The book is done and a release party is planned

For those who are Facebook friends with me or whom I see in person, or communicate with via email, there probably won’t be anything new here. This is mostly for those who follow my wandering via this blog.

The book I worked on for a year, Dancing with Gogos: A Peace Corps Memoir, is finished and has been published with the help of CreateSpace and Peace Corp Writers. CreateSpace is a subsidiary of amazon.com, the big Internet company known for selling books and just about everything else. Peace Corps Writers is a program of Peace Corps Worldwide and its primary purpose is to help Peace Corps volunteers and former volunteers publish their books. “Dancing” is available at my website, www.garycornelius.com, through amazon.com (both as an actual book and as a Kindle download), and locally in Lane County at Tsunami Books on Willamette Street and at the Book Nest on Mohawk Blvd. in Springfield. In Florence it will be available at the Florence Events Center on Saturday, Sept. 27, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the annual Florence Festival of Books.

I was interviewed a couple of days ago by the Peace Corps Writers editor, Marian Haley Beil, and that is published at the site yesterday. Here’s the link: http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/pc-writers/2014/08/29/talking-with-gary-cornelius-author-of-dancing-with-gogos/ .

And finally, an update on my Parkinson’s: I saw my neurologist a couple of weeks ago and he pronounced me as fit as ever, that is, the symptoms have not progressed to any appreciable degree. They are about the same as when I was first diagnosed in Pretoria in March of 2013. I have a slight tremor in my left hand that comes and goes, my gait and balance are affected slightly, occasionally, and my voice is softer than it used to me. Still no medications; and I participate in a monthly support group at the hospital. Still waiting to hear from Michael J. Fox about doing a PSA with me! . . . . Thanks to all for past, present and future support.

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Parkinson’s Update, a New Life Back in Eugene, and Writing a Book

It’s been several months since I posted a blog entry, so I think it’s time for an update. For those who might have missed it, I am home from Peace Corps service in South Africa, a year earlier than planned, because last March I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It’s a neuro-degenerative disorder in the same classification of disorders as multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. About 1% of the population in the U.S. has Parkinson’s.

It’s a progressive illness, so it will only get worse, but for most people the progression happens over the course of many years. I thought that I would have been fine for another year and would have liked to complete my two-year commitment to Peace Corps. But the people who got to make the decision, PC medical staff in Washington, D.C., believed otherwise and I was “medically separated” and sent home.

Peace Corps sent me to a neurologist of my choosing in Eugene, OR and paid for it so that I could get a second opinion. That doctor confirmed the diagnosis of the neurologist in Pretoria. This was not really a surprise. Early on I did some Internet research and found a list of 10 early warning signs of Parkinson’s. I had 7 of them. Any one of them, by itself, might not be noticed or of great concern. But having 7 of 10 was diagnostic. The symptom that first caught my attention, a slight tremor in my left hand, is not appreciatively worse than it was in the beginning. I’ve also experienced a little trouble with gait and balance and have taken to using handrails when going up and down stairs. I may have to get a cane or walking stick at some point. And my voice is softer, another common symptom. There are medications that can help with the symptoms, but thus far I’ve chosen not to start them. Treatment so far is having my recent first follow-up appointment with my new neurologist, and joining a support group at one of the local hospitals for people with “early onset” Parkinson’s. I’m thinking about contacting Michael J. Fox, perhaps America’s most famous person with Parkinson’s, to see if he wants to do a PSA with me! Other people you may have heard of with this disorder are Mohammed Ali, Janet Reno (attorney general under Bill Clinton), and singer Linda Ronstadt.

I have stayed busy by working part time, 10 or 15 hours a week, at Lane County Developmental Disabilities, from which I retired in 2010, and volunteering. I also have joined the boards of directors of a small non-profit that supports people with developmental disabilities, and the local organization of returned Peace Corps volunteers, West Cascade Peace Corps Association. Like similar organizations all over the U.S., it promotes PC at local festivals and events, and raises money to help fund projects of volunteers from Oregon.

I’m also writing a book, my second, about my experience joining Peace Corps and living in Zulu villages for 14 months. (The first was a novel about mental illness). I’ve written 46,000 words, about half a book, and will have more time to write now that my projects at the county are completed. Below is an excerpt that talks about some of the medical aspects of training. When I am finished, by spring of 2014 I hope, I’ll have a book release party as I did before. It was a lot of fun and I hope to raise some money for Peace Corps projects in Africa. Thanks to all my friends and family for continued support.. . . . and Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Excerpt from “Dancing With Gogos” –

. . . . It was our first exposure to Arlene, a 50-ish certified nurse practitioner, who had been a PC medical officer in several other African countries before coming to South Africa. She had kids and grandkids in the Kansas City area. She was married to Solomon, a native of Ethiopia and a Pretoria architect. Arlene was universally loved for her dedication to volunteers’ healthy experiences, her sense of humor, her flexibility, her willingness to go the extra mile on behalf of PC volunteers and her willingness to take PCV issues to administration. I had the privilege of getting to know her better than most volunteers did because she was the PCSA staff liaison to the Volunteer Support Network. This meant periodic meetings of all of us, some of them at Solomon and Arlene’s home. Once we all went out to dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant and Solomon ordered for us all so we could have a truly Ethiopian experience, including eating from community dishes with our hands, common in many African countries.

One shot that we didn’t get from Arlene shortly after arrival in Bundu was for yellow fever. The South African government required proof of this inoculation before arrival in the country, so we all had to have that done in our home towns, at Peace Corps expense, about $150, then forward the results to Washington. I went to a local clinic that specializes in serving international travelers. The doctor had been around for a long time and had a reputation for competence, so I wasn’t worried. But, arguably, his “bedside manner” could have been better. He was nice, but reminded me of some of the clients with Asperger’s Syndrome I had known in my professional life. Asperger’s is on the “autism spectrum” and people with the diagnosis often are quite intelligent, but aren’t known for their social skills. As he prepared the injection the doctor told me, bluntly and without preamble or hint of a grin, “I’m obligated to tell you that for every one million people who get this shot, 20 of them turn yellow, vomit blood and die.” He wasn’t laughing, but the odds were good so I told him to go ahead. I survived to laugh and write another day! . . . .

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Gary acquires diagnosis that gets him sent home from Peace Corps

If you’re someone I communicate with regularly via email, or we’re Facebook friends, then you probably already know what I’m about to divulge here. But if you’re one of those who have been following my Peace Corps adventure in South Africa only by reading my blog, this is probably the first time you will have read that I am back in Oregon, unexpectedly, a year earlier than planned.

This is because about three weeks ago I acquired a new medical diagnosis: Parkinson’s Disease, a nervous system disorder made well-known a few years ago by actor Michael J. Fox, who now devotes a lot of time and energy advocating for a cure or better treatments.

Here’s a definition I found on the Internet:

“Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that belongs to the group of conditions called motor system disorders. PD cannot yet be cured and sufferers get worse over time as the normal bodily functions, including breathing, balance, movement, and heart function worsen.

