"I am certainly not one of those who need to be prodded…"

02.21.10 holiday updates (tsetsebjwe, francistown, sowa, etsha 6, shakawe, maun, windhoek, swakopmund)

Posted in personal by stuart sia on February 21, 2010

TSETSEBJWE

Took 8 of my students to Camp GLOW in Tsetsebjwe on the Tuli Block adjacent to the South African border. The bugs were insane. The showers smelled pretty terrible due to their proximity to the pit latrines. I don’t think saying they smelled like death does their pungency justice. But the kids had fun, and that made it all worth it.

We (the volunteers) decided to put together a dance number for the talent show. Our song of choice: Single Ladies by Beyoncé. We redefined awesome that night. The booty slap became very popular with the kids, an unintended consequence of our performance. To this day, my GLOW students like to end every meeting with a Single Ladies’ booty slap.

Another highlight was the campfire, during which each delegation performed a traditional song and dance from their home villages. Jill and I performed a charming little Setswana love song I wrote. Lyrics will come in a future blog update.

FRANCISTOWN/SOWA (THE “N-EAST”)

Passed through Francistown on the way up north. Stayed with my old friend, Mike. Spent a couple nights in Sowa with Erica and Jill. Single Ladies – Part II was well received.

THE OKAVANGO DELTA

Had Language Week with John, Paul and Tori at Allison’s place in Etsha 6. My God was it hot. It was great to be reunited with my bro (John), though the reunion did stir up some competition; jealous of our camaraderie, Allison and Tori decided to become “bras.” It must, however, be noted that whereas our “brohood” was established on the bond of friendship, their “brahood” was clearly reactionary.

We spent Christmas Eve on the hot and humid Okavango Delta at Heidi’s place in Shakawe. My God was it hot. The rivalry between the bros and the bras continued on throughout Christmas day. Though the bras’ attempts to outshine the bros were positively precious, the bros were the undeniable victors. Brohood can’t be learned overnight, after all. Nor can brahood.

Spent a couple nights in Maun with John at Roberta’s (or, as we call her place, “The Berta’s). Ran into some volunteers at the Old Bridge, a lodge at the riverbank with a good crowd and lively atmosphere. By a stroke of good fortune, met a nice German couple who were heading to Namibia first thing in the morning. It was decided that I would join them.

WINDHOEK/SWAKOPMUND (NAMIBIA)

Left that morning for Windhoek with Lina and Jan of Cologne. They were planning on spending New Year’s in Namibia, though they would ultimately return to Capetown, South Africa where they are studying law. The other happy beneficiaries of their kindness were Danielle and Julia, two Peace Corps volunteers who had just completed their service in northern Namibia. Having begun their well-deserved travels in Zimbabwe and Botswana, they were on their way to spend New Year’s in South Africa via Windhoek. They are at this moment on the beautiful island of Zanzibar off the East African coast, for which reason, I hate them. The four of them made such lovely company, that it seemed silly to alight in Ghanzi as I had originally intended (the plan had been for my friends who had rented cars from Gaborone to pick me up at the junction to Charleshill just south of Ghanzi). I, instead, rode with them all the way to Windhoek, where we spent the night.

That morning, I headed down to the city centre where I killed time at a café, walked around a bit, and bought a hat. My friends finally caught up with me, having spent the night in Gobabis, a town 2 hours east of Windhoek. We departed Windhoek around 10 and arrived at our final destination, Swakopmund, in the late afternoon, where I had my first glimpse of the ocean in over half a year. It was breathtaking.

The following day was spent looking for a man bag (a murse, if you will). Found one, sold to me by a beautiful Namibian girl by the name of Sharon, who, as you will learn, is my great disappointment of 2009. It was a charming affair really. We shared a few laughs, engaged in some witty banter, and ultimately exchanged numbers. She asked what I was doing that night (it was, after all, New Year’s Eve). I informed her I was having a braai (an Afrikaans word meaning barbeque) that evening with some friends, but that afterwards, anything was game, Why, do you have any suggestions? She replied, You should come to the beach; there’s a big party at Tiger Reef. I responded rather coolly, Maybe I will.

That evening we had the braai. Fast forward to two hours before midnight:

My friends and I arrived at the beach bar, Tiger Reef, which was absolutely packed with people. Sharon texted me, and long story short, we tried to find each other and failed. Sad, right? Yes. It was.

In retrospect, maybe she was just trying to sell me a bag, maybe I should have invited her to the braai, maybe I shouldn’t have tried to be too cool for school, maybe, maybe, maybe…

But, although I wish things could have gone differently, I’m not altogether disappointed. It was a fun experience to be back in the game (having conclusively ended my most serious relationship ever a mere few months before). My first half a year in Botswana was overwhelming, to say the least, during which I was stretched to my limits, emotionally, intellectually, and otherwise. That brief two-hour period before midnight, despite its admittedly disappointing outcome, was invigorating. I don’t know if I can articulate why, but maybe it’s enough to say, it made me feel strong, unafraid, and quite simply alive.

