Lest you think my primary project is playing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with my little buddies, I am actually posted here in South Africa as a Life Science Teacher Trainer in 8 rural secondary schools.  By far, my best day on the job was my March workshop. I pushed for more opportunities to train my teachers as a group but unfortunately, subsequent workshops were all “postponed” indefinitely.

Then my housemates got an idea from a Peace Corps staff member–write a grant to host a large, multi-day, multi-subject workshop at a nice place with good food.  The Maths/Science Symposium was born.

Edited in Lumia Selfie

Elandsheim: a nice place with good food.


Principals, teachers, and Ministry of Education officials universally agreed that the symposium should be in September.  The big, fat national exams that the 12th graders take were to start on October 26th, so a September workshop would still give the teachers time to revise with them.

Unfortunately, there was no way to receive grant money until the end of September, so we either had to run the symposium for free using ministry resources, or push it to October, closer to the behemoth that is the national exams and the general end-of-year mayhem.

On August 11th, we met with Mr. D and the subject advisors from the Ministry of Education district office.  These folks were supposed to be our right-hand men and women throughout the year, but in our 7th month, this was our first meeting.  Collectively, we chose the venue (Elandsheim) and the date (Oct 23 – 24), reconciling schedules for the teachers, volunteers, and the venue.

I had some doubts.  The date was not optimal, the venue was beautiful but a bit far, and the grant required a 25% community contribution.  Could we make it work?

  • Will the teachers be willing to come so close to the matriculation exam?  If we tell them to come, they will come.
  • Will the principals support the symposium?  Will they agree to release their teachers that day as well as provide transportation?  We will write an official letter of invitation to show that this is a collaboration between the Ministry of Education and Peace Corps.  Ultimately, this will help their learners, so how can they refuse?
  • Is the venue too far?  It is better to be in an out-of-the-way place.  Teachers will stay focused on the mission instead of going out.  Many of them have cars; they can carpool together.
  • As part of the community contribution, we need the schools to provide photocopies of handouts.  How many pages do you need?  Email us your files and we will arrange to make copies in the district office.
  • Can we get microscopes, science kits, and projectors?  No problem.

I felt reassured.  The three of us submitted our grants:  John for mathematics, Randee for physical science, and myself for life science.  Mr. D and the subject advisors gave us their blessings and promises of collaboration.  We spent the next couple of months developing student-centered teaching materials, making friends with local hardware shopkeepers, and talking up the symposium to everyone we met.


Science takes a lot of stuff.  And a good friend with a pickup truck.

The plan unravels.

Then Mr. D became ill.  Very ill.  We lost our Ministry of Education go-to guy.  Other people tried to pick up the slack, but he was the one who had the to-do list and he was the one with the drive and authorization to make things happen.

There was no official letter to the schools from the Ministry.  People willing to help us did not have the authority to write it and people who had the authority were not willing to help us.  Principals were hesitant.  Teachers were confused.  We handed out fliers and registration forms as best we could, but we could not reach all the schools we intended to invite.

My life science subject advisor was also too busy to return my calls.  To add insult to injury, the district boss called a last-minute, all-day meeting for the subject advisors for the first day of our symposium.  I scrambled to beg and borrow microscopes from area schools.  I planned to proceed without the life sciences practical kit and resolved to be content with my bits and pieces of recyclables, hardware, and pharmacy supplies.

We had to travel 100 km to the office a day early to make photocopies ourselves on the district machine.  Until we ran out of paper.  And toner.

But we were still optimistic.  Most events here come together at the last minute, and there was genuine interest among some of the teachers.

For the sake of the few.

On the morning of October 23rd, I had a very early breakfast and checked my classroom for the umpteenth time to make sure everything was in order.  I held my breath and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  I should have passed out.

I planned for 14 life science teachers.  I got 3.  One of them was also a mathematics teacher, so I had to wrestle John for him.

