Saturday, March 20, 2010

To Harry Baker From Goody Gootch, With Love

Long, long ago – half a century, more or less – and far, far away from where I am this minute, Harry Baker taught me to do what I'm doing this minute – touch typing. I've been thinking of him every day lately, and wishing I'd paid more attention, because I'm trying to do for the South African teachers I'm working with what Mr. Baker did for me. I'm trying to teach them to use computers, which means I'm trying to teach them touch typing. And let me tell you: Not so easy.

I've got tools Mr. Baker never dreamed of. I've got personal computers and typing tutor software and video projectors. But what I don't have is Mr. Baker, who knew how to get the job done.

I took two semesters of touch typing in summer school. It was the thing for college-bound students to do -- take typing in the summers so they could squeeze in an extra academic subject during the regular school. I was particularly interested in typing because I was going to be a writer. And I got even more interested after the first class started – mostly because Cindy Morris was in it, and I had a wild crush on her, even though she was two whole years older than I was – not so important as I contemplate my 65th birthday next week, but a pretty big deal when I was 15 and couldn't even drive yet.

We were in class all morning, with one 15-minute break (we would all pile into as many cars as we had and race out to the A&W for root beer, then race back to the high school). I wish I could remember what Harry Baker did in that class as well as I remember the back of Cindy Morris' neck (her hair was short, light brown). I wish I could do it for Sophy and Segofatso and Dilwe and the other students who struggle to compress their hands into that peculiar bunch-fingered knot that lets you get all eight of your digits onto the home keys what Harry Baker did for me. But I'm struggling.

I think of myself as a pretty good typist. When I sit down at the keyboard to show my students how it's done I can dazzle them. I close my eyes tight and reach out for the computer keyboard and find the right keys by touch (thank you, Bill Gates or somebody, for those little bumps on the F and the J) and then start talking and typing what I'm saying. And they're amazed. They should be. It's a neat parlor trick. And I should be pretty good. After all, I made a living at it for nearly 45 years, writing millions of words for newspapers and magazines and books and Web sites and company newsletters and marketing brochures. I put my fingers down on the home row of hundreds of keyboards from Royals and Underwoods to IBM Selectrics to Apple Macintoshes and IBM PCs, and most recently on a tiny little HP Compaq netbook computer with a keyboard so small it feels like I'm typing inside an ashtray.

I've still got a lot of those millions of words. I've got boxes of clips from the publications I wrote for, and I can Google up more virtual boxes of Web pages any time I want. But there is one thing I wrote that I'm afraid is gone forever. It may live on, in fact, only in Mr. Baker's memory. During one of those summers in the typing room at Salem High, I took my eyes off Cindy Morris long enough to write an assignment. The class was typing a newspaper, a tricky assignment, because you had to justify the columns, which is easy to do on a PC, but meant you had to count each line and figure out how may extra spaces to insert between words on the typewriter. I volunteered to write the advice column for the newspaper, and I turned out “Goody Gootch's Advice to the Lovelorn.” It was probably exactly what a 15-year-old boy who was trying to be funny would have turned out, but Mr. Baker liked it. In fact, for the half-century since, whenever I've seen him, he's called me Goody Gootch.

So thanks, Mr. Baker. And just how do I get these people to keep practicing JMJ JNJ JUJ JHJ until they can actually do it without looking at their fingers?


-- Goody Gootch

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Catching Up -- We've Been Busy

David says this blog has been shamefully neglected and that’s true, but we have been so busy since January that we have had no energy after work to write a blog. We come home and collapse.

Previous volunteers had told us that we would likely have lots of free time: they told of afternoons kneading and baking bread and taking leisurely walks around the neighborhood. That is not us -- or most of the other volunteers in our class. We are the first group of education volunteers who can actually work in the classroom teaching classes (as opposed to advising and assisting teachers) and several of us are extremely busy.

I am teaching four full days each week and still trying to learn Setswana with a tutor. I have two very active 7th-grade classes in one school and different groups of 4th-, 5th- and 6th-grade classes in the other school. My 7th-graders are eager for me to start an after-school book club—as soon as I can get some books for them. 

I’m finding handling 40 or more students in one classroom to be very challenging. The students have varying degrees of ability or skills. Some are at or above grade level and some are not really able to read. We have no remedial services so I have to try and work with all the different skill levels. It is very demanding and exhausting. I work with my 7th-graders all day Monday and Tuesday and I am their only teacher of English, although most of the teaching of other classes is done in English. On Wednesday I switch schools and work with the other grades at a school where I team up with teachers by taking half their class and working on reading and comprehension skills. 

