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.”

About GaryC

I'm a retired mental health worker, a returned Peace Corps volunteer (South Africa, 2012-2013), and a writer. I live in Eugene, Oregon with the world's best dog, Carly. My card describes me also as "Jack-of-few-Trades, Master of Some", non-profit supporter, friend, grandpa and world traveler.
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6 Responses to Enjoying Pretoria for Independence Day, and speechifying in rural villages

  1. Jeanne-Marie says:

    Hi Gary, Yes indeed: no separation of church and state, though the music, dancing, and spiritual experiences are quite inspirational, even to someone such as myself who does not adopt the Christian faith. That did change for me the day I was at the (I think this is the name) Helen Franz? school for disabled children near Poloquane, I think… when I heard this woman speaking to the children about how WHOLE the children all were in the eyes of God and how beautiful they all are in His sight, and how He wants them to dream big and do what they want to with their lives. Quite a far cry from either: “you’ve sinned or your parents have” or: “you have special talent and will carry quite a burden for someone in your condition.” NOT what I wanted to hear, most assuredly! as a kid.
    Good job and thanks for the work you are doing.

    • GaryC says:

      Jeanne-Marie — How nice to hear from you! Thanks for the appropriate feedback. I said the prayer this morning at my NGO to begin the days’s festivities. They ask me once in awhile because my prayers are relatively brief, compared to some!

      • jeanne-marie says:

        Hi Gary,
        Sister Priscilla and some of us met last night and I wish so much you’d write and tell me where you are…
        She really wants to be in touch with you and learn more about your work. I did tell her about your blog.

        • GaryC says:

          Jeanne Marie — The Peace Corps asks that I not divulge my precise location, in a public forum like this, for safety and security reasons. I will send you an email with details. Nice to hear from you.

  2. Teri says:

    You sound as though you’ve settled into a nice situation Gary; a home base, good work and lots of it, and interesting people. How exotic it must be to observe a blending of rather nouveau western ideas/morals, etc and a culture thousands of years old.
    I have thoroughly enjoyed your blog. Thank you for the information, your thoughts, and of course, the entertainment value. Cheers. Teri

    • GaryC says:

      Thanks, Teri. You’re the best! I appreciate the feedback you often offer on the blog. Not that many people post comments and I wonder sometimes how many are actually reading it. When someone comments I know at least that one person is reading!

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