Sunday, February 23, 2014

Exorcisms: Not Only in Horror Movies

Have you ever looked at your surroundings and thought, I saw a horror movie that started just like this! Maybe you are on a deserted road late at night, or you are in a creepy basement with the lights flickering overhead. Either way, you can’t help but think any minute someone is going to jump out with a chainsaw and hack you into little pieces. I think everyone has had those moments where they turn on every light in the house, because for some reason we think that will save us if there is a killer hiding behind the couch. Some things I had thought only happened in horror movies. Some things I thought were just crazy stories that parents tell kids so they would behave, or maybe just so they would eat their vegetables. Then, today ( 2/4/14) I watched a 14 year old girl be held down at school, and I couldn’t help but think, holy sh*t this is actually happening!? These people are preforming an exorcism in the middle of the staff room!

Starting from the beginning, I never saw this coming. We were all standing at the morning prayer assembly, just like any average day. The teachers and I were all lined up in the shade by the class rooms, while the learners stood packed in line in the already 80°F sun. With heads bowed, arms folded, and eyes closed it was a little hard to see when one of my grade 6 girls went down. When there was a little commotion the teachers realized another learner had fainted; no one was too concerned. After 19 months in country, even I have become less concerned when I see a learner pass out in assembly. Normal protocol is that some of the older boys will drag the learner off to the staff room, where they lay them on the floor, and then head back to class. Not the most sympathetic procedure, but it happens about once a week, so I wasn’t even paying attention. Then, right as the learners were finishing their final amen, a blood curdling scream stopped everyone. Heads turned just in time to see the poor girl who fainted violently trying to escape the hold of the boys who were carrying her. She started thrashing, kicking and punching at nothing in particular, all while screaming her lungs out. In hindsight, my first warning should have been the fact that none of the teachers moved. It was like they all had the same thought at the same time, and that thought was not to jump in and try to comfort the obviously distressed learner. No, they calmly asked four more of the older boys to assist the other two and drag her off to the staff room still kicking and screaming.

Now, maybe it’s because I am not religious in general, but when I see a child who is in distress, right after waking up from fainting, my first thought is not to let three boys pin her down in the staff room. While I imagined getting her some water and talking to her in quite, soothing tones, the other teaches took a different approach. Apparently here, comfort comes in the form of being pinned to the concrete floor while five women surround you screaming about the devil! If that doesn’t make her feel better, then I don’t know what will. With her arms and legs pushed into the floor, this girl fought with everything she had to get free as the teachers held their bibles over her body and screamed at the devil spirit to be gone. No dark smoky cloud was forced from her throat like it does in the movies, but the terror of watching this girl scream and wither on the floor was the closest I ever hope to come to a true horror movie.

After 15 minutes of screaming and chanting, the teachers were convinced that the devil no longer had hold over the girl. She had stopped screaming a few minutes before, and her body finally went slack on the floor. I think she was just exhausted, but everyone else agreed that she was now cleansed. Luckily, everyone else agreed that she needed to go home and rest for the remainder of the day. If I was her I would never come back to this crazy school, but once she was drug off to the back seat of someone’s car, the teachers went off to make tea as if nothing had even happened. At this point I was finally able to scrape my jaw up off the floor and pretend that what I had just witnessed didn’t completely horrify me. Not because I think the girl was actually possessed by a demon spirit, but because a child was held down against her will in the middle of a school. Maybe there is a reason exorcism are featured so often in horror movies.  

Mom and Dad in Africa: Kruger

At some point, everyone should try traveling abroad with their family. It is a completely different experience than traveling alone, or even with friends. You learn some…different things about each other, and you see things in a different perspective than before.