I like these young people. They are full of energy and many are very bright and full of ambition. Recently when I asked them to describe their dreams of their futures they said they wanted to be pilots, doctors, singers (Beyonce is a favorite role model), chartered accountants and police persons. 

David is very busy fixing computers that are overrun with viruses and teaching adults basic computer skills. There are so many computers here that have been attacked by viruses — usually transmitted by thumb drives. He is getting tired of fixing viruses and is looking for an apprentice who might take over some of the work. 

We are both also on Peace Corps committees. Sally is on the IRC (Information Resource Committee) and David on the VAC (Volunteer Advisory Committee). David also is editor of the newsletter that the South African Peace Corps volunteers receive each month. These committees require our presence in the Peace Corps office in Pretoria about once a month. 

We are enjoying our work here most days but we are very tired at the end of the day. A week-long fall break is coming up soon and I am looking forward to sleeping long and late. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The new school year started this week, and we are officially no longer adrift. In fact, we're suddenly scrambling to catch up.

The month-long summer vacation that ran from December 11 to January 11 was too much of a vacation: now we've got a month's worth of story to try to catch up with. It's all good: we had a guest for the Christmas holidays, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer from Louisville, a woman who once taught at Jefferson Community College, where Sally used to teach, and who lived in Irish Hill, near where we lived when we first moved to Louisville 40-plus years ago. Once again we fixed a holiday dinner -- this time with two small turkeys, but we're still trying to convert South Africa to pumpkin pies.

Doing Christmas in the middle of summer has a disconnected feel to it. It was hot, and it didn't really begin to feel like Christmas until Father Mark took us to a Christmas Eve festival of carols at his church. The choir sang beautifully, and the music made the season right.

We took a vacation ourselves right after New Years, and flew from Pretoria to Capetown to spend a week at the Nine Flowers Guest House, a wonderful B&B very centrally located in the Gardens district. We walked all over Capetown, and rode the tour buses up to Table Mountain. We ate wonderful meals in lovely restaurants, went to the movies, and visited some wonderful museums, and took a too-brief tour of the wine country. It was just about perfect (and if it sounds like I'm doing a commercial for the Nine Flowers, I am. It was fabulous.)

We came back on Jan. 8, and schools reopened for teachers on Jan. 11, so we were back in the thick of it immediately. Sally began the work she's going to be doing, teaching English to seventh-graders in two schools, and David put in a week trying to get past doing computer tech support -- for him it was a week of installing anti-virus software and trying to clean viruses off computer lab servers and teachers' laptops. Sooner or later he'll teach basic computer classes to teachers and run computer clubs for students, and in spare moments help with some technology courses.

There, now we're all caught up, the slate is clean, and we can try to move on with our lives, right? So get ready for it -- pretty soon I'll tell you about the warthog sausage salad.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Rain, Electricity, and Thanksgiving

It′s the end of the school year and we are feeling a bit adrift.

Although school isn′t officially out until Dec. 11, students at the middle and high schools are no longer attending school because their exams are over. Teachers are still grading exams, so they are at school, but it seems ghostly without the students. The primary schools are still functioning, but even some of them are not doing the same kind of class work they did when we first arrived. They no longer have to teach so that the students will pass exams.

The holiday vacation will last for a month, until Jan. 11, and then we will start the new school year and things will probably be very busy.

We are in the rainy season. The rain is not a steady rain or a misty rain but intermittent torrential downpours. It will be very bright and sunny, and then clouds will move in and we′ll have a powerful thunderstorm, with dramatic lightning and crashing thunder. When it beats on our tin roof it can be intimidating. The storm may go on for a couple of hours and then passes on. Often the storms occur at night and when we get up in the morning the dirt paths have changed into muddy ruts filled with water. It makes walking to some of our schools challenging.

Electricity has been a problem for the past two weeks, and rain and electrical outages are related – the one often seems to cause the other. Last night, during a particularly loud thunderstorm, the lights went out. We have candles at the ready, but often there′s not much to do but go to bed.

While the electricity is usually back on in time to heat our morning coffee, the schools seem to have more trouble. The electricity has been off in our schools all week, which that means that fax machines, copiers and computers don′t work. This is frustrating to David who goes to the schools only to find he can do nothing. One day a principal had to drive to another town to fax an important document.