Those 3 got the best science experience of their lives.  We sewed butterfly nets, built transpirometers, and constructed alcohol burners.  They saw Spirogyra for the first time:  a green, filamentous algae with helical chloroplasts that looks like a fancy bracelet.  They made their own microscope slides from clear welding glass and plastic bags.  They investigated surface area-to-volume ratios with play dough.  They developed number sense by playing “higher-lower” for Cadbury Dairy Milk bars.


Life science shenanigans!

All the teachers got together for an evening discussion facilitated by Peace Corps Volunteer Cathy on teaching HIV/AIDS and sexuality to their students.  Broaching the subject of sex with young ones is difficult:  there are cultural taboos and personal discomfort.  But South Africa has the highest rate of new infections in the world and teachers have a captive audience.


A lively discussion on HIV and teen sex continuing way past my bedtime.

Before leaving, math, physical science, and life science teachers gathered to identify what skills and topics their subjects had in common.  They found they could share equipment, reinforce each others’ lessons, and maybe even teach together.

When all was said and done, I had to return a large chunk of change that was meant for biology apparatus because the community contributions from teacher travel, registration fees, copies, and equipment could not add up to 25%.  Some moments, I wish I could go back in time and not submit that grant.  I could have closed my service early, skipped the chaotic doldrums of term 4, and spent Thanksgiving with my family.

However, for the sake of the 3, I am glad I did the symposium.  They had an eye-opening weekend, and they vowed to make the other teachers sorry they missed out.  One teacher declared that she had always thrown her hands in the air when it came to doing practicals because her school had no equipment.  Now she knows she can improvise.  Seeds were planted.  That’s all I can do:  sow seeds and let them take root where they will.

Weird he may be, but this little guy is king of the laundry line.

Weird he may be, but this guy is king of the laundry line.

The chameleon is a weird little dude.  From its roving eyes to its freaky feet, it has many characteristics that set it apart from your average lizard.


Chameleon eyes sit on raised stalks that rotate around.  Independently.  You may think it’s paying attention to you, a scary predator, but it is also following that tasty fly buzzing around.

Their tongues are lightning-quick, even if the rest of their bodies are sluggish from cold.  While other lizards wait to warm up for breakfast, chameleons can feast on insects early in the chilly morning.

Their zygodactyl feet have five toes split into two groups, all the better for grabbing branches and climbing trees.  Many of them have prehensile tails that also help them to hang out in the aboreal scene.

The prehensile tail:  good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

The prehensile tail: good for holding tree branches and biology teacher thumbs.

They also have a funky walk:  a slow, lurching gait, as if it were grooving to disco music only it can hear.  I have no idea why it does this, but if I were a predator, I would certainly be put off.

A little dude, strutting his stuff.  Don't stop 'til you get enough, little buddy.

A little dude, strutting his stuff. Don’t stop ’til you get enough, little buddy.

Most famously, chameleons can change color, particularly the males.  Part of this is for camouflage, but much of it is for communication.  Like a full-bodied mood ring.  Guanine nanocrystals in their iridophores (think “iridescent cells”) rapidly change the overall color in some species (Teyssier, 2015).  When he’s relaxed, the crystals are close together and he’s a calm blue or green.  When he gets excited, the crystals spread apart and make him appear more red.  He can tell the ladies to come hither or tell competing males to back off.  He can warn other chameleons of predators in the vicinity. He can also regulate his temperature by increasing or decreasing the infra-red rays he absorbs.


The unique qualities and behavior of the chameleon has landed it in the myths of many cultures.  In the Zulu culture of South Africa, God was happy with humans, so He sent the chameleon to deliver the message that they should live eternally.  But the chameleon dilly-dallied, eating or basking in the sun.  God had time to change His mind, and instead sent the lizard to tell humans that they would die.  The lizard was much faster than the chameleon in delivering its message, so humans are now mortal.

The lightning-quick tongue has also led people to believe that chameleons can smite their enemies with lightning. This belief and the association of chameleons with mortality have made many people afraid of them.  Not Eddie, though.  Eddie is a student at the school where we live, and his gentle nature with small children and small critters has earned my deep respect.  He’s a bit of a chameleon whisperer, coaxing them out of trees and off laundry lines and showing the little ones there is nothing to fear from this weird, fascinating lizard.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.

Judge a man by how he treats the wee ones.

I love color.  My clothes are arranged in rainbow order.  I can spend hours re-arranging my yarn stash into different color combinations.  Even my PhD thesis was inspired by the diversity of pigmentation in cultures of Trichodesmium.

Extracts of Trichodesmium spp.:  the pigmented cells that launched a thesis.

Extracts of Trichodesmium spp.: the pigmented cells that launched a thesis.

Gogo Squirrel asked me to help her teach creative arts in her 2nd grade class, and I peeked over her shoulder as she flipped through her South African curriculum.  The color wheel popped out at me.  Forget symmetry or bean mosaics, I wanted to teach color theory.

Droplets of rain acting as tiny prisms to form a rainbow over the school.  Alas, how I miss rain.

Droplets of rain acting as tiny prisms to form a rainbow over the school. Alas, how I miss rain.

Our perception of color is a combination of physics and biology.  Visible light covers a small range of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum (400 – 700 nm), and these wavelengths can be separated by a prism into a visible rainbow.  Our eyes have three different kinds of cones that detect red, green, and blue, and with those three channels we can detect millions of colors.  Remove any one of these cones, and you get color-blindness.  The mantis shrimp has 12 cones. That’s insane.

There is some overlap in the detection wavelengths for human cones, especially for red and green, resulting in fun effects.  Concentrated yellow food dye looks red.  Green or yellow algal cells can produce a red tide; ocean water goes from blue to green to red as more blue/green light is absorbed, red light is backscattered, and the upwelling color hits the sweet spot between human red and green cones (570 nm) when a bloom develops (Dierssen et al, 2006).

When South African students learn about the human eye in grade 12, all the detail they are given is that the retina has rods and cones.  No red-green-blue, no shift from yellow to red, no understanding of why chlorophyll appears green.  They study the genetics of color-blindness without understanding what makes a person colorblind.  I have to get my color fun in the fundamental phase.

Well, if they aren't used for Winogradsky columns, the bottles may as well be used for color theory.

Well, if they aren’t used for Winogradsky columns, my bottle collection may as well be used for color theory.

In Gogo Squirrel’s 2nd grade class, I made a color wheel for them.  I used food dye in soda bottles to show them how primary colors mixed to form secondary colors, and they did their own color mixing with play dough.  After rolling balls and snakes to our hearts’ content, we drew flowers. Gogo Squirrel was very strict; each flower must be the right size and have exactly five petals.

After admiring the color display in 2nd grade, the grade R teacher asked me to repeat the lesson in her class.  It was a big hit.  Mixing colored water elicited awes and applause.  It’s wonderful to watch a child’s first experience with play dough, and they somehow managed to keep it out of each others’ hair.  They are young and new to school, so their flowers were wild and unconstrained.

The ladies of Grade R display their snakes.

The ladies of grade R display their snakes.

As my grade R kids grow up and learn about the electromagnetic spectrum, I hope they think about chlorophyll and why it’s green.  When they learn about photosynthesis, I hope they think about the elctromagnetic spectrum and how pigments are tuned to absorb specific wavelengths.  I hope their flowers stay wild and unconstrained.

A selection from the masterpieces of Grade R.  Note the dutiful presentation of complementary colors on the left.

A selection from the wild masterpieces of grade R. Note the dutiful presentation of complementary colors on the left.

Look!  I caught a Squirrel!

Look! I caught a Squirrel!

My best friend in South Africa is a moody four-year-old boy. Most people around here call him “Boy.” I call him “The Squirrel.” You think you have your eye on him, but if you blink, he’s gone.

The Squirrel lives next door to our host school and his gogo (grandmother) is a 2nd grade teacher–very tough but very good, just like my 2nd grade teacher. He comes to school and steps up to the front of the line at assembly, looking like kid in a catalog. Sort of. His trousers are too big, his shirt never stays tucked, and getting a tie on him would be a small miracle. He used to wear a white faux fur jacket that made him look like a tiny pimp. I miss that jacket, but I am thoroughly enjoying his current little pea coat.

The Squirrel with some of his cousins.  They usually follow the oldest girl closely, but today they are extra close because she has a giant bag of candy.

The Squirrel with some of his cousins next door. They usually follow the oldest girl closely, but today they are extra close because she has a giant bag of candy.

He’s a smart little man. In class he catches on quickly and adds his comical anecdotes to the teacher’s explanations. The Squirrel works hard and plays harder. He’s front and center for songs and stories, and he’ll fight to the death for the right to hold my hand. He laughs heartily but also sobs deeply; almost every day he ends up wiping his tears in a teacher’s lap.

The Squirrel and his bestie with the coolest toys in Grade R.

The Squirrel and his bestie with the coolest toys in Grade R.

After hours, he plays with his many cousins, often on the school compound. He’s not as quick as the older boys at soccer, but I once got a one-on-one game with him and a bread sack ball. For a big kick he takes a few steps back, winds up his little hip, and lets it loose. If he’s herding livestock, however, he’s all business. No time for greetings or games, just keep your mouth shut and help him get the goats out the gate.

The boys next door.

The boys next door.

The Squirrel is very cat-like. If you approach him directly, he will scatter. If you do something interesting near him and pretend not to notice him, he will hop in your lap to play along. Once in a blue moon if he’s in the right mood, he will run and jump in your arms.

A rare quiet moment.  Photobombing courtesy of one of my twins.

A rare quiet moment. Photobombing courtesy of one of my twins.

The easiest way to engage him is to make “Itsy Bitsy Spider” fingers. He’s an expert. In fact, he knows all my songs, even the ones I haven’t sung in a few months. For a long time, his favorite song was “Six Little Ducklings,” but now he seems partial to “The Hokey Pokey.” I think he likes wiggling his backside.

When the sun goes down and it’s way too cold for him to stay out in bare feet, The Squirrel says “Bye, Missi!” and runs home to his gogo.

The many faces of The Squirrel.

The many faces of The Squirrel.

A rotating schedule for eight rural South African schools is bound to have some hiccups.  Sometimes transport never arrives.  Sometimes transport arrives, but it is the bed of a pick-up truck, forbidden by Peace Corps.  Sometimes transport arrives, it’s the right kind of vehicle, but you find your teacher absent from school.  Sometimes transport arrives and your teacher is present, but they are too busy to deal with you.

These little lovelies ride in the back of a pick-up every day to school.  It's a no-go for PCV's.

These little lovelies ride in the back of a pick-up every day to school. It’s a no-go for PCV’s.

One day, we arrived at school #7.  My teacher was there and she actually had life science lessons on her schedule.  When I found her, she was heading to a natural science class.  “May I come with you?”  Deer in headlights.  That’s okay, we’ll wait for life sciences.

After her class, she came to tell me that she had to take her child to the clinic but that she planned to be back for her afternoon class.  Perfectly reasonable; life is hectic for working parents.  But to keep the focus on training teachers, I vowed to not go down the rabbit hole of substitute teaching.  So I spent some quality time with a text book (a rare treat, indeed) and sat quietly in the staff room.  My teacher never returned, but one of her colleagues brought in leftover birthday cake, so the day wasn’t a total bust.  At least I got cake.

I have no photos of South African cakes, so please allow me to entertain with some of my favorite American ones.  This is from my sister's baby shower, New Jersey, 2013.

I have no photos of South African cakes, so please allow me to entertain you with some of my favorite American ones. This is from my sister’s baby shower, New Jersey, 2013.

Some days are good.  I’ve had good communication with my teacher, we have hands-on activities planned together, the students enjoy the class and perhaps something clicks for them.  I discover something I didn’t know about South African education and my teacher discovers a new teaching technique.  But the merry-go-round of visiting schools week after week can leave me feeling tired and uninspired.  I’d much rather gather my teachers together and do an intensive workshop where I can control the time and they can learn from each other.

The fantastically retro doll cake.  Woods Hole, MA, 2011.

The fantastically retro doll cake. Woods Hole, MA, 200X.

The best work I’ve done here so far was my first life science teachers’ workshop.  I couldn’t wait to do it again.  At the beginning of second term, my teachers scheduled it for the end of the term on 6th June.  I didn’t want to wait that long, but I am here for them, so I shall do what they ask and provide what they need.  I worked long and hard on practicals with locally available materials, activities on topics the learners had difficulty with, and a boatload of handouts fresh from the photocopier at the library (best deal in town).  While sitting at the taxi stand on Friday the 5th, waiting for the public transport back to my school, I received a text.  “Most of the teachers can’t make it tomorrow–can we please postpone?”

Where’s my cake?

Kitty Gato guards a Garfield cupcake.  Falmouth, MA, 2009.

Kitty Gato guards a Garfield cupcake. Falmouth, MA, 2009.

My isiZulu teachers demonstrating their "Itsy Bitsy Spider" skills.

My isiZulu teachers demonstrating their “Itsy Bitsy Spider” skills.

We teach in English, so our isiZulu training consisted of only one session learning greetings.  While the teachers speak very good English and the students hypothetically should be able to communicate in English, many of their parents are illiterate.  Moving around the community, it’s fun to be able to speak with old ladies and small children, so I’m trying to carve out some time to learn more isiZulu.

I have found that the best teachers of foreign languages are four-year-olds.  Their vocabulary is simple, they won’t hesitate to correct you, and they don’t judge you when you make a mistake.  About once a week, I go into the pre-school classroom, teach them a song in English, and ask them to teach me some isiZulu.  They’re pretty proficient in “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Six Little Ducklings.”  I’m less proficient in numbers, groceries, and animal names.

When first applying to the Peace Corps in 1998, my heart wanted to go to the region near the Kalahari Desert, mostly because I loved the clicks.  Lucky for me, isiZulu is a Bantu language peppered with clicks.  There are three types; “q” is a hard click like a cork coming out of a bottle, “x” is on the side of your mouth as if you were urging your horse along, and “c” is like a “tsk.”  My clicks are improving, but they don’t quite have the purcussive pop that locals have.  There’s other fun consonants, too.  Notably “hl” is supposed to be like the Welsh “ll.”  I have no idea what that means.  To me, it kind of feels like the receiving end of a zrbrt.

As a volunter in Kenya, I spoke Kiswahili, another Bantu language.  Because Kiswahili developed as a trading language between the Bantu tribes in the interior and the Arabs on the coast, both its pronunciation and structure seem simpler than that of isiZulu.  For fun, let’s look at numbers (I claim no expertise in spelling–my dictionary and the pre-schoolers are sometimes at odds; also, forgive my formatting).

Kiswahili     isiZulu
1    mmoja     unye
2    mbili        ubili
3    tatu        uthathu
4    nne        une
5    tano        uhlanu
6    sita        isithupa
7    saba        isikhombisa
8    nane        isishiyagalombili
9    tisa        isihiyagalolunye
10    kumi        ishumi

So, for 1 – 5 and 10, they pretty much follow the same root.  Then things get interesting in isiZulu from 6 – 9.  Eight and nine are literally “ten minus 2” and “ten minus one.”  I wonder if in East Africa the Arab traders were perfectly happy with 1 – 5, but then decided “Heck, no!” for 6 – 9 and used the more elegant Arabic words instead.

A side note on my isiZulu teachers; they are adorable.  Sometimes I hang out with them during their lunch time just to enjoy their company.  I’m constantly tying shoes, tucking shirts, and fixing ties.  One little girl I refer to as “the Dove” likes to sit quietly next to me.  When a bully comes to steal her lunch, she wordlessly hands her sandwich over to me.  “The Squirrel” is a little boy with high highs and low lows.  He thinks we’re in a perpetual game of tag, so he likes running away for me to chase him.  Lots of fun, but difficult to start a conversation.

