Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Moms

This is my wonderful mom, Mariam Lamola. I call her Mama. This is a typical Sunday evening with her ironing all our clothes after a day of washing laundry. I cook dinner. Everyone wins.

These are her two sisters. Mokgaetji is the oldest in the blue. I call her Mma Mogolo (older mother) and Raisebe is the youngest in the pink sleeves. I call her Mmane (aunt or younger mother). My Mom is the middle child. They also had a brother who passed away. Raised by a single mother all four children grew up to be educators.

They are preparing food for my birthday party.

Paying Labola

David, my supervisor and best friend, paid labola (a bride price) today. That means he is married and his wife will live with him now. Florina, his wife, also works at Aletuke. She is one of my favorite people here.

First time to the ocean

Mary J is the OCV supervisor at Aletuke. I brought her with me to Durban for a Peace Corps training. We stayed in a hotel right on the beach. Mary J was in the water for hours everyday. She had a blast. Imagine never seeing the ocean until now.

I just love this photo.

No kidding, she was like a pig in shit, a kid in a candy store, a person who has never been to the beach rolling around in the sand.

Just a little adrenaline

This was bridge swinging in Sabie. What a blast. I would have done it a hundred times over. But next time... a bigger bridge.

I ended up getting lowered into this river. It was great to swim and there is a great waterfall off to the side.

Oh the changes we go through

Just push play.

Happy 35th!

Kristen, the PCV who lives near me, was the guest of honor of the guest of honor. She sat at the cake table with me while my sister gave a speech.

... (singing) Happy birthday to you. Hip hip horray! Hip hip horray!

Hey Darcy, how about another drink and some sunblock?

My Mom, family and neighbors put on a wonderful party for me. Couldn't think of a better way to spend my 35th birthday.

Happiness is...

...being around children who, despite the world around them, can still smile and laugh like this. They have so much to teach me and I have so much to learn from them.

The perfect gift

This is Anna and her children. She was the domestic worker for my first host family I lived with. She is a typical hard working woman, living alone with her children while her husband is away working in Joburg. He comes home once a year and, unfortunately, has stopped sending money. As a thank you gift before I left I went to her home and took this absolutely beautiful picture of her family. People in these villages have very little photo documentation of their lives for obvious reasons. Who can afford a camera? So taking photos is a priceless gift for them.

Dressed to the nines...

These ladies are a beautiful example of full traditional Sepedi women. They are dressed up for a celebration I attended. They loved having their picture taken. But what they liked even more was seeing their picture on my camera screen.

When in Rome...

Cutting the head off something while it's alive is a feeling I'll never get used to.

"You, my friend, are number 28. Last one of the day." Yup, I slaughtered 28 chickens that day.

I can't tell you how happy I am that is over with. Now I can go clean the blood off my arm, hands, shoes and pants.

Then they go to the feather plucking, gut pulling and body prepping table. These ladies are professionals. Maybe I'll pull a chair up to this table next time.

It's a lot of work slaughtering your own meat for a party.

All that they tell you about what chickens do once their heads are cut off are all true.

Paper Airplanes in school?

This is another school I spent a day at. Never underestimate the power of a paper airplane.

Just push play for a little classroom fun.

My Village

This is Moshate, my village. I live about one inch to the right of my left shoulder and I work about one inch to the left of my right shoulder. I absolutely love living here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I took two of my workers to a community college to participate in a health fair.  I'm working on educating my staff on health issues that effect the people here.  Through education I'm building knowledge, self-esteem and empowerment.  They did a great job passing information on to the public.  I'm so proud of them.
I can't pull the Pedi look off like my Mom, but I'll try anything once.  I wore this to an event at my organization.  Everyone absolutely loved it.

My Mom

This is my mom, Mariam Lamola.  She is an amazing woman in so many ways.  She takes wonderful care of me and teaches me so much.   

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fix it!

