Once I step out my door I need only travel across the yard to get to work. It is nice not to start my day with the hour long commute on the interstate I had for many years. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer also means I have a lot of flexibility, so every day is different.
Several mornings a week I go to our computer center and practice English with the staff. Both of them already speak it very well, miles ahead of my fumbling attempts at Zulu. They believe that English is the “language of commerce.” It can lead to better jobs, better opportunities and to earning more money for them, their students and families. They want to be more comfortable and confident with their communication skills and want to make sure they are teaching their students correctly. Each is already able to seamlessly alternate between Zulu and English as they help students gain confidence and competence in their computer skills. Our sessions are exchanges where I learn more about the center, their jobs and lives while they find the words to my never-ending questions. We’ve even done a few written assignments, as this is a different challenge to speaking. Recently in a lesson I tried to clarify when to use could, would or should. I could tell these words also had cultural connotations and discussing examples enlightened both sides. These lessons are a constant reminder of how important communication is with our words, our tone, and our body language. We are all learning more about each other and are exchanging ideas, but also taking the time to listen for the unspoken messages.
On Monday mornings there is a staff meeting for the Orphans and Vulnerable Children office. The AIDS epidemic has left more than 2 million children in South Africa without one or both parents or with ones who are ill and unable to take care of them. Some live with other family members: aunties, grandmothers (called gogos here), or other extended family, some live in child headed households where the oldest is in charge. Our organization helps more than 650 children who live in our surrounding area through a network of Home Base Care workers who connect the communities where they live with our staff. We help provide school uniforms, nutrition support, transportation to clinics and social support through home visits and Saturday sessions to assist them while encouraging their independence. Our staff of three goes out weekly to follow up and address any new issues or concerns or to offer support as everyone tries to move forward with life. Monday meetings are mixed stories of struggle: a household where three children need shoes for school, a teenager who has become difficult to manage at school and at home, or a family that needs a food parcel this month as there is just not enough, as well as accounts of triumph: a student has passed their high school graduation tests (matric) and needs help with finding bursaries (scholarships) for university, a child is staying adherent on medications for TB or HIV, or a family situation has stabilized and our help is no longer needed. There are also numerous home visits when staff report that the family has very little and needs help with housing. We have helped more than 100 area families in the last few years by building them each a simple, 24 square meter, two-roomed house made from solid cement blocks, plastered and painted, with a corrugated iron roof and a 2,500-liter rainwater tank. For many it is more than a structure as it represents hope and stability for the future.
I keep my lunches simple, usually just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with fruit or chips on the side, reminiscent of my childhood. This helps me stay grounded and well nourished. My first meal with my host family back in February was this classic, so I knew there would always be something familiar to eat even far from home. I usually eat on my front porch with the view of the street and passersby for entertainment. There are still likely to be goats or cows grazing in the field across the road and there are more cars and foot traffic compared with the morning hours. The delivery trucks are loaded with furniture, bundles of grass for thatched roofs or boxes of produce. Some are returning empty ready for another pickup, maybe from a building supply store in town to an area building site where a family continues to set down roots.
After lunch I go back to my work, trying to understand the current state of our programs while seeing if there are any things that need attention or would provide opportunity for future projects while I am here. I have spent time in our library, a project started by the first volunteer who came to this site almost 10 years ago. We have almost two thousand books arranged in our dedicated space lined with book shelves on every wall. We are in the process of organizing them so readers can find the books they are looking for and to help them learn to find their way in the larger local libraries. We have been slowly adding Dewey decimal numbers to help give each its own address. Recently some students from Holland also helped by labeling each with the reading difficulty level, hoping we can encourage readers to try new books. Over the years I have spent many hours turning through pages, sometimes for pleasure and sometimes for school or work. The library here offers hope and possibility to read about things outside their village life.
Another project I have been working on is helping evaluate how the children in our program are growing. Each month the home base workers measure the height and weight of each child and then determine their BMI (Body Mass Index). It is a quick way to determine if they are at a healthy weight and if they are following a good growth trajectory. It is not the most accurate measure of body fat but is used as an indicator to help identify those who are very underweight or overweight. We will soon be working with a nutritionist from the department of health to help tailor information for those most in need of change. Lack of money and access to nutritious food as well as other health and social issues make this a continuous challenge. We are hoping to encourage healthy habits at young ages to help combat the chronic diseases which are tied to lifestyle choices. There are increasing numbers of diabetes and high blood pressure and if we can educate the children and families we can help drive these numbers in the right direction. I am hoping that empowering them to improve their health and lives will encourage them to make other healthy decisions. Only time will tell.
There will be one more installment for a typical day including information on how I am spending nights and weekends. Stay tuned.