Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stuck In Between ‘No Change’ and ‘Potential’

Is my determination a flaw? Why won’t it change anything?

I’m about a solid week and 2000 Rand deep into the remodel of the primary school library. Mr. Thusini, a sports volunteer and EduPeg employee, just walked in for his first time and announced, “Seeing this room makes me sure that you have a library at home.”

I laughed and replied, “Well, I always had libraries in my schools. Every good school has a library.” I paused, “I’ve just been moving all these books in here and thinking how they have been in this school for years. No one uses them. And they are good, good books. I can only hope the teachers will use this library,” I said as my heart sank even lower. It has been sinking lately with fear that this too will go to waste.

“I remember,” he said, “a long time ago when you first arrived. You invited the teachers to learn how to use the photocopy machine. You waited and waited. I watched your face. Nobody came. Then, you left a little later for the other school. I knew they wouldn’t come but I wanted to see your face.”

“Yeah. I worry I’m setting myself up for that again. It’s like EduPeg.” EduPeg is an educational mathematic program that can be used in all grade levels. It is more hands-on and encourages more teacher-student interaction. Mr. Thusini is paid to run this program at multiple schools in the area; he is at ours everyday and never goes in to the classrooms to teach math. The books, boards, and posters never leave a locked cupboard. “It’s what happened with my Teacher Resource Center that got destroyed.” (Literally. The new library was the old Resource Center. Now all the teaching aids and supplies are stacked in the computer lab, still untouched.)

“Yeah. You know them now,” he said, alluding to the teachers.

“Yeah.” I looked around at all the work I’ve put in, all the money I’ve asked for, all the colors and organization, all the books that these children need to be reading to have a chance in life.

“Well, it’s beautiful! I hope it is used,” he said with a smile. He took a short walk to the door and picked up a giant teddy bear: Mr. Funda [Read]. He laughed and exited with a light heart.

I sat down in the mist of my stacks of books and teared up. With disappoint in the teacher. With my naiveté by doing the same thing and hoping for a different result.

Just then, I heard footsteps and children gathering outside the door.

“Ho – muhle!” [Oh my – beautiful!]

“…uKhethiwe…” They are mentioning my name.

I poked my head around the door and greeted them.

“Khethiwe,” one said, “is this going to be a library?”

“Yes,” I responded, “Is that good?”

“Yes!” She ran away in excitement.

More learners gathered. I heard quite a large group whispering, then slowly chanting, “uMeli… uMbhaki… uMukeli wemali…” [Lawyer…Baker…Cashier…] They were reading a poster next to the door with pictures and titles of various occupations. Their voices grew in volume. “uMbazi wamaPulangwe …Unjiniyela …Umbhali wamabhuku ezimali…” [Carpenter… Engineer… Accountant…]

My mom’s words from last week echo in my mind: Do it for the kids, Katie.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Graduation of Beginnings

Some learners were working in the kitchen, others were cleaning the classroom. A few at a time would step away to sign the two soccer balls we’d soon surprise Mcebisi and Sipho with as a ‘thank you’ for their dedication and inspiration. Mama and the kitchen aunties were boiling water for rice and preparing the fish and chicken dishes. I plugged in Sipho’s flash drive of South African music into my computer and created an appropriate playlist for the event. We all were dressed in our nicest clothes for the occasion and the girls had their hair done beautifully. Grassroot Soccer graduation was coming together after all! The proud parents, interested friends, and grateful SGB members took their seats and Mcebisi looked at me, “Khethiwe, it’s time. Let us begin!”

Grassroot Soccer is an American program that serves nations all over the world. The program uses soccer as a medium to spread knowledge about HIV/Aids, distinguish fact from fiction, and spark conversations about what children really think about this world-wide epidemic that exists within their rural communities. It is relevant, here in Isandlwana. The local municipality’s statics of HIV show that 2 in 5 people are living HIV positive. (That’s known prevalence.) KwaZulu Natal province has the highest rate of infection of all provinces in the world. South African Department of Education requires an HIV/Aids component in the curriculum. Learners are supposed to learn about the disease and how to prevent the spread of it. Children as young as grade 3 walk around muttering the word “condom.” At Grade R (Kindergarten) graduations, the young children happily show off a song in English: “Don’t touch me. Stay away from me. This is my body. ‘No’ means ‘no.’” Free condoms are available in clinics and it’s a hot debate if they should also be made available in schools. The government is trying to change the high prevalence and yet the problem continues.