October arrived fast and furious.  Winter is now behind us and the heat is weighing heavily on me.  It sucks my energy and makes me want to do nothing outside of the shade.  I am, however, very thankful for the breeze that provides a little relief most of the time.  The rain finally returned, very late this year, so our gutter bucket is back in action collecting water for bathing and washing clothes.  We have a little outside building with a bathtub in it that never became a bathroom and instead has been used to store yard tools, scraps of crap and other shit my Mom didn’t want to throw away.  I can’t blame her because I have found uses for much of the crap scraps and other shit to fix things around the house.  Earlier this week I gave her nonfunctioning gutter a facelift with some wire, a few rusty oversized nails, a borrowed ladder and my priceless Gerber (way better than a Leatherman.  Thank you Darin)  Now it’s working beautifully.  I cleaned out the bathroom/junk area and prepared it for a sunshower that should be arriving from the states in a couple of weeks.  My Mom and I are so excited to be able to rinse down and cool off at the end of a hot sticky day.  We had to cut down one of our mango trees because it just up and died on us.  It’s been sitting out in the yard for weeks and I was wondering what she had planned for it.  Out of not wanting to deal with it she probably would have given it to someone to burn.  I spent this morning cutting the entire tree into pieces of wood that will fit in our coal stove next winter (July-August).  It feels really good to be productive around the house.  My Mom is always cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.  I keep the kitchen clean on a daily basis and I scrub the bathroom once a week but my Mom just never stops.  She is on her hands and knees all the time wiping down, scrubbing, polishing or buffing something.  That kind of house work just isn’t my cup of tea.  So when I can do things like patch cracks in the tub with caulking and an old bicycle tube, take her washer apart and fix the leaking pieces or replace and wire a light fixture in the bathroom that has fallen apart over the years (all with my Gerber of coarse) I feel like I am doing my part.  My Mom is always amazed and so thankful when I fix something or improve it.  Her brain just doesn’t work that way I guess.  Her gutters had been out of commission for years, the outside bathroom was built four years ago and was never used and she was ready to buy a whole new tub for the inside bathroom (which she couldn’t afford) because the cracks were getting so bad.  I love being resourceful and working with what I have around me to repair what isn’t working.  It’s kind of fun, actually.  My brother, Danny, always told me to leave a place better than you found it.  Whether it was picking up a piece of trash or fixing a loose board on someone’s front doorstep.  He is famous for being the visitor who asks for a screwdriver because he noticed the door knob was loose on his way in. So I have adopted, happily, this way of thinking and acting.  If you can fix it, fit it and make someone smile.            

Monday, October 20, 2008

Life as a celebrity...

This is one of the schools I visited. They put on a big AIDS assembly on my behalf. It was really neat. Can you find the white girl in the crowd?

My kids at Aletuke... love them!

This is an event we had with all the guardians and kids when we gave out new school uniforms. The kids really enjoy the art supplies that so many of you have donated. Art program, here we come.

My Home

Typical Sunday afternoon laundry session with my Mma. Tumi is my Mama's 2 1/2 year old grandaughter who stays with us on the weekends. She is so cute and fun to watch grow and develop language, both English and Sepedi.

Aletuke Health and Drop-in Center

Finally! A visual of Aletuke.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Embracing the Ride

I’ve been in South Africa for nine months now. The house I live in is quite modern by local standards. My Mom is a teacher, paid by the government, which allows her a reasonably comfortable life. We have a nice television with Satellite reception, refrigerator, electric range with oven, indoor plumbing with hot water and a flush toilet. We also have a borehole, or a shallow well, which provides us with a back-up water source for when the street pipes run dry. As of today, the street has been dry for over a month. Gutter collectors have been empty since before winter (June) and we haven’t seen rain since April. In the mean time the municipality trucks in water to community holding tanks for people to fetch what they need. Our borehole water is very salty so we must fetch only our drinking water. For that I am grateful.

I sit in my living room on matching furniture and wonder if I could, would I choose to live more remote, without appliances or electricity, my computer or cell phone? What if I lived in a place where I couldn’t count on their English and I had to rely only on my Sepedi? Would I have it in me to live further out of my comfort zone?

There are things here that I have no problem living without. And the longer I’m here the easier and more normal it becomes. I haven’t used a napkin, paper towel, zip-lock bag or aluminum foil since I’ve been here. I can count the meals I’ve used a fork to eat with. There isn’t a butter knife in the house (the back of a spoon works great) and a drawer organizer is the furthest thing from our kitchen. You have to pay for plastic bags at the grocery store so my Mom showed me how to fold and tie one up in a tiny bundle and always have one in my bag. I’m glad for that about once a week. Pens and pencils are hard to come by so I’m much better about keeping my pens until they are out of ink. I keep food boxes to make homemade postcards and projects for work, pieces of string and wire, wash out food jars and recycle the nice paper bags that sugar and flour come in. At the point in which a typical American would toss a dishcloth into the trash, we use it until it almost falls apart and then it continues to live out the rest of its life as a cleaning rag. Old panty hose are used for buffing floors and shoes. I watch my coworkers blow their nose on their child’s outgrown infant t-shirt. We save the oil from cooking. We re-use the vinegar used to boil salt off the kettle heating coil. We collect rain from the gutters for bathing, washing clothes and cooking. I will use the plastic wrap from my lettuce to wrap a leftover. I use the toilet paper bag for my trashcan. And even then I dump it out and use it again. You know the wax molded at the bottom of the candle holder? There’s a use for that too. If you look inside my Mom’s pillow there’s years of outgrown, ripped and recycled clothing. It’s a little lumpy for my taste but it’s the one she chooses to sleep with every night. I use the communal cup at the drum of drinking water. I pee in a bucket in my room at night. It’s pit toilets everywhere you go so don’t forget to keep toilet paper on you at all times.
The list goes on and on with the everyday little things that are truly everyday and little things. They were adjustments to begin with but living so simply has it’s own rewards. I wonder to what degree I will fall from this way of living when I return home.

