Saturday, September 25, 2010

dealing with rough patches

Wow it’s been quite eventful this past week. Things at the orphanage have been moving along despite a few rough patches. The tutoring thing didn’t work out quite the way I expected it to. I had agreed to do it thinking everyone was ok with it. Instead I found myself in the middle of a big political struggle over where my time and energy should be spent. Isaiah 58 is both an orphanage and a primary school. The principal over the school has no dealings in the orphanage and the manager over the orphanage doesn’t deal with the school. This caused a problem when I came into the picture. I came to Isaiah to work with school-aged orphans, which mixes the two sectors of Isaiah. It came down a big blowout over where I would be working but no one bothered to ask me where I wanted to work. I arrived to the orphanage the next day so incredibly frustrated and I did not want to be there at all. I was walking over to the playground to find the kids that I’ve been working with lately. Suddenly I hear a little voice from across the playground shout “lungu!” and next thing I see is four year old Lilitha running at me as fast as her skinny little legs would take her.  She leaped into my arms and clung to me giving me a huge hug of surprising strength. I forgot entirely about all the political crap I had been dealing with and remembered why I am here in the first place. My frustration simmered way down. But despite my love of these kids, I absolutely hate dealing with fighting—I have no patience for it and it never gets the problem resolved. I decided it would be best to let them work it out themselves and so I took two days off from the orphanage. That, plus the weekend gave me a nice break and a boost to come back on Monday. I arrived from my four day weekend to see that things had turned around while I had been gone. Everyone was fine and a compromise had been reached (at my insistence) that I work half the day with the little children in the orphanage and the other half tutoring struggling kids from grades four, five and six to read. It’s interesting though because in both places I am basically doing the same thing. I am teaching children English. I read to the little ones and teach them basics like the alphabet and how to write their name. Then I teach much older children how to read basic sight words and questions. Something isn’t matching up here. Before I got to Isaiah, the little kids who aren’t in school yet didn’t do anything during the day except play. When they turn seven, they start kindergarten, which is taught in English, but can’t speak English or even spell their name. By the time they are in grade five, they are still struggling to read. I guess I am here to kind of fix this disconnect. If the little ones have a pre-school program set up, then they wont be struggling in grade five to read basic test questions. Even if the little ones are just read to in English every day, that is still something. So here I am, never having taught a day in my life, trying to help these kids read, write, and understand basic English. This would probably be a lot harder if these kids were not so motivated to learn. I was amazed the first time I tutored the older ones by how willing they were to read to me and to help each other when they struggled to pronounce words. They kept reading book after book and didn’t want to stop. I got so caught up in their enthusiasm the first day that I actually lost track of time and got left behind when my lift took off for the day. Gah! I just love these kids so much!

Last Thursday, on my day off from Isaiah, my roommates and I were able to go on a day trip with our host dad, Cornelius. We went to Fort Hare University in a small town called Alice. It was about two hours of driving but we stopped along the way to see a few things here and there. Most of the drive was through rural Xhosa land where village chiefs own the area and you can buy a plot of land for about R20 and a bottle of brandy. We detoured into an area like this to see the Peary Mission, an old, beautiful mission station built out in the middle of this rural village. The whole way to Alice, Cornelius talked and talked about South African History. It was definitely the most interesting history lesson I’ve ever had. He knew so much stuff! They were just little stories here and there but they were incredibly interesting. Like how Black Beauty was banned throughout South Africa during the ‘80s or how the clicking sounds in the Xhosa language were actually adopted from the Khoisan people after their women and children were captured in a battle. Or how the Kennaway Hotel is named after a shipwreck off the coast carrying a precious cargo of Irish girls intended to become wives to lonely German settlers. Anyways, it was a lovely little road trip. At Fort Hare, we visited The De Beers Centenary Art Gallery, which Cornelius helped to establish. The artwork inside is very profound and sometimes disturbing, but always incredibly thought provoking. I’m not even going to attempt at describing them. One thing is for sure though: South Africa has a very unpleasant past. And although the country has progressed immensely, there are still heaps of problems that need to be changed. On the way back to East London, we stopped by the Steve Biko Garden of Remembrance. Biko was a major figure in the collapse of apartheid and although we couldn’t find the grave, we paid him our respects.

