Sunday, April 19, 2009

North Canada?!? O tswa Canada? (You are from Canada?)

Making a Difference
It's only been two and a half weeks since I arrived here in Ga-Mathabatha, and already I've started working in partnership with my host community to create positive change. This afternoon, my host sisters and I began trying to alter the sleeping habits of the household's chickens, which like to roost in the overgrown grape vines adjacent to the house. This presents a major problem, as the grape vines are immediately adjacent to the windows of the room shared by my host sisters. And contrary to popular belief, roosters do not wait until sunrise to greet the day--more like every hour, on the hour, between 2am and 6am.

To rectify this troubling issue, my host sisters and I decided to gently encourage the chickens to roost elsewhere. As chickens tend not to respond well to subtlety, this gentle encouragement took the form of throwing stones of various sizes at the chickens roosting in the grape vines. After about twenty minutes, we had chased the chickens out of the grape vines and successfully repelled those brave enough to return. I hope this proves to be the first of many fruitful partnerships for me here in South Africa.

Fanang Diatla
When I'm not pelting chickens with rocks or sleeping, I spend most of my time here in Ga-Mathabatha at Fanang Diatla Selp-Help Project, which I neglected to introduce in my last post. A group of five women here in Ga-Mathabatha together founded Fanang Diatla in 1984 to address the near-complete absence of health services in their community. Fanang Diatla continued as a small group of women volunteering to provide basic health care to their community until the late 1990s. It's at that time, when HIV/AIDS was beginning to devastate communities across southern Africa, that Agnes Qwabe, Fanang Diatla co-founder and CEO, began to dramatically expand the scale and scope of her organization's role in Ga-Mathabatha.

Today, Fanang Diatla, working closely with the Ga-Mathabatha Clinic, sends out dozens of volunteer carers into the community to visit ill patients in their homes each day. Fanang Diatla's services have expanded to include many other services to address community health needs, care for AIDS Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs), and combat poverty. In addition to its home-based care services, Fanang Diatla
  • Runs a network of thirteen drop-in centers for OVCs, who otherwise might go hungry or have no place to go after school;
  • Operates a multitude of income-generating projects, including a sophisticated bakery, a vegetable garden, fence-making, upholstery, and juice-making businesses, a small poultry project, and a village bank (which serve to both generate income for other Fanang Diatla services and to provide jobs to members of a community suffering from severe unemployment, including members of the community with disabilities);
  • Hosts a chapter of the national youth HIV/AIDS education and empowerment group called Love Life;
  • Links very poor children (usually orphans) with international sponsors through a program called Children of the Dawn (let me know if you would be interested in sponsoring or co-sponsoring a child at 160 Rand per month, a little less than $18 at current exchange rates); and
  • Sponsors a soccer team of local male youth (the term youth is broadly inclusive here in South Africa, sometimes even including adults in their early 30s).
Fanang Diatla's next big step is to become a regional training center for Home-Based Care workers, which would raise the organization's profile substantially and bring in more income to expand services.

Where do I fit in?
With all of these good things going on, one might wonder why Fanang Diatla requested a second Peace Corps Volunteer to whom the current Volunteer, Nathan, could pass the torch. There have been days in the past two weeks when I've asked myself that question many times, but Fanang Diatla does have areas where the organization could improve. At this point, it seems most likely that the work I'll be doing for Fanang Diatla will focus on improving the organization's use of technology, monitoring and evaluation capacity, and (despite Peace Corps' assertion that PCVs are not fundraisers) fundraising/income generation activities.

It's looking quite likely that I'll also be spending a fair amount of time working with some of the local schools, where there are some acute teacher shortages, especially in math, the sciences, and technology. Although several schools have expressed interest in my teaching classes, I'm a bit wary of becoming a near full-time teacher. One of the main reasons I wanted to join Peace Corps was to promote sustainable capacity-building. While it's tempting to see a dire need and want to step in to fill it, I need to recognize that I'm only here for two years and that I should focus my efforts towards projects that will endure beyond my departure.

Memorable Moments
During the past ten weeks here in South Africa, I've had some rather noteworthy interactions, and it would be a shame not to share some of my favorites which here.

North Canada?
So one of the most common interactions I have with native South Africans involves explaining where I'm from. While virtually all South Africans are familiar with the US, the perceptions are often limited to the television shows we export to South Africa, namely Beyonce, 50 Cent, and Chris Brown music videos, Wayans brothers shows, and, my personal favorite and most unexpected, World Wrestling Entertainment.

Thus, many people who learn that I'm from the US or 'America' ask me which part or which state. When I reply that I'm from North Carolina, the typical response that I get is a blank stare (alas, this is even the case since my beloved Tar Heels won their second men's NCAA basketball championship in five years). Usually people are satisfied when I tell them it's near the Atlantic Ocean, about a 4.5 hour drive south of where President Obama lives.

At least three times, however, my thick American accent has resulted in my being interpreted as having said that I'm from North Canada. Each time, I've then had to explain that not only am I not from Canada or North Canada, but that Canada is not part of the US. Neither is the UK.

I write this not to poke fun at South Africans but to illustrate that even in a country where people are inundated with American culture on a daily basis, knowledge about the geography, demographics, politics, cultural practices, etc. is often very limited, especially in rural areas. I still am baffled by how I often find myself conversing with someone who knows intimate details of the lives of many African-American celebrities but is shocked that there are black people in the US. My favorite statistic to use in these cases is that there are roughly as many black Americans as there are black South Africans. Many are as incredulous of this statistic as they are of my assertion that there are both poor people and rural areas in the US. Thus, I've got my work cut out for me to fulfill one of Peace Corps' three principal goals: "Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served."

On that note, I think I'll sign off for the night. I think I hear the chickens returning to the grape vines.


Chris said...

when i first read the title, i thought you were trying to avoid being associated with being American and claimed you were from Canada...

christopher said...

Thanks for the update, man! Sounds like you're doing some great stuff!
-Chris W-J

Paula Jones said...

Hey Ed, it sounds like you're having a wonderful and interesting time. I hope it works out with those roosters....they can be really annoying! Let me know how I can find more information on sponsoring a child.
-- Paula J.