So alive, in fact, that the next week was spent sky diving, sand boarding, quad biking, speaking in German and Afrikaans, eating seafood including crustaceans (to which I had, for the past couple years , had an aversion), drinking good wine and beer, and basically being the classic world traveler. For some reason, Swakopmund loved me, and I absolutely loved Swakopmund.

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12.02.09 october – november

Posted in personal by stuart sia on December 3, 2009

It’s 6:42, late afternoon, the 2nd of December, and I’m in the middle of cooking dinner. I’m not quite sure how long ago my last correspondence was…early October maybe? Surely not as long ago as late September…oh, well according to the archives, indeed it was…forgive me; ke ne ke pitlagane…thata.

OCTOBER:

Visited my counterpart, Thuli, ’s hometown, Gathwane. It was small, quaint, and charming and her mom’s a sweetheart.

Climbed a mountain in Otse with Karen, Phoebe, and the Pappajohns. Wore the same shirt for three days in a row.

Gave recognition to a Form 3 student, the first recipient of the Mogobane Community Junior Secondary School’s Botho Award, an award designed to honor students exemplifying “botho.” Botho is a Setswana word that embodies all the good things one finds in a good person.

Celebrated Annie Rose’s birthday at the Grand Palm hotel in Gaborone. Had a couple bloody mary’s for breakfast. Got sunburned poolside.

Turned my pink bed sheet into a toga for the Halloween party at the Pappajohns in Otse. It was a surprisingly close match with my pink boxer briefs from H&M Chicago.

NOVEMBER:

Traveled up to Maun for a Camp GLOW facilitators meeting. It was beautiful. I came back with a little scar on my forehead from scraping the bottom of the pool. It’s really kind of cool actually.

Celebrated my birthday at the Cumberland in Lobatse with some great friends. Great chocolate cake.

Spent a week at Megan and Jonathan’s in Mochudi for language week. Second birthday celebration with ice cream and brownies. So much good food and so much euchre.

Put on an end-of-the-year program from the Form 1 and 2 students. Had them reflect on the past year and assess their changing roles at the school. Insightful.

Attended a life skills infusion workshop at the Oasis in Gaborone for a few days. For some reason, there were kittens all over the place and they were sinfully adorable.

Participated in a Secret Santa sort of thing with the school staff. I got a wall mirror.

Celebrated Thanksgiving in Mochudi. Helped make the turkey. Brined it overnight in a salt water solution with sugar, bay leaves, and black peppercorns. Smeared garlic butter, rosemary, basil, and thyme underneath the skin. Smeared harissa on the skin. Wrapped it in bacon, and stuffed it with an apple, an onion, garlic, a grapefruit and an assortment of other aromatics. It was savory, succulent, and simply divine.

DECEMBER:

Leaving for Camp GLOW on Saturday.

09.29.09 gaborone, mogobane

Posted in personal by stuart sia on September 29, 2009

Dumelang ditsala! Ke mo ofising ya administration ya sekolo as has become my habit 7 o’clock, every morning, Monday through Friday. I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while. I think its been well over a month now since my last correspondence.

PEACE CORPS WORKSHOP:
To recap where I last left off, ke ne ke le kwa workshopong ya Peace Corps kwa Gaborone. It was a great chance to see ditsala tsotlhe tsa me di di tswa kwa all over Botswana. I got to see the volunteers down south in Verda/Middlepits, far west in Ghanzi/D’kar, northwest in Shakawe/Etsha, up north in Maun, up way north in Kasane, northeast around Francistown, and of course everyone down here in Kweneng and the Southeast District. Don’t these places sound amazing? And what with the all the rain we’ve been experiencing, I know its only going to get more beautiful.

I saw the worst movie ever with Shelly, Mike, John, Jeff, and Luke. It was G.I. Joe, and man was it terrible. But it definitely fell in the “so bad that it’s funny” genre, and it was definitely a good time. I think Jeff liked it more than he cares to admit, but he’s a nice guy so I forgive him for his poor taste in cinema.

