Saturday, August 20, 2011

Piece of Mind

Piece of Mind is exactly what I am trying to acquire during my journey in South Africa. I want to figure out why God has placed me here and if I am fulfilling the purpose that he has for me. I have always been an advocate for service and making a difference in the community, but how can I, an American, make a difference in Cape Town in only 4 weeks. With all the problems and dilemmas that many youth and citizens face everyday there is so much I want to do to help. As a result, I find my mind wondering all over the place about possible programs or solutions to help alleviate these problems. However, where would I get the resources or where would the starting point to these solutions begin.

The Adult IT training initially was a waste of time in my eyes. How and why could we teach middle-aged women how to use the computer in 2 weeks? It was clear that many of the women couldn’t use this skill to obtain a job so why even bother teaching them. My naïve and oblivious thoughts were changed during the two weeks when I noticed the learners gaining confidence and their self-esteem changing. It was then that I realized that I was there to touch and motivate the lives of those in Manenberg. Although I couldn’t provide jobs to alleviate the poverty in Manenberg, I could inspire a mother to push her child to obtain an adequate education. Which would then pull somebody out of poverty.

Spiritually I was able to find piece of mind during the hike on Table Mountain. While sitting and reflecting on all my activities I have done thus far, I realized the grace of God. How he showed favor on me to experience this trip. It could have easily been any other student at Vanderbilt University, but God showed allowed my fellow classmates and me to come this far.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Still troubled but thriving.

During the last part of our trip in South Africa, I unfortunately had my laptop stolen in Manenberg. At first, I felt the typical anger, resentment... To a degree I felt violated by the idea that my personal identity was in the hands of a total stranger. I was told that the laptop would most likely be pushed for a week's supply of drugs. We spent the first half of the trip providing IT training to individuals who lacked the most basic knowledge of how to use computers. It made me wonder whether someone in the township would at least benefit from it, or whether it would be resold far away in the black market to a foreigner like me.

Although my experience the rest of the summer before coming back to the United States mid August changed substantially without the laptop, I felt that it was good to be a little more disconnected from the world and connected to the present real-time.

At times during our stay in Cape Town, especially during the later weeks when the fatigue appeared chronic, it felt hard to really be present. My learner, Mikyle, I was glad, had the academic drive to make me enthusiastic when my energy was draining. I learned never to underestimate how contagious another person's optimism and thirst for knowledge can be. I admired my peers and observed their styles of learning. Having gone to a German elementary school, I wondered if my teaching style was too strict, considering some of the softer, more forgiving approaches I saw people using. It was like a mini cultural experience just seeing the different math techniques each of us had and were forwarding on to our learners.

The last day with the kids was hard. Part of me really hoped I could see them all again soon, and part of me was stunned at how "ok" some of the kids were. It seemed routine to them to say goodbye to the foreign volunteers. I had to remind myself that people had been here before us and people would come after us, too. The projects are sustainable in the supply of volunteers. I know that many individual volunteers probably never return, but others keep coming.

I haven't quite decided whether it's a good or just a realistic notion. With conviction I can only reminisce at what the community taught me, and what the nation inspired in me. Never had I immersed myself in a city so diverse, so unique, so complex--still troubled but thriving. It was an experience of a lifetime, of that I am certain.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Expectations and Reflections

