Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Owl and the Pussycat(s) (Andy)

Some stories about some encounters I've had with some animals of some country called South Africa.

The Owl

On my second day in South Africa, we trainees had a few hours to ourselves to explore the college campus. We'd all seen an old, concrete watertower on the edge of campus, and rumor from previous volunteers was that failure to climb this tower before the end of training would result in eternal regret.

During our free time, we made our way over to the tower, which I estimate was about 100 yards high. One by one, people climbed to the top and telled down, "You absolutely have to see this!" But I couldn't shake the image of slipping off the ladder and hitting every steel support on the way down. By the time it was my turn to climb, I was absolutely certain that I'd die, and death just didn't seem worth it.

I had a few nightmares about the water tower that night, each featuring a more gruesome bone-breaking noise than the previous. I woke up an hour before sunrise and couldn't get back to sleep. I got up to wander around the campus for a bit.

I'd decided that if by the time I got to the tower, if there were people there, I would climb it. After all, I was here for adventure, and I had to get used to overcoming fear and discomfort. To my dismay, when I arrived, there were two trainees sitting at the top.

So I started climbing. By the time I realized what I was doing, it was too late to change my mind. It was only going to be worse going back down, because I was going to have to look down and see how high off the ground I was. I focused on the rungs in front of me and made my way to the top.

At the top of the tower, inside the concrete drum, my fear was at its peak. Falling from this height, at best, would result in severe mangling. Every detail seemed to suggest that I would soon be dead. The sweat on my hands made it hard to grasp the rungs. The cool wind rushing up from below was drying out my eyes. My feet ached from stepping on the thin rungs.

At the very moment that I was most certain that I was going to die, the owl who lived in the drum decided that he didn't want me in his nest. He flew between my body and the ladder, back and forth, wailing and clawing wildly. I made a conscious effort to hang on as tightly as possible while I leaned back and gave him room to get away. He didn't want to get away. He harried me a bit longer. I was somehow going to have to fight back. Between the terror and the adrenaline, I managed to muster the willpower to take a hand off the ladder and gently brush the owl away.

When he was finally gone, I pulled myself the last twenty feet to the top of the tower and plopped myself down. I looked to see if I'd peed my pants. I hadn't!

The two trainees at the top -- Matson and Kristen R. -- were completely unaware that anything had happened. For the next half hour, I sat up there with them; they were waiting for the sun rise. The morning light was enough to watch the owl go off and catch a mouse.

About ten minutes before the sun came up, I'd caught my breath, and my heart rate was back to normal. I didn't want to watch the sunrise, so I calmly made the climb down and went back to the dorms.

I'd see that owl a number of times again during my training at the college. Every time, someone would comment on how cool it was to watch an owl hunt, or what a beautiful creature it was. If only they knew.

The Pussycats

The campus was swarming with stray cats. During lunch, the cats would make their way to the Americans who were eating outside and beg for scraps. At first, they ate whatever we gave them: carrot scraps, cookie crumbs, break crusts, whatever. After they fattened up, though, they started to get picky. They would only eat meat.

Among the swarm was a mother/son pair. Our first week at the college, the mother was very nurturing to her son. When she got a scrap, she'd get it away from the other cats and share it with her kitten. As the weeks went on, however, Mama clearly grew annoyed. At first, she would only share non-meat scraps. Then she stopped sharing altogether.

But Baby didn't realize what he was supposed to do. Instead of going to the Americans and begging for food, he started to attack his mother every time she got food. She was a lot tougher than he was, though, so he never got to eat much.

I thought the mother's message was clear: baby kitty had to grow up and learn to take care of himself. Mama wasn't going to be around forever, and even if she were, she didn't have to energy to take care of him.

Finally, after a few agonizing weeks of watching the little cat fail to learn to beg, he had a breakthrough. He figured it out. He was hungry enough to eat the scraps that the other cats didn't want. And once he got his energy up, he was even bold enough to fight for meat scraps. He won some too.

One day during lunch, Baby and Mama made their way around the corner to where I was sitting. They were walking together and seemed to be getting along fine. How nice, I thought, that after all the savage beatings, Baby and Mama still get along.

And is if they'd heard my thoughts, they both turned to look at me. Mama sat down and Baby made his way over to me to beg for some food. He'd learned! How exciting! I picked a little piece of sausage off my spathlo and tossed it to him.

Mama instantly caught Baby with a full-on body tackle. There was hissing. There was clawing. There was much kicking up of dust. Finally, Baby ran away and Mama wolfed down the chunk of meat.

Gray the Dog

In SA, animals are treated much differently than they would be in the States. As you can imagine, people aren't as willing to fork over hundreds of dollars to cure their dog's case of worms, for instance.

In fact, the most common treatment of a pet dog that we've seen is that the dog gets chained up outside all day. He gets some food, gets some water, and generally is neither miserable nor thrilled with life. The people here aren't cruel to animals; they just don't treat them the same way Americans do: like their own offspring.

