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.

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

  1. jeanne-marie says:

    Wow Gary I am SO glad you posted another blog piece… how cool is all that? I feel very excited for you… and hope your egg sales bring you the abundance you need. Your enthusiasm sure will. It sounds like you have great partners and GRS sounds really great. Fear IS a stopper, I can sure back that up, and you can too, with all your work experience. So how’s the weather? What is Winter like there? what’s the “every day” stuff like? Interested me wants to know. You can email me if you don’t want to tell everyone… I head off to music camp with Matlakala who lives in Poloquane on Saturday. I feel excited. Keep up the terrific work!

    • GaryC says:

      Jeanne Marie — Nice to hear from you. Funny you should ask about winter. On the radio just this morning they were talking about what plans they all had to celebrate “the first day of Spring,” tomorrow, Sept. 1. Officially, of course, there’s still 3 more weeks of winter, but now that the temps are in the low 80s here in the foothills of the mountains, and 90 or above along the coast, people consider winter over. My village colleagues don’t even recognize spring and fall, they think of the seasons as summer and winter. I’m down to wearing only two layers, a light shirt and a light vest, instead of the 4 layers I was wearing just a few days ago. . . . a typical day for me is that I start by answering email and posting on Facebook, tasks I consider part of my volunteer duties, since one of my goals is to educate people about life here. One of my projects is also building a website for Masiphile, with the help of experts back home who are donanting their time and expertise. All part of a grand plan to get people to care about what we’re doing here — not just Americans, but South Africans, too — so that many will be inclined to donate when I have a site to encourage people to go to, and a Paypal button for them to click on! I spend the rest of the day working on projects, attending meetings in the municipality with my supervisor or others. Later today, for example, I’m going into town — a 25 KM, 30-minute, 12-Rand taxi ride — to get an estimate on making a sign I designed as part of my goal of making us more known in the community, and advertising the fact that we sell eggs, in partnership with a local poultry farmer. Lately there’s been a lot of training, which is now over for awhile. A couple of times a week I meet with my language tutor, Mdu, who is one of the local librarians and lives near me in my village. . . . Safe travels. I look forward to hearing about your adventure also!

  2. Teri Baker says:

    While reading about perma-gardening I wondered why people haven’t been gardening permanently anyway. Is there a reason? I’m hugely ignorant of SA history, but just assumed SA was colonized like other countries and adopted these skills (gardening) from the occupiers. I read Jared Diamond’s, “Guns, Steel and Germs” and (I think) have some sense of why perma-gardening hasn’t been successful. But please enlighten me.
    I’m really interested in reading about how the Life Skills program is received in the schools. Honestly, it’s a program we need here too! lol.
    I may have missed this, but is there a religious component?
    Thank you for this blog. It’s my favorite read!

    • GaryC says:

      Thanks, Teri! — I’m hardly an expert in the history of gardening, but I think some of the most interesting and effective principles of perma-gardening — like composting, crop rotation, use of manure to fertilize, determining what soils are best suited to certain crops, etc. — are relatively new. SA was colonized initially by Dutch immigrants in the 1400s who fled Europe to escape religious persecution (sound familiar!?). Of course they brought their crop-growing practices with them, but I doubt they were particularly modern. For anyone particularly interested in SA history I would recommend James Michener’s “The Covenent,” which is “historical fiction” at is best: historically accurate, but using fictional characters. Well researched, well written. It’s 1300 pages long and I’m down to the last 100 pages. I’m not sure either why perma-gardening isn’t more widely used the world over, but I do know that bringing wide-scale change anywhere, in any culture, is difficult. As we all know, many people are resistent to change! . . . RE: the Life Skills program, I agree it would be a good thing to do in the U.S., or anywhere, though many conservative parents there would oppose it on religious grounds or would say its stuff that parents, not schools, should teach. Of course, here the alternative to teaching kids about how to prevent HIV/AIDS is death, so the stakes are much higher. As to whether there is a religious component to Life Skills, I haven’t read the manual all the way yet, but I don’t believe there is in the course itself. But religion is an important part of the lives of most South Africans, especially black South Africans. As I’ve said before, the concept of “separation of church and state” would baffle most black South Africans. This morning at my organization, just a few minutes ago, we sang several spiritual songs and someone prayed to start the day. Occasionally, I am asked to pray. It would not surprise me at all if at our first life skills class my So. African counterpart would want to start with a prayer. That’s just what is done here.

    • Amit says:

      Most people who have HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, have no spomtyms for several years. Some people get flu spomtyms within a few months after infection, but there is no way to tell the difference between flu spomtyms caused by HIV and flu spomtyms caused by flu.Testing can detect antibodies to HIV within 3 to 6 months after someone gets infected. (More than 98% of people who have HIV would test positive within 3 months. Very rarely, it may take up to 6 months for someone to test positive.)IMPORTANT: Within a day or 2 after someone is infected, they can pass the virus on to other people. This is long before spomtyms would appear, and before they would test positive. Also, HIV is not transmitted 100% of the time. Someone may be exposed to HIV several times and not get infected. However, it is also possible for someone to get infected by just ONE exposure.

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