With a little less than a week remaining in our tutoring program at the SHAWCO center in Manenberg, it’s interesting to look back on the experience we have had thus far. Initially, I thought the first two weeks of IT Training would be the painful part of the service, but I soon learned that I would miss this part. The IT Training was anything but what I expected. I remembered when I was learning to use a computer and the tedious typing exercises and monotonous projects that we were forced to do. I figured the training program would be similar to what I experienced, but because of the adult’s enthusiasm, the 2 weeks were anything but dull. I worked with two learners, one of which was more experienced than the other, but both were incredibly motivated individuals. They were eager to learn, and even though the simple information I was teaching them was pretty boring, they were just so happy to be learning anything I could teach them. I was impressed when one of my learners asked me to help her make an invitation, and the other asked to learn how to make a pay slip in Excel. These two individuals were clearly going to put their skills to good use, and I was glad that I was able to help them out. At the end of the two weeks, I was sad that I would no longer be spending time with them everyday, as I felt like I had formed a special bond with each of them. It was the best surprise when one of my learners showed up at the SHAWCO center on my birthday. I figured she was there to use the computers, but she told me she had come just to wish me a happy birthday and deliver a present. My other learner sent me an incredibly kind Facebook message, showing off her newly learned skills. The fact that these two ladies went out of their way after only knowing me for a short 2 weeks was heartwarming and made me feel incredibly grateful that I was able to spend time with them and not only be a teacher, but a learner as well.

After having a very positive experience with the IT Program, I was optimistic heading into the 2 weeks of teaching with the kids. I had looked forward to this part of the program from the beginning, as I really enjoy working with children and this was the type of work I was hoping to do. I was assigned to a group of 3 girls, 2 who are 7th graders and 1 who is an 8th grader shadowing me as a tutor. We started the week off with some pretty basic English. We worked on Indirect/Direct Speech, Active/Passive Voice, and then Parts of Speech. The curriculum seemed much too basic for a group of 7th graders, even if English is their second language to Afrikaans. The curriculum was also not sequential, which made it difficult to teach. I was so surprised how much basic English knowledge the children lacked. By teaching such elementary things to a group of teenagers, I felt like I was babying them, but this was the appropriate place for them. After adjusting to teaching the curriculum and age group, I figured it could only get easier the following week, as what we would be teaching couldn’t be any more difficult than the English we had taught them. Math is math across all languages, right? I was very quickly proven wrong. When I told my kids we’d be working on math from now on, their attitudes did a 180 and they were no longer as cooperative or excited. They all told me how they disliked math because “it was hard”, and the struggles began immediately. I was in disbelief when I had to teach the most basic addition and subtraction, let alone multiplication and long division. These skills that I associate with being drilled into your head at such a young age were a challenge to these 7th graders. I figured I would be teaching basic algebra, but I found myself re-teaching myself how to do long division before I could explain it to them. The only way I think I’ll be able to make an impact is by going back to the foundation and basics. Hopefully by solidifying these skills, the kids will be able to move on to where they should be at this stage in school, but we’ll see what happens over the next week.

Teaching has been quite the experience. It’s certainly had its highs, and there have definitely been many lows. It is both frustrating and challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. I’ve learned much about the lives of people in the Manenberg community and surrounding areas from my learners, and I have also learned a lot about the South African education system, or lack there of, from the challenges I have faced with my 7th grade students. This experience has been a new one for me, as I had only previously taught Preschool and Kindergarten age children, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot throughout the process. Two weeks is a short amount of time to impart meaningful amounts of knowledge, but I do hope that the hard work that we’re putting in as volunteers pays off in some form. Whether the kids are actually learning and we’re helping them come closer to being able to pass the Matric exam, or if we’re just keeping them busy and off the streets and out of trouble, I do hope for the best for this community and hope that I’m actually making some sort of impact.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Cape Town is So Random: An Overdue Post

