Heritage Day was founded in 1995 as a way for all South Africans to celebrate their diverse heritage.  Previously, September 24th was known as Shaka Day, commemorating the Zulu king who united the Zulu clans.  This day was not initially included in the Public Holidays Bill presented in Parliament, so as a compromise it became “Heritage Day,” a day for each and every South African.  Granted, it has devolved somewhat into “Braai Day” (barbecue), but the idea is to celebrate the variety that makes up the rainbow nation.

For the first several months at my host school, students and teachers told me about the local Heritage Day celebration.  Virgins dress up in their traditional Zulu costumes, everybody hikes up to the south peak, and after lots of singing, dancing, and praying, it rains.

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The women of our host school sport their Zulu duds.

I never got to see this ceremony.  The holiday falls too close to the September exams which fall too close to the big, fat national exams the 12th graders have to take in October – November.  And early in September 2015, my host school hosted a giant farewell party for the principal who had resigned (back in February) including food, a celebrity gospel singer, and a colossal circus tent in the middle of the grounds.  So the community celebration on the south peak fell by the wayside.

However, in honor of this Heritage Day, I would like to share the aspect of Zulu culture that is most symbolic to me:  the Zulu dance.

I am a dancer, but I cannot partake in this high-kicking acrobatic feat.  I choose to drum (the rapid triplets are also an acrobatic feat).  With my current access to the magic of wifi which eluded me in rural KwaZulu-Natal, please allow me to share with you my favorite samples of Zulu dancing.

Church Ladies

One day, a preacher and a bunch of church ladies showed up at the school.  Perhaps it was in response to some recent discipline issues, but they came to bless the school.  They marched around the perimeter of the grounds, singing, praying, and collecting kids in their wake.  At the end, the church ladies showed us their mettle:

The Principal’s Farewell

At the event of the century, there were kid troupes, teen troupes, and professional troupes.  To the delight of all, the guest of honor Mr. Principal himself donned full Zulu regalia and kicked the kicks of a much younger man:

Tiny Girls

By far, my favorite Zulu dancing is done by my favorite people:  the young ladies of Grades R and 1.  This was a chilly day when we had to sun ourselves like lizards. After some structured games and marching to my riq, they burst into song and dance:

 

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“Auntie Nette” is my favorite title. I love it even more than my Admiralship in the Nebraska Navy. The most difficult part about serving in South Africa is being far from my sisters and their smart, funny, surprising children.

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Typical family photo. If it looks as if the Butt Pincher has me in a choke hold, he does.

I spent my first several months here breaking the ice with the neighbor kids, otherwise known to me as the “Itsy-Bitsy Spider Gang.” Forget the language barrier, the racial barrier here was much more difficult to overcome. Nothing screams “Stranger Danger” like a face bereft of pigmentation. The Squirrel took at least 2 months to stop running away from me. Now he runs and jumps in my lap. Lonely Boy warmed up to Colonel Tom first after 5 months of gentle persuasion, and once he warmed up to me, he started giving me rib-crushing hugs. Babygirl has never been shy and is liberal with kisses.

Like any aunt, I cuddle my adopted nieces and nephews when they want it, scold them when they need it, and refuse them cupcakes. I help the older ones lift the water bucket to their heads and the younger ones keep their flies zipped. A rough day at work is redeemed by their smiles, “Hokey Pokey” giggles, and good-bye hugs. They are the best thing to happen to me in South Africa.

The Itsy Bitsy Spider Gang sporting their early Christmas cowls/headbands from Auntie Nette.  Clockwise from the upper left:  Babygirl, Kung Fu, Polka Queen, Itty Bitty, Butt Pincher, Squirrel, Lonely Boy.

The Itsy Bitsy Spider Gang sporting their early Christmas cowls/headbands crocheted by Auntie Nette. Clockwise from the upper left: Babygirl, Kung-Fu, Polka Queen, Fearless, Butt Pincher, Squirrel, Lonely Boy.

Inappropriate Questions

People (in South Africa AND in Georgia, USA) often start conversations by asking me, “How many children do you have?” None. “Not even one?” Well, that’s what “none” means. Do single children not count? “But you love kids, why don’t you want them?” There’s a wide spectrum of reasons for a woman not to have kids and they are all too personal to discuss with you. Thanks for asking.

Then we move on to, “You’re not married? Why not?” Well, whom should I marry? When I told my friend Dlukula that I intended to stay single until I met someone who could convince me otherwise, he told me, “You are wrong.” The men of KwaZulu-Natal are doing their best to free me from my freedom. I get proposals constantly, mostly from random strangers on public vehicles but occasionally from supervisors or principals looking for a second wife.

The “Inappropriate Question of the Year Award” goes to a woman I had just met playing netball: “You don’t want a boyfriend? Why not? Or is it because you are a virgin?

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The only South African “husband” I’m willing to claim. Rather than power or status, he just wants to help me carry my water.

Sisters in Spirit

I have met a large number of single women in South Africa, probably more than I had expected. Many have kids who are living with their gogos or aunts while mama works far from home. My closest (adult) friend Miss D is like me: single, childless, and devoted to her nephews. I don’t know whether she gets the same barage of inappropriate questions I get about my lifestyle choices. We have other things to talk about.

I had the great pleasure of going home with Miss D to meet her mother. And her nephews: sweet, rambunctious boys who were shy of me at first but full of mischief and affection after a while. They follow their aunt everywhere, even on a long walk with me. She helps them bathe, takes care of them when they are sick, and laughs at their jokes.

