Wednesday, November 05, 2008

It's official...

What's official, you ask.

Barack Obama is officially the President-Elect of the United States of America.

Not only did Obama win the national electoral and popular vote earlier this morning in convincing fashion, but he more surprisingly turned the normally red state of Indiana (my home state) into a blue state for this year's presidential election. For those of you unfamiliar with Indiana's voting record, Indiana had not supported a democratic presidential candidate since Johnson in 1964 (When all but 6 states supported Johnson).

Now that I've told you what you probably already know, you might be wondering how South Africans are reacting to the news that Obama will be the next president of the U.S. Well, an overwhelming majority of people are very excited about the idea. The main reasons they're excited are as follows:
1) They are sick and tired of President Bush, and they want anyone other than him to lead the U.S..
2) They are looking forward to Obama approaching relations with South Africa and the rest of the world in a new, refreshing, peaceful, and respectful way.
3) They are excited about America having a Black president and think that it represents change and progress in America and the world.
4) They are hopeful that the U.S. will play a more active and positive role in South Africa and Africa as a whole because it now has the son of a Kenyan as its president.

However, not all South Africans are excited that Obama has been elected to be the next U.S. President. Upon questioning them why they did not want Obama to be president, they responded by saying that they were not comfortable having a black U.S. President. You may think that these individuals were stubborn, white Afrikaners who are stuck in the Apartheid frame of mind. On the contrary, these were young, black, and fairly intelligent individuals! Needless to say, I was very surprised, but I didn't feel comfortable pressing them on why they were uncomfortable with the idea. However, there are a few possible reasons that I've conjectured (It's important to note that these may or may not be true, but are just some of my possible guesses).
1) It's just very weird for them to think of having a black U.S. President, and they are having a hard time reconciling it in their mind.
2) They've experienced what they may consider to be an inept South African government led mainly by blacks, and they worry that a black man will be a poor leader of America. (Even as I write this, I realize that it may sound somewhat racist. Personally, I don't believe this, but I recognize that some South Africans may.)
3) They're afraid that people will have such high expectations of Obama, and that if he fails his failure will reflect poorly on blacks as a whole.
4) Some of any of a number of different reasons that I have failed to think of.

I realize that I may have spoken about sensitive topics in this post, and I apologize if I have struck a raw nerve with anyone. However, as always, it's important to note that this blog represents my personal thoughts and opinions and not those of the Peace Corps. Feel free to post any comments/questions that you may have.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Yes, I'm alive

First off, I apologize for not updating my blog sooner/more regularly. My excuse (although a poor one) is that I don't really enjoy writing very much. I spend time reflecting on what has happened during a given day/week/month, but the step of writing it down (either for a journal or a blog or an email) is very tedious for me, so I need to be very motivated to do it. Enough for my complaining, you're probably just interested in what I've done here the last three months.

The beginning of June saw the opening of the Swayimane Community Library, which I helped to build the bookshelves for and in general helped to see that everything was in place and ready for it to open. Many community members and community leaders turned out for the opening, and it was great to see everyone rally around the first library in our community. I would be remiss if I did not mention that the library was made possible by the generosity of Dorothy Kennett and her organization Books for South Africa, which raised all of the money (and books) for the library.

The library is now running well and is used on a regular basis, mostly by students in the community. Even though the library is a new concept to most of the patrons, they have learned quickly and are eager for the knowledge they can gain and the enjoyment that they will get out of the library.

With the library finished (it took up most of my time in April and May), I turned my attention to finding other projects that I will devote my time to during my time here. I went to savings groups meetings, went to a couple of schools, and even went with home-based care providers on one day. While there was not a lack of things needing to be done, I was struggling to figure out what my role in these programs would be and where best that I could apply my time, energy, knowledge, and skills.

Consistently, (or not) our Peace Corps in-service training was scheduled for the end of June, while I was still trying to sort all of this out. I must say that the training held, and the discussions with Peace Corps staff and fellow Peace Corps volunteers helped me to sort everything out. Training helped me re-tune my focus, give me some good ideas for possible projects, and revive my motivation to volunteer. When training was finished (on July 4th), I left with a new outlook and plan for my time here.

