappointed that I didn’t have my guitar with me. I wouldn’t make that mistake twice.

Also, I was asked by the trainees (through my friend, Eva, who had been training them the week prior) to bring the guitar. A few of them are players but didn’t have one available to play while they were training. I know what it is like to want to play a guitar and not have one available, so how could I say no?

For the training, I did sessions on teaching vocabulary and creative use of available technology in a South African classroom. (Specifically, how to make your laptop serve many purposes in an otherwise technology-free environment.) And, because I brought my guitar, it ended up getting passed around on breaks and I got to sing a few songs, too.

Impromptu Limpopo Concert

While Monica and I were enjoying modern living, she convinced me that we needed to take the bull by the horns and finally get our official Peace Corps SA26 t-shirts designed and printed. Armed with a few of Monica’s ideas, a hand-drawn design that we had seen all the way back at our PST, and my laptop, we finalized a design to send to a printer.

All-in-all, it was a productive and fun week of Peace Corps work.

Do you want one of our t-shirts? I put the design up on a print-on-demand t-shirt site (link below). We don’t get a cut of the money or anything like that … it’s just a way to fly the Peace Corps South Africa colors for us back in the states (or anywhere you may be). If you get one, email me a photo of you wearing it.

SA26 T-shirt

By the end of September, term three was finished and I found myself headed back to Pretoria (again). This time it was for Mid-Service Training (MST). SA26 got to reconvene (minus a couple of folks who had some other pressing matters to attend to) at Khayalethu, the preferred accommodation of Peace Corps Volunteers while staying in Pretoria. We spent a couple days getting medical and dental checkups, and a couple days with some sessions about keeping us sane and productive for the next year of service.

But the real fun came in having so many of us together again. The t-shirts were finished in time (thanks to Monica) that we were able to pose for group photos. We had a white elephant gift exchange. We swapped more movies, music and TV shows. We went out to eat. We shopped at malls. We acted like Americans in a westernized city.

SA26 MST Group Shot

Wrapping it up
I didn’t include nearly all the details of what’s been going on lately, but I hope you at least chuckled at the thought of me wiping out in a dark parking lot while chasing down my bus. I think that’s decent entertainment.

Now we’re approaching the end of term four. Next week, the kids will take their final exams. A few weeks after that, my first full year as an educator will come to a close.

What do I have to look forward to? Next year I hope to do some worthwhile English training of the teachers at my school, and I’ll be focusing on helping to put the school’s library in a more functional fashion. I’ll also be teaching grade six (my current grade five) an extra half hour per day of reading comprehension skills. Hopefully this will really improve the performance on their standardized testing.

P.S. Something else to look forward to: Springsteen is coming to South Africa early next year. Yes, I already have tickets.


“It’s My Culture”

I’ve struggled with how best to word this particular post for over two weeks. Most of the people here are like most of the people anywhere in the world: good. They want to do good things for themselves and live in a good community. I want to be as fair as possible to the folks I’m here to help, including when I’m being critical of them. But ultimately, you, the reader, will be the judge of that. So, know that my intentions here are not to make the good folks here look bad. Being honest about problems is the first step in solving them.

So far, I feel like I may only have been presenting a rather sugar-coated version of South Africa. Other than fetching water in buckets, dealing with many insects of many sizes, and a language not welcoming to my American tongue, this blog has spent little time discussing the problems here (at least, the problems as I perceive them).

With all due respect, this place is far from perfect. (I mean, the Peace Corps wouldn’t be here if it was a flourishing utopia, right?) The problems here exist at all levels – from local to national. Of course they have a very regrettable history to live with, and a recent history at that. And then there are the myriad issues and allegations of corruption in their current government. Economically, it could be described as one step up, two steps back, if not just perpetually stuck. Much of this is nicely outlined in this recent article from The Economist. To get a clearer picture of the society I am immersing myself into, I urge you to read it. Go ahead and read it now; I just read it again myself. And, this site will still be waiting for you when you are through.

What this story in the Economist doesn’t tell you about is the culture(s) of South Africa. To be fair, entire novels would have a hard time encapsulating all of what each of the cultures found here has to offer. The contents of this blog are strictly my firsthand knowledge and experience, and I won’t attempt to say other than what I’ve seen. And, truthfully, though I feel I have seen multiple cultures in action since I’ve arrived here, I’ve barely scratched the surface. In general, this is a tricky subject, because one can only view other cultures through the lenses of the culture(s) they were brought up in.