Sweet Auntie D with her nephew.

Sweet Auntie D with her nephew.

Whenever Miss D has to leave home and go back to work, her nephews lobby hard for her to stay, “Mum is working. Dad is working. You don’t have to work. You should stay and take care of us.” My nephew is a bit more subtle–he likes to sing the praises of Colorado as a wonderful place to live. The state should hire him as a PR consultant.

Homeward Thoughts

There is a brother-sister pair among the “Itsy-Bitsy Spider Gang” who remind me very much of my Colorado kiddos. My lavender baby powder smells like my baby niece at bedtime. Tiny infants direct my thoughts to the wee one on the way. My heart will rejoice to see my nieces and nephews back home, but it will break to leave the ones I love here.

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.

Challenges.

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.

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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.

Symposium

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.

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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 smallest besties in school.

The smallest besties in school.

You may recall from your childhood that older kids are cool, little kids are lame.  When I first met “Tiny Boy,” he was being harassed by the other boys because his shoes were on the wrong feet.  They sat on him and verbally abused him until he started crying.  Usually South African teachers let children resolve their own disputes, but Tiny Boy is only three.  So I shooed the older boys away, wiped his tears, put his shoes on the correct feet, and tucked in his shirt.

As the youngest boy in school, Tiny Boy gets bullied.  A lot.  Sometimes he stays quiet and takes it.  Sometimes he gets mad and pulls off his belt.

When I first met “Tiny Girl,” she was standing at the front of the line during morning assembly, immaculate in her new school uniform.  I don’t know what the older boy next to her said or did, but she was shooting laser beams from her eyes.

As the youngest girl in school, Tiny Girl also gets bullied.  She always fights back.  As a result, she sometimes gets bit or kicked, and I find myself scooping her up and drying her tears.

Tiny Boy and Tiny Girl have become best friends.  He follows her wherever she goes and she punches anybody who tries to mess with him.  During assembly, she reaches out and holds his hand.  They have also found a new protector; the young girl in a wheelchair is sweet and motherly to them.  She keeps them in line and nobody picks on them when she is near.

Every week they get braver, checking out new haunts at the school as they wait for their ride home.  She climbs stuff she’s not supposed to and he throws sticks and garbage in the mud, splashing any onlookers.  In the absence of bigger kids, they are free to play, chatter, and explore.

Fun note regarding the isiZulu root -ngane:  depending on the prefix you use, it can mean friend (umngane), sweetheart (isingane), child (ingane), or childhood (ubungane).

Playing at the pump, just like they shouldn't.  I am beginning to understand where all the bubble wands disappeared to.

Playing at the pump, just like they shouldn’t. I am beginning to understand where all the bubble wands disappeared to.

Back view of the campus with the tank standing tall and proud.

Back view of the campus with the tank standing tall and proud.

“The house has electricity and running water.”  That’s what we heard on the conference call with Peace Corps a few days before leaving for South Africa.  Both are technically true.  The living room has electricity, but I’m using candles in my bedroom.  When the water tank is full and the valve is open, the house does have running water.  But there’s a leak, so the valve is only open long enough for us to fill our buckets for the day.

The water tank is a thing of beauty.  This hulking mass of green plastic is visible from far, serving as a homing beacon when I go for long hikes.  It is filled with a large municipal truck by students and teachers climbing the tower with hoses.  A highly entertaining enterprise.

Filing up the tank.  We actually got out lawn chairs to take in the show.

Filing up the tank. We actually got out lawn chairs to take in the show.

When the tank runs out, we use the pump for the borehole.  The water is sweet and cold.  It’s not a long walk, but it’s not a short walk, either.  We also compete with students (and pigs) for position at the pump, so Colonel Tom prefers to fetch water in the evening.  I cannot yet balance a bucket on my head, so I haul two buckets at a time to stay balanced.

This little piggy had whatever the kids washed off from their lunch plates.

This little piggy had whatever the kids washed off from their lunch plates.

Our tank was last filled on Sunday.  About 24 hours later, I heard a large booming SPLASH and peeked out my window to see our tank split in three pieces and a river of precious water running across the school yard.  It was spectacular.  The students cheered.

The demise of the water tower.

The demise of the water tower.

We have three hypotheses for the destruction of the water tower:
1) Lightning stuck the tank and split it.
2) There was a small fracture in the tank and it split under the pressure of being newly full (physics students will remember the “notch effect”).
3) The tank was not positioned squarely on the tower and being in a state of unstable equilibrium, it eventually toppled over.

I have dismissed #1. While there was a thunderstorm going on, there was no thunder at the time of the strike.  It would have been exceptionally loud.  Also, there is no evidence of lightning strike on the tank pieces.

I am debating between #2 and #3.  In general, the tank appears to be in good shape (aside from being in three pieces), so I wouldn’t expect a fracture.  The tank was certainly left in a precarious position, but how did the bottom end up on the opposite side of the tower from the top?  I need more evidence.
We are lucky no one was opening the valve at the time.  We are lucky no kids were nearby when it fell.  We are lucky the pigs weren’t napping beside the tower.  There’s talk of a new tank.  I have my fingers crossed for a ground installation so we can connect our gutters to it.  In the meantime, the boys and I are getting our upper body workouts.

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.