We′re already feeling technology-deprived. More than once we′ve wanted to do a computer-based presentation, but we have no way of doing it – nobody seems to have a video projector anywhere around us. And even if we had one, could we count on having electricity to power it? It is instructive how we Americans take reliable electrical connections – and hot water and cellphone service and Philadelphia Cream Cheese in the grocery stores -- for granted.

Thanksgiving: The Turkey Story

Speaking of cream cheese (how′s that for a transition?) we had a wonderful Thanksgiving with nine other Peace Corps volunteers as guests for the weekend. The Peace Corps doesn′t observe most American holidays unless, like Christmas, they are also celebrated in South Africa. Thanksgiving, however, is an exception. We were given Thursday and Friday off to celebrate it.

We started our preparations with an ingredients hunt – Thanksgiving means cranberry sauce and stuffing and pumpkin pies and turkey. We took a couple of taxi rides to shop for things like ground nutmeg and pumpkin and chocolate chips – and, of course, a turkey.

We rounded up most of what we needed, but we hit a real problem with the turkey. We′d been told that most places wouldn′t sell turkeys, but we would almost certainly find them at the Pic ′n′ Pay in Brits. And we did. There they were, in a freezer case, encased in white shrink-wrapped plastic. But we wouldn′t have recognized them if they hadn′t said ″TURKEY″ on their wrappings. They were all no more than the size of a football, and weighed around 3 and a half kilograms – about 7 and a half pounds. That′s a pretty good chicken, but it is no Thanksgiving turkey for 11 Americans, three priests, and assorted other guests. We panicked.

One of the nuns who lives here asked what we were doing for Thanksgiving and we shared our fears. She volunteered to help. She was going to Pretoria, she said, and she was sure she could find a real turkey in the big city.

And sure enough, late Tuesday afternoon she drove up a 17-pound turkey in her trunk – a genuine Jennie-O bird imported from Willmar, Minnesota. We traded her our 7-pound squab. David made pumpkin and Derby pies. Sally made an apple coffeecake (that′s where the cream cheese went). Each of our Peace Corps guests brought a dish or made something after s/he got here. We had a wonderful spread: mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce (made from dried cranberries, and it turned out well), green bean casserole, bread stuffing, mushroom gravy, macaroni and cheese, butternut soup, green salad, and a couple of vegetarian dishes. And turkey. Plenty of turkey.

Our guests stayed for two nights, and we had fun catching up and telling each other about what we have been doing since we were together in training. There was also a hike up our mountain that was cut short by a thunderstorm, and we played card games. Taboo, a word guessing game, was a favorite.

The only problem was that some of the educators we work said, ″Why weren′t we invited?″ It′s a major cultural difference: Here in South Africa a celebration carries an open invitation – even a wedding or a funeral calls for an open-house event with a LOT of food and anyone who lives around can come and eat. It′s not unusual to slaughter a couple of cows, and local women will come and cook for two or three days. Our co-workers are surprised when we tell them that in America we do not attend weddings or most parties unless we are invited by the hosts themselves, and when we have a party we prepare just enough food to feed the people we′ve invited.

Next time we′ll have to think of some way to show our hospitality to our South African friends -- without slaughtering a cow.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Halloween Story, Sort Of

At a party Thursday evening I sat next to a lekgoa like me. (″Lekgoa″ is a Setswana word that might originally have meant ″European,″ but nowadays means anybody who′s white.) He began telling me about his explorations in the hills around our village, and what he′s found there. Caves he says were inhabited by bushmen in prehistoric times, with paintings on the walls. Of course, he said, so many of them have been ruined, desecrated and defaced by vandals, and even though he′s tried to get the authorities to do something to protect the archeological heritage of the area, there′s little interest and less action.

″They′re hunting diamonds,″ he said.

Diamonds? I thought that was a different part of South Africa, Kimberly, away in the Northern Cape province, not around here.

″These are alluvial diamonds,″ he said, ″washed out by the rivers.″ We do live on the edge of a wide valley, obviously formed by a sizable river over the course of many thousands of years, though the river is now shrunk to insignificance.

″These were real gems, big ones,″ he said. ″The bushmen would find them, and collect them, and play with them. Their traditional healers all included a couple of alluvial diamonds in their ′bones,′ the collection of objects they cast to tell fortunes and predict futures.″

″And the healers were always buried with their bones,″ he said.