On Saturday morning, a group of us decided to go to Old Biscuit Mill. We weren’t sure exactly what this was, but we were told it was somewhere where you eat and shop and that “we HAVE TO go at least once.” As we walked in, Stefanie turns to me with a look of surprise and says, “Cape Town is SO random.” I could not put it better myself. Old Biscuit Mill turned out to be an open air market of gourmet food stands where we could purchase the best of any food category- meat, fruit, fish, decadent desserts, breads, Belgian waffles, coffee, pizza, really anything we could possibly want to eat. This was surrounded by blocks of boutiques where we could easily spend hundreds of dollars on items ranging from designer clothes to home decorations. What surprised us most was not necessarily the concept of Old Biscuit Mill itself, but the people and the general feel of the place. Everyone was dressed and looked the same, as if they had been plucked right from a free people catalogue. One thing was also very apparent; these people had money. As we “people watched” the young blonde child eating her gourmet crepe or observed those purchasing the fancy designer clothes with their bulging wallets, I could not help but be shocked (once again) by the contrast in the people and places around Cape Town. It is an area of homogenous niches of people, which seemingly coexist but rarely interact. Just minutes away are Manenberg, the township that we work in every day, and the other townships in the Cape Flats. Here, life looks much different. You may live in a four-walled shack or an over crowded house. Some will not have running water or electricity. Instead of eating gourmet food dishes, you eat a cheese sandwich for lunch, and you are considered well off if you can afford to buy meat once in a while. You will go to an understaffed school with few resources. Leisure activities will include playing games in the street, rather than shopping or food tasting at Old Biscuit Mill. Even across the townships there are homogenous niches; it is still possible to categorize the townships as “black” or “colored” and the boundaries are very clear. This pattern is pretty apparent wherever we go across the city, and it is this pattern that makes Cape Town and the surrounding areas feel so random. By simply driving a few minutes, you feel like you are in an entirely different world; even the language spoken from place to place changes! As travelers here, we are attempting to experience it all. From posh restaurants on Kloof Street to Mzolis in Guguletu, from Camps Bay sunsets to Manenberg mornings, from cable cars to mini bus taxis, from tours of Cape Point to tours of Khayelitsha, we are slowly being exposed to the vast range of lifestyles here. It can be shocking and overwhelming at times, and even though we are more than half way done with our trip, I am still trying to grasp the dynamics of this amazing city and the areas surrounding us.

2nd half of the trip activities + Reconciliation

To start, in the past couple weeks, we have had a couple of trips that have blown my mind. We took a cable car up to the top of table mountain which is like a 5 minute trip but puts you atop the highest mountain in Cape Town. The views are unreal. The landscape is flat everywhere else but the mountains create many different coastal communities and it is impossible to really understand with out being atop Table mountain and being able to look to every side and see ocean and urban development. There is a lot of beautiful vineyard land, strong coastal ports, and a lot of beautiful geographic terrain, but for every developed beautiful community there is a township next door. These areas are the poorest of poor and are not really getting better. The ailments of poverty and the lack of adequate education hamper their development, which makes South Africa the most unequal country in the world. For example we watched a beautiful sunset in Camp’s Bay which was the best I have ever seen. But while John Travolta and other famous celebrities have houses here, there is a township 20 mins away where the children have never even left their communities.

It is very recent since Apartheid, only 17 years. Nelson Mandela led the movement of Reconciliation vs. Reparation. This means that instead of repaying all of the black and coloured people whose lives were destroyed by Apartheid and centuries of oppression, do not get repaid for their losses, but are supposed to reconcile with the white people and attempt to forgive them. In case the doubt is not evident in my writing, I am still yet to really conceptualize this process. There have been efforts that we have learned about such as Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action, but it seems that reconciliation has not done enough to undo the oppression that plagued this country. Okay enough of the depressing stuff, we also went to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent a majority of his imprisoned years. It was interesting that it started out as a leper colony and then strictly housed the most dangerous of criminals at the time (political criminals) and separated people based on race to keep people competitive and deter unity. Our tour was led by a former inmate one of the last people to get released. It still didn’t seem real, it felt more like a museum that a place of atrocity and oppression.

