A Farewell to Remember

mary-poppinsDo you ever feel like Mary Poppins? – The seasons in South Africa are beginning to change. It is not seen as the dramatic color change of autumn leaves, or the crispness in the air from the first frost, but we know winter is coming.

The ethanol in the thermometer on the wall in our little house has finally contracted enough to read less than 80°F and we can almost wear long pants comfortably again.

As the wind begins to shift, we reach inside our carpet bag to extract our umbrellas. Standing hand in hand, with a tear in our eyes we prepare to fly from this beautiful place.

It is hard to believe that the time has come for us to go. When one turns around and looks back at the journey of life, it all seems so short, one day practically falls on top of the next. Yet at the same time, if we try to remember each individual event we realize that so much has happened and it seems forever ago that we set foot on South African Soil.

It is the beginning of April and term 1 had just been brought to a close. Susie has achieved, through amazing dedication, what seemed the impossible. The Chrysalis Girls Club is ready to hand over to the leaders in full. All the cabinets are organized and projects are labeled. The leaders have been briefed and the torch has exchanged hands.

My community computer class has finished and the participants have joyfully received their certificates. The workshops have ceased and Expand the Band has triumphed.

We leave this village with a feeling of closure. This time may have come sooner than expected, but it is the right time none the less.

We said our farewells to the family, schools and community organizations and in true South African Style, with much singing and dancing and speeches all around they rejoiced in our coming, remembered our service, and wished us well on our continued journey of life.

We could not have asked for more from a final farewell. If you have ever seen the Tim Burton movie Big Fish you will know what we mean when we say, at the end of it all everyone was there. As we traveled through the forest to be released back into the big river of life once again, it seemed as though all that we had helped along our Peace Corps journey stood by waving and wishing us safe travels.

Gifts were offered either direction. From us we presented an assortment of banners one to each school,one to Chrysalis Girls Club, and one to the Home and Community Based Care.

During our service Prosser UMC and the Barr Family has donated an assortment of toys and games that we have in turn given to the Dubs Creche (pre-school) in the village just to the north of Mokuruanyane. This creche may be the poorest of the poor in finances, but they make up for this in full in heart. We have witnessed a small tin structure with dirt floors be transformed though community contributions into a brick structure with a solid concrete foundation. Upon Susie’s last visit she saw hand crafted posters on the walls and creative learning spaces spread around the room. With the dedication of the women who work and care for the children this organization has lifted itself and continues move forward sharing love and support to the children of Dubs.

Our donations to the creche have really been quite small, a box of used toys here and some supplies there, but at our farewell the lead teacher came down to Mokuruayane to give us a gift. She gave out of love. The school has so little but she wanted to say, “Thank you.” Her presence, and her gift overwhelmed us. This is true generosity. This is the lesson that will keep close to our hearts. Give out of love and love as much as you can.

In the end the village seemed to echo Dick Van Dike’s final line, “Goodbye, Mary Poppins, don’t stay away too long.”

We send a big vote of thanks back to you, our friends and family. Thank you for supporting us during our Peace Corps experience by keeping us in your thoughts and prayers and by sending us packages and letters. We look forward to seeing you soon.

Kgotso (Peace)

Benjamin and Susie

Final moments in the village.

Final moments in the village.

Ye Band Dideth Expand

The news is in and the news is good. Just before the deadline we were able to reach our goal of just under R45000.

Here’s a short version of the backstory… (if you know the story you may want to skip to the next section)

Beginnig with a single donation of the used trumpet St. Johns Apostolic Church began to dream. They raised money within the church and were able to acquire 7 brass instruments and 2 drums and the band was born.

Youth were invited from within the church and the surrounding community to join. At this time 22 youth are involved. They share instruments so that everyone gets a chance to learn and play. The band performs on Sunday mornings and for other special events around the village and other nearby villages and the particpants have formal practice two days a week but can often be found running from the school to the church to practice on other days of the week.

Why is this band-thing so important here in South Africa? South Africa struggles with the greatest number of people infected HIV/AIDS in the whole world. Here in the rural spaces opportunities for healthy habits are severely lacking. Children and youth run unsupervised, with few role models leading the way. Villages are often split as their young men and women leave to work in the cities in order to send money back for survival. Grandparents then become the primary caregivers, but their abilities are limited by mobility and levels of education. When children and youth lack positive role models they will experiment and sometimes fall into unhealthy decisions unwittingly. Sexual promiscuity and drugs and alcohol are all real problems here in the village that need proactive solutions.

The band provides a safe space where children and youth can come and hone skills, a space where they can find caring adults who help to guide decisions steering them away from potentially dangerous life choices and they can find positive life-giving support amongst their peers.

Where are we now?

As of two weeks ago I was able to set a meeting with the music store shop owner, Christa. A true kind heart who understands the power of music. Three pastors, two support members, one tuba player and myself headed up the delegation from the church. We sat down in the shop to has out the details. Christa was able to stretch our donated money to the limit and so we were able to purchase 11 new instruments including three trumpets, a pocket trumpet, a tuba, alto and baritone horn, a trombone, euphonium, a snare and a  base drum.



We also had around R4000 that we set as store credit for the church use as seed money for their next instrument purchase. The plan had turned out better than we could have hoped. 



With the instruments set to arrive in a week, Susie and I decided to make a visit to worship with the church and to see the band in action. As it turns out, there was a slight delay as we made a change in instrument brands to help stretch the cash a little further. So when Susie and I made it to the church the new instruments had not yet arrived. We however were able to take part in a beautiful worship service that featured the band as it was, which was tremendous fun and moved me to tears. 

Here are a few images from the day. 

St. John’s

The entire congregation went on a mini-parade around the community. Even Susie and I marched with the band.

The Band before the new instrumetns were added.

As of today, the instruments have arrived at the shop and the church was able to send members in to acquire them. Initially I was going to go in to see this transaction first hand but due to some communication issues this did not happen. I will, however, make my way back to the church on Monday to see the fruits of our labors. 

Thank you to all who donated to Expand the Band. It was a joy to be involved. Our little project caught the eye of Peace Corps Washington DC and they put out a press release on thier web site. Words are also being passed back to the Seattle office so who knows you may just find this in the local paper someday soon.

Here’s the press release: Expand the Band Press Release

Cheers everyone and thanks again.

Christmas Rocks!

Last year at the Longtom Marathon Event in Sabi, AJ, a fellow volunteer, asked one of the staff from the backpacker, “Is there any good rock climbing in this area?” His response was, “if you want serious rock climbing in South Africa, bra’, you need to check out Waterval Boven.” So that’s exactly what we did.

Rhonda, Craig, AJ, Susie, Benjamin

Initially our party was only only AJ, Susie and myself but as soon as Rhonda heard word of rock climbing she was all in.

After backpacking in the Drakes we asked everybody what were their plans for Christmas. Craig said that we was going to be with his host family at a game park for a few days before Christmas but on Christmas day he may just be hangin’ in his little thatched outside room. This was unacceptable! Even though Craig had never rock climbed before and was a might concerned by heights we convinced him that he needed to make the hour journey from his home in Nelspruit out to meet us in Waterval Boven. More new outdoor adventures for Craig with the Barr-Wilsons!

A beautiful hike we took around Waterval Boven… it was an adventure; ask us about it sometime

This time our gear was truly thin. Suz had her harness and shoes and AJ would have had his shoes, harness and chalk bag but he had some complications on his way back from climbing Kilimanjaro the week before. When I say complications I mean Tanzania Air went bankrupt and shut down. AJ and his little crew of three had to find other means to get back to South Africa from Tanzania all so that he could come out climbing with us. Needless to say it took him a few extra days to get back, but he made to us right on schedule.

Getting ready to repel down into the Tranquilitas Crags

We rented what gear we didn’t have and hired guides to show us the ropes… and rocks for a few days. After getting acquainted with the area we chose to make our own way out to the crags to climb. We even went climbing on Christmas day, now that’s a Christmas to remember.

Susie and Rhonda showing us the way

We didn’t forget to celebrate. Suz and Rhonda found some cute toys and decorations at the local mart in town, unbeknownst to the guys, and on Christmas morning we awoke to find four Christmas sacks duct taped to the mantle. We enjoyed a Christmas breakfast, played with our toys and waited for the rocks to dry off after a night of light rain.

We climbed all afternoon and then came back to the backpacker to prepare our Christmas feast. AJ and Rhonda made curry and rice, Susie made fruit salad, and Craig and I attempted to make candied yams (or squash). Let’s just say we didn’t have any measuring tools so we had butter, cinnamon, squash, marshmallow soup but it still tasted good as long as you used a slotted spoon to get out the “yams”. Craig also did a number on our Christmas decorations so the table looked fabulous.

Christmas morning… Santa even found us here in South Africa

Enjoying our Christmas morning

Our Christmas feast

AJ, the most experienced climber of the crew, led the way, but we were quick learners and both Suz and I did our first lead climbs. Rhonda challenged herself on slabs of the like she had never faced before and Craig… well he made his first assents ever and truly mastered his fears as he enjoyed some fabulous climbs.

Rhonda on “Little Bonsai”

Craig’s first crag

We managed to stretch ourselves with our greatest attempt at a 5.10a. Suz, AJ and I all managed a full assent on a 5.9 and the rest of the crew was able to solidly climb a 5.8.

AJ attempting the “Endless Blowjob”

Benjamin chimney-ing up  “Jackie Chan”

Suz climbing to clear “Little Bonsai”

All in all we had an awesome time and wish we were still out on the rocks. I know that I for one am hooked. There just is something about being out in the beautiful wilderness and getting up close and personal with mother nature.

Nuff said!

Check out the entire photo album at  Rock Climbing 2008

Where did you spend your Christmas holiday??

“Green,” she said… “all I want is to go somewhere green.”

In the scorching heat of northwest Limpopo we triple lined our backpacks preparing for rain. First our clothes and gear went into gallon sized Ziplock bags. These went into durable garbage sacks and into our packs. Finally we got our duck backs ready to go around the outside of the pack as the first defense against the much anticipated precipitation.

The Drakensberg Mountains jut out of the flat farmland of Free State, surround the country of Lesotho and spill down into Kwa Zulu Natal. They beckon the ones such as ourselves who live in the dust with their vibrant green lushness.

We had seen a picture or two from fellow volunteers who had braved this gem of South Africa last year, but alas most of these photos were taken from inside the clouds so the vistas were mear mist.

Suz and I had found a small crew of volunteers who were willing to take a walk on the wild-side, to head up into the clouds where the dust of Africa has come alive with vegetation.

John Clemo, Kristy Gilijohan, Craig Grundwald, Susie and Benjamin

We were an assorted crew of  5, made up of experienced hikers and those who hadn’t set foot on a backpacking trail in their lives. As we all had come half way around the globe our equipment was limited and some had to beg, borrow and steal to assemble usable gear. Even so, some of our packs and “boots” were not originally intended for multi-day mountainous terrain.

Suz and I had come to SA ready to head out into the wilderness so we made sure that others had the essentials for a 4 day 3 night excursion into the wilderness but even the day of the great trek we were lucky enough to borrow a mountain guides sleeping bag and mat for our fellow compadraes . So with a well packed medical kit and Suz our own personal Wildness First Responder we set forth onto the trail.

Okay, so our first night in the the Drakes we spent at Inkosana Lodge, a beautiful backpacker created to be a basecamp for those who were headed into the hills. After a long drive from Pretoria we got to our room took a shower or two and then began distributing the gear, and the waterproofing bags, everybody needed to be ready.

The next day we got up to the trail head by 7am and the heavens looked stormy. The mountains above us were wrapped in an ethereal mist. Numerous campers who were pitched at the campground at the trail head paraded past questioning our decision to head out considering the probable showers. (Showers are what I dream of every night so I was overjoyed by their worry. I mean if a couple Washingtonians can’t handle the rain who can?)

Packed and ready to brave the elements

Suz stands next to Crystal Falls

We hadn’t been on the trail for more than an hour or so when the hills above us began to disappear into the fog.

Hiking into the mist

Donning our rain gear we prepared for the worst. Our hike into the Drakes was shrowed in mystery. At times were were able to glance a chance view of the green hilsides along which we assended but most of our travels were something out of a storybook. Our map was good but the verbal description of the forks in the trail that we needed were, shall we say, less than steller. Luckily we listened keenly to those who were leaving the Drakes like sopping lemmings shivvering down the trail. They described our hopeful path with anicdotal accuracy that we needed (or at least we thought). Along our path we came across a team of college age folk who were heading in the opposite direction, apparently they had been attempting to find Zulu Cave for the past few days and were rather lost. This made them rather chipper to see hikers who had recently come from the way down. We wished them well and continued on our way.

Cloud walking

I had brought my trusty GPS along. We used it constantly making sure we were following the right contour lines and ensuring that if worst came to worst we always had a way back from whence we came. Along our way it became clear that our intended destination was too far away for our journey through the wet so we altered our course and attempted to find Zulu cave ourselves.

A glimpse through the fog… its photo time

Wet, yet still smiling

Taking the second fork to the right off the main trial we headed down into a deep river valley where our trail quickly disappeared. Splitting up Suz and I searched for the continuation of the trail across the full creak that made its home in the valley floor. By this time we were fully drenched as we walked through tall grasses that had colleted the clouds thoughout the day and the daylight was quickly begining to wain. We approached our comrads who were huddled together at the last remnants of the trail with the news that it looked like this was going to be our camp for night number one.

As we got out our tents and began to set up the heavens opened up and the rain came. “It’s hailing,” someone said as enormous raindrops pummeled us from above.

Craig, our beloved city boy, was chilled to the bone shaking from head to foot. As soon as I could get under the rainfly to the tent in the vestible I had him get out of his wet clothes jump into the tent, dry off and get into his sleeping bag. As he did this we set up the tent around him. John quickly followed suit and I put on the finishing touches.

Suz and Kristy on the other hand had a second tent and were making due on their own as the rain poured down from above. That evening after everyone had warmed their bodies we cooked our eveing meal (in the tent – I know we are bad people not following safety protocal). Warm food truly helped get the blood flowing and by the time we were ready to turn in spirits overall where reasonably high.

Craig confessed to us the second day that he was truly wonderin

g why anyone would  put themselves though such an ordeal until he unzipped our tent for the first time in the morning. The sunshine poured in and so did the most breathtaking view of the mountains one could ever hope for. All at once that doubt was washed away and we were made anew amidst the beauty that held us in the palm of its hand.

Zip open the tent and the mountain splendor washes over us

A window far above us through the rock

Drying out everything

Day two we dried out and explored our little valley. Day three we found the trail to Zulu cave and even though it was occupied we camped just down along the river that had previously just spilled over its mouth. By the time we headed back home we had truly drank in the freshness and fullness that the Drakensberg Mountains have to offer. I think Suz and I could have stayed out there for a week more but time was short and we had other adventures on our plate for the week ahead.

Zulu Cave in the distance

A view from inside Zulu Cave

Two very happy hikers

Check out the full photo album at Drakensberg 2008

Expand the Band

Why hello,

I don’t usually ask for much, but in this case I believe it is a good cause. One of the reasons why I believe Peace Corps has a good thing going is that its service work is flexible. We as volunteers have been asked, within loose project guidelines, to find areas of true need in the communities that we are placed and then with the help of the local population to develop programs and strategies to meet those needs. We come in with very little agenda other than to help where we are able. Therefore when Mam Lebogo, a teacher at the lower primary, approached me about helping to expand their church’s brass band, I was intrigued. After many discussions about the intent of the band, how it works and why they want to grow I can honestly say this is a wonderful way to meet a dire need in rural South Africa that was fully developed by the local community but can be made a reality by support from folks just like you. Below is the statement of purpose for the project.

“South Africa has the highest number of HIV positive individuals worldwide. In rural areas, there is a severe lack of opportunities for children and youth to develop a routine of healthy, life-giving behaviors. In April of 2007, a church in rural South Africa received a donation of a single pre-owned (and rather beat-up) trumpet. This single, potentially insignificant donation started a chain reaction leading to the active creation and promotion of a youth band. The congregation has since pulled together what little it has to purchase a replacement for the original trumpet. Upon hearing of the dream, the local musical instrument dealer donated a second instrument to the cause. With the band gaining momentum, the congregation, through much hard work and sacrifice, raised nearly $3,000 U.S. dollars to purchase 9 additional instruments to date. Each musical instrument is shared by a cadre of children and youth, and therefore 9 instruments currently serve a band of twenty-two youth. The congregation has hopes to expand its reach by adding 11 new instruments to the band, helping to provide a positive opportunity to over 30 additional at-risk children and youth.”

Many of the youth that are currently involved in the band journey to the church to practice up to 3 hours every day. Why, because they love the music and they want to use thier gift to give back to the community, no one forces thier involvement. This is just another way that we can open doors of opportunity to those who sometimes feel surrounded by hopelessness.

The church is hoping to raise $4428.66. Please consider helping. 100% of your contribution will go to the purchase of the new instruments and therefore 30 more youth will have an opportunity to experience the power of making music.

You can donate here using the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) Website. It’s fast its secure and it allows you a way of keeping track of your donation for tax purposes.

Thanks, Benjamin

National Women’s Day Celebration

As 2008 begins to draw to a close, I find myself thinking about the successes and challenges of my Peace Corps service. When we first arrived in our village in September 2007, I tried to make projects work at my NGO, Abbotspoort Home and Community Based Care, but soon realized that they simply were not ready for a Peace Corps Volunteer. So in January 2008, I transitioned into Abbotspoort Higher Primary School to start Chrysalis Girls Club, a young women’s empowerment program for the 86 7th grade girls. This has been an incredible, inspiring project, and I urge you to check out our girls club blog for more information–I just added 7 new posts! (Don’t worry, they’re mostly pictures with minimal text, just to give an overview of what we’ve been up to lately).