I had been looking forward to my parents visiting me in South Africa basically since the moment I got here. After spending my entire life in the same state as them, it was hard being half way around the world. I will proudly admit to anyone that I am a total mommy and daddy’s girl, and it has been a rough experience not being able to see and talk to them whenever I want. So after months of planning, and a countdown that started at 200 days, exactly 18 months since we said goodbye my parents landed in South Africa. After almost 36 hours in transit, my mom and dad seemed a little exhausted when they finally made it out of customs. I'm sure it didn’t help that my mom’s bag didn’t seem to make it on the plane from London, but regardless, I was thrilled to get my first few hugs in! To make things a little more overwhelming, mom and dad happened to be flying in on probably the highest security day in South Africa in almost 20 years. Political leaders from around the world were arriving the same day to honor the passing of Nelson Mandela. The airport was packed, and the monorail was overflowing with local men, woman, and children ready to brave the pouring rain to say a final farewell to this country’s greatest hero. We got one night at the fanciest hotel I have ever been in. Then my parents got to experience their first taste of real Africa, in the form of their first time being driven by a South African, as we headed out the next morning for Kruger National Park.

Looking back, I probably should have prepared my parents a little better for the drive. South Africans don’t really have traffic laws. They speed, they pass, sometimes pass three cars wide or on the left and right, and on a lot of roads there aren’t even lines. After 18 months I have learned to not pay any attention to the cars around us, and just cross my fingers that we make it. However, after watching my parents tense every time it looked like we were going to rear-end the car in front of us, I was reminded that people in America don’t usually drive like they have a death wish.

Fortunately we didn’t get into a horrific car accident, and eventually made it to the largest game park in South Africa. Naturally, I spotted the first animal in the form of a baboon running across the road. If I learned anything about myself on this trip it was that I would make an excellent hunter. I happen to be a badass spotter; unfortunately I have an issue with killing cute little animals, so that talent will sadly go to waste. If I learned anything about my family on this trip it was that we might all be crazy, but we are so much more fun than most people! Our seven days riding around looking at animals was amazing! Every drive was a different experience, and it didn’t matter what animals were out, we had a blast. All the other people were upset if a lion didn’t stop in the middle of the road to pose for them. There were a few times that I wanted to point out that we were not in a damn zoo. But regardless of the other people, my dad, mom, and I were just excited to see the animals. I learned that dad gets super annoyed if you refuse to call bugs insects, mom likes to take lots of picture of animals fornicating, and impala are EVERYWHERE, except when you make a bet on being the next person to see one. Because of our overall awesomeness as a family, it was only natural that our guide liked us the best as well. He got points in my book because he knew all the animals based on their names in the Lion King. If I said I wanted to see Zazu, he knew exactly what I was talking about, and I am happy to say I saw the entire Lion King cast! However, he lost points in my book when he somehow convinced my parents to become bird watchers; mom bought the book and everything. So now they are going to be those weird people that in their old age sit around watching birds. Looks like their awesomeness just went down…a lot! 

Besides spending a whole ride looking at stupid birds, we had amazing luck with the animals. We had an amazing show from a beautiful leopard one morning. After day one we all knew that when the guides all start hauling ass in the same direction there is going to be something good! The leopard was obviously showing off for the crowd. He was working all his good angles. He started up on top of a big rock where he yawned a few times for us, showing off his nice white teeth. Then he got up and strutted his stuff across the rock and up the side of the boulders. Finally, as if he could smell how delicious we would all be, he decided to come down and hop up into the tree, right next to where we would eventually be parked. Nothing makes you realize how quickly you would die in the bush like trying to figure out where the pretty kitty went and realizing that his beady gold eyes are watching your every move from above. Somehow I always seemed to be on the side of the truck that was closest to the animal who was deciding if we were a threat or not. Mom was clicking away on her camera while I was slowly trying to back up into dad’s lap. The pictures turned out great though!

 We also got to experience a morning walk around the bush. We were accompanied by two men with very large guns, and then led through two hours of an area that all looked the exact same to me. It was early, and misty, which gave everything kind of a creepy look. You could see all the spider webs in the grass glistening with dew. I could have gone without that part of the tour, but this was also a fun learning experience for me. I learned that mom lacks the basic survival and listening skills needed to survive in the bush. She seemed to disregard all the very clear instructions from the guys with the big guns about staying together in order to get some pictures. Dad on the other hand might have too much survival instincts. At the first sign of danger he didn’t hesitate to physically move mom between him and the threat. Neither one of them seemed to be at all concerned with me when two giant rhinos popped up from the creek bed right in front of us. Things get serious pretty quick when the big gun guys start whispering orders to us as the slowly sink down and take aim. I was intently trying to figure out if out running people would help when being attacked by rhinos, dad was indiscreetly trying to hide behind mom, and she was just waiting for the ok to start clicking away on the camera again. Luckily the rhinos decided to run off in the other direction. I would not have been happy if the big gun guys had been forced to shoot the big rhinos, nor would I have been happy to test my theory of out running people being effective with rhinos.