During our first visit to our site, I found cowering in the back yard a dark gray dog. She looked emaciated, and was apparently terrified of everything. When I went over to pet the dog, someone from the house yelled at me not to touch her, no one knows where she's been.

Every time we saw the dog, it would run up to me, as excited as I've ever seen a dog. It would cheer me on as I walked to the pit toilet or fed the chickens our vegetable scraps. And although she was happy, she was also clearly terrified that I would boot her in the head.

If I was with someone when I saw the dog, they would give me a reason not to touch or feed her. She had killed a goat (although there was apparently no missing goat or a corpse to substantiate the claim). She had rabies. She belonged to a witch.

I thought about it for a long time. Would it be worth it to watch out for this dog? If I taught her that people weren't trouble, I'd be doing her a dis-service. No one in the community seemed to want her around, and if any of the things people had said about her were true, her best bet would be just to run off into the desert and learn to live there.

So for a week, I ignored the dog or chased her away every time I saw her.

But I couldn't stop thinking about it. It was hardly an ethical dilemma: she was just a dog, and many dogs in SA have it a lot worse. I had no obligation to this dog, and encouraging her to take care of herself (in the style of the Mama cat) was probably the best thing I could do for her.

But one day, when she made her way up to me, she wasn't going very fast. She looked sick and even thinner than usual. I just didn't have it in me to turn her down.

So I grabbed a Weet-Bix, put some peanut butter onto it and tossed it to her. Two bites, gone.

I went inside and felt guilty for a few minutes. Lauren came in and said, "I know I probably shouldn't have, but I snuck that gray dog some food this morning." Before this moment, Lauren and I had never talked about feeding that dog. I was pleasantly surprised to see that someone else had taken notice, even if it was an American.

The next day, when I went to the backyard where Gray usually relaxed, I saw a bowl with some bogobe and meat scraps. Our host father had put it there.

My theory about no one caring about the dog had been blown away.

Now, she gets all our scraps, and a Weet-Bix on special occasions.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Survivor is Only 40 Days, You're Here Two Years"

This one goes out to my fellow members of SA20, because we survived. We survived PST and became volunteers. And after our swearing in, on our long trip to our new home, I am feeling sentimental.

There is nothing like a shared experience to bring people together. We shared common enemies: roosters, the chaos of Peace Corps, the training itself. We came out with the same battle-scars (bogobe burns). More importantly, we shared the same extreme joys of being in a new country, discovering a new culture, and finding strength within ourselves and each other.

I am remembering one of our first sessions at training where, I think it was Jeff, who quoted a poster that got him through his service, "You can get used to anything." Looking back on our first eight weeks here, it is absolutely true. You CAN get used to anything. For all those who think "I couldn't do that" about anything involved in this process (leaving friends and family, giving up the conveniences we are used to, surviving without running water and consistent electricity, pit toilets, etc.), you absolutely, 100%, without a doubt can. People don't just survive under these circumstances, they flourish. I don't mention this because I think that I, or anyone in our group, has done anything extraordinary by being here or making it through two months in a place where people live-out their entire lives. I mention it because I was one of the people who thought "I couldn't do that", both before I left and many times while I've been here, but I got used to it, and I did it.

In order to get used to training, we made family out of each other. We left the U.S. mentally prepared to go to our sites, deal with the isolation, take our grand ideas and put them to work. Instead, we were thrust into the organized chaos that is training. We spent the next 10 hours a day, 6 days a week together learning language, medical, safety, and technical information while complaining about it every chance we could get. We made the kinds of friendships in two months it would normally take years to make. And just as we were starting to really get used to it all, it was over. If everyone else was like me, we got so used to training, we forgot why we came in here in the first place. All of a sudden I felt completely dependent on people I barely knew, and I was faced with saying goodbye to them, just as I had to all my friends and family two months before.

But because we got used to all this craziness in eight of the longest and shortest weeks of our lives, we CAN do this. We can get used to what's coming up in the next four months before we all get to see each other again. No matter what is facing us at or sites, we can get used to it. Don't believe me? Just ask your Trainee self sitting back there in Washington DC what (s)he is capable of. I'm going to guess none of what we just went through is on that list. And yet, here we are.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Site Visits and How Showers Can Sometimes Make You Feel Human Again

I honestly don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with the fact that I should be studying for my language exam right now, but I’d much rather be talking to you.

It’s hard to describe a week packed with so many events, people, triumphs and struggles that it easily felt like a month. I guess I can start with a good ol’ timeline.

August 28-Everyone is given a small sheet of paper that states their village and the schools and supervisors which they would be working with, along with a mini-description of their host families. Our slip told us we would be living in a small village in the Northern Cape working in a well-resourced secondary school that had a computer lab with 40 computers and a primary school. Our host family would be grandparents living with their 17 year-old host granddaughter.