In contrast to the life style I’ve embraced there are parts of my life here that have pushed me to my limits and beyond, frustrated me, brought me to tears and forced me to dig deep for strength I wasn’t sure was there. As a young, independent woman who’s made every decision for herself up to this point in time, living in an extremely patriarchal culture has proven very difficult. The hardest part for me is that the women who live in these rural communities, rich with tradition, accept the absence of choice and independence in their lives. To them, there is no absence, it just is. They know no other way. Boys and girls are separated in their chores, where they sit in church, stand at morning assembly before school and their roles in the home from a very young age. Simply the act of paying labola, a bride price, puts a woman in a position of being property and the man, owner. When I talk to people here and point out what I see their answer is always, “that’s the way it’s always been.” Then my response is usually, “yes, but it doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Because of these definitive roles whenever I’m at a celebration of some kind I find myself doing dishes, serving tea, cooking, cleaning and spending my time with the women doing what they do best, serve. I have to bite my tongue a lot and wonder if these women, who have never lived a day not servicing “their man,” long in their hearts for the choices I’ve been blessed with.

With a little gentle probing many women have opened up to me and talked about their relationships with their husbands. Some don’t even share the same bed. Most women speak of their husbands’ infidelities as if it’s just a part of the marriage package. Almost all are forced to “perform” on demand and receive no sexual pleasure from their husband. But their strength is for their children and grandchildren they are raising single handedly. It’s not an unfamiliar sight to see a woman in her sixties or seventies washing a mountain of laundry by hand with a little one tied to her back. These women inspire me while at the same time my insides weep for them.

The language barrier continues to challenge me everyday. What once was a novelty has become a daily struggle. My use of Sepedi is what often brings me closer to the people around me. Yet, their use of Sepedi is what pushes me away. I more often choose to be by myself then sit in a room with other people and feel alone. My Sepedi grows stronger everyday but despite my efforts I can understand very little of their conversations. The speed at which they speak is impossible for me to pick out words. And to complicate matters worse, the mother tongue of the village I live in is not the language I am learning. So unless I am engaged in a one on one conversation with someone who is willing to speak slowly and clearly for my understanding, I continue to sit alone. Some would say this should be a motivator to learn the language better. But the truth is, no matter how badly you want to learn to swim you can’t start in the deep end.

These daily struggles are invisible to the people around me. The thick skin I came here with is now gone. My breaking point now lives on the surface of my emotions. I am more raw and real then I ever have been. Now, it’s all about protecting myself and being proactive. What do I need right now? Where do I need to be? Who do I need to talk to? I’ve made decisions about work to maintain my happiness and productivity. I’ve had numerous conversations with my host Mom so she can understand my challenges and reactions more clearly and be a support for me, a role she has truly embraced. I know what works for me and what doesn’t. I know when to walk away and when to stay. I’m actually living in a survival mode now. If I don’t do the things necessary to protect myself emotionally and mentally I won’t be able to stay here. I often feel weak when I make the decision to get up and leave a situation but then again I feel stronger than ever because I’m acting on my behalf and doing what’s best for me without harming anyone else and I consider that strength. This may be a phase of adjustment I’m growing through. Sometimes it feels like a valley in the rollercoaster experience that Peace Corps is. But knowing yourself better than you ever have before would qualify as a peak. I believe the Universe is setting me up for success when I see the miracles all around me; my host Mom, David, my supervisor, the wonderful people I work with, the support I have from home and the lessons I embrace everyday.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"That Person"