With two safari rides a day, dinner was always a nice time to relax, eat some good food, and drink a little too much wine. We all ate way too much, got into some weird and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with the other people in our group, and then retired to out rondevals for some intense card games. Here we learned that mom becomes an epic cheater when she has had a few too many glasses of wine. More than once she tried to pull a fast one on us, and then got really offended when we no longer wanted to play with her. Turns out all the stories her sisters tell of her being mean and controlling as a kid are probably all true…sorry mom.

Overall, I would have to say Kruger was the best part of the three part trip. We had a blast seeing all the animals and learning about all the crazy things that happen in the wild! I got to see a different side of my parents being in a country where I knew more than they did, but mostly it was just exciting to spend some time with them after so long!

A Nation in Mourning

For the past year, South Africa has been holding its breath, not wanting to let go of their hero. Every time Nelson Mandela entered the hospital, thousands would gather around his home in Soweto to pray for his health. Critics around the world questioned the motives behind the lengths that South African doctors took to keep the 95 year old man alive. It was a struggle, both for him and for his people, but on December 5th 2013 this nation said goodbye to the greatest humanitarian of our time.

Being here in South Africa at the time of Mr. Mandela’s death has been somewhat surreal. The reactions from the people of this country, as well as people around the world were not what I expected. It was easy to see the amount of love that this country had for Mandela. From the moment our plane touched down in July 2012 we were surrounded by reminders of the changes made possible by this one man. Every bank note shows his face, and his iconic smile adorns poster and buildings throughout the country. He has been a true hero for this country and the world. His sacrifices united a nation previously filled with so much hatred and violence. It is easy to see his influence within the country, but it goes so much further than just South Africa. Nelson Mandela showed the world what a message of love and tolerance could accomplish. His forgiveness for those who had wronged him showed inhumane strength, making him an iconic figure around the world. 

However, when you look around this country, you really only see his influence within the larger areas. It is in cities and townships that people speak Mr. Mandela’s name in awe. His face only appears on posters and monuments in specific areas and those areas don’t include where I currently am. The extremely rural areas have a different history than the rest of South Africa. Apartheid didn’t hurt the villagers the way it did in the townships. White people didn’t care what was happening to people in the middle of nowhere, so when apartheid ended, nothing really changed.  Rural areas still don’t have running water, consistent electricity, functioning schools, or local governments that show any interest in their progress. People here still have had little influence from the outside world, so when Nelson Mandela passed, little was done. As a foreigner, who had heard the horrors of apartheid only told from the side of people within the cities and townships, I was expecting my village to be devastated when the news hit. People throughout the country flocked to Mr. Mandela’s home and to the different capital building to show their love for the former president, and to support each other in their sorrow. However, in the village life went on. We said a short prayer at school, but everyone went about their business as usual. At first I was shocked. I expected crying and wailing (which is a very normal expression of grief in this country) but there was none of that. People in the villages didn’t have the luxury of being able to take time from their day, and to be honest I don’t think Mandela’s passing touched them the same way as it did the rest of the world. Nothing has changed for the men and women who have spent their whole life in the rural areas. It is not that they don’t respect of love Mandela, but his influence did little to touch their difficult lives.

Nelson Mandela unquestionably did amazing things for this country and the world. He was a hero for millions how had no voice until he stood up for them. He gave peace to a nation in turmoil, but many people forget that things in South Africa are still far from perfect. This beautiful country has come such a long way in the 20 years since the end of apartheid, but it still has such a long struggle ahead.   