Another activity we did was go to a Rugby game. It was the equivalent of the ALCS or AFC championship game. The two teams were the stormers and the reds. The Stormers were the last South African team. It was tough to watch as the Stormer’s got owned and I couldn’t really understand everything. Also, it is like football with out passing so its just a run and grind offense with not a lot of action. But it was fun to eat biltong and drink a lot of SAB. Plus there some pretty raw hits: some dude got taken out from underneath and it looked like he broke his neck. After that we wen’t home and fell right asleep at 8 pm. It had been a long day.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Its the little things...and the Joy they bring

Today was the last day of the Holiday Project. Despite the difficulties, I really enjoyed myself. As I was preparing for the program to end, The Lord placed it on my heart to write all of my kids personal letters. At first I was only going to write certain kids one, but I ended up writing everybody one. I’ve been to summer camps before and the counselors all wrote us notes. It made me feel special to know that somebody took the time to write a note specifically for me. I know how much it could mean to these kids to get something like that. After I wrote most of the letters I prayed over them and asked that they be used as a seed to plant in my kids life. After I passed them out, the kids that I talked to the least where the main ones that came up and gave me a hug. It made me feel good to know that the letters were appreciated. After it was over Nandi said they were competing about who’s letter was the longest, and that they were really appreciative of the letters, and that made me happy.

We ended up going back to Manenberg to work on the library after the Holiday Project had ended, and we were there while the kids were in school. One of the girls that I worked with a couple of times came up and gave me a hug and handed me a note. I wasn’t expecting it at all and it really showed me how much the letter had meant to her. When I wrote the letters I didn’t write them expecting anything in return, but this note is definitely something that I will keep as a reminder of how big of a difference the little things make.

40 days

Two months ago I would have said that 40 days is not a long time at all. I would have said that its just a little over a month, just 4 or 5 weekends, or just 5 Mondays and 5 Tuesdays and 5 Wednesdays and so on. However, coming back home from spending this seemingly little amount of time in South Africa was still a bit strange to me. The day I arrived in Johnson City, TN it was weird for me to think that just hours before I had been in another hemisphere and continent, 6 hours ahead of where I am now, driving on the "wrong" side of the street, using the Rand as currency, wearing a jacket and hanging out with 19 other people in a bus. The experience of coming back felt surreal; when I was stepping out of the gate to hug my mom, I remembered the day I left for South Africa as if it were only two or three days ago, yet so much had happened since then.
It wasn't until days later, when I started catching up with friends, telling stories and showing pictures to my family, that I realized just how much I had lived in those 40 days, how much fun I had had, how much I had seen, how much I had learned and how many great people I met both in my group and in South Africa. I left that country with a heavy heart. 40 days was enough time to make me want to come back and see more of its beautiful landscapes, experience more of its culture, and meet more of its wonderful people. I miss the spontaneous afternoon hikes, the cool weather, the markets, the cider, the chocolate. But, more than that I miss the people; I wonder how Fidelio, Austin, Masud and Aziz (the boys Carrie and I had as "students" on the Holiday Project) are doing. I wonder if they remember the multiplication tables, the difference between an active and a passive verb, or even our names. I often reflect on my relationship with them; did I have an impact in their lives? Did I teach them anything of substance during those 2 weeks? It is frustrating to know nothing about them now, and to be uncertain of whether or not we made any difference.
Out of any issue I would say that as a group we struggled the most in dealing with this uncertainty: are we making a difference? Working at Manenberg for such a short period of time didn't allow us to see the large-scale changes most of us were imagining our service projects would bring. There was really no way for us to exactly measure how much we helped our learners, and in this way I sometimes did feel powerless. However, I now look at the 560ish pictues I took of these kids, some candid while they were at the board solving math operations, or when everyone was out playing Red Rover Red Rover, and others posed with smiling eyes, and I realized that we had to have had some impact in their lives. Maybe I am being naïve; I hope they’ll remember and learn more than just the different parts of speech or the multiplication tables, but the importance and power of knowledge and the self-recognition of their true capability. I do feel fortunate to have had the chance of (possibly) impacting someone’s life in this way.
It's too soon for me to exactly express how this 40-day experience changed me, but it certainly taught me something about myself. I find myself constantly reflecting on the trip, and reliving memories, planning on ways to come back to South Africa. I miss everyone that experienced South Africa with me. Goodbyes aren't my strongest weapon, so I think I'll be going back.