“Parkinson’s disease most often occurs after the age of 50 and is one of the most common nervous system disorders of the elderly. The disease is caused by the slow deterioration of the nerve cells in the brain, which create dopamine. Dopamine is a natural substance found in the brain that helps control muscle movement throughout the body.

“Other neurodegenerative disorders include Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

About 4 million people in the U.S. experience Parkinson’s, about 1% of the population. Twenty percent of the time it seems to be hereditary, according to one of the doctors I saw.

Sounds pretty serious. There are medications and other treatments available, I’ve learned, that slow or otherwise positively address the tremors that are often one of the first symptoms. These are readily available in the U.S. But in a remote Zulu village in rural South Africa? Not so much. I’ve been back from South Africa for about a week now – and still am officially a Peace Corps volunteer – but I’m on “medevac status,” meaning I have been evacuated to the U.S. because of a medical problem and Peace Corps has up to 45 days to make a decision about my fate, the two choices essentially being “medical separation” or return to my post in Africa. Today (April 8th) I had my second meeting with a neurologist, here in Eugene, paid for by PC, and his diagnosis was the same.

Regardless what happens, I have spent an incredible 14 months living and volunteering in South Africa and am honored to have had the opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream of serving in Peace Corps. I’ve met countless people – PC staff, fellow volunteers, black and white South Africans – who have treated me wonderfully and taught me much about their cultures. Many treated me as if I was family.

Currently I am staying with my daughter’s family in Cottage Grove, a small city about 20 miles south of Eugene, while I follow the Peace Corps medical program’s process of determining what happens next. The outcome seems clear, given the second opinion of today, but I suppose it will take a few days to become official. Meantime, I will be looking for more permanent digs.

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Zulu food varied, delicious; differs in various parts of South Africa

I’ve been promising for months to write about food, but it’s such a huge topic I haven’t known where to start. Perhaps I’ll start with the Zulu word for tomorrow: kusasa. This is one of the first Zulu words I learned in training more than a year ago, and this is how it’s connected to food: I lived with a village family, Bhuta, Maria and their grandson, Siyabonga, 5, for 8 weeks during training. Unlike most of my fellow volunteers — who lived with families where at least one person spoke passable English – no one in my family spoke any English, so most of our communication was by sign language or acting things out as in pantomime. (Mr. Bhuta’s first language was Afrikaans because he was of an era when the white government forced young people to give up their native languages and learn it).

Its Zulu custom to serve rather large portions at meals – large by my standards — and my family was no exception. Maria would serve me a plate of “pap,” a staple of most meals that is made from “mealie meal” — ground corn or maize — that was almost the size of a football. With it would be chicken, the most commonly eaten form of meat, and servings of several of vegetables – beans, spinach, beets, squash are common. Early on I learned the word kususa and would point at the huge plate of pap, make a chopping motion with my hand as if cutting it in half, then point to one half and say, “Kusasa . . . kusasa,” sometimes while patting my stomach and making a small groaning sound like one would make if one were overfed.

It soon became clear that she knew what I was saying. But she didn’t understand why I wanted to eat so little. Bhuta, who ate his pap and veggies in the traditional way, with his fingers (the rest of us used spoons), also always had a huge serving of pap, and ate it all, every day, though he was not nearly as big as me. Slowly, over time, Maria began giving me smaller portions, but it was the end of the 8 weeks before she really served me only as much as I could reasonably eat. Occasionally, I would find her in the kitchen just as she was filling my plate and would hold my palm up in the universal sign for stop, and keep her from overloading it. She also learned about salads when I made one for dinner one night and after that, on occasion, she would make one for me, though there was no salad dressing for it.

I recall one meal in particular where there were so many courses, nine, that I felt compelled to write down all the various courses as a good example of a great rural South African meal. In addition to pap, the meal included chicken, squash, “bhonchise” (beans, similar to baked beans), beets, salad, potatoes, rice . . . . and one other thing I can’t recall (the written list is in the journal I took home at Christmas and no longer have with me). I like pap and all that goes with it and sometimes have it on weekends in Estcourt, my shopping town, where you can get it in restaurants, including chicken, vegetables and gravy, for 20 rand, about $2.50 under today’s rate of exchange.

Unlike as in many Western countries where many leftovers are tossed, in rural So. Africa food is saved for a future meal, though not always stored in a refrigerator. I’ve seen food that was cooked, but left over after the meal and set on a nearby counter for up to 3 days before someone ate it and did so without getting sick. Other times, leftovers are fed to dogs, chickens or goats. In the small cinderblock house where I live, the electricity is so spotty that it would not support a fridge – it’s been out for up to 13 days at a time – so my meals reflect that. I eat a lot of peanut-and-jelly sandwiches, apples and a raison and nut mix I buy, along with dried fruit like peaches, pears and apricots. When I have power in the evening at dinner time I often eat rice or pasta with a sauce that’s from a package and/or canned meat like beef, chicken or pilchards, which are small, sardine-like fish that come in a can with a spicy tomato sauce. Sometimes I make two servings, eat one for dinner and have the balance for breakfast without its having been refrigerated. So far, haven’t gotten sick doing that.

Pap (usually pronounced “pop”) is one of at least three corn-based staples that are eaten here. Pap seems to be the most popular in the northern part of SA. Phutu (the “h” is silent), which is drier and more crumbly, is popular in the part of SA where I live in southern KwaZulu-Natal. A third staple called samp is similar to what’s called hominy in the Western U.S. where I live, and called grits in the Southern U.S. All are usually served with a gravy, often, but not always, with meat, usually chicken. It’s the version favored my many Xhosa, another of the tribes of So. Africa. At Masiphile, where we now serve lunch to the children in the creche each day – using food purchased with money provided by the Department of Social Development — the cook goes back and forth between rice and phutu, covered with brown gravy made from soy. It’s very good and I occasionally make spaghetti sauce from it at home. The gravy for the creche kids also usually includes vegetables, such as carrots or potatoes, from our garden. Usually, Busisisiwe, the cook, makes enough for us volunteers (there are no paid staff, including the program manager at Masiphile) to have lunch.

Occasionally, she even serves samp, though she’s Zulu.
According to the American Heritage dictionary (4th edition), “samp” is of Native American origin, coming from the Narragansett word “nasàump.” New Englanders since early colonial times have referred to cornmeal mush or cereal as “samp.” Don’t ask me why a word originating in early America came to be used in rural So. Africa. Which reminds me, I’m always having to explain to South Africans why Native Americans are called Indians, when they’re not from India. But I digress – don’t get me started on Columbus!