Culture has been used as an explanation for, apology for, and excuse for behaviors – good and bad – that I’ve witnessed here. (Keep in mind that “good” and “bad” are used here in an all-encompassing, American sense. People steeped in this culture can be entirely neutral on anything and everything that an American would pass judgement on.)

Me: “You didn’t have to bring me an overflowing plate of food from across the yard in the pouring rain, especially considering that I’ve already fed myself this evening.”
South African female: “It’s my culture.”

South African male: “I want to have at least ten children.”
Me: “Do you really think that is a good idea? You’ll have an easier time feeding and housing fewer children. You’ll work less, so you’ll be healthier, and you’ll have more quality time with the fewer children you do have.”
South African male: “It’s my culture.”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the concept of “African Time” (aka “Abantu Time”). All the Africans I’ve met here embrace it, or – at a minimum – accept it without question or hesitation. We were actually taught in Pre-Service Training the difference between “now” and “now-now,” that 30 minutes could mean as many as 90, and “later” could in fact mean “never.”

As an American, I’m not crazy about this. Imagine working in a school where there are no clocks on the walls of any classroom. There is a bell (sirens actually seem to be more common) to indicate when classes start and end. This is really more like a suggestion.

On the flip side, everyone here has seemingly unlimited patience. People here are used to waiting.

An attempt at an explanation for this cultural chasm during my training was something along the lines of “Africans are more focused on people, but Americans are more focused on work.” Needless to say, this statement brought much contempt for the South African gentleman who uttered it from all of the American Peace Corps Trainees in the room. (We’ve all forgiven him since then; at least, I have.)

Of course, his experiences with American culture have mostly been with the go-getter types that Peace Corps attracts. People that make lists of their lists, who had projects for their village in the works before they knew their site location, and who have post-Peace Corps plans for single-handedly saving the world. (You know, the people who are way more motivated than I am.) So, to a degree, he may be right. Plus, it’s hard to counter that argument with “Hey, pal, I’ll have you know there are plenty of Americans who are never on time for anything, and – dare I say – many who are downright lazy!” Well, at least not seriously, even if it is true.

The other argument is that Americans love people just as much as Africans do; we just happen to be a lot more time conscious, too. That is, these concepts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, I think that being on time is one of the best ways to show respect for others. And, time efficiency in your work should leave you with more time to spend doing other things, like hanging out with people. Maybe that is just my American-ness surfacing.

And all of this is just one element of the culture. “African Time” seems to be generally accepted across the different provinces I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. From here, we could dig deeper into each tribe’s specific cultures, but I’ll leave that for you to do at your leisure.

Instead, let’s look at the education problems (because these are the problems that I am constantly thinking about). Of course, there are the many damning details in the article from The Economist’s website. I agree with everything they say regarding the education problems, and I’ve seen much of it firsthand. And, though I’m happy to report the school I work in is far from the worst offender on any count, it has problems that are rooted in a community that is poor and under-educated and lacks resources.

However, education is always viewed in western terms, and maybe it shouldn’t always be that way. The schools here are seemingly trying to conform to the notion of a school from 1950’s Britain – where the children wear uniforms and the teachers walk with a stick to smack the kids that get out of line. (You know, the type of place Roger Waters sings about in The Wall.) But these people are far from British. This idea of school is a very square peg trying to be fit into a culture that is a very round hole.

But what really happens? The aspects that do match to their culture get amplified (like the hierarchy of teachers, principals and other staff) and the those that don’t match get overlooked, if not completely left behind (like punctuality).

Am I saying that I would add culture to the list of problems with the education system here? Not exactly. I’m sure there is a way to adapt the schools to better accommodate the culture. But this also needs to be a two way street. If South Africa truly wants an education system that competes with western schools, they need to be simultaneously looking at how they can adapt their culture to make this happen.

How can Peace Corps help this situation? How can I help this situation? Changes always happen slowly. So, I think our short-term successes in our individual schools need to serve as an example for what they can do to improve in the long-term. There’s no doubt that just by being here, Peace Corps changes the course of how these schools operate. Let’s hope the culture accepts and adopts any and all changes for the positive.


Posted by on 13 November 2012 in Cultural Experiences, Teaching