This past weekend was quite eventful. It began to rain A LOT on Friday. It’s a humid warm rain though and is actually quite lovely. Spring is definitely here now! Friday night we went to an activity at the church building where we played a South African trivia game called 30 seconds. I actually did better than I thought I would and we ended the evening with a delicious dessert of milk tart. Saturday I experienced South African movie theaters to their fullest extent. I have never seen a more enthusiastic audience for a movie before. Or a more noisy audience for that matter. But they get really into the movies and shout at the screen and the kids run up and down the aisles and stand in their chairs…and it was just The Karate Kid. I would hate to be in that theater when Twilight is playing… Saturday night, there was a church dance at the stake center for adults both young and old. Ok. So I consider myself to be a pretty good dancer and I think I have friends that can attest to that. I can confidently say that I have perfect rhythm and know how to move my body to a beat. I had also been working on this theory that anyone can dance if they just try. But I now see that I have been sorely mistaken, blinded and lied to my whole life. I will probably never be confident in my dancing ever again. Africans are the best dancers. There is absolutely no valid argument to disprove this. Seriously, it is in their blood and more importantly it is in their soul. I can’t even begin to explain how frustrated I was when I discovered that although I could mimic their movements, it just wasn’t the same. They tried not to tease too much but I could tell they were just rolling with laughter inside. Well, what can you do except laugh along and enjoy the pathetic albeit hilarious image of a few white girls trying hard to bust a move in a gymnasium full of Africans.

It continued raining all throughout the weekend and into this week. We even had a few awesome thunderstorms. Tuesday, we went out to Parkside (a coloured neighborhood) to visit our friend Auntie P and her family. They are a crazy bunch of people but they’re so much fun and I just love them to death! That night we made fat cakes for dinner. Yep you read that right—fat cakes. What are they? They are exactly what they sound like. Fried bread that you rip open while it’s still hot enough to burn your fingers and fill with curry and mince or jam and butter or cheese and chips or whatever else tickles your fancy. And boy did I feel fat afterwards. Oh but it’s so nice!

In terms of upcoming events, this Friday is national heritage day and a declared public holiday so it should be another fun weekend. All the schools will also be over at the end of this week for a short break so I have a feeling everyone will be out on all sorts of fun holidays. I know I will. Tuesday my roommates, my host parents and I are planning to leave on a road trip to Cape Town, which is on the western side of the cape opposite East London. It will be a weeklong trip of sightseeing and an awesome one at that! I’m so excited!

I’ve had so many thoughts going through my head every day that I’ve been here and I feel like I could write pages and pages on these things. I’m definitely a slow thinker and like to process new ideas before I dive deeper into them or form some kind of theory or what what. Right now my thought processer is working harder and faster than it ever has before. There’s just so much I see everyday that I can’t keep it all in my brain. I write down my thoughts faithfully as they come but it’s still waaay too much for me to take on all at once. One thing I found out this week is that Africans don’t like to get wet. When it rains, no one goes outside if they can help it. The only people who go out when it’s raining, no matter how heavy or how light the downpour is, are the people who have obligations they cannot avoid. This could also be a result of the African clock that people run on. If you don’t get something done today, you can always do it tomorrow. And if you don’t get it done tomorrow, you can always do it next week. But nothing ever interferes with the weekend despite the fact that it always seems to run from Friday to Monday instead of the usual Saturday to Sunday. There’s never a rush to get back to work. There’s never a rush to do anything actually. I love that so much. At Isaiah, we have teatime every day in the middle of the morning where all the employees and kids take a break. Lunchtime is the same way but just in the early afternoon. It isn’t really set into a schedule, but nothing interferes with it and no one misses it.  In field studies we refer to this time frame as polychronic time or P-time for short. Most things I’ve experienced here have been on P-time. In the US we tend to experience more of a monochronic time frame (M-time) where everything we do is set into a schedule and allotted only a limited amount of time. If things don’t get completed in their time allotment, too bad, you have to move on to the next thing. P-time has more of an openness to it where business can take as long as it needs to but you never, ever cut anything short and you see things through until the very end. Both have their flaws and advantages, and it’s been interesting to compare and contrast my personal experiences with the two.

I realized this week that the honeymoon stage of living abroad has now long worn off. Some days can be so difficult and frustrating to the point where I just want to go to bed and sleep for days. The political struggle at Isaiah over me is an example of something that really set me off. Or like how when I ask someone a one-sentence question and get a twenty-minute story as a response. Or the fact that no matter where I go, I always have to be slightly on my guard. The discipline here is another thing I’m having a hard time with. People are quick to hit or punish children physically and publicly in front of whoever happens to be standing around. If you disrespect anyone who is your elder, you can guarantee you will get a slap or a kick or even hit on the hand with a ruler. Corporal punishment in schools is outlawed but I know it still happens. It disturbs me a little but I can’t do anything about it so I just have to find a way to deal with it. New culture can be incredibly frustrating at times, but the positive, amazing things about this place definitely outweigh the annoying. I find myself incredibly in love with these people and the best part is that I know they love me too. 

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