It’s customary in Zulu culture for one to share one’s food with everyone else who is present. I committed a “faux paus” recently when I offered lunch to a worker who was at Masiphile erecting our new sign and was still working at lunch , toiling away in the hot sun, when food was being served. But a group of about 10 community profilers Nonhlanhla, the manager, supervises was also there for a meeting and there wasn’t enough to serve all of them, so I shouldn’t have offered lunch to one person. Ultimately, he was asked to come into the creche to eat, where he was out of sight of the group sitting on chairs in the front yard. Crisis averted, but I will be more careful about offering people lunch. Its custom to serve no one, rather than some but not others. Creche kids excepted. I sometimes walk to the nearby tuck shop to buy cookies – what are called biscuits here – for eating with tea. They come in packages of 10 and a package rarely lasts more than one tea break, since I offer them to all present! Some days, someone will bring something from home, in a Tupperware container, and all of us will grab a spoon and dig in, all eating from the same community bowl. Lately, Philder (the “h” is silent), one of the creche teachers, has been bringing huge containers of baked squash, or “isijinji,” to share. Delicious! (“mnandi” in Zulu). Other days we buy “igwinya” (not sure about the spelling here), fried bread rolls that are delicious, but not very healthy, from one of our neighbors. They cost one rand, 50 cents, about 16 cents, U.S.

No discussion of Zulu food would be complete without talking about the many functions or events that include food, such as an “unveiling,” a celebration of the life of a deceased loved one that occurs one year after the death. I’ve been to several of these, attended by both invited and uninvited guests – its Zulu custom to accommodate all from the village who show up, invited or not – and large quantities of various foods are always served.
Like many cultures around the world, including American, food is often a significant part of any gathering. (It’s a given here that if you want good attendance at a public event your organization is sponsoring, make it known you are serving food at the end). Other family celebrations that call for lots of food and drink include celebrating one’s 21st birthday; a celebration that calls for a groom’s family to present gifts to the bride and her family, especially things that will be needed in the new couple’s new household (this event also includes dressing up a goat, in a dress, to represent the new mother-in-law); and of course the traditional wedding itself, an event that commonly lasts an entire weekend or more. Many couples have both a civil marriage — similar to going to the courthouse and finding the justice of the peace in the U.S. – and the traditional Zulu wedding that goes on for days and may involve hundreds of people.
Such events are often centered outside in the family compound, and involve slaughtering a cow, or cows, and a goat or two and God only knows how many chickens! I’ve seen the slaughter of all three, multiple times, and photographed such events. Most Americans don’t think much beyond going to the grocery store and buying their meat from a refrigerated case, avoiding thoughts of how the meat got from the farm to the store. With a respectful and honorable nod to my vegetarian friends who don’t believe in eating animals, I would nonetheless point out that animals slaughtered in rural So. African villages are treated relatively humanely and the deed is done quickly, effectively and, for the most part, pain-free. I’ll spare the details here, but, done properly, a cow is dead in less than a minute or so from the time the knife is pushed or tapped into the space that separates the brain from the spinal cord, severing the spine, which means the cow doesn’t feel the throat being slit to begin draining the blood.

Such family events almost always also include the serving of large quantities of home-made Zulu beer, which takes several days to make, resembles chocolate milk in color, and is tasty once one gets used to the taste. My supervisor, Nonhlanhla, says she will give me the recipe before I leave! Families that are relatively well off often follow the end of home-made beer with the serving of bottled beer and, for those who stay ‘round to the end, shots of whiskey. I’ve developed an informal policy of departing such celebrations when about half the men are intoxicated, because it usually becomes less fun at that point – as, probably, it would be in any culture, including American.
There’s more I could say about Zulu culture and food, but I’m trying to keep my blog posts under 2,000 words. So, I will close with another of Peace Corp’s “core expectations” of volunteers:

Core Expectation #9: “Recognize that you will be perceived, in your host country and community, as a representative of the people, cultures, values, and traditions of the United States of America.”

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Domestic violence a big problem in South African culture

Today I observed first-hand a South African issue that is acknowledged, but rarely talked about in my experience: domestic violence.

It’s Wednesday, late morning, the day our elders’ group, mostly older women – “gogos” or grandmothers – meets at Masiphile. Several of them had typically arrived early and were sitting in plastic chairs lining the porch, visiting. Just through the gate, next to the big cell phone tower that is a prominent landmark around here, a young man and young woman, 20-ish, were engaged in a heated argument. She was attempting to leave and he was impeding her effort to do so by moving in front of her every time she tried to walk away. Eventually, blocking her escape escalated to shoving and pushing.  We all watched and I wondered at what point should intervention be attempted? Immediately?  When he punched her in the face? When she was screaming for assistance?  Should I do it alone? Should I enlist the aid of some of the others?  Would they respond or are they so used to such displays that they would want to do nothing? Would there be any point in calling police at this point?  I favored getting several of us to approach as a group and surround the girl to protect her.

The scene unfolding before us was troublingly reminiscent of an incident I witnessed in my home town of Eugene, Oregon a couple of years ago along a public bike path next to a high school.  A woman was trying to escape from a man who would not let her leave. I watched from about 100 feet away and when, after a couple of minutes of bullying and blocking, he grabbed her and held on tight, I called 9-1-1 and reported “potentially imminent domestic violence” and described what was happening. The 911 call taker said an officer would be dispatched, but before he arrived the couple stopped quarrelling and walked away together. It’s possible of course he was holding a knife at her ribs that I couldn’t see and she wasn’t leaving voluntarily with him. I never knew.

Back here in rural KwaZulu-Natal, as I pondered what to do, I needn’t have. Suddenly, three of the gogos arose as one and started toward the couple, about 125 feet away. As they approached, the pushing and intimidation climbed another notch to hard shoving and the woman took a swing at the man’s face, just as the gogos arrived and quickly surrounded her. It took less than a minute for the grandmothers to intimidate the young man into standing aside and letting the young woman escape. They kept him engaged, trying to educate him about the error of his ways, for several minutes until the woman was out of sight.  Eventually, he took off running in the direction of the girl, no doubt planning to pick up where he left off before the gogos arrived. I doubt any one of us had any illusions that gogo intervention solved the problem. It only postponed it for a few minutes until it could resume in a less public place.

The gogos returned to Masiphile and I asked one, Philastina, what they had told the young man. She said they focused on talking to the woman, and told her to call police. But the man had taken her cell phone and refused to return it, a common action, I’ve learned, by abusive men who don’t want their women calling for help. I’ve seen it before. Philastina also told me they learned that the man was the father of the young woman’s baby, and that the girl’s family had told the young man “he could do whatever he wanted to her” to get her to behave in a manner acceptable to him.  I suspect this is disturbingly common as well.  Our gogo also said the young woman feared sexual assault as well as physical abuse.

Philastina lamented the “complete lack of respect” for his elders demonstrated by the young man. I pointed out that he respected, or feared, them long enough to let the girl go. “He strutted around like he was proud of the way he acted,” she said. She was disgusted. And surprised and disappointed when I told her that such things happen all the time in the United States, too. 

In a quick Internet search I couldn’t find specific stats that ranked South Africa against other countries in terms of violence against women, but I’ve heard several times from multiple sources in the year that I’ve been here that it is among the highest in the world. I did find, at a website called www.womeninaction.co.za, that the SA Department of Justice says that one in four SA women is a survivor of domestic violence; and that a different organization – People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) – reports that one in six women who die in Gauteng Province, the most populous (Joburg area),  are killed by intimate partners.  And the Institute of Security, in a 1999 study, reported that 90% of women interviewed said they had been victims of physical violence, and 71% of sexual violence. 