And now people, greedy people, are looking for those alluvial diamonds. ″They dig up ancient graveyards. They dig out the earth over an area a hundred meters on a side, and who knows what they do with the contents. But they leave holes with skeletons exposed, bones sticking out of the sides of the pit, that they fill in with rubbish.″

I haven′t seen any diamonds, but rubbish, at least, I′m very familiar with. It′s everywhere in South Africa. Everything that will burn casts a haze in the sky, and everything that won′t litters the environment. Bottles, cans, containers, plastic bags, construction debris deface even the most beautiful places. There′s enough trash by the side of any road to fill several pits.

Are the diamond-hunters finding anything? Who knows. But bulldozing ancient graves in search of quick riches is surely bad karma, especially in a country that places such a high value on respect for elders. Whatever the truth of alluvial diamonds, my companion′s story rang true. And on Halloween, I thought about those bones sticking out of the sides of pits. Surely those disturbed graves, filled with rubbish, won′t go unrevenged.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Events and More Events

We have spent a lot of time this past week attending special events at our schools and in our community.

The Catholic primary school experienced a tragedy last week when one of the sixth grade teachers died very suddenly. We went to a two-hour memorial service Thursday at the church. It was an uplifting ceremony. Students from the high school and primary schools sang and sang. Primary school learners played recorders and African drums. One of the teachers said after the service that one way Africans deal with their grief is to sing. Whatever motivates the singing, they do it beautifully.They sing in parts, in tune, and in time in a way that few American congregations can manage. Any gathering will include a lot of beautiful singing.

Several of the teachers and students and relatives got up and spoke about the departed teacher and the Father gave a short and fitting homily about being prepared when God calls us home. The children were incredibly well behaved. We probably fidgeted more than they did.

We Monitor an Election

We had been asked to observe a special voting day at one of our primary schools and we weren′t sure what that meant. On Thursday afternoon we walked over to the school (it was really hot – we wonder if we′ll be able to make it when summer really comes) and found out.

We arrived just as the learners were starting to vote. It was impressive. They registered, voted, turned in their ballots and then a group of learners helped count the results. The learners all brought their chairs outside and sat through the process even though it was brutally hot. We took some pictures with our cameras and the children went crazy wanting us to take their pictures.

The learners were voting on candidates for “The World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child.” Nkosi Johnson was the winning candidate our school – he was a South African child born with AIDS, who in the 12 years of his life advocated for mothers and children with AIDS (he died in 2001). Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel were also on the ballot, as were 12 other people from countries around the world. The voting takes place at participating schools all over the world. The idea is to promote unity and democracy among the world’s young learners as well as instill in them the importance of voting. The worldwide winner will be given money to use in his or her children’s rights programs. Queen Silvia of Sweden will officiate.

We met the young people who manage the program in Northwest Province and they seem very dedicated. We were given a copy of “The Globe,” a magazine used in the schools as curriculum material, that describes the program and includes stories about children and their rights. Some of them are heartbreaking narratives of children sold into slavery. One of the program guys was saying how much better things are in South Africa where children are treated better than other places in Africa and Asia.

We Attend a Graduation

Friday morning we spent five hours at the Catholic Church. The first two hours were a mass for the graduating -- or “matric” -- students at our Catholic high school. (Here you don′t graduate, you matric.) Then after a short break, we went back to the church for a three hour awards program.

There was singing again, and some of it was simply outstanding. The 11th-graders did the choral part of the mass, and the awards program included several smaller groups -- a quartet of three girls and a boy were amazing.

The program was a lot a high school baccalaureate and graduation combined – only longer. Much longer. There were motivational speeches. One of the students who gave a short, impressive speech got the majority of academic awards. And awards were given out. It seemed that 12th grader was a winner at least once – if not for academic excellence, that at least for attendance, wearing the school uniform correctly, or cooperation in class.

A Birthday Party for the Chief

Saturday was our friend the chief’s 70th birthday and he had quite a nice party. About 12:30 PM we walked down to the chief’s house. The party was supposed to have begun at 11:30, then it was changed to 12:30 and it actually started about 1:30. One of the Catholic priests had been asked to give the opening prayer and he had an appointment in Ga-Rankuwa at 2, so he was getting a little nervous.

It was a gala affair in a tent. The chief entered accompanied by a group of singing and dancing older women. Later his wife, beautifully dressed, came with attendants. Many nice speeches were made (though we understood little, because they were in Setswana), and songs were sung, including one that sounded like the clan′s fight song. There were some darling children from one of our primary schools who performed traditional dances. We sat down about 1:45, and lunch was served about 4:15. This is what is meant by ″Africa time.″

The Boss Comes to Lunch

After church today we had a visit from the new Director of the Peace Corps, Aaron Williams. Williams is brand-new – was sworn in in Washington Sept. 17, the same day we were sworn in as volunteers. He is in South Africa for a conference of Country Directors (the Peace Corps is active in 30 or so countries in Africa) and his visit was part of a brief getting-to-know-you tour.

He arrived at our door with our boss, South Africa Country Director McGrath Thomas, and a crew of about eight others from Washington and the Pretoria office. Mr. Williams is an impressive guy – a former Peace Corps volunteer himself (Dominican Republic, 1967-70) he has had a long career in global development. He′s lived and worked in several countries including South Africa during the transition years after 1994, and know the issues.

He quizzed us about our experience as volunteers, and we did our best to advocate for older volunteers. McGrath had organized a nice brunch, so we didn′t have to strain the resources of the Ga-Rankuwa Shoprite (or our Peace Corps stipend), and we sat out in the yard under the canopy and had brunch and talked to Mr. Williams and the others.

Our baboons provided a floor show – they were out in full force and we had to chase them away a couple of times. They do provide a kind of perverse entertainment, but they were very bad today and got into the priests′ garden and ate some of the produce. The visitors were fascinated, though, and filled much space on digital camera cards with photos. We really should find a way to book the monkeys to show up for sure when we know we′re having visitors.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

We Are Moved In

We got to our site, the village where we′ll spend the next two years, just in time for a week-long school holiday. We read for a week and worked on our communications infrastructure – both of us now have Internet access and cellphones. We finally moved from our temporary quarters with the local tribal chief (chief not like in a Tarzan movie, but like a small-town mayor) to our permanent home at the Catholic mission a week ago, late on Saturday night. The pick-up truck (or ″bakkie″ in South Africa) that was supposed to come transport our stuff had engine trouble and for two hours the owner and his friends tried to start it. They finally showed up about 6:30 PM – pushing the bakkie. In the meantime the principal in charge of our move had called another friend who also had a bakkie and he came and moved us even though it was dark.

The chief was sorry to see us go, and told us repeatedly “we are together” (a phrase you hear a lot here) and insisted that we come visit as often as possible. We will miss seeing him every day.

It turned out that the move wasn′t our last. We are still in temporary quarters, with a couple of more weeks to go while some arrangements are made and work is done. But the big news is that at last we have our own kitchen. As soon as we could we bought a stove and refrigerator. The stove is small by U.S. standards (narrow, and three burners rather than four, but a regular oven -- not the little countertop two-burner with a toaster oven underneath that so many people use here) We also bought a set of 6 pots and pans so we could cook on it. The refrigerator is what we′d think of as ″apartment-sized,″ not fancy (the freezer section isn′t self-defrosting), but it does have a freezer section, so we don’t have to buy all our food on a day-to-day basis.

We only moved about a kilometer away from the chief’s house but uphill – the compound where we are living is set at the foot of a ridge on one side of a wide valley. The hills are not very big but they are high enough and quite beautiful, outcroppings of reddish rock and trees that with spring well underway are blossoming and leafing out.

Right now there are lots of big blue jacaranda trees in bloom and they make the hillside look spectacular. We are blessed with a beautiful view and a gorgeous setting up here.

We are also blessed with wildlife, up close and personal. Daily a troupe of baboons comes down from the hills to forage for food. Sometimes they jump on the tin roof of our building – a sudden and unsettling sound. They go all over the compound – the clinic, the two schools, the training center, the church. The teachers at the schools assure us the monkeys won′t hurt us, but we are cautioned not to carry food outdoors, because they will grab it from our hands. We can′t leave windows and doors open when we are not around, either, because the baboons may get in and take things like food and small objects. So we have to be vigilant.

We′ve also discovered that mosquitoes are bad here. The first night we left the window open and were chewed up. We now have a bug spray called Doom and we ″doomed the room″ well the next night and it was much better—for us, not the mosquitoes. We′ve now acquired two kinds of mosquito repellant to wear to bed, and we′re planning to start using the mosquito net the Peace Corps provided for sleeping bug free.

We are beginning to feel a little more settled. We finally unpacked our suitcases and put them away. It is nice not to be living out of the suitcases.