When I arrived back at site after training, a group of eight volunteers from America (Metro Church in NYC) was also arriving to volunteer in Swayimane for two weeks. I of course knew they were coming and was planning to slot into their projects where feasible, but I could not have imagined all of the positives that would come out of their time here (both for Swayimane and projects for me to do) before they came. While they were here, they led holiday classes at an area high school, they donated computers and began to give computer training to community volunteers, they started business training for some members of the savings groups, and they started strategic planning with Ithembalethu (the community-based organization that I work with). These were all of the things that I saw a need for in the community and that I was hoping to get involved with. It was great! They got the ball rolling on these activities, and, in short, I have taken over where they left off with these projects.

However, when they left in the middle of July, there was a short lull before these projects got going. This was mainly due to taking a step back, trying to work out some small kinks on these projects, and making a proper plan for them moving forward. By the end of July, these projects were ready to go full steam ahead.

My projects at site were ready to go by August, however instead of starting them then, I had already volunteered and was scheduled to go to pre-service training for the next group of South Africa Peace Corps volunteers. So, the first week of August I left for one week to go to a village outside of Pretoria to help the new trainees learn Zulu and answer any questions they had about living and volunteering in South Africa. I had a great week meeting and hanging out with the new trainees. It was good to see their enthusiasm, hope, and nervousness, and remember having all of the same feelings during my training earlier this year. It was also great to see how far I've come in just a few short months since training. The hope and enthusiasm are still there (most of the time) but the nervousness about living and volunteering here are gone and have been replaced with a contentedness of knowing that whatever happens, everything will work out one way or another.

When I got back from training, I had one week at site before leaving for a one-week vacation (my first vacation here in South Africa) with some friends from Peace Corps. While there was not a whole lot I could do for that one week back at site, I was able to put together a few lesson plans and hold a few training sessions.

Then, on the third week of August I left for the one-week vacation to the St. Lucia area. Since I was on vacation, I was allowed to rent a car and drive to where we needed to go (Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to drive unless they are on vacation. If they drive while not on vacation they will be shipped back to the U.S.). It was so nice to drive again for the first time since late January. I had to readjust my thinking because in South Africa cars drive on the left-hand side of the road, but it was easier to adjust to than I thought it would be. During our vacation, we spent one day at a game park, took a hippo and crocodile tour, spent a couple of days on the beach (despite the strong wind and high waves), saw some rare palm trees found only in the Kosi Bay area, and just relaxed and enjoyed our week off. It was great to have a week away, spend time with friends, and get refreshed and rejuvenated before digging in for the long haul at site. Vacation was great, but it was equally great to get back to work at site. However, I must say that it was tough giving up the car at the end of the week. Being able to drive a car at site would really come in handy (If anyone from PCHQ is reading this :) ).

When I got back to site from vacation, I started my projects going full swing. I hold a few training sessions each week, plan my next training sessions, write any needed reports, and do any miscellaneous work that needs done. Everything is going very well here, and I'm hopeful and excited about what the future holds here.

P.S. I have also finally posted pictures from site and vacation. They can be found here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

So you want to learn Zulu?

Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday wishes. I really appreciate everyone who thought of me on my big quarter-century birthday. I had a good birthday over here, which included my host family singing happy birthday to me (in English) on the morning of my birthday.

Also, for those of you who are worried about my safety in light of the recent attacks against African immigrants in South Africa, I'm am doing fine here and have not been threatened and have not been otherwise affected here where I stay. As far as I know, no other Peace Corps volunteers have been affected either.