Long Delay

Hello Readers,

I want to apologize for the long period of silence since my last post. Unfortunately my method of internet access in my village is no longer working. My modem has decided that it no longer wants to be compatible with my computer, so I will most likely only be able to update posts when I am on vacation. So, since I am currently in Durban celebrating my birthday by spending three days taking showers, I will be posting a few new updates. The posts span the last few months, and will hopefully get everyone caught up on what I have been doing.

Thanks for reading my crazy experiences here in Africa, and hopefully in the future I will be able to keep things a little more consistent!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

When Things Get Physical

Today (8/29) I had a physical altercation with a learner, and it has shaken me. I was not hurt except for a scratch across my hand, but I still feel like something was taken from me. I'm not sure if I feel like I lost a little peace of mind, or if I actually feel unsafe at the moment, but whatever it is made me seriously consider going home for the first time in a very long time. I think sometimes being in a position of power over someone, like a teacher over their students, can give you a sense of security and maybe that is what I lost today, my sense of security in my school.

During a test today in my grade 6 class I caught one of the older boys cheating by using his phone as a calculator. My policy in class is that if you are caught cheating I take your paper and make you start over. In this case I was also taking his phone because my school has very strict policies about no phones at school. When I approached him and asked for his phone he hesitated. I expected this because I had dealt with this issue before. Learners are very hesitant to give up their phones, which I find amusing because it’s not like I'm just going to change my mind and walk away if they don’t give it to me the first time that I ask. After the third time that I demanded he hand over his phone he finally complied. I then went to remove his paper, and that’s when things got difficult. At my school kids write tests in specific books because making copies with enough room to show your work is expensive, so what I have done in the past when kids cheat is I rip out the page they are writing on, and then allow them to start over on the next page. This boy however decided that wasn’t going to happen. With his phone and book held in my left hand I attempted to rip out his page with my right hand, which is when he grabbed me. Apparently he thought that it would be okay for him to grab my right arm to stop me from removing the page, and then shove me away while trying to take his phone and book back from my left hand. In order to right myself and get the kid off of me I pushed back and was finally able to free my arm when he stumbled back into his desk. I was able to maintain my hold on his belongings, but received a nice scratch across my hand in the process. At that point I was livid, and will admit I imagined taking him by the arm and throwing him face down against the desk in a “you don’t know who the hell you are messing with” kind of way. Unfortunately in a class of 50 learners that didn’t seem appropriate, not to mention this kids is as big as I am and probably a lot stronger, so I'm sure it wouldn’t go as smoothly as I planned it in my head.

Instead I took him and his phone to the office so that the head of my department could deal with him. While I knew that it probably meant he would get the stick, I just didn’t know what else to do with him, because nothing I'm doing seems to make a difference to these older boys. My HOD then apparently handed the boy off to my principal who gave him a warning and then sent him back to class. A warning? Are you F***ING kidding me?! Of all the times this kid deserved a warning, this was not it! Give him a warning when he is late to school for the 10th time this month. Give him a warning when he doesn’t stop talking during class no matter how many times you speak to him. Don’t give him a warning when he tries to forcefully keep a teacher from taking his phone and book away after he was caught cheating. This is not the time to hand out a pass, this is the time to do something!!! And to make matters worse, I still had another hour of class with grade 6 today. Once a week I get the privilege of having two hours a day with both of my classes, and today just happened to be my day with grade 6 twice.

When I had finally calmed down enough to not see red, the boy came to apologize to me. He had tried to come earlier but I had sent him away because I was still too angry to hear it and hadn’t decided how I wanted to handle things with him yet. In the time it took me to somewhat calm down I realized that the reason I was so angry was because I felt violated in a sense. Was I hurt, no, but did I feel like my authority and status as a teacher was challenged, absolutely. I felt like I had come to Africa to do something good, to help people that wanted my help, and I felt like this kid just threw that back in my face. He is only one of a hundred learners, but the fact that he was willing to go that far over the line made me feel like being here meant nothing. After almost 14 months away from everything I’ve ever known, that hurt. So when my learner made his way back to apologize I wasn’t hearing it. As he stood with me outside repeating “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again I just didn’t believe it, and I still don’t. I’ve spent three full terms accepting this kid’s apologies for his bad behavior, but today he crossed a line with me and I don’t believe he is sorry at all. Do I feel bad for him, yes, because I know he has had a hard life. At the age of 15 he has lived through the death of both of his parents and is being raised just by his grandmother, but I am past the point of letting him use that as an excuse for his behavior. Was it a little bit heart breaking watching him cry after I asked if he would have ever put his hands on his mother like he did to me, absolutely, but at the same time I see this as his last chance. I told him he has until the end of the year to prove to me that he is actually sorry for what he did. He has until December 6th to show me through his behavior that he regrets treating me the way he did. I think it is about time that someone held these kids accountable for their behavior and forced them to change for the long run. Warnings and beatings are only temporary, and those are obviously not teaching these kids anything. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