Everyone, at one time or another has been thankful not to be “that person.” You know, the one who trips up the stairs, doesn’t think before speaking and immediately regrets it, is experiencing unfortunate circumstances or is remembered for something they’d rather not be and you think to yourself, “I’m glad I’m not him/her.” Most people would rather be known for their uniqueness, personal attributes, talents, accomplishments, and people would know them as the person who did something great. We all want to be different, just not so different that we stick out. It’s basic human nature. Another common trait of human nature is the desire to be with people who are like us. Simply put, like attracts like.
Living in a poor, black, rural community has forced my social and emotional comfort zone to stretch in ways I never would have imagined. At first glance I am nothing like the people who surround me so it has forced me to find our likenesses. In the eyes of the people in my village I am the first white person in the world to learn Sepedi. I’m the white girl who washes her clothes by hand, takes bucket bathes, does the dishes, knows how to cook pap and eats it too (the staple porridge that requires quite a technique to cook), who uses an outhouse, eats with her hands, uses public transportation and so on and so on. I’m the one who is visiting their schools, talking to the teachers and shaking the hand of every learner. I am, to them, “that person,” the one who is like no one they have ever met.
People look at me strangely everyday, everywhere I go. They are only curious about me. Although I’ve always known that it took a long time and a few tears to get used to. Today I smile, greet them and take pleasure in their immediate changes. They want to know more; where am I from, why am I here, what do I think about their people, how is it different from my home, and how is South Africa treating me. I am humbled and honored to be living with a celebrity status. It has given me the opportunity to shift their views, change their perspectives and help them develop a better understanding of, not only white people, but Americans. Being different from everyone around you can be one of the most difficult and challenging things, but it’s how you choose to use the opportunity that guides your ability to cope, adjust, accept and, in the end, be accepted yourself.
It’s been five months since I moved to Moshate. I have met over five thousand learners and a hundred teachers by spending time at nine different schools in my village and surrounding area. Most of the taxi drivers know me by name and people holler from afar to greet me when I am anywhere this side of the tar road. I don’t feel like a stranger around my home anymore and when I show up at celebrations or community events I am greeted with smiles and hugs from so many people. Its moments like that I forget I am white. So when I’m laughed at, stared at or simply treated differently I must remind myself that both good and bad are parts of living a life as “that person.”

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Updated Dream List

I got the $5000 grant I applied for. I'm so excited to be starting an Arts Program at Aletuke. The benefits of this new program will run high and wide. I'm on a search for story books that have a healthy lesson to be learned. With those types of stories it's fun to create an activity to go with the story. Right now I'm very interested in "The Story of 1000 Paper Cranes" and "The Giving Tree." If anyone would like to donate and send one of these stories that would rock my world. Please let me know if you are planning to do so and I will eliminate it from this posting. Embroidery floss is a hot commodity and is very expensive here (about $1.00 per skein). I received some already and would love to get more.

If anyone has any resources for teaching life skills/lessons and complimentary craft activities those would be great. I'm always looking for new ideas for all ages.

I would love to have a big bucket of Legos for the kids to play with. For all you folks who have a bucket left over from the kids that is shoved in the back of your closet, send them on over. My kids would do flips over them. ANY creative manipulatives would be awesome.

I have received a donation to purchase an LCD projector. We plan to create a movie theater at the center for the community and use it as an income generating project. Again, if you have any movies you are willing to part with that would be terrific. We can use VHS and DVD.

The results of a big survey we took of all the children we serve and their guardians show that these children are in dire need of almost all basic items. To keep the list short and simple yet containing items easily collected we would love any of the following:

SOCKS- ages 5 to 19
UNDERWEAR- ages 5 to 19 boys and girls (most of our children only have 1 or 2 pairs at best- boys wear more tighty-whitey style here)
FEMININE PADS/TAMPONS (girls are using more pads)

I'm going to work on bigger and heavier items from here like bath towels, soap, pillows, bed sheets and blankets.
If you want to collect $ for me to purchase from this end a towel costs about $3. A nice heavy blanket for winter nights (which are really cold- I had 4 blankets on my bed this winter) are about $20 each. Contact me for money transfer info.

Anything that gets sent to me should be in an envelop of some kind if possible and be sent to: Darcy Stillman, Box 3350, Mokopane, 0600, South Africa (five lines total). Thanks for all the support so far.

Last but not least, if anyone wants to simply make a gift of cash that is always appreciated.

Sending peace and love to all you people who are keeping up with my life here.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Waste not want not