The gap, where I believe the change needs to occur, is in the minds of the rural community members. Sangomas (traditional healers) promise a cure to HIV. Positive test results are not shared for fear of stigmatism and isolation from family, friends, and lovers. People die here, constantly. No one ever dies from “Aids” but rather they die “from the flu,” “from TB,” “from being very, very sick.” It isn’t culturally acceptable to thoroughly inquire about their death. I choose to ask of their age instead. I hear many people dying in their 30s. When the cause of death isn’t made clear, I just assume. In my opinion, most do not know their status, do not want to know their status, and don’t have hope of remaining uninfected. Youth learn to keep quiet about their sexual activity in order to appear more traditional and worth more when lobola (the giving of cows in exchange for a wife) is paid. Girls, desperate for money, will perform sexual favors for a ride into town or 12 Rand airtime (less than $2 USD). Multiple wives are tradition and therefore having multiple sexual partners is a norm. A man proves his masculinity by reproducing as many children as possible. Women are inferior and have no social right to reject a man’s needs. Beyond the transfer of knowledge regarding the disease, real dialogue about this onion of an issue is necessary. After living here for over a year now, it appears that nearly a generation (parents) is missing. Tired, weak grandparents often look after many children. Child-headed households are common, which impacts education and future opportunities. Teens must talk amongst each other and hear the reasons for waiting, using protection, being bold and demanding a condom. Discussions about gender-based violence, accepting gifts for sex, and fears of testing must occur here. That’s what Grassroot Soccer allowed for us to do.

Grassroot Soccer gave a test group of PCVs in South Africa and Zambia a piloted program; this is where I came in. Without any training, Grassroot Soccer sent me information about the program’s philosophy, lesson plans of 11 practices, and a system for tracking data. It was my job to find two, willing and capable counterparts to help me with two rounds of learners. Sipho, Mcebisi, and I rallied support and created two groups of learners, totaling 50 kids, grades 10 and 11 to complete the program.

The ceremony began with a prayer, a welcoming note, and an explanation of the program. Graduates performed some of their favorite “Red Card Role Plays.” These are scenes where learners act out a high-risk situation and punish one character for pressuring another person to perform a risky act. A group of six, inspired players created a skit of their own over the months and performed this at graduation. The inspiration derived from our constant encouragement to continue the discussions about HIV among their family and friends outside of practice. Sipho gave many inspirational talks to motivate our players to continue our conversations beyond practice and these learners took it upon themselves to develop a skit. After the humorous and powerful skits, a few other learners stepped forward to stress their thankfulness towards Grassroot Soccer. A poem and speech were given. One learner rose to perform her song, and her entire team joined her. I leaned to my side to ask for translation. The traditional song, which goes something like “The King is calling us to fight! Let’s go!” was altered as they sang “Khethiwe is calling us to fight against HIV! Let’s go!” I was moved to tears. Certificates, probably the most exciting part for South Africans, followed and graduation came to a close. Food was served to all and the recent grads walked with their shoulders back and their heads held high.

Graduates getting their certificates


Coaches were given soccer balls covered in messages from their players

Grade 10 Team

Peer Educator Team

Proud grads

Parent after parent reached out to shake my hand on their way out and thanked me for our work. Learners proudly posed with their Grassroot Soccer teammates in front of the school’s camera, certificates in hand. Although the heartbreak of HIV remained a painful reality in the distance, we danced in celebration of our hard work to learn, and talk, and listen, and grow to understand the impact of this disease. The discussion had begun; my hope was alive. The following day, a principal from a nearby school congratulated me; word of the graduation and the program’s success had reached him. I thanked him as I felt our small discussions spreading beyond our Grassroot Soccer teams, beyond their discussions with others, beyond the families, outwards.

Mcebisi came to visit the school today. After we exchanged greetings, he looked at me and said, “Khethiwe, when do we get to start again? I miss our teams.”

“Soon, Mcebisi. Soon.”

Congratulations, everyone!

Want to learn more about Grassroot Soccer? Check it out here!