How I Would Want My Parents to React

What would you do if you saw your daughter being carried home between two of her teachers? Would you panic and go rushing up to help, would you freak out and call 911, or would you casually sit down on the porch and ask how the teacher’s day is going? If you think that last option sounds crazy I would agree with you, but that is exactly how one of my learner’s mother reacted last week (8/9). On Tuesday of last week one of my grade 5 learners had a seizure while on her way to the pit latrine at school. I happened to be sitting in the staff room when a learner came to inform the teachers that a girl was “sleeping” by the toilet. Of course the only words I really understood in Xhosa were girl and toilet, so I had no idea what was happening when two of the teachers angrily left the staff room. A few minutes later though, I watched as they basically dragged this poor girl into the building while she was seizing and drooling all over. After working in a nursing home during college I felt that I had enough medical knowledge to assist the other teachers, so I got up to help. Turns out their idea of taking care of this girl was laying her on her back on the floor in an empty office, shoving a spoon in her mouth and then leaving. I was shocked to say the least, and decided that I would take it upon myself to make sure the girl didn’t swallow her tongue or hurt herself so I held her on her side for the next hour all alone. Occasionally my head of department (HOD) would come in and ask if she could be moved yet, but once she realized she was still having spasms she would close the door and leave again.
When the poor girl was finally still my HOD decided it was time to take her home. Not take her to a hospital or a clinic, just home. Another teacher helped me pick her up and transport her to a car, and then we drove her through the bumpy dirt roads to her hut up in the village. When we got to her small house we carried her to the house while my HOD went ahead to inform the mother that we were bringing her daughter home early. When we finally made it around to the front the mom was casually sitting on the front steps while her daughter was propped up between me and another teacher, and kind of looked like she was died. Her mom never even got up. She just pointed to the room to the right and asked that we lay her down in there. When I was done positioning her in the bed I went out to join the other teachers and try to explain why her daughter needed to see a doctor. She said some things in Xhosa that I of course didn’t understand, and then we were leaving my learner in the care of her seemingly unconcerned mother. To be honest, I was a little pissed. When we got back to the car I asked my HOD if the mom was going to take the girl to the clinic. Turns out the mom had said that my learner had been having seizures on and off recently ever since she had been raped a few weeks before. I guess at this point I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of concern shown for this little girl, but I was still shocked that no one seemed to be remotely worried about what was going on with this learner, both physically and emotionally.
Two days ago she had another seizure. The same thing happened. I stayed with her alone in the empty office until she stopped seizing. We basically carried her home, and then left her all alone with a drunken old man, because he was the only one home. I don’t even know if he was part of the family, or if he just happened to be at the house when we showed up. I tried to talk to the teachers about how she really needed to see a doctor, but they seemed disinterested. They told me that the only way that the family would be forced to take her to the doctor was if a social worker got involved. Unfortunately my school was unwilling to call a social worker because “it’s not their place”. It seems like there is some unwritten rule around here that teachers and schools turn a blind eye to problems at home because kids are at the bottom of the totem pole in this culture.