Last month I had the amazing privilege of being a part of a huge family celebration from the food preparations on Saturday to the party clean-up on Monday. It was an unbelievable amount of work that brought with it great joy, satisfaction, honor, experiences of all kinds and some hard lessons as well. Celebrations here in South Africa have their own traditions and rituals. On Saturday morning I rode in the back of a little pick-up truck with the meat of an entire cow, the head nearly resting in my lap. After unloading all the meat the first major task was to clean and prepare the intestine and stomach to be cooked. It took five of us almost two hours to clean, trim and portion it all. If there was ever a time I had to shut off my nose and breathe through my mouth this was it. These huge flies, hundreds of them, could smell the intestine from miles away and came to feast on the goods. But as we were handling it the flies were landing all over us too. The cow intestine is a highly desirable part of the cow and is what is eaten the night before a party. Family and friends arrived that evening for a meal of pap (staple porridge) and intestine. The next morning it was back to the cutting board preparing beetroot, squash, potato salad, bean salad, fried chicken, more pap, soup and cooking more beef.
The party was to celebrate my sister’s graduation from college. We fed about two hundred people that day. After everyone was fed the drinking began. And boy can these people drink and party. There is something about South Africans that lean them towards music played at ear-piercingly loud volumes. Every event I have attended it is the same. The sound system is turned up so loud there isn’t even room in my head for my own thoughts. This party was no exception. It’s mostly men who drink but the women tend to do it on-the-sly. When it comes to drinking they are serious about it. When you live in poverty where you can’t even put food on your table and you attend a celebration where alcohol is served it’s like a get-out-of-your-life free card for one night.
The day after was clean-up day. Women appeared from all over to come scrub the big cast-iron kettles, do dishes and pick up the trash left from the night before. Let me make a note that trashcans rarely exist here. Even when they are made available at a party they are seldom used. It is disturbingly acceptable to drop your bottle/trash where you are when you are done with it. On this day my Aunt woke up at 4:00am to make fresh biscuits for all the help. Another party must-do. When people come to clean you need to have tea and biscuits to offer them when they take a break and when they are done. The men’s job is to grill the rest of the beef and cook the cow’s head. All the help is also fed a meal before they leave. When the cow’s head is done all the men, and only the men, gather around it with a huge bowl of porridge and eat standing up. They were like vultures tearing at this cow’s head. My sepedi wowed them and I was able to get in on some of this action. Some were not so gracious but others realized I just wanted to join them for the experience not to threaten their manhood. So I can now say that I have eaten cow brain, eye, heart, spleen and marrow. One gentleman told me to put my palm out. He knocked a huge bone on my hand and out came a huge glop of marrow. I slurped it right up like a pro. I must admit that everything has a same similar flavor but varying textures.
In the course of three days we consumed and entire cow. No part was wasted and it all had it’s own place in the celebration. The amount of work hours it took to pull an event off like this was amazing. There is no such thing as cutting corners or purchasing anything packaged or frozen-prepared or disposable. It is part of the custom here that when someone you know is having a party you show up to help. Everyone lends their fire kettles, dishes, bowls, plastic ware and their own two hands. It felt really good to be a part of such an event. Did I mention that I slaughtered twenty-eight chickens myself for this party? That’s a whole other story that will have to wait.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Changing Perspectives

This morning I attended a funeral, or what I thought was going to be the funeral, for one of our homebased care patients. She was an elderly gogo who simply died of old age. There were ten of us from Aletuke who walked to the other side of my village for the service. The first thing I saw as we approached the home was a group of men gathered around what was left of a slaughtered cow and they were cutting the ribs apart. We went inside the old, canvas tent that had been rented for the services throughout the week. Two people from my group went into the house to announce our arrival, pay our condolences and give a small gift of money. One of the elderly family members joined us for a prayer and the singing of a couple songs. My group proceeded to sing for about a half hour when the family brought us all tea and biscuits. It’s South African culture for the family of the deceased to feed the people who come to mourn the death of their family member. The slaughtered cow is to feed all the people after the actual funeral on Saturday morning. When we were finished I helped carry all the dirty dishes from my group to the back of the house where many women were socializing with each other and tending fires for heating water and cooking. I was dressed up but didn’t hesitate to roll my sleeves back and help do the dishes. I took water from the fire and a cloth from the drying line and went to work. The women were looking at me from all over, smiling and pointing in awe. Margaret, who was about my age told me she had never seen a white person wash dishes. In fact, none of the women thought white people did anything with their own hands. I told them I cook, clean, wash my clothes and even eat, all with my hands. They could not believe it. As I walked home I had this great feeling of accomplishment. Not for doing the dishes but for being a Peace Corps volunteer here in South Africa and being that person who helped change their perspective of white people. These are the moments that are life changing for not only me but the women who witnessed something they never thought possible.

Friday, May 30, 2008

More similar than different...

I was speaking to a group of seventh graders today about the United States and South Africa. We compared populations, units of measurement, identified our capitals and learned how to read time zones on the map. I highlighted parts of their culture that they should be proud of like their Ubuntu way of life, being bilingual and their traditional music and dance. In a gentle manner I also squashed some of their ideas of the United States for it is only fair for them and us. We are not all rich, beautiful and thin. We have HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and single-parent households. When I asked them what is the biggest health concern and number one killer of people in South Africa every hand in the room went up. It is no secret. In some populations 30% are infected. So why does it continue to spread at the rate that it is? It comes down to two reasons: education and choice. People either don’t know how to protect themselves or they choose not to. Poverty will always play a part but it’s an indirect reason: too poor to go to school, women choosing unprotected prostitution to feed their children, husbands paying for unprotected sex while away from home for months at a time working to support their families. Culture plays another indirect role: young women and girls think that having sex is what they are supposed to do, prostitution is legal, it is socially acceptable for a man to have extra-marital relations. So where am I going with this you might ask? Well, the biggest health concern and number one killer in America right now is obesity. 30% of our population is overweight and another 30% is obese. Like HIV/AIDS and it’s many opportunistic infections (TB, pneumonia, thrush, meningitis and cancers), it is the complications from obesity that are killing Americans everyday. Type 2 diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, liver disease and many kinds of cancers are what take their toll and eventually lead to the death of our obese population. Why are we so fat? Is it poverty? It is true that much of our more affordable foods like pasta, hot dogs, boxed macaroni and cheese, and Ramen noodles are not good for you. Is our culture making it more socially acceptable? Cars have bigger drink holders for the “Big Gulp,” schools prepare meals from cardboard boxes straight from the freezer and our very own government subsidizes corn which directly aids in the low prices of pre-made, hyper-processed, frozen foods which are loaded with high fructose corn syrup. Can we blame it on education? Maybe we are not spending enough time in schools exploring or requiring teachers to live by example. Would it make a difference? If you ask any obese American what they need to do to drop the weight they probably know the answer, diet and exercise. But there are nutritional details that can make or break the numbers on the scale that many adults aren’t even aware of. And there are lots of infected South African who know that HIV/AIDS is spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner but they also think that sex with a virgin will cure them. For those fully educated and aware of all the risks associated with obesity and HIV/AIDS there is a choice to be made. In the heat of the moment, whether it’s sexual or a food craving how many people will choose to abstain from the burger and fries and test the salad?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Experiencing death...