Unarguably, it’s a big problem. I identified in my community needs assessment in my first 90 days here that domestic violence was an issue, and I have a goal of starting a domestic violence intervention group for men, something I have experience in via my career in public mental health. Haven’t given up completely, but I’d need a local Zulu man to partner with, both for credibility and for language translation. Haven’t yet found one, but I continue to look!    

Peace Corps Core Expectation #8:  “Exercise judgment and personal responsibility to protect your health, safety, and well-being and that of others”

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In Honor of Rudy, the best Boston Terrier ever

AUTHOR’S NOTE: When I was married many years ago, my wife, Jan, and I had a dog, Rudy, a Boston Terrier, who was the light of our lives. We got him in about 2001 or 2002, so when he died a few weeks ago while having a seizure, he was about 10 years old. When our marriage ended, I still got to visit Rudy whenever I wished. He was a great dog! Please indulge me by reading this story about Rudy that I wrote when he was just a few months old. It’s never been published anywhere, until now. I offer it in honor of Rudy, who was a wonderful companion to Jan, until the end. I was planning to see him when I came home for Christmas from PC service in Africa, but I didn’t make it in time. — Gary Cornelius

“A babe magnet,” is what my 13-year-old, not very politically correct, nephew would call him. Rudy, our new Boston Terrier puppy, draws attention wherever we go.

Walking though our South Eugene neighborhood, especially around busy 29th and Willamette, only the dourest of individuals seem unimpressed by him. Mothers, toddlers, teens, old men, grandmothers, kids on skateboards. All want to stop and admire him, play with him, ask about him, receive one of his frequent and freely-given kisses. Only men between about 25 and 40 seem to pay no attention, as if they think it ain’t cool to be drawn to a puppy. There are exceptions, of course. A biker-type, in leather, riding the Amazon Trail on a bicycle, paid him the ultimate compliment by calling him a “friggin’ bad dude, man!”

Only he didn’t really say “friggin.’” Even the neighborhood panhandler, a fixture in South Eugene for whom every day is a challenge, said, “This makes my day!” when she met Rudy.

If I’d known 25 years ago what I know now, who knows what direction my life might have taken, what Hollywood-bound Portland gal I might have attracted, thanks to a cute puppy. Of course, in one of those ironic twists of fate it’s hard to argue with, if I had met someone 25 years ago, thanks to a Rudy, then I wouldn’t have met my wife in Eugene, and if I hadn’t met and married my wife, I wouldn’t have Rudy!

I suggested, mostly in jest, naming him Yasser Arafat because he terrorizes the cats, but my wife, Jan, wouldn’t hear of it. She chose the name Rudy after the pint-sized character in the movie of the same name, a true story of a young man from the Midwest who fulfilled his life-long dream, against all odds, of playing football for powerhouse Notre Dame.

Jan, who has been known to exhibit obsessive-compulsive traits once she sets her mind to something, had been doing research for months. Two years after our last dog, JD, a wonderful Golden Retriever, died of cancer at the relatively young age of eight, we decided we wanted a smaller dog: one who would travel well, get along with young grandkids, not shed much. She scoured dog-related sites on the Internet, talked to dog owners, bought a dog book the size of a coffee table at Costco, visited the animal shelters. Eventually, we settled on a Boston Terrier. I wasn’t the least bit surprised when she arrived home one Friday night after work with a puppy smaller than a Eugene squirrel perched on her shoulder. She said the had tried to page me earlier in the day, after driving to
nearby Brownsville over lunch in response to an ad in the newspaper, but it was one of the rare days I had forgotten my pager. She couldn’t wait.

      One Sunday afternoon on a walk I decided to pop into the market for a small purchase, but needed to have someone watch Rudy for five minutes. The three University of Oregon students gathering petition signatures agreed to keep an eye on him. When I returned, they demanded visiting privileges, “Tuesdays and Thursdays and every other weekend.” A grandmotherly woman stopped her car in the middle of Pearl Street to admire him and asked where we got Rudy. Her name was Virginia and she gave me her phone number. Yes, Virginia, there are local Boston Terrier breeders I can connect you with, and I will call you with their phone numbers as soon as I find that scrap of paper with yournumber on it! I walked home from my downtown office one Saturday, about three miles, usually, but Rudy must have walked at least four because he zigzagged so much and went in so many circles.
       People who would not otherwise speak to a stranger want to tell you about their pets. Like the old man in the grocery store parking lot who was compelled to tell me about the cat he feeds beer to — “makes her howl like a blues singer,” he said — or the woman who said she has a 13-year-old Boston Terrier and is already thinking about the next one because hers, a wonderful companion, is getting on in years.
       Rudy is slightly more cautious now that he’s almost four months old — and has doubled in size from 3-plus pounds to seven — but when he was younger, he was absolutely fearless. He wanted to greet everyone and every thing — every person, dog, cat, leaf, bicycle, rock, tree, squirrel, bird or blade of grass he encountered. On the beach one day near Newport he ran right up to a Great Dane the size of a pony and began nuzzling him. Fortunately, the big guy was friendly, because he could have swallowed Rudy in one gulp.
We start “puppy kindergarten” Tuesday night at a Lane Community College class so we can learn to be better parents. When Jan talked on the phone to the class instructor, Chris, about the problems that led us to sign up for the class, she was convinced we needed some personal attention and training before the class started in two weeks. It wouldn’t wait, she said. Our puppy was manipulating us!

In the language we use at my social service job working with people who are at times “behaviorally challenged,” it seems Jan and I needed a “behavior support plan” to help us learn to better parent our new charge. Our vet says he will settle down by the time he’s about four years old, and will become the sedate, quiet, contented dog we wanted when we settled on a Boston Terrier. We just hope we can keep up for that long.

EPILOG: Rudy never really settled down, and was the energy-infused pup he always was, right to the end! We will always miss him — especially Jan. (I still have Carly, the dog I got to keep from the marriage. She and Rudy were great companions for many years).

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Cultural Experiences May Seem Odd, but Remember that to Black South Africans, Some American Culture is as Well

I had a rather interesting cultural experience about three weeks ago. It demonstrated the significant differences at times between the old, traditional Zulu South Africa and the modern, ever-changing one.

At the primary school next door to Masiphile, four or five students reported to a teacher that they had seen a woman with blood on her arm, but she wasn’t a real woman. She was a ghost or an apparition. The teacher apparently told the principal, whom I’ve met several times and who is intelligent, sophisticated, educated (he drives a Beemer). Now, I’m getting this second hand from co-workers who live in this village, Shayamoya, so I don’t know exactly what transpired next, but after a few days it was announced there would be a “day of prayer” at the school. As next-door neighbors and partners in various activities, we were expected to be there, so Welile (well-LEE-lay) and I represented Masiphile.

There were about 100 people there, in addition to the students, all sitting under a huge canopy that had been erected to protect us from the sun (or the rain – you never know what it’s going to do). At the head table were 11 ministers from various churches, all dressed in nice suits, all with open bibles, ready to quote scripture if given the chance. The head table also included the principal and a local politician. And, eventually, me. As usual, I was the only white person present. Anytime I get invited to any community event they always insist I sit at the head table. Sometimes I have to say a few words, but, if I’m lucky, I don’t. I’m always honored to be treated as someone special, but it’s not my nature to seek the limelight, so it’s something that has taken some getting used to – especially having to get up and speak Zulu on occasion.

We were a few minutes late so the festivities had already started when I had to walk to the front and take a seat in front of a couple hundred people. They put me at the end on the left, next to speakers the size of Volkswagens. There were several people in the audience that I recognized: a couple of our crèche teachers, parents of some of our kids, women from our elders’ group, our ward counselor. Several local congregations were represented, each distinguished by the distinctive congregational attire they wear – black and white, or blue, or green and white, what amounts to uniforms, just as learners in all public schools have uniforms in the school colors.

There was lots of singing, praying, dancing, pandemonium, common at all Zulu functions, and all of it amplified to about 40 decibels higher than it needed to be (well, in my opinion). The soloist was a hefty Zulu woman with a wonderful voice and impressive range, right up there with Diana Ross, Ethel Merman and Whitney Houston, talented gospel singers all before they went on to become famous entertainers.

Eventually, someone came ‘round and asked everyone at the head table their names and what they did, or who they represented, for formal introductions. The person said to me, ”Are you a pastor?” although I was in my sheep herder vest and dusty hiking shoes, having not known until just a few minutes earlier that I would be representing Masiphile at the head table in front of hundreds of people. This sort of thing actually happens a lot – I’m the last to know my part in important events, often just minutes before I am to “perform.” Gotta be flexible and adaptable. But I digress! I didn’t look anything like the actual ministers, but I was mistaken for one. I wonder if that’s good or bad.

It all went on for two or three hours, culminating in a loud, energetic, boisterous 30-minute message by the main minister about casting out demons, fighting Satan and cleansing the school of evil. There was reference to the old saw, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play,” clearly an explanation for why it was necessary to have a day of prayer at the school to help it return to normal. He referred to Matthew 8:28-32. In essence, it was an exorcism, I think. An effort to cast out evil from the school. And I mean no disrespect. It’s important for Peace Corps volunteers, and anyone learning about a new culture, to understand that the people they are learning about may have been practicing their beliefs for thousands of years. And understand that there are practices and beliefs the newcomer/studier has in their own culture that might seem just as strange to rural South Africans. Though South Africans in many ways embrace modern practices and ideas, one can’t expect them to suddenly forget about cultural mores in play for a thousand years. I had never seen anything like this event, though I imagine there are some American churches that practice similarly. Is not exorcism a tenet of Catholicism?

The local politician spoke last, watched over as always by his two armed body guards. City councilors here are routinely assassinated for their political beliefs. About 35 murders in KZN alone in the last four or five years.

As I have mentioned before in this space and in Facebook posts, the idea of separation of church and state, the law in the U.S., is a concept most black South Africans would find baffling. Every aspect of their lives is intertwined with their religion – most are Christian – including government and education. Every public event, council meeting, etc. starts and ends with a prayer to “Baba” (father or God), and is often accompanied by a spiritual song before the meeting begins and again at the end.

Peace Corps Core Expectation # 7: Work within the rules and regulations of Peace Corps and the local and national laws of the country where you serve

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When does two equal three? Taxi culture, practices can take your breath away, but get you where you need to go

Not much will slow down a rural So. African taxi driver, but a speed bump will, most of the time. I speculate that most drivers don’t own the vehicles they drive – a fleet of taxis is probably owned by a person who is pretty well off – so if a hired driver causes damage to the taxi he probably has to pay for repairs. Hitting a speed bump at high speed could pop a tire, mess up a transaxle, throw the vehicle out of alignment, knock a hole in an oil pan, cause loss of control. Not the damage hitting a 2,000-pound steer would do (which happens occasionally), but still, damage that drivers want to avoid.

There are lots of speed bumps in the rural area south of Estcourt where I live. Some are in places one would expect to find them, where one would want drivers to slow down: near schools and cattle crossings (actually, cattle can cross anywhere, since most are not fenced in, but crossings in some places might be near natural grazing areas); near municipal offices or businesses; near collections of houses where lots of kids live; near a clinic with lots of foot traffic; just before blind rises or blind curves. Other times you find them in the middle of nowhere, where you wouldn’t expect them.

I’ve learned a lot about taxis and taxi culture in the 8+ months I’ve been here, but perhaps the most interesting is something I’ve told before: something that is reported to happen on occasion when taxi drivers see a hitchhiker, whom they view as someone cutting into taxi income. A driver who sees a hitchhiker will call a couple of other drivers on his cell phone, they all meet at where the hitchhiker is, jump out of their taxis, surround the miscreant and force him into a taxi and take him back to the nearest taxi stand, or “rank,” and order him to take a taxi instead of hitchhiking. In America, we would call this kidnap or unlawful imprisonment, major felonies that could net you 10 to 20 years in the slammer. But in South Africa? . . . Free enterprise! I find this hard to believe, but, they told us this in official PC training, so it must be true.

I’ve yet to witness it, thankfully. I never hitchhike because it’s potentially dangerous, and there’s a PC policy against it, but occasionally I do accept a ride from a village neighbor or someone else I know who stops.

A few years ago I participated in the “citizens’ police academy” in my home town of Eugene, Oregon. It was a 10-week opportunity for ordinary citizens -– once a week for 3 hours of lecture and a couple of Saturday field trips to places like the crime lab and the firing range — to learn what cops really do, and why. When the personnel director spoke to us one night she said that the ability to multi-task is one of the most important traits the city looks for in would-be officers. Many people are not good multi-taskers.

But you should see a So. African taxi driver: he can drive at 60 miles an hour on curvy mountain roads with no shoulders, accept money and make change, tinker with the radio or stereo – after thumbing through his collection of CDs — honk his horn, shift gears, talk to the guy next to him, wave at friends he passes, watch for cattle, goats, chickens and kids – swerving around them if necessary – pass other vehicles, dodge potholes, listen for passengers yelling about where they want out, flirt with the attractive woman behind him, watch the rearview mirror (if he has one), tell a drunk to behave, watch the roadside for people flagging him down, and work the dials of the wipers, heater, flashers and anything else with a switch. Sometimes he even converses, in English, with the local Peace Corps volunteer. And if his cell phone rings? He always answers it. If you’re in his taxi, you better hope he’s a good multi-tasker and that it’s your lucky day! He’d probably make a good Eugene police officer.

Sometimes the driver gets help from the person in the front passenger seat next to him when it comes to collecting money and making change. It’s customary for that person to assist the driver so he has one less thing to worry about. On a recent trip to town, it worked like this: I was in the back row on the right side – the right, rear corner of the taxi. I had exact change for the 12-rand ride, a 10-rand note and a 2-rand coin. I passed that to the guy on my left, who also had exact change. He passed both of our fares to the woman to his left, who also had exact change, and she passed all of it to the woman to her left, who had a 50-rand note.

The total now for the four of us was 48 rand. She kept all the money from the first three of us and passed the 50 forward, telling the person, “four,” meaning money for four passengers. That woman also had exact change, so she gave her 2-rand coin to the woman in my row, leaving 60 rand remaining, which she passed to the next woman, while saying, “five.” The money goes forward, the driver gets 60 rand, exact change for five passengers, and doesn’t have to make any change. This is a simplified example, since at that point there were still 10 people, further forward, who hadn’t paid. Some of those may also have had bigger bills that also needed changing, hopefully before the wad of bills and change got to the driver, or his assistant. I’ve been that nervous person in the front passenger seat a couple of times. It’s a big responsibility, since you’re responsible for making sure no one gets ripped off – driver or any passenger – that all get what’s coming to them.

Taxis, most are minibuses — similar to those old VW minibuses hippies used to drive in the ‘60s — but bigger. Many are Toyota products. The top-of-the-line model is the Quantum (it’s also what PC uses). All are “certified” for anywhere from 13 to 16 passengers, depending on the model, “seated,” it says on the decal stuck to the wall. In the local villages like the one where I live, drivers load up with as many as they possibly can, since many of those are local, five-rand trips to schools, the clinic or, in my case, the organization where I volunteer. That means they will disembark within about five kilometres. There are periodic traffic stops on the main roads by local municipal or provincial traffic officers who enforce the rules about taxi operation – passenger capacity, ensuring that equipment like lights and turn signals work, that the licensing sticker in the window is valid and current, etc. They can and do write citations for violations. The driver’s goal is to off-load as many of those passengers as necessary to reach his certification number before he comes to a traffic stop beyond the village, where too many would get him into trouble. Seatbelts are usually disabled, except for the front passenger and driver seats.

He might even poll passengers: “Whose getting out at the clinic?” . . . . “How about the high school?” I often count the number of passengers in the taxi to pass the time. The record so far is 27 – the number of people, including many standing, occupying the vehicle. Many of those were mothers with toddlers or babies who would be getting off at the clinic before the taxi left the villages and hit the open road for Estcourt. More got off at the high school. By the time he got to my stop, he was down to the legal limit of 15 when I got out and gave him the required 5 rand. Most days it’s 18-20 people before he starts dumping the locals.

Speaking of decals on taxi windows, all the taxis I’ve seen in my southern KwaZulu-Natal area have one that says “Nooduitgang,” which is “Emergency Exit” in Afrikaans. I find this annoying since 99.99% of taxi passengers in my rural area are Zulu or other black Africans, not Afrikaner. I suppose, though, that this has more to do with the cities where taxis are manufactured or sold than it does with any conscious plan to confuse passengers. No one but me seems to care!
And finally, here’s a riddle: When does two equal three? The answer is, when one taxi on a two-lane road wants to pass another vehicle and needs the assistance of an on-coming taxi, which means that three vehicles need, for a few seconds, to occupy the same two lanes, at the same time, side by side, while all are going about 80 KM per hour. This calls for some skilled and astute choreography, starting with the taxi driver who wants to pass communicating his desire, telepathically, I gather, to the other drivers. At that point, the oncoming taxi moves to his left, straddling the edge of the payment where it meets the narrow gravel shoulder, while, at the same time, the car being passed straddles the center line, and the driver who initiated the pass moves to his left and straddles the pavement on his side where it meets the narrow gravel shoulder. For about three to four seconds the vehicles are side by side, mere inches away from one another, until the pass is complete, whereupon all return to their lanes, life goes on and breathing resumes!

The news here is full of stories about taxi crashes in which people die. Countrywide, I would guess there are several crashes a week, many but not all of them fatal. On the other hand, taxi is the primary form of transportation in rural areas, where most people can’t afford to own cars. I once heard that there are 30,000 taxis in Durban alone. Imagine how many there are throughout KZN; in the entire country. So, statistically, even if you hold your breath and fear for your life every time you get into a taxi, you aren’t likely to die on any particular trip.

And me? I was once in a bus that crashed and rolled, at night, in the mountains of Mexico. I had minor injuries, but survived. My theory is that the powers that be assign no more than one Third World, public transport crash per person, per lifetime. And I’ve already had mine! . . . . There’s much more I could say about taxis, but I’m out of room. Guess you’ll have to read the book in a couple of years!

UPDATE: Two more members of SA25 have gone home, making it 10 of the original 36 that are no longer in So. Africa. This leaves my group with 26, an attrition rate of about 27% if my math is correct. I suspect this is higher than usual. It would be interesting to know what PC’s analysis makes of this trend.

FINAL NOTE: Peace Corps core expectation #6: “Engage with host country partners in a spirit of cooperation, mutual learning, and respect.”

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Making a Difference with Life Skills, Perma-gardening, and GrassrootSoccer

Have just returned from a week of training in Empangeni, a city near the Indian Ocean in the north of KwaZulu-Natal. Most PCVs were accompanied by a counterpart, or two, from the organizations they work for. This is in line with Peace Corps philosophy drilled into us from the beginning: when you train a colleague from your organization to do a new project, you are enabling that service or program to continue after the PCV leaves. PC also loves it when you start a NEW program, which it calls “building capacity,” the other hallmark of PC thinking.

The training included three distinct workshops: two days on how to teach “life skills,” three days of perma-gardening, and two days of GrassrootSoccer, easily the most fun of the three, though all were fun as well as informative.

I had two counterparts come with me – Welile, a 35-year-old single mother who has been a mainstay at Masiphile Community Care Center for a while, and who has lived in her village her entire life – and Noluthando (usually goes by Thando), about 28, is married to Dlamini, who works at the municipality, and who has three young children. A third, Mlamuli, was supposed to be there for the perma-gardening workshop, but at the last minute he couldn’t come, so Welile stayed an extra three days on short notice and went through gardening with me.

Life Skills is a “comprehensive behavior change approach that concentrates on the development of the skills needed for life, such as communication, decision-making, thinking, managing emotions, assertiveness, self-esteem building, resisting peer pressure and relationship skills. Additionally, it addresses the important related skills of empowering girls and guiding boys toward new values.

“The program moves beyond providing information. It addresses development of the whole individual, so that a person will have the skills to make use of all types of information, whether it is related to HIV/AIDS, other sexually-transmitted infections, reproductive health, safe motherhood, other health issues and other communication and decision-making situations. The Life Skills approach is completely interactive, using role plays, games, puzzles, group discussions and other innovative teaching techniques to keep the participant wholly involved in the sessions.” (Taken directly from the Peace Corps Life Skills Manual). Our goal is to enable young people to develop the skills they need to resist engaging in behaviors that endanger their health.

An example of how this program uses behavior change principles (borrowed in part from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences):
“Fear messages have limited use in motivating behavior change. If fear is overwhelming it can hinder, rather than help, efforts to change. Too much fear may cause one to deny they are at risk, to rationalize by pointing to others who have practiced similar behaviors and survived, and to avoid seeking medical care altogether.”