To say that I am struggling with the callousness of the staff at my school and the learner’s family would be an understatement.  I can’t help thinking about how I would want my parents to react if I was in that girl’s situation. When I was her age it was always a big deal when I was sick. My mom would make me tea while I watched Beauty and the Beast in her room, my dad would take me to school with him so he could keep an eye on me and I wouldn’t have to be alone. If I had a seizure I would have expected a little bit of panic followed by a speedy trip to the hospital and then at least a week of being smothered with concern. I would even expect some of that from my teachers. It is hard to come from a culture that puts so much emphasis on the importance of children and then see how little children are valued here. I am keeping my fingers crossed that eventually someone will take her to the clinic and that she will be able to get some physical and emotional support. This is one of those times that being able to speak fluent Xhosa would be really helpful.

(Month Later Update: The girl has not had another seizure during school in the last four weeks. Her grandmother came to visit and apparently forced the girl’s mother to take her to the clinic to be checked by the doctor. Since then she has been doing much better at school and seems to be getting more social in my class (which is not always great while I am teaching, but I am happy to see). Hopefully as time goes on she will continue to improve.) 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Fat or Skinny: Who's the Judge?

In the United States there are some things that you just don’t say to people, regardless of if it is true or not. When a woman asks her husband, boyfriend, or friends if those jeans make her butt look big the only acceptable answer is a big Hell No. It doesn’t matter if those jeans make her ass look like a balloon; you lie, because you know it will hurt her feelings and her wavering self-esteem if you tell her the truth. Unfortunately, South Africans did not get that memo before I moved here. Since I have been here I have been told that I am too skinny (which I was excited about), that I am going to get fat, that I need to get fat, and that I am getting fat. People I have never spoken to will come up to me in town to comment on my weight and then walk away. I have tried to remind myself that the culture is different and that I shouldn’t take anything personally, but let’s be honest ladies. If some stranger came up to you and said “Wow, you are looking so fat today” and then walked away, how do you not take that personally?!

Now, the last time that I went to the doctor I was told that I had lost a little over ten pounds since I have come to South Africa. I know that I have not gained weight because I am still able to easily fit into the size smaller jeans that I brought from home in the hopes that I would lose weight while I was here. I told a group of my teachers once that comments like that make me feel really bad and that in the US you would never say that to someone. They seemed extremely confused and told me that getting fat means South Africa is good for me. So the fact that people have taken it upon themselves to inform me of how my weight is looking has made me really think about the idea of weight and beauty in different cultures.

Looking around at women in my community you will see variations of size to the extremes. There are women who look like they might blow away in a strong gust of wind, and then there are women who could crush me with their thigh alone. For the most part though, women are BIG in this country. When I am coming home from town and stuffed in the back of the taxi, I am usually the smallest or one of the smallest women in the truck. The trend seems to be that the older you are the bigger you are, to the point that many women have trouble walking by the time they are in their 40s. South Africans have serious problems with heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, but if you ask them about it, no one mentions weight or poor diets as the cause of those problems. The average life span in South Africa is 52 years, but in this country it seems that bigger is better, regardless of the repercussions that that might have on your health.

When I watch my host mother, who is a very large woman, I am reminded of the idea that in the olden days being larger was a sign of wealth and higher social standing. My host mother makes a lot of money for someone in a rural village. She has multiple small businesses that she runs out of her house, and has a few properties in other villages that she rents out. She also has a few orphan girls that live at her house for which she collects grant money from the government for taking in. These girls are basically treated like indentured servants. They fetch water from the river, wash the clothes, mop the floors, and do most of the cooking. This allows my host mom to basically be sedentary and eat for the majority of the day. It is like being fat shows that she is able to eat and be lazy all day, which in this country translates to having the money and the means to not do any work. While I think that this lifestyle is not good and extremely unhealthy, most people seem very happy with eating fried chicken and a loaf of bread for lunch every day, but you never hear people telling them that they are fat.

So what does this mean for me? Are people telling me I am getting fat as a complement, or do they just not know that a comment like that is extremely rude? Do they think that because I am an American that means that I should have lots of money and therefore I should be very fat? Do they want me to be fat so they feel better about the fact that they are extremely obese, or are they intentionally being rude? I guess it doesn’t really matter. Being overweight does not have the same negativity associated with it here, and people have no problem commenting on my weight regardless of how much smaller I am than they are. Regardless of knowing that, the next time someone casually tells me that I am looking fat today I might have to smack them!