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…

A little colour in a dry and dusty world

Sometimes projects just come together in beautiful ways.

With Susie’s careful planning the Chrysalis Girls Club had a full unit on HIV/AIDS. The girls got the facts about the disease as well as the realities of how the pandemic is affecting their country and even their little village. According to the municipality and our clinic, 1 in 4 people in our area is HIV positive. The girls also beaded AIDS ribbon key chains and wrote essays on how to remain HIV negative by using one of the country’s main messages of prevention, the ABCs: Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condomize.

As a culminating project Susie thought it would be fun to paint an HIV awareness mural on the school. To do this the plan was to have the grade 7 girls draft possible messages and images that could go into the mural, to take those messages to the secondary school to solicit help from learners who were interested in exercising their artistic talents by turning the girls’ ideas into a coherent mural design, and then to sketch them in pencil on the wall, itself, finally having the grade 7 girls fill in the mural with color.

This process on Susie’s original schedule was to take all of two weeks. The actual mural project is just being completed and took many, many weeks, but it happened just as planned. Given the fact that it took “a little longer than initially thought,” I was happy to help out.

The wall before the work, learner positioned so that we knew how tall to make the mural.

Before the paint the girls thoroughly washed the wall and then it was sanded.

Susie painting the primer boarder. The primer was not water based and was truly a pain to clean with limited supplies.

The girls painted our base colors over the primer, blue for the sky and brown for the sandy soil.

Our four Majadibodu Secondary artists learning how to expand a drawing using a proportional grid placed over their image and then drawn on the wall. Ah got to love the math connections here.

The boys doing their fabulous sketch work.

As the boys were finishing their sketch we had the girls come in to start putting in the color. All of the pencil lines were eventually redone with black paint and a small brush.

Stroke by stroke the wall came into its own as the girls painted away. Often there were other learners who came to watch the progress.

In the end the school went all out with their decorations. They dubbed this HIV/AIDS corner and placed tires filled with small plants in front of the wall and painted them with AIDS ribbons to match.

When the girls were done I spent countless hours touching up and in the end there were only a few extras to add. One was the names of the four learners from Majadibodu.

The second was to give honor to the Girls Club itself. (From Suz: The butterfly and signature on the wall looks EXACTLY like our Chrysalis Girls Club logo, font and all! Ben really outdid himself).

The mural can be seen from quite a distance and livens up the school and its surroundings. It was fun to do and wonderful to involve so many different people in the project. My biggest joy was in all of the conversations about HIV/AIDS that came about as I spent the hours on the wall. If for no other reason this project truly was worthwhile.

From AIDS Mural

Peace, Benjamin

P.S. I have two titles for this mural. I call it either, “Many Hours with a Small Brush” or “Giants in the Village.”

Personal Reflection: Fears and Desires

I knew that joining the Peace Corps would be challenging for me  in many ways.

Early on in our first week in country we had individual interviews with our Assistant Program Country Directors (APCDs). In this interview we discussed desires and fears for the upcoming two years of service.  The one desire that Suz and I had previously decided upon was to ask for a site that was as rural as possible.

Susie was hoping for no electricity, no running water and a mud hut as far off the beaten track as one can get in South Africa. I on the other hand thought running water somewhere near-by and maybe electricity would be nice too. Hey, how else could I get my tech fix, the battery in my laptop isn’t that good. One of our fellow volunteers suggested that I could hook Susie up to a bicycle generator for our electrical needs, considering her never ending supply of positive energy. I am pretty sure this would have actually worked. <grin>

As for my fears, I had two. The number one was language.

I rely heavily on my abilities to communicate verbally in order to get things done. I feel that I have a decent ability to move situations forward in a positive manor with a few well chosen words or to explain anything from physics phenomena to camp games, but in a new language I thought I would be so limited that frustration would take over and I would be rooted in a field of miry clay unable to move in any direction.

My second fear revolved around my need for structure. I have heard that successful Peace Corps Volunteers are the ones that can create their own, find their own projects and create their own timeliness. My background in the public schools provided me with just enough freedom to create my own curriculum, or rather, to engineer my own way of implementing the state curriculum, while having clear cut expectations for time lines and end outcomes. I relied on the fact that my students in the States needed me there when the bell rang to begin our mutual exploration of the world of science together. Whereas sometimes I envied Susie’s more flexible schedule when she rose from her bed at 7am for her daily yoga practice, and then to eat breakfast and finally to get ready for the day where her arrival time at work varied widely (keeping in mind that her knock-off time also greatly varied) after I had left for school at promptly at 6:50am sharp every day to catch my carpool so that we could walk through the school doors at 7:15, most of the time I appreciated knowing that I had a daily routine that others counted upon.

The world of Peace Corps has goals and objectives, we were given a chance to dream and to plan. We share ideas with fellow volunteers for projects and workshops, yet at the end of the day it is up to us to set our own time line; to gently force our way into the lives of our communities who have routines of their own. We ask question, make suggestions, testing the waters for areas where our skills and gifts can meet the needs of our village and those that surround. This process of continual seeking can be exhorting in-and-of itself and some days, when all of my previous projects have tapped out, I find it easier to get up, wash, eat breakfast and then to read the news, or a new found book, check my email and generally avoid starting over seeking for new ways to find inroads toward positive change.

These days, of which today is one, are the days that my guilt factor kicks in. I begin to make assumptions about the ways that the village sees me. I wonder if they see a slacker who has chosen to hold-up in his little two-room house, avoiding real work as he bides his time waiting for inspiration to strike again. (They probably don’t really even notice… but…)

Today I will head to the high school to make sure their computers are networked so that each individual computer can print on their one printer. I will meet Mahlate, a young boy from the village who has borrowed a digital camera to take pictures of the village and his daily life. We will go to the upper primary school to take the pictures off the camera using the computers there so that he can someday load them onto a flash drive and have them printed in town. I will take a group photo of the Chrysalis Girls Club, Susie’s primary project, so that we can make perfect attendance awards for her ceremony next week, as well as put the finishing touches on the certificates of participating in girls club itself. I plan to cook dinner, continue planning for our backpack trip in the Drakensberg Mountains this December, read some more maybe watch a episode of Chuck (a TV program that Bob brough with him on his visit to SA – thanks Bob) and then head to bed.

This may sound like a lot, but the reality is that I just came off of five years of public school teaching while simultaneously working to complete my master’s degree, playing in the praise band at Aldersgate UMC and helping Suz with the youth group when I had a chance. My PC work is significantly less stressful in many ways than my work back in the States, but in others I pine for more solid expectations with measurable outcomes.

My fear, revolving round a world with less structure, is one that I wrestle with on a daily basis. Susie has excellent suggestions, which keep me going. I think I need to adopt a project within my skill-set that has a more clear focus. One in which I can work towards goals, with time-lines I write down and to which I adhere. If Peace Corps has helped me with anything, it has forced me to struggle with freedom, the freedom to do as I please, driven only by my inner compass. What do I really believe, what do I really want, how can I be an instrument to help others, yet not be used and abused.

I knew I would struggle without structure and in the end I hope that I can look back on the great Peace Corps experiment and say, “I grew a lot those two years in rural South Africa. I may not have realized at the time but positve change did happen, and it happend to me.”

Cheers, Benjamin