The Life Skills program, on the other hand, avoids fear and negativity and instead “focuses on positive messages – creating, maintaining and reinforcing healthy behaviors and working toward a better life for everyone in the community.”
Welile and I hope to identify a school in our community where we can offer this course to a group of co-ed teens. It has proven successful in other places and we hope it can work here, too.

The perma-gardening program teaches PCVs and their counterparts how to start and maintain more or less permanent gardens (that’s where the semi-word “perma” comes from). I’ve been a gardener to some degree my whole life, but I learned principles and skills that not even my father, God bless his soul, taught me. He was an avid gardener, but even he would have embraced many of the concepts we learned. We learned about preparing the bed, soil management, mulching, building a compost pile, manure and other organic fertilizers, using “kraal manure” (kraal is the Afrikaner word for corral), inorganic fertilizers, crop rotation, managing pests and weeds, using pesticides when necessary, when to start a seed bed versus buying seedlings, and raising worms to assist in composting. Crop rotation is one of the principles that helps a garden be permanent: different crops use different nutrients in the soil and by rotating crops each growing season, one doesn’t deplete nutrients in one area because next time that crop will be in a different sector of the garden.

When we signed up for the three-day gardening course, we agreed to use our new knowledge to teach others in our villages by starting a community garden. Masiphile already has a big garden as part of its “food security” program, but we will now endeavor to find another place in our community – the school next door comes to mind – that has space, decent soil, water available and people/students who want to learn how to garden or to improve the yields in their own existing gardens. The idea is that the produce that results from our gardens will go to people/families that can’t grow their own, or to supplement what they can grow. We especially target for help people who have chronic illnesses like TB or HIV.

Welile left after two workshops, replaced by Thando for the GrassrootSoccer training. GrassrootSoccer was started in 2002 by American professional soccer players who played in Zimbabwe, then returned to the U.S. When they later came back to visit Zimbabwe they learned that many of their African friends and fellow soccer players were ill with HIV or had died of AIDS.

GRS is described as “an HIV prevention organization that uses the power of soccer to educate, inspire and mobilize communities to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. GRS trains soccer stars, coaches, teachers and peer educators to deliver an interactive HIV prevention and life skills curriculum to youth aged 12-19, providing them with the knowledge, skills and support needed to help live healthy lives. GRS and its partners have provided comprehensive HIV prevention and life skills education to more than 500,000 youth in 19 countries (many in Africa) and aims to reach 1 million youth by 2014.”

One of GRS’s partner organizations is now Peace Corps, with potentially thousands of PCVs all over the world teaching youth, through the attraction of soccer, to avoid behaviors that would expose them to HIV. Our specific program is called Peace Corps Skillz and it’s described in the coach’s guide we received as “a culture, mindset and toolkit for educators to use when teaching young people about HIV and AIDS and life skills. Peace Corps Skillz creates simple and powerful connections between soccer and life. The approach helps young people have meaningful and relevant discussions about life, take small steps to achieve their goals, stay strong when faced with challenges, and protect themselves and others from HIV and AIDS.” One of GRS’s managers — and one of our instructors in Empangeni — was Kristin Kennedy, who served in Peace Corps in Zambia before going to work for GRS.

Skillz uses soccer language, metaphors and activities to address key behaviors that drive the spread of HIV in Africa, such as unprotected sex, multiple sexual partners, older sexual partners, and gender-based violence. A typical course has 11 one-hour sessions, weekly, or maybe twice a week, depending on local preference. Thando and I hope to engage the primary school next door to Masiphile in the program, and are thinking about offering it twice a week to two different groups, so that we could reach at least 40 kids instead of 20 or 25 in 11 weeks. If we move quickly, we could get at least a couple of courses in before the long holiday vacation starts in December.

Thando is a petite thing, but has energy to spare when it comes to singing, dancing and game playing. In our two days of intensive training (shortened from the usual five days due to PC constraints and the need for the other two workshops) we learned about “energizers” – a quick group game or song to get kids excited about starting “practice”; “taking a stand” – one or two controversial statements to get players thinking and debating; followed by the main 30-minute or so activity or lesson of the day, which is very interactive, usually resembles a real soccer exercise, burns a lot of energy, and teaches something about HIV/AIDS. Next, there’s time for one of the coaches to tell a personal story from a real life experience that touches on whatever the theme of the day is. At the end: “cool down,” where small teams debate two or three statements about HIV/AIDS that kids must decide are “fact or fiction.” And throughout the whole hour – the occasional “kilo,” a quick, loud, one- or two-word shout or cheer, usually accompanied by a clap, to recognize someone’s achievement or good move.

We’re all looking forward to incorporating all these projects into what Masiphile does in our community, and we hope to have fun while we’re at it. And lest I get too carried away with fun, there are other tasks to be done at MCCC. Today, for example, I designed a sign for us to post out front by the main road, listing our various services, as part of my marketing plan to make the community more aware of us, and to let people know that we now sell eggs as an “income-generating project,” a common PCV task (helping to generate income is a common task, not selling eggs necessarily). Now if we can just scrape up the funds to pay for the sign!

And finally . . . . . Peace Corps “Core Expectation” #5:
Recognize that you are responsible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for your personal conduct and professional performance.

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Enjoying Pretoria for Independence Day, and speechifying in rural villages

My mother, Shirley, sent me a note recently (and a card and a nice gift) for my July 12 birthday and in it she said: “I know what you do for entertainment, but what do you do for work?” So, I thought that for this blog entry I will offer an edited version of the letter I wrote to my mother, which talks about what I do when I’m not entertaining myself, and a bit about what’s been going on since I returned from 10 days of training in Pretoria, the capital and city of PC headquarters. (Some of the training included my supervisor and a “counterpart” from the program where I volunteer). Some of this info has been reported here and there in Facebook posts, so if you’re a follower on FB, sorry for the repetition!

The first 90 days after training was the “community integration period” when I was supposed to be getting to know my collection of villages, my neighbors, community leaders, the local police chief and so forth, and researching what my community needs. Toward the end of that period, I wrote a long — 16 page — report, which I took to Pretoria for the training and for sharing with my Peace Corps supervisors.

That was a couple of weeks ago. Part of my report was to identify several possible projects I could do to finish out my two years. I’ve identified 14. Now I and my supervisor will decide which 2 or 3 or 4 projects I will do. A couple could be bigger projects; a couple could be “secondary projects,” which tend to be smaller – but not necessarily. One will definitely be helping Masiphile Community Care Centre develop a website, which would help with fundraising and make their work better known. Another likely will be to help area senior citizens – we call them elders — market products they make: purses, mats, hats and cell phone holders. There are people in America or big cities in So. Africa who would buy these things if a way can be found to get them there affordably. This would bring in a modest amount of income for Masiphile, and, just as important, bring income to families in an area with an unemployment rate north of 60%. I may also help start a support group for men who are HIV+, aided by a local man, another of our volunteers who speaks fluent Zulu. Another possibility is a recycling project that might make us a little money. We’re also talking about adding to the garden we’ve already started via more efficient “perma-gardening” so that healthy vegetables could be provided to low-income families and/or people who have chronic illnesses like HIV or TB and need to eat nutritiously.