There were tears of terror and shouts of excitement from others in the group. I would say we were pretty neutral. The pros were that our site would be well resourced and one of our good couple friends would be relatively close. The cons would be that we were an hour and a half from our shopping town and we were definitely on the remote side of life.

August 29-We had a fieldtrip to Pretoria to the Voortrekker Monument followed by another visit to a mall which was as disorienting as the first. The highlight was definitely this restaurant, Spur, which is an “American” themed place that centers around Native Americans in a very bizarre/enforcing stereotypes kind of way. We got nachos that contained cottage cheese. Weird.

August 31-We drive the 8 hours from our training site to Kuruman where we will be staying for the “Supervisor’s Workshop”. They put us up at this very nice lodge with AMAZING food (I had a lamb chop there that changed my life and made me believe that some meat can be substituted for dessert), air conditioning, and hot showers. In fact, the first thing I did when we arrived was get in the shower for 45 minutes to try to feel clean again. It suddenly dawned on me that not being able to keep one’s idea of “basic” hygiene can start to severely impact one’s mental status and ability to feel human. I left that shower reborn.

September 1 to 2-Supervisor’s Workshop. We meet our two principals who are fantastic, motivated people who are eager to work with us and tell us what they think their schools and the communities are lacking. No first meeting is free of awkwardness, but I think we all did pretty well.

The 18 of us in the group who are stationed in the Northern Cape definitely bonded during this time. We are the few, the proud, the out-of-their-mind Peace Corps volunteers facing two years of life on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

And let’s talk desert. On the afternoon of the 2nd, a fellow volunteer along with Andy and I and three other South Africans, load up into a pickup truck meant for five. It was an interesting hour and a half drive through what they described as the “semi-desert” and what I would describe as the freakin’ desert. There are trees, I’ll give them that, but there’s also an awful lot of sand…

That evening we meant our new host family and got a preview of the space we will be living in for the next two years. Our area was currently under construction, so we stayed in a nicely prepared guest room. The situation was very similar to what we had at our training homestay: electricity, no running water, and outhouse. However, the new addition that is going to contain the two rooms that we will be living in SUPPOSEDLY is going to contain a bathroom with a flush toilet and shower. I am trying hard to manage my expectations here since when we left there were only cement brick walls with broken windows and no floor or roof. I am definitely interested to see how it all turns out!

Our family was very nice. Our grandparents have ten surviving adult children who live all over South Africa. Several of them came home for an important funeral in the village and so we were fortunate enough to meet them. The highlight though was the 17 year-old granddaughter who will be our host sister. She speaks fluent English, has a great sense of humor, and patiently helped us cook, find things, translate, and learn Setswana. She will be one of our greatest assets in the village. Plus she wants to be my jogging buddy. What else could I ask for!?

September 3 to 6-Site Visit. We tour our schools and meet the teachers and students. We see the awesome computer lab with the 40 computers (not all of them in working condition, though a few of them are connected to the internet!). In addition, we found the internet cafĂ© across the street from our house (yay!). We went to our first South African funeral which was an experience. All in all, it was a very good experience and we’re very excited to be living there for two years.

Interesting items:

-The village we are living in is really the equivalent of an African reservation. The people who live there were forced to move by the Apartheid government in 1977 from their lush village where they farmed cattle to the edge of the desert. Many of the community members mentioned this to us when we spoke with them including the exact date. You can tell it’s an important part of the community’s identity. However, despite the fact that no one in the village is “from” there, they seem to have a strong spirit to make their village a better place. For example, to get to my village you need to drive 45 minutes on a gravel road, but once you arrive, they have paved their own main roads.

-In Setswana culture, the younger females/wives are expected to cook for the family. Therefore, since we’re not considered guests, but family, we have been consistently asked/expected to cook for everyone. It has led to some interesting/stressful moments. It’s hard to convey that though I may have had the ingredients used for most South African food available to me in the U.S., I have not had to prepare them without running water or a stove or in South African style.

-There have been groups of German and Australian volunteers in addition to another Peace Corps volunteer that have been in and out of our village. The good is that they brought supplies and workers to remodel the primary school, the funds and supplies to build the computer lab and a library for the secondary school, teachers to work with the South African teachers, and the supplies and knowledge to start a garden. The bad is that I think they are hoping for the same kind of miraculous progress from us. I guess it gives us something to strive for!

September 7- Our Northern Cape group got together and hired a couple taxis to take us back to our training site. We were so happy to see each other and discuss all the craziness from the previous five days. And now we’re back at the training college. We officially become volunteers on the 17th and then it’s off to our permanent site to live for two years! Let us know what you’re up to.

Love and miss you.

PS-I didn't get to post this until today and, no worries, I passed my language exam. You're now reading the blog of an Intermediate-Mid Setswana speaker.