In the United States we primarily go to funerals for the people we are close to whether it’s the deceased or living family members. Here in South Africa the family unit is so wide and social networks tightly knit that funeral attendance is a regular event for many. Like anything that occurs on a regular basis, attending funerals is typical weekend goings-on. And with it comes an unavoidable sense of immunity or numbness. Today, and over the past week, I had the honor of being included in the services and family events surrounding the death and burial of someone from my host mother’s chruch
Tuesday evening we gathered for an hour-long prayer session at the family’s home. Upon arrival we greeted the male family members sitting outside the home. The young women were caring for the children of the house, washing the dishes from dinner and tending to the on-going fire that keeps the water hot. As other women were leaving the home we took our turn to enter and greet the mother of the deceased who remained inside to mourn. The following evening a group of twelve women from the family’s church gathered at their home to make the dress that would cover the body inside the casket. I followed my Mom down a long indoor hallway, illuminated only by the light of dusk outside. We turned into what appeared to be the kitchen. There was a refrigerator and a table and chairs that had been pushed aside to make room for a large blanket that was spread on the floor. There was no room to walk for every chair and inch of floor space was occupied by someone or something. There was lots of shiny white and light blue cloth being folded and cut in all sorts of ways. Everyone was doing something different and no one person seemed to be calling the shots. It wasn’t very long before I was cutting out shapes from a newspaper pattern and snipping fringes on the edges of the cloth. I couldn’t make out from the pile of cloth what exactly was being made. I simply followed my directions and did whatever they asked of me. Some were cutting long strips from the blue, some were cutting slices in the white, another was folding and cutting little diamond shapes and others were weaving the strips into the main cloth. There was nothing perfect about this dress yet the attention to detail in making it look as beautiful as possible was undeniable. Four hours later after much laughing, talking, singing and greatly enjoyed fellowship the women spread out on the floor for the first time the entire dress nearly completed. I couldn’t believe what I saw. They hadn’t even pulled out a needle and thread until the very end to tack on a few things. The entire dress was made without sewing. It was amazing. Once the dress was complete the women proudly and with honor splayed it out on the floor for the family to see. I found myself standing in a circle of over twenty people tightly squeezed into this little room to pray and sing over the dress that would be buried with the deceased. The following evening there was another prayer service at the family’s home which I also attended.
I awoke this morning at 5:30am to my Mom calling me to take a bath she had already prepared. Funeral services must begin by 6:00am so that no one is in the cemetery after 9:00am. It’s a village rule I have yet to find out the reason why. With the sun still low behind the mountains and the sky dark with night we began our trek to the other side of the village to the home of the deceased. I took my seat in the back row against the inside of the green, canvas army tent. My Mom sat up front with the rest of her church members. As daylight appeared more and more people began to arrive. The tent filled up quickly but with stacks of plastic patio chairs available the rest of the yard was free for the sitting. The service started promptly at 6:00 with a song and the arrival of the family. For almost an hour priest after priest shared words from the bible and lessons on life. With it all in Sepedi I drifted off into my own land of thoughts. I could see through the rows of heads to the people sitting out in the rising sun. Faces were half shadowed by the crests of their foreheads and the bridges of their noses. Women’s head cloths shone bright with color and the shaven heads of the men reflected the sun. Songs were sung, people spoke and messages on the casket flowers were read. At the close of the service the female church members paraded out in song as if choreographed and lined the way to the hearse as the elder men of the church and priests led an inner procession with the casket being carried by the male family members. We followed silently behind the hearse as it made it’s way through the village to the cemetery. My Mom and I were at the end of the line and as we entered through the gate of the cemetery I could see the snake of people had more than tripled in size from when we started. The family sat under a sun tent surrounded by almost three hundred people. There were more songs, prayers, readings. I thought about my friend, Beth, who passed away soon after I arrived here and how I have longed for some closure on her death. The young woman who had died was the same age as myself. She had died of AIDS. When they lowered the casket into the grave this wave of sorrow came over me. She was too young to die. She didn’t leave behind any children but when the family took turns saying their last goodbyes with a handful of dirt there were a number of young adults making me think she was one of many children. A hand reached out through the crowd and took mine and guided me with all the women to surround the family. The men gathered on the other side of the grave. It felt odd to have another such occasion where the men are separated from the women. It became clear when the men created two long lines behind the huge pile of dirt and four shovels. The sound of the first shovel of dirt was haunting with it’s heavy, hollow sound on the casket. One by one they took turns shoveling the dirt into the grave. There were no words spoken except for the women singing. I then remembered the dress I had helped make earlier in the week that was to lay over the body inside the casket. Even I had a part in this powerful moment. The adjacent gravesite was also fresh with bright red dirt from the day before. As we walked away I couldn’t help but notice the nine newly dug holes that will be filled in sooner than they should.
I’m living in a country that is all too familiar with burying young people. It may be a regular occurrence but it doesn’t make it easier. Human beings are not equipped to outlive their children. I can’t think of a generation that has endured more hardship then the South African elders of today. Not only did they persevere through apartheid but now they are raising their grandchildren and carrying the burden of leaving them while they are still young. It’s time to start saving today’s youth from this terrible disease. I don’t have the solution or the power to change the world. But if I can offer anything I’m doing it right now. Emerson wrote “To laugh often and much… to appreciate beauty to find the best in others, to leave the world a bit better… to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Friday, May 2, 2008