I've had some requests to pass on a few common Zulu phrases, so here they are. (I'll do my best to spell them out phonetically also)

Yebo (yah-boh) - Yes
Cha (tah) - No
Ngiyabonga (ngee-yah-bon-gah) - Thank you
Sawubona (Sou-u-boh-nah) - Hello (literally: I see you)
Unjanai (un-jah-nee) - How are you?
Ngiyaphila (ngee-yah-pee-lah) - I am fine
Salakahle (sah-lah-gah-leh) - Goodbye (literally: Stay well)
Hambakahle (ham-bah-gah-leh) - Go well
Ulalakahle (u-la-la-gah-leh) - Goodnight (Literally: Sleep well)
Ngizobona kusasa (ngee-zo-boh-nah ku-sah-sah) - See you tomorrow
Igama lami ngingu... (ee-gah-mah lah-mee ngee-gu) - My name is...
Isikhati sini (ee-see-kah-tee see-nee) - What time is it?

If there are any other phrases you'd like to know, of if there is anything else you'd like me to include in an upcoming blog entry, let me know.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Have I really been at my site for a month already?

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been in South Africa for over three months now. In some ways it feels like I just arrived last week, but in other ways it feels like I’ve lived here for years.

Of course, during the first two months that I was here I, along with 29 other Peace Corps South Africa volunteers, were participating in Peace Corps training. I made a few brief updates to my blog that discussed my training experience, so I won’t go into any more depth about that here. But to summarize, a) it went well, b) I studied Zulu and passed my language test, c) i made a lot of good friendships with fellow Peace Corps volunteers and with South Africans who I lived/worked with, and d) I was sworn in as an official Peace Corps volunteer on April 3rd.

After swearing in, I moved from our training site to my permanent site in the rural area of Swayimane in the KwaZulu-Natal province. I’ll be volunteering with two young organizations that work in Swayimane. One is called Zimele, which means “to stand on one’s own feet” in Zulu. Fittingly, Zimele helps organizations, groups or people, and individuals to move towards standing on one’s own feet instead of relying on outside assistance for survival. Zimele works in Swayimane, but also has some programs in other areas of the province. One of the main ways that Zimele assists people is by establishing savings groups with small groups of women in the community. Each woman saves the equivalent of about $.50 a week and is then able to withdrawal or take out a loan in times of need or in order to purchase an expensive item that her family needs.

The other organization that I work for is called Ithembalethu. It is the organization in Swayimane that Zimele assists and works through to help individuals here in “the valley.” Ithembalethu is so young that it is still in the process of registering as an “official” Community-Based Organization (CBO) so that it can receive grant money. However, it will likely complete that within the next month or two. Other than partnering with Zimele, Ithembalethu has 3 home-based care workers, distributes about a dozen food parcels to needy families, and has established a few community gardens.

So, after all this you are probably wondering exactly what it is that I will be doing during my two years here. Well, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. The first three months at my permanent site are to be mainly spent getting to know the organization and the community better so that future projects can be as successful as possible. Therefore, I’ve spent significant time this past month meeting local government officials, meeting staff at the community clinic, learning about the different projects that my organization has undertaken, and just in general getting to know people in the community. Hopefully, through this process I’ll be able to learn what projects I can assist with or initiate during the rest of my two years here.

However, when I have not been doing that I have been helping to build a library for the community. Somewhat ironically, the woman who is donating money and books for the library is a former Illinois State University librarian/professor named Dorothy Kennett! It is most definitely a very small world. She is here preparing the books, and we’ve had a good time sharing stories about ISU/Bloomington-Normal, Illinois and talking about American sports and politics. If that isn’t surprising enough, my job in building the library is one that is best described as the “Master” Carpenter. While the building the library will be housed in has already been built, all of the bookshelves and counter-tops needed to be built. Now, with the help of a few other volunteers and workers, all of the bookshelves have been assembled and are in the process of being finished (stripping being put on the edges, backs attached, bolting them to the wall, etc.) Most of you who know me know how little experience I have doing this type of work, so it has been a learning experience, but enjoyable and successful nonetheless. The library is scheduled to have its grand opening on June 6th, and I think everything will be completed by that time. I will post pictures on my website of the library when it is finished.