The important things to the Peace Corps are that the projects, either directly or indirectly, address the HIV/AIDS problem, and be “sustainable” and “add capacity.” That means that I train local people to continue the projects after I leave in 2 years. Often what volunteers do is start “income-generating projects” to make money to support the health work. This is considered helping with prevention of HIV which is of course our main goal. I’m also always on the lookout for grant opportunities which could bring in resources for Masiphile. This involves Internet research and writing of some info-seeking emails or helping prepare grant application letters. I also often accompany my supervisor to various meetings to learn more about the community and meet various leaders and government representatives.

Recently, my supervisor, Nonhlanhla, has decided that our “non-governmental organization” (NGO) should take a more active role in local efforts to address child abuse, and at a rural village this past week was a kickoff event. Nonhlanhla (who is also the project manager) was supposed to speak, along with a bunch of government types, about child abuse. She told me to just meet her there instead of going to the office. She was to represent what’s called the “NGO Sector.” It was supposed to start at 10, but things weren’t cranked up to actually start until about 11, which is typical – I’ve yet to go to a meeting that actually started at the scheduled time. People here are always on what’s called “Africa time.” At about one minute before it started, she called and said she was stuck in a meeting and could not make it to the event. She asked me to speak instead!

This was actually do-able, since the day before I had prepared a few remarks about child abuse in preparation for speaking for about 5 minutes a couple of days later at a similar event – but I wasn’t planning on speaking that day, especially in front of 100 people who speak mostly Zulu! Fortunately, I had brought my prepared remarks with me, though I didn’t know I would need them. I did need someone to interpret. Ultimately, I gave an abbreviated version of my “speech” that lasted a couple of minutes instead of 5. I was able to greet the audience in Zulu, say my name and explain that I am a volunteer from “Amelika” (America) who volunteers at Masiphile Community Care Center, also in Zulu.

Then I switched to English and the local councilman for that ward, a man named Mkhize (em-KEY-zay), translated for me. He’s a very good man and I’ve come to admire and respect him a lot. He also teaches at one of the local high schools. He also routinely has 2 armed bodyguards because local politics can be dangerous here. This is unheard of in America except maybe in places like LA, or Chicago or New York. There were 6 or 8 police cars at this event and at least 20 officers, many wearing bullet-proof armor and patrolling the perimeter with semi-automatic rifles. I don’t know if this is routine or if there’s some reason there was a heightened level of security. I do know that Mkhize was sort of promoted recently when the rest of the council voted out the mayor, which means, I think, that Mkhize, who was the “speaker” is now the deputy mayor (the deputy mayor became the mayor). This could means he gets a higher level of protection.

There were no attempts on Mkhize’s life that day and I got a polite round of applause for my remarks, which I directed to the 40 or so children in the audience, since I knew how to say “Good day, children” (Sani bonanni, abantwana) in Zulu, and I didn’t know how to say “Good day, ladies and gentlemen!” It went on ‘til 3 pm because all the other speakers talked for 20 or 30 minutes, and the pastor who prayed – to begin and end the festivities – said long, lively prayers that would make a Southern Baptist minister in the Deep South proud. Turned out she lives right down the road from me.

There’s no such thing as “separation of church and state” here, so all government meetings or events start with a prayer and a spiritual song, and end the same way. Sometimes dancing and/ or clapping is also involved.

The concept of separating church and state, the law in the U.S., would absolutely baffle most black South Africans. Their religion, Christianity for the most part, is interwoven throughout every aspect of their lives, though they also maintain many Zulu traditions that may be thousands of years old, and some of which might offend Western Christians. Of course, this also means that many other religions are not represented at government functions, while people who practice those religions are forced to participate in Christian practices they don’t believe in if they want to participate in their government. Many people think this is wrong (my mother wouldn’t be one of those) which is why, in the U.S., we separate the two. I make no judgments here; am merely reporting my observations!

Another government official I’ve come to know, who is a communications officer – sort of like a public relations person for the government, I think — gave me and the pastor a ride home. So, I not only started late, but got to go home an hour earlier at 3. And I had practice for speaking again a couple days later in my supervisor’s village. The communications guy asked me for a copy of my remarks, which makes me a little nervous. I didn’t ask what he wanted them for, I just handed him the copy I had since I could print another the next day. It would probably annoy my Peace Corps supervisors in Pretoria to read in some newspaper or government website that a Peace Corps volunteer gave a speech without clearing the content with the brass. On the other hand, how could they possibly object to saying child abuse is bad and parents should watch out for their kids, not abuse them?! I also referenced the United Nation’s Convention on Child Rights, which lists 42 rights the UN says every child should have. Surely I wouldn’t get in trouble for quoting the UN!

I also help out with existing programs like the crèche, a preschool for kids aged 1-4, some of whom are orphans or vulnerable children; and the elders group that meets every Wednesday. Most are women, “gogos,” or grandmothers, some of whom just competed in the Senior Olympics, with many of our members placing in the top one or two spots in their events!

And finally, I must mention the celebration we were all invited to at the US Embassy on Sunday, July 1 that was a lot of fun. Not all So. African PCVs got invited. We just happened to be in Pretoria, near the embassy, because of the in-service training. Good food, volleyball competition, traditional American food for a change. And better alcohol! Our volleyball team got its butt kicked by the ambassador’s team, but that’s probably because I wasn’t on the team!

The 2nd speech I gave, a couple days after the first one, was on the 12th, which was also my birthday, of course. That was the one at a community center in my supervisor’s village. There were even more people than before, probably about 175, and I gave the full 5-minute version rather than the shortened version I did before because I had a real interpreter that day. Nonhlanhla said I was “brilliant,” but I think she was exaggerating. She also said, “Now everyone knows who you are.” I guess that’s a good thing!

Unlike the earlier event, which someone else organized, the one on the 12th was organized by Nonhlanhla and she arranged for there to be enough boxes of apples and oranges that every kid in the audience got one of each. Organizers of things like this always try to have food or at least bread and water to get more people there, and because if you can offer something nutritious like we did, that could be the most nutritious things some of these kids will have the whole week. Sometime I’ll talk more about food, like the massive quantities of white bread people eat here, often 3 or 4 slices, each, plain, with a cup of tea a couple of times a day. After the event those of us from Masiphile all walked to Nonhlanhla’s house nearby and they served me tea and cookies and sang happy birthday. I also got lots of Facebook posts, emails and text messages from my fellow volunteers and many friends and relatives back home. Did you know I share a birthday with Bill Cosby, who was 75 the same day I turned 57?

Peace Corps “core expectation” #4: “Recognize that your successful and sustainable development work is based on the local trust and confidence you build by living in, and respectfully integrating yourself into, your host community and culture.”

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