Volunteers from the home-based care (“carers”) helped with girls club at the beginning, but by June they were no longer able to assist with the program. Our main leaders are teachers from the primary schools, but it was disappointing to no longer have a joint community/school project when the carers left. I continued to search for a way to still involve the home-based care in Chrysalis Girls Club, which brings me to one of my most gratifying days in South Africa…

On August 8th 2008, the village of Mokuruanyane (Abbotspoort) experienced an event, as they would say, “it is for the first time.” Chrysalis Girls Club worked together with Abbotspoort Home and Community Based Care AND the Abbotspoort Clinic to offer a National Women’s Day Celebration for all girls and women in Mokuruanyane! This was a wonderfully collaborated effort…

I worked with Chrysalis Girls Club to design the program and recruit girls and leaders to speak. The home-based care rented an event tent, chairs, and sound system, and provided a full South African meal for all who attended. The Program Director of the home-based care also MC’d the program.

The Abbotspoort Clinic selected nurses to speak about women’s health topics and opened their courtyard for us to hold the event.

Singing and dancing was had by all!

The day concluded with women’s health/empowerment-related craft projects. Here, Mma Hlako is teaching about the menstrual cycle and how a woman can use “Moon Beads” (one of the craft projects) to understand her cycle.

This “gogo” (term of respect for a grandmother or older woman) just made her “Moon Beads,” which were actually pieces of uncooked pasta due to limited finances 🙂

Decoupaging tin cans with images of empowered women

It was so wonderful to see the clinic, home-based care, and schools working together to truly make this event a success. It seemed that with their powers combined, anything was possible! The home-based care was delighted to be involved and vowed to offer the program on an annual basis. It might not have worked for them to help with girls club every week, but the home-based care really made things happen for National Women’s Day. I realized that if they were only able to work with girls club at large community events like this, that would be totally fine and still be a tremendous asset to our program and the village!

Over 100 people attended the celebration, including women and girls of all ages and a few supportive men and boys. I left the event floating on cloud 9, because it had gone 10 times better than I ever thought possible. There are many, many hard days in Peace Corps, when it seems like nothing is working, but this was one day that I thought to myself, “THIS is why I’m here. THIS is what being a Peace Corps Volunteer is all about, connecting and empowering different groups in the community to positively impact the greater village.” Every Peace Corps Volunteer has their own unique experience without a specific job description, but I felt, on that day, that I was “doing the right thing.” It dawned on me, at that moment, that although my official project title is “NGO (Non-Govermental Organization) Volunteer” or “CHOP (Community and HIV/AIDS Outreach Project) Volunteer,” with my main project being Chrysalis Girls Club and the success of our National Women’s Day Celebration, my Peace Corps role in South Africa is really that of a “Women’s Empowerment Volunteer.” And I couldn’t be happier with that assignment! 🙂

A quick trip home that I wouldn’t have missed for the world

You may have heard rumor that I (Suz) flew home for a week in September. Well I’d like to officially confirm that that rumor was correct. 🙂 I flew home for the wedding of one of my dearest friends, Sarah Spring! Although I was only in the states for 6 quick days, it was totally worth it. The wedding was absolutely beautiful and Sarah was naturally a gorgeous bride.

Sarah and Suz in the bride’s room, moments before the ceremony

While home, I also had the chance to see Stella, Meghan, Jacque, and my family!

Stella and Suz in a “dancing, squishy, bug-hug!”

Meghan (P.P.!), Suz, and “My Friend” Jacque

Barr Family Sibs (Dan “Barrvinkski.” Phil “Monkey,” and “Sooooz”)

Suz and Mom (Awe…)

Mom and I ended up going bowling on my last night in Seattle. We had a blast and she totally kicked my butt without even trying! 🙂

Aunt Diana and Uncle Ron kindly let me stay at their place for the week, borrow their car, and come & go, as needed. Hurray for wonderful family and friends!

Without meaning to, I themed my “limited time American meals,” Asian-style. I enjoyed Thai food, Vietnamese food, AND a Mongolian grill! I visited Starbucks (3 times) and brought back tasty bread from the Great Harvest Bread Company. I managed to acquire items for girls club and for Ben & me at REI, Good Will, Target, Safeway, Bartell’s Drugs, and Barnes ‘n Noble. It was a wonderful feeling being home in familiar areas and shopping in stores I knew, but everything felt so BIG! Not that there aren’t stores in South Africa, but there just seems to be more of everything in the U.S. It was sad to leave, again, but I took comfort in knowing I would be back in less than a year. And, besides, I had to return to my husband in our little South African concrete house and tin roof! Until next year, Seattle…