Being Grateful...

This is my host Mom and her Grade R (kindergarten) class in Leyden.

Each day brings with it a new lesson and a new perspective on life. I have spent a day at four different schools so far, one high school and three primary schools. To draw an accurate picture is impossible. To list the challenges would take forever. All I can say is that every child sitting in a chair at a desk in any school in America is extremely fortunate to be where they are. I have yet to visit a school with a computer. I've sat in on classes with over 70 students crammed into the classroom. I have visited a sixth grade classroom where the students couldn't find the country they live in on a map. I've talked with teachers who's voices are full of desperation for resources and basic teaching materials. As an educator my heart breaks for these teachers who are so hungry for knowledge and direction but are getting no support from their government. The whole education system here is an unfortunate state of affairs. The legacy of apartheid continues to show it's ugly face in the schools of rural black communities. Bantu education was the "black education" during apartheid. It was full of corporal punishment, rote memory, "cramming" and unfairness. The victims of this terrible and haunting system are the teachers of today's youth. They are doing the best they can with what they know and have. But think about it... how can anyone become a good teacher if they never had one themselves? How can someone learn to be a good teacher if the teachers teaching them to teach are also results of bantu education? It's truly a vicious cycle that is bigger than any one generation. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this problem and trying not to take it on as my own. It is beyond the power of one person to change what the past four hundred years has left behind. But with each day brings new hope and hope can start with one person. I have so much to offer in this area. I have already helped some teachers create lesson plans and activities to make teaching and learning more fun. My secondary project will definitely be focused on education. The details have yet to surface but I have faith that the who, what, when and how will become clear. I have set it as an intention. I know the answers will present themselves at the perfect time.
Hermann Hess said, "Whether you and I and a few others will renew the world some day remains to be seen. But within ourselves we must renew it each day."
Thank you Allie for sending me this quote on the back of one of your letters. I ripped it off the envelop and it hangs on my wall providing me with new hope everyday.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ke a lotsha magwera wa ka! (I greet you, my friends!)

