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

Double-Double Your Vacation (Part Two)

Hey, everybody! Suz here. Long time, no updates, we know. Things just seem to keep getting busier and busier…Girls Club is rockin’ and I just finished two humongous Peace Corps reports on the project, we organized a huge celebration for Women’s Day, Ben has been busy being the official “Village Tech” as well as doing the detail work on our girls club AIDS mural, and I went home for a week in September. But more on all of that later. Allow me to continue where I left off after our massive double-double-your-enjoyment vacation…

Mid-Service Vacation Part Two: Barrs!

So we dropped off Bob at the airport and a few hours later my parents and brother, Dan, arrived. I was soooo excited to see them! So much so, in fact, that I ran right by Dan when they entered the airport, hugged my parents, then asked where my brother was. Ha! I swear he had grown two feet since I last saw him, so I just didn’t recognize his new tallness.

Barr Family arrives in South Africa!

Our first Barr Family Vacation adventure was getting our rental car. After waiting in line at the rental office for an hour and being specially driven over to their lot, we learned that our “car” was actually a 14-passenger van with more space than most of the public taxis we take everywhere. Ha! We thought it might have been fun to drive it all around the country, picking up random hitch-hikers, seeing a whole elephant without moving our vehicle…but we decided in the end it would probably be best to get something more manageable, so the next morning, a nice little mini-van was delivered to our hotel. It was made for a cosy, but much more comfortable & enjoyable method of transport.

Now that we had the right vehicle, we were ready to see animals at Kruger National Park! We saw tons of elephants (one that nearly walked on top of our car!), giraffes, cool birds, and a first for Ben and me: Rhinos! It was awesome, to say the least. Who doesn’t love African animals?

Rhino in Kruger National Park

The next highlight was a cultural endeavor in Swaziland. What a beautiful place! We drove through endless green rolling hills, small villages, and evergreen forests. Dan helped us keep our eyes out for the Swazi king, but we had no luck spotting him. (Sorry, Dan!) We stayed at a lovely hotel with a delightful staff that serenaded us at dinner. We sat outside in the cool & comfortable patio, candle-light atmosphere, and enjoyed the traditional African music. Such a great “Welcome to Africa” experience for my family! The next day we visited an authentic Swazi village that opens their space to visitors to generate income. We peaked in their huts, hiked to a waterfall, and enjoyed their beautiful singing and dancing. Dan and I even got pulled onstage to participate!

Ben exploring a hut in a traditional Swazi village

Suz learning a Swazi dance onstage

From Swaziland we made our way to St. Lucia, which should actually be named, “Hippo Country.” It’s a cute little town right on the water, where we stayed in a fantastic condo for a week. We enjoyed the nearby smaller national parks, played rugby on the beach & waded in the Indian Ocean, saw hundreds of hippos on the river, and even took in a whale boat cruise!

Dan and Suz on the hippo tour! Awe…

Dan pretending to be a hippo by holding a tooth up to his mouth.

Yikes! “Hungry, hungry hippo” now has a whole new, terrifying meaning!

Whale-sighting from our whale boat cruise. They were swimming all around and underneath us. Mom and I both got a little seasick, but it was incredible to be so close to these amazing creatures!

Our last stop was a chalet in the mountains, near the town of Ladysmith. We went from the mild climate along the ocean to a hot-in-the-day, chilly-willy-at-night environment, but it was fabulous. We drank hot chocolate, played card games, enjoyed tea and breakfast at a cute cafe’ in town, and visited the “smallest church in the world” which apparently is right there in Ladysmith!

Breakfast at the tea house, right next to the “Smallest Church in the World.”

It was awefully sad to say goodbye, again, when we dropped my family off at the airport. (I think I went back to get “just one more look” at them in the South African Airways line at least three times). 🙂 But Ben and I eventually left, a little teary-eyed, but overjoyed with all of the memories from this spectacular vacation.

We’ve been blessed with SO many wonderful memories of family and friends that have come to visit, memories that lift our spirits in the tough times and add to our delight on the days we can say, “This is why we’re here. This is why we’re in Peace Corps.” Memories of a lifetime that we’ll keep close at heart and treasure forever and always. Thank you to our Wilson ‘rents, thank you to Bob, and thank you to Mom, Dad, and Dan, for blessing us with your love and support, and for such wonderful South African vacations. We love you all kudu kudu (very, very much)!

New Updates and Pictures

Hey, everybody!

Susie here. Just a quick note to let you know there are 3 new updates on our Chrysalis Girls Club blog, so if you’re interested, click on the link in the left column to check them out.