I learned Yooker! a card game from the Midwest played in teams. I doubt the name of the game is supposed to be capitalized, and am certain that it isn’t followed by an exclamation point, but its kind of fun that way don’t you think? It’s like Yahoo! though I must admit, I am a Googlehead. My old friends from Ntloolongwae, Mpho le Thabang were eager to teach me, and I finally caved, sat in on a game, and became quickly addicted. Because losing can be demoralizing, some teams will give themselves a name to boost morale when things are going badly. Jonathan and I, unfortunately, found ourselves in this situation. We dubbed ourselves the Liquor Jacket (no plural “s”), or LJ for short, and sure enough, we ended up winning throughout the day. On the other hand, the winning team may, in the mean spirit of competition and spite, celebrate their anticipated win when they’re “in the barnhouse” (one point away from a win) by “milking the cow,” rudely directing the milk into the other team’s faces. For those of you who are familiar with the “awkward cow” method of diffusing awkwardness, it’s exactly that. Jonathan and I tried to do a variation thereof incorporating the LJ symbol we had given ourselves (yes, we had not only a name, but a gesture), but it was unforgivably awkward and I cringe inwardly at the mere memory of it…

I just got a text from Megan correcting my spelling of Yooker! Apparently, its Euchre, which is actually even cooler than Yooker! It almost looks Greek or something.

MOGOBANE:
The Dorans and the Pappajohns visited me a couple weeks ago! They were my first visitors ever, and it was a good time. I made them brunch, which turned out alright, though they insist it was more than alright and, in fact, excellent. I think they’re just being nice. I just found out Colin, who’s working with people with disabilities, is learning American Sign Language! The ironic thing is that the very night before, I temporarily lost my hearing (I was frying rice, and when the crackling subsided, I realized I could no longer hear out of my right ear!), and upon contemplating how great a loss hearing would be for someone like myself for whom music and language are undying passions, concluded that this momentary loss of hearing (I was sure it would come back) was an opportunity to experience, even in small part, what being deaf was like. While a far cry from actually experiencing Deaf culture, the experience did provoke me to learn more about ASL and Deaf culture at large. ASL is a fascinatingly expressive language and has made me acutely aware of the incredible eloquence of nonverbal language.

A man came to Mogobane CJSS on behalf of the Ministry to discuss our opinions on inclusive learning for students with disabilities, and he said one thing that has rung in my head ever since: disability is a social construct. While I have long accepted the idea that race, gender, and even sex are social constructs, I never thought much about disability. But, here in Mogobane, whose roads are not paved but dirt, it hit me how very inaccessible this village must be for anyone with a physical disability. In America, where schools are expected to have wheelchair ramps outside every building and Braille signs labeling every room, physical disability does not imply inaccessibility to and inequality in education as much as it is implied here. It was a good discussion that we had, and I know that through impassioned people like the gentleman from Gaborone and my counterpart, Thuli, equal and accessible education for students with all forms of disabilities will be a possibility here in Botswana.

Since getting back to Mogobane, I’ve been teaching a lot. Nothing new to report. It has been up and down to be honest, but such is the ebb and flow of teaching the youth. Some days, they’re with you 100%. Other days, you wonder where their mind has run off to, and whether they like you or not.

I finally started a choir! We’ve dubbed ourselves the Mogobane Gospel Choir, though we haven’t given ourselves a symbol or gesture of some sort…the Liquor Jacket has kind of ruined that for me…

Like teaching, starting this choir has been no crystal staircase. For starters, the students are great kids, but I don’t think they’re used to approaching singing with the focus and discipline that I expected. Furthermore, for some of the songs, I have distinct parts (soprano, alto, and tenor) I want covered, but they are so accustomed to making their own harmonies, that such direction is, for them, wholly unexpected and is probably something akin to micromanagement. But, I’m accepting that my conception of my role as director of this choir must change, because the reality is that their approach to singing is a beautiful one that I celebrated when I first got here—I cannot forget that.

I had the students select the first part of our repertoire, which now includes six of their favorite songs in Setswana. I am including three American Gospel pieces I learned from Professor James Roberson at UCLA. They’re fun pieces, and I’m excited to hear what my students can do with them.

P.S. I got a cat I never told you about. She was kind of a rebound cat, after my dog died. Her name is Fiona and she ran away. But I’m okay with that, because she was mean. She hissed at me and tried to scratch me. She wasn’t very nice. She’s still my cat though. I just haven’t seen her in over a month…

08.23.09 gaborone

Posted in personal by stuart sia on August 29, 2009

I HAVE INTERNET, and its great. I finally gave in and signed up for wireless internet in Gabs and I am now officially connected to the rest of the world. That’s my big news for the week.

I’ve been in Gaborone for a week and a half now with the other Life Skills and NGO volunteers, and it’s been good. We went to a restaurant/bar/club called the Bull and the Bush last Saturday. I had an amazing calzone and danced until 1 am. Good times with good people.

It’s Tuesday and the counterpart component of the workshop has begun. My counterpart, Thuli, arrived last night and its been great catching up with her. Today we discussed our expectations of each other and what we hope for me to accomplish in these next couple years, and the discussion went well. My two-month assessment of Mogobane has given me a lot to think about, but I’m choosing to focus on a couple in which I can really make a difference.

To summarize some of the issues we face in Mogobane Community Junior Secondary School: low grades, low rate of promotion to secondary school, alcohol abuse, truancy, and teenage sexual activity.

IDEA 1:

The Life Skills Curