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.

The South Peak in greener days.

The South Peak in greener days.

Winter is dry here.  This year, even the summer rains failed a bit, so the maize stalks are stunted and the grass is even dryer than normal.  There’ll be some skinny cows.

In September on Heritage Day, the school girls dress in their traditional Zulu costumes, everybody climbs the South Peak, and they pray for rain.  I am told that without fail, it rains on them as they return, breaking the dry season with life-giving if sometimes merciless water.

Mike and Colonel Tom tramping along the top.

Mike and Colonel Tom tramping along the top.

The South Peak is a bit more hiker-friendly than her sister the North Peak.  I can reach the first little knobby peak in about an hour from my house when I am determined.  The cow paths meander across the broad top; these “mountains” are really mesas, carved by erosion from layers of sedimentary and metamorphic rock.

Obligatory housemate selfie:  Mike, Colonel Tom, and me.

Obligatory hiking housemate selfie: Mike, Colonel Tom, and me.

I see more flowers up here than I see in the fields by the school, perhaps because they have not yet been munched by the goats.  While there are some dams along the sides, there are also springs at the top where I am surprised by mud and fresh green vegetation.

Sweet surprises on top.  Check out the boggy flora in the lower right!

Sweet surprises on top. Check out the boggy flora in the lower right!

You can see clouds from far away.  And lightning.  My first visit to the peak was a bit more exciting than I bargained for.  Whether you have prayed for it or not, if you see rain in the distance, haul down as quickly as you can.

Weather from the west.  Lightning!  Gotta scoot down!

Weather from the west. Lightning! Gotta scoot down!

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.