Hello everyone! I have finally accessed my blog to give you a quick update. I'm living with my host mother, Mariam Lamola, who is a 3rd grade teacher at one of the many schools in my community. Her children are grown and gone from home but she has a foster daughter, Lina, living with her who is 18 and a junior in high school. She was pretty shy when I first came but is warming up to me as time goes on. She helps me a lot with my Sepedi and I help her with her English. I'm working at an organization called Aletuke Health and Drop-in Center. It's a home-based care program that services people who are sick, old, disabled or taking medications that need regular checking up on. It's also a drop-in center for OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children). In South African a child is considered an orphan if they have not mother. Most of these children still live with various family members but what they have in common is that their lives have been and are heavily compromised and affected by HIV/AIDS. Some of them are HIV positive themselves. The drop-in center provides meals M-F after school and the children participate in bible study and educational sessions on drugs/alcohol, disease prevention, hygiene, self-esteem, relationships, and other life skills. I love, love, love where I work. My supervisor, David, is an associate priest at the Anglican church right next door to the center. When they built a new church they turned the old church into the center. He is the founder and a dedicated, funny, loving, passionate, and all around good guy. We have so much fun together and we laugh all the time. My first three months here is supposed to be observing and learning everything about the center including, finances, staffing, policies, funding, administration, worker training and qualifications and anything else you can think of. It is during this time that I get to know the community and their needs as well. I've visited two schools and after we finish our door to door TB campaign next week I will make arrangements to visit all the schools in the community. So far I know of five more. I want to introduce myself, in Sepedi of coarse, to every classroom in every school so that they know who I am. When you are the only white person for miles and hundreds of thousands of people its good to have them know who you are and that you live here. When I go running in the mornings I get stared at the whole time. When I go places with my supervisor or my Mom people wonder what we are doing together. I am usually greeted in Afrikaans because the only white people they ever see are Afrikaaners. When I say "Ga ke bolela Afrikaans, ke ithuta go bolela Sepedi." (I don't speek Afrikaan, I am learning to speak Sepedi.) their jaws drop to the ground. A white person learning their mother tongue is unheard of. The old people love it and smile so big when I greet them in their own language. That's a great feeling. So much for simply observing. I hit the ground running as I've already started training sessions with the workers at Aletuke on health issues like menopause, PAP smears, infectious diseases and anything else I discover they know little about. The bottom line is that these women, as dedicated to their jobs as they are, have no training and only a high school education at best. And from my time spent in the schools so far, most of them are working with very little health knowledge. But that's going to change because they want to learn. They are hungry for knowledge but have no, zip, zero, zilch access to informative resources. So I am using my internet access to research information for them. I simplify the wording (and I mean really simplify), I sit down with one worker and make sure she understands everything and then I help her make a presentation and she presents to the rest of the staff in their native tongue. It's a lot of work but so rewarding. When I got here I had no job description. I thought to myself, how do you go to work with an organization without a focus? Now I know and fully understand how. Peace Corps said it was up to us to find a way to transfer our skills and knowledge to the people we work with. Well, when you are placed exactly where you belong it's easy. Enough for today. I'm trying to put a picture on but can't seem to figure out how. That a project for another day. Keep the letters rolling in. Peace to you all.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Send Me Mail!

I'm now living in the village of Moshate. Although I do have access to email, snail mail is far more fun to get. So there is no confusion at the post office that my mail belongs there please address it to my South African name:

Mokgaetji Lamola
Box 3350
South Africa

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Darcy update as of 02/02/08

Surprise! On 1/31 Darcy was given a card to "call home" to let us know that she arrived in South Africa safely. She will be staying, for the time being, in the Province of Limpopo for the start of her training and will be spending 4 hours per day learning Sepedi (one of the official language of Limpopo) and Afrikaans. The remainder of each day she will be learning/living the culture & visiting schools, clinics, homes, markets, banks, etc. She was at a school when she called and said that she had taken along her frizbee and had been playing with the children....they loved it!
"Gabotse," Darcy's Mom

Darcy update as of 01/28/08

Hi All,
This is Darcy's Mom. Darcy called on January 28th, having spent her first full orientation day in Philidelphia. She said she was already a little homesick (which surprised her, I think) but was doing okay and had met some great people. There are 30 volunteers in her initial orientation group; her roommate is Kim, a 40-year-old woman from Buffalo, NY. They are to fly to Frankfort, Germany, overnight on the 29th (with a 20 hour lay-over) and then to Johannesburg, South Africa, overnight on the 30th.
Will try to keep you all posted as we hear from her.
Darcy, We love you and miss you. Mom & Dad

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Adventure Really Begins When...

You start packing.

This is Darcy's friend Ali G. .. I had the distinct pleasure of "reigning in" Darcy's packing efforts into a few short hours this morning. Keeping Darcy on task, is, shall we say, an adventure that can only be summed up into a short phrase... Darcy, Sit! Focus! Over Here! Sit! We had a good time - an adventurous time, trying to translate the Peace Corps vague, yet helpful hints on what to pack when traveling to who knows where. Just know there needs to be 3 distinct piles - "four days", "essentials", and "two month storage".

We did it.
And we have pictures to prove it.

I am posting my favorite picture. One that clearly shows what Patriotic representation we are going to have in South Africa. I call it: "Seriously... you actually own 56 pairs of underwear?? You are SO American!"

Maybe not such a bad number to have if you consider Darcy's habit of, well, laughing too hard.
We got her down to 25 and they are all going to Africa!

Safe travels, Darcy! We're going to miss you but we know you're just a blog post away!

P.S. Darcy won't always have access to this blog to post her adventures - so please, if you hear from her before she gets a chance to tell her story, feel free to post where she is and what she's doing!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Africa... Here I Come!

January 27th -- The Adventure Begins!!
Stay tuned for more exciting news from Africa!