Finally, you may still be wondering what it’s like to live and work here in rural South Africa. Well, all of the people here are very welcoming, friendly, and very willing to help me find my way if there is something I need help with or don’t understand. Specifically, my host family is great. My host parents are both in their early 50s and there are 4 children still living at home (2 of them are theirs, 2 of them are their close relatives). Three of the the children are in their upper teens and the other is in third grade. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them and spending time with them this last month. They’ve also been a great resource for me when I have questions about Zulu culture, the community, South Africa, etc. I could not ask for a better living situation.

The other part of living here in rural South Africa, which is not quite as positive, is the transportation situation. Swayimane is a very large and spread out community with, by some estimates, upwards of 100,000 people living here (I think that estimate is high, but it is still eye-opening nonetheless.) Counter that with the fact that, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I am not allowed to drive, and it is very hilly which makes biking impossible and walking tiring and you can see why getting around is not the easiest thing to do. As an example, I walk 30 minutes to get to the “downtown” part of Swayimane. Of which, roughly half of the walk is at about a 45 degree angle downhill and the other half is at about a 45 degree angle uphill. For longer transportation, I rely on the the local mini-buses called khombis or on my supervisor who owns a vehicle. Thus, I’ve had to learn to plan my days around what type of transport is available to me. It hasn’t been easy to often be dependent on others for getting around, but it has been eye-opening to experience one of the difficulties that rural South Africans face on a regular basis.

Well, that's all for now. Have a good week!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Freedom Day

Today is Freedom Day in South Africa (Well technically yesterday was Freedom Day, but today is the observance of Freedom Day). Freedom Day marks the anniversary of the first time when, in 1994, all South Africans, regardless of race, were first allowed to vote. This holiday brings forth feelings of patriotism and hope in the hearts and minds of many South Africans as they recall how much South Africa has changed and grown since the end of Apartheid. Not to say the racial, economic, and social situation is perfect here, but South Africa has sure come a long way in 14 years. I hope and pray (along with South Africans) that South Africa will continue to grow and progress over the next 14 years as much as it has in the past 14 years...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Quick Update


I will keep this short for now because I have limited time left at the Internet cafe. I will be able to write more and more often once I get a new power cord for my computer, but this will have to do for now.

Everything is going great here in South Africa. I was sworn in as a volunteer along with my 29 other trainees a week ago on the 3rd of April. I've been placed at a site in rural KwaZulu-Natal that is about 45 minutes northeast of Pietermarizburg and about 1 hour and 15 minutes northwest of Durban. It is a very beautiful area of the country with rolling hills, sugar cane fields, and timber farms. The name of the community I'm living in is Swayimane and has approximately 100,000 residents that are spread over a rather large area. The best comparison to the U.S. is Appalacia due to their similarities in being rural, hilly, agricultural, and rather poor.

I feel like I have a very good placement with a hard-working and caring supervisor and a host family who is very easy to get along with and has been/will be very helpful as I integrate into the community. The organization I'll be working for is very young, but has a vision to help people to help lift themselves out of poverty. It coordinates many savings groups, a couple community gardens, and is in the process of starting a craft-making group. I'm very excited about the prospects for my work and for the future of the organization. Also, I was able to (just barely) pass my Zulu language test, and I look forward to learning more and more Zulu in the upcoming months.

Hope everything is well in the U.S. and that I will be able to chat/send more emails in the near future. Until then, here are some pictures I took during training. Most of these are of my hast family and neighbors, but there are some others as well.

Hambakahle! (Go well!)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

KZN Here I Come

Yesterday, I found out my permanent site placement. I'm going to be placed in the village of Wartburg about an hour north of Pietermaritzburg in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. I'll be working with an organization who helps various groups of people in area villages become more empowered in self-sufficent through income generating projects and the like. I will find out much more about the organization and what I'll be doing when I visit there next week for a week-long orientation to the community and organization. I'm very excited about my placement! It sounds like it will be the kind of work I was really hoping to do here in South Africa.

Also, today I was finally able to upload some pictures to the Internet. They're just a small sample of pictures I've taken, but hopefully you enjoy them.

That's all for now. I hope to able to post more some time when I get back from visiting my site.