Also, 7 new photo albums have been added to our Picasa website, including pictures from our massive vacation with Bob and my family. (Click on our “Photo Albums” tab at the top of this page, then follow the link to see all of our online pictures).

Hope you’re all doing well and enjoying the tail-end of summer, as we’re relishing the last bits of winter! Will write more soon about our vacation with my family and other recent Peace Corps adventures. 🙂

Double-Double Your Vacation (Part One)

Wow, it’s been a while since we’ve updated our blog! I guess that’s what happens you go on two incredible vacations, eh? It’s time to start catching-up…

Mid-Service Vacation Part One: Bob!

On June 19th we left our village to make our way to Pretoria. We picked up Bob at the airport on June 21st and took him to our favorite backpackers to crash for the night.

Ben let me celebrate being on vacation by getting long African braids! Only took 3+ hours and four different people to make it happen, but it was totally worth it. Just something fun I’ve wanted to do for a long time!

On the 22nd we drove west to Upington, South Africa, just south of the Namibian boarder, and crossed into Namibia on the 23rd. What a beautiful country! We went from 44 million people in South Africa to 2 million people in Namibia with barely another car on the road.

The biggest highlight in Namibia was naturally the infamous sand dunes. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Ben was ecstatic about going to the dunes from the beginning, whereas I was excited about seeing the animals in the national parks, so I was more along for the ride for this part of the trip…This soon changed as we drove toward Sesriem Canyon and the dirt-covered hills began to lose their desert vegetation, and our dusty surroundings gradually became a deep reddish brown. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by enormous mounds of rolling sand, beautifully chiseled by the wind in artistic swirls and peaks. Already tremendously impressed, little did I know the best was yet to come. We made our way to the well-known “Dune 45” and began our trek to the top. Once there, Ben didn’t waste any time. He took one giant leap off the top and…


Bounding down the side of the dune, springing through the sand, Ben demonstrated what this mountain-trampoline was all about. Bob and I were quick to follow. What a rush! I had no idea jumping off dunes could be so exhilarating. I felt like I was flying!

Watch out, Michael Jordan!

We left the dunes on the 25th to head towards Etosha National Park in northern Namibia. From the moment we entered the park, we felt like we were in the Lion King. An elephant greeted us from the side of the road before we were even through the main gate, and the first watering hole we visited had at least 6 different kinds of animals. We couldn’t have asked for anything more!

By the 27th we were making our way through the Caprivi Strip towards Victoria Falls. We had a gorgeous campsite at Zambezi Lodge and the falls were absolutely breathtaking…

Victoria Falls, Zambia

While staying at Zambezi, we drove into Botswana to see Chobe National Park, and were blessed with the most amazing riverboat safari we could have imagined. Elephants crossing the water in front of us, a lion stalking her prey on the shore, water buffalo, crocodiles; it was incredible!

Chobe National Park, Botswana

On the 30th of June we stayed near Botswana’s Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world, and enjoyed a mokoro tour. One of the most peaceful experiences a person could ever have…

Mokoro Boat Tour, Okavango Delta (Botswana)

We crossed back into South African and stayed at our village on July 2nd-3rd. It gave us a chance to introduce Bob to our host family and to catch our breath before the next adventure. After putting nearly 6,800 km on our rental car in less than two weeks, we were all a bit on the tired side. 🙂 What an incredible trip, though…So many highlights, so much fun, and such great company. We love you, Bob!!!

Coming Soon…Mid-Service Vacation Part Two: Barr Family!

Trips Ahoy!

Hey everybody! Tomorrow Susie and I are leaving for Pretoria to start a wild and wonderful vacation that involves Bob Stafford, Susie’s Parents and little (well not so little) bro. We are headed through Namibia, a bit into Zambia, botswana and then back into SA to head over to Krugar, St. Lucia and Swaziland. We’ll give you the full update and stories upon return in the middle of July.

We love you all. Please wish us luck, this is an overland adventure that involves countless hours of driving a rental car though some rural, rural spaces. I think all will be well as long as we can drive around the elephants successfully.

Cheers Benjamin and Susie

We’ve split

No no no… Susie and I are still overjoyed to be married, but we have chosen to put the Chrysalis Girls Club updates on a second blog. Think of it more like a split in the stock market, you get double what you had before. You can still see links to the newest posts on the left side of our blog so don’t forget to check out what the girls are up to.

Visit http://chrysalisgirlsclub.wordpress.com to get to the club’s page directly.

Much love,