The Squirrel and his BFF.

The Squirrel and his BFF.

The sun rises over the school.  I'm in pajamas.  The kids are in class.

The sun rises over the school. I’m in pajamas. The kids are in class.

Teaching science in a hands-on, experimental way is a challenge in the United States.  In rural Africa, it’s an uphill battle.

Among the eight schools we serve there are no labs, perhaps three microscopes, and very few chemicals.  Working apparatus are few and far between.  Safety equipment is a dream.  To make life more interesting, you may have over 100 kids in one class and those kids have 20 – 30 textbooks among them.

I’ve mentioned before that the students here work very hard.  The 12th graders who are preparing to write their national exams are in class well before dawn and are still there when I go to bed.  The teachers here are also busting their humps.  On top of the regular daytime schedule, they give additional classes at 6:00 am and 6:00 pm.

A science teacher here wanted her 12th graders to do an experiment synthesizing esters (one of my favorites when the product smells like fruity bubble gum, but this particular one smells like nail polish remover).  My fellow volunteer Tom went over the theoretical aspects with the students, but how do you get 130 kids involved in esterification?

Unknown to us, the science teacher spent the entire last week and weekend running the experiment with 15 kids at a time.  At 3:00 am.  For seven days straight.

Science education in rural South Africa has a million problems.  Teacher dedication certainly isn’t one of them.

The lovely landscape of the orientation centre.

The lovely landscape of the orientation centre.

I always knew I’d go back to Peace Corps.  I kind of thought it would be when I retired and I would be Allie’s crazy Polish aunt, oceanographer emeritus, flitting around Africa.  But stars aligned and here I am now.

We’re Peace Corps Response volunteers–shorter gigs, minimal training.  There are four of us, and the trainees refer to us as the Three Amigos and Maid Marian.  We are all education specialists in different disciplines, so we will be training teachers from eight secondary schools.  The logistics will be . . . interesting.

It feels good to be back.  Many things feel familiar and I get that “Oh, yeah, I remember that!” feeling:  the sound of the doves in the morning, the acacia trees on the landscape, and driving on the left side of the road.  Many things are new to me:  the proliferation of cell phones among volunteers, Bantu languages with clicks in them(!), and the tensions of a post-apartheid society.

Two more days of orientation and we head out to our site!  Wish us luck.

The kindergarten at Sambasha

In May, Dr. Moshi sent me an email from Tanzania.  The UGA Service Learning class had visited a Maasai school in Sambasha (near Arusha).  It was an open wooden structure with a roof and a concrete floor.  That’s it.  The kids were sitting on the floor trying to write and learn.   Their situation moved Dr. Moshi and she decided to make it one of her many projects.

We collected money from our friends at Just Faith at the UGA Catholic Center, and the teachers in our GPA program  donated their own money with money they collected from friends.  Dr. Moshi inquired from local carpenters about the price, so she could announce in front of the local officials, teachers, students, and community members the number of desks we could expect to see next year (15-20 desks, transparency at all levels).

Me presenting the gift from Just Faith to Mama Hindu

I was watching one woman in particular while Dr. Moshi announced in Kiswahili the goals of Just Faith and GPA and the gift we were giving them.  Her face lit up and she clapped her hands in joy.  Her gratitude brought me to tears.  As President Nyerere said, development should be of people, not things, and education is key to the development of people.  People cannot make choices about their lives unless they know what their choices are.  Education is social justice.

Ululations from the local Maasai women

And I’m glad the donation was given publicly, so everybody knows what should be coming, and this mama who was so happy to receive our gift (and any mama, teacher and child) can get on the local officials’ cases if they drag their feet in getting the desks or don’t get their money’s worth.

Me with some of the students of Sambasha Kindergarten