a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Sunday, February 7, 2010

the work begins

So I believe the answer to my question "how long does it take to get used to a new culture?" is years. Stephen and I have been living in South Africa for over three months and it doesn't feel anything like "home". And we don't expect it to anytime soon. But we are no longer weary of the otherness of this new culture.

The last week of January seemed to mark the beginning of some real work for both Stephen and me. And that has felt good. The new school year started and I have begun working with students. Last week I individually assessed the class of third grade students and from those assessments I formed four small groups to meet with. I'm working four days a week but only a few hours each day, as dictated by my Lupus. I spent hours and hours planning and preparing materials that would be effective with children learning English as a second language. Since I have no Zulu and cannot check for understand in their home language, I designed lessons that allow me to know that the children understand. I am using pictures and lots of repetition.

Something that impressed me from the first day was how tenacious the children were. As part of the assessment, I asked each child letter names and sounds. Instead of giving me just the letter sound, the students general gave me a word that started with that sound. They would sit in their seat thinking for almost a minute sometimes and I was sure they were going to say, "I don't know", but almost without fail, child after child would say, "Joseph", "celebrate", "university", "April". Many of the students gave unique responses from their classmates for the various letters, but they all said, "zebra" for Z. :) Incidentally, the English and Zulus call the letter Z "Zed".

When I observed at the school in November and December, I noticed how it seemed the children did not understand much of what I was saying. I decided the best way to address this language barrier was in small groups. That way the children could ask questions freely and I could answer them quickly. In a large group, if children ask all the questions they want to at once it creates chaos. In an English first language classroom I can explain to the children how we need to do things and why. With these Zulu children, English is their second language and their proficiency is sketchy. I didn't want classroom management to be a barrier to their learning English from me. Their home room teacher has been most gracious in allowing me to teach in this way. It is a method that is novel in this school where everything is taught lecture style, as far as I can tell. But in this class of third graders the range of English proficiency is wide, from students who do not know letter names and sounds to students who can read early second grade level books. So designing one lesson that meets the needs of all of them is extremely challenging. But when I split them up into groups, planning becomes much easier. And the children are challenged at just the right level, not too hard nor too easy.

At the start of each English class, I stand at the front of the room and say, "Good morning grade 3." In response they all stand up and say in unison, "Good morning Mrs. H------," and then sit down. That always makes me smile. I have learned all of the children's names but I still have to work at the pronunciation. The "x" in Zulu is a click like the sound you make out of the side of your mouth to encourage a horse. I have a student whose name is Noxolo. Another click is represented by the "c". This sound is made at the front of your mouth and is kind of like the sound you make that means "tsk tsk". I have a student whose name is Nongcebo. And then there is the "hl" sound. You have to blow air past your tongue to make this sound. I have a student named Nobuhle. So I'm practicing my Zulu just by pronouncing their names. I must say them with a strange American accent too because whenever I say a name, the children always repeat it exactly as I've said it and then giggle.

This week I worked with the newly formed groups and I can tell that the students already enjoy this method. Sebenzile said, "Don't go," on Wednesday. I work with each group every other day and it was not her group's turn that day. But she wanted me to make it her group's turn. On a different day, I finished with a group of all girls and said, "Okay, we can go back to class now." But not one of them got up at first. Instead they put their heads on the little table where we do our group work, in an effort not to leave. I happy to know they are enjoying themselves, learning should be fun.

(I've been so busy working at the school that I haven't been taking photos. Hopefully I'll have some for the next post. Instead I've included some photos of the village and the Tugela River and the one lane bridge.)

Unlike me, Stephen has been working in his job for the past three months. But every job has its learning curve and Stephen feels now that he has begun to put his unique skills and experience to good use in this new position. TB is a huge public health problem that needs collaborative focused efforts. Since tuberculosis is an air borne disease, anyone can become infected so potentially everyone is at risk. Some of the research Stephen is working on is: better detection in children, treatment of MDR-TB in the community instead of in hospitals, intensive case finding within the community (that's going into the community and finding people who are sick with TB or HIV rather than waiting for them to come to the hospital), and better data capture at the hospital so the information is usable. This past month Stephen processed 162 CV's, interviewed 24 candidates and hired 5 people. Stephen is practicing his Zulu too, pronouncing names. He works with Sister Qali. The "Q" is a click like the sound of a bottle cork.

Life in Africa is never easy. Last week the water in our park home was down to a trickle. It was when Stephen asked someone about it, that we learned the water line for half of the village was broken and for the past week the hospital had been out of water. We have two holding tanks with water, but they were slowly becoming empty. Our not having enough water pressure to run a shower is an inconvenience, not having water for a hospital is downright horrible. But, such is life in Africa: no water for a week, frequent phone line and power outages. And yet I can't help asking if there aren't ways to work on anticipating these kinds of problems. Maybe it's only my American mindset, but I have a hard time accepting that things couldn't improve. Couldn't thinking be shifted to proactive planning instead of reactive responses? There are certainly lack of resources. But wouldn't some creative problem solving find a way to make use of the limited resources?

I think the answer is yes, but also no. Stephen and I read an inspirational and yet sobering true story about a man who lived in Msinga (Tugela Ferry is a village in the Msinga subdistrict) in the 1980's. He introduced some better farming practices and a cattle co-op to Msinga, an over grazed area (one of the consequences of Apartheid when many black South Africans were squeezed into a small amount of "homelands"). His methods were good; he'd proven their success. But so many factors worked against him, and today there is little to show for his lifetime of effort.

Just to update on some previous posts. In December I told the girl who was coming to our park home once a week that I didn't need anyone to clean for me any more. It was the holidays and people are often off in December so the first Monday of January she returned. "Is my work finished?" I had to tell her yes. I feel badly because I know how high unemployment is here, around 80%, but I just didn't feel comfortable with the situation. I have to find other ways to help people in this community than hiring a stranger to clean for me.

Also, my succulent garden is doing marvelously. I call these flowers "rock flowers" but that is not their name at all. I like the colour (English spelling) that they add to our yard. Stephen can see them from his office window, too.

January is the beginning of summer for the southern hemisphere, so when Stephen and I went to the Pilanesberg National Game Park we saw tons of little babies: baby giraffes, baby zebras, baby wildebeest, baby giraffes, a baby rhino. The baby warthogs were really the cutest to me. And we saw several mama warthogs with four little babies. So fun! We have some video of the baby warthogs play fighting that's just too adorable. Sadly, I can't post it with our slow internet. The Game Reserves of South Africa are really something. I never get tired of seeing African animals in the wild. I could go on safari every weekend.

At school the other day, one of the teachers said that February is the hottest month in South Africa, and it's proving to be true so far. Stephen and I drove to Pietermaritzberg for some shopping yesterday and our car kept running so hot, in the 100+ degree temperature, that we were forced to turn the air conditioning off. Wait for the engine to cool. Then turn the air conditioning back on. But at least we have a car with air conditioning. While driving home yesterday we saw several livestock trucks, but instead of being full of animals, they were full of people. Wall to wall people standing on a truck bed with sides but no roof. Our discomfort seems petty in view of how much those people had to endure.

We are starting our 4th month in South Africa and in such a short time have learned so much. It has already been a full adventure and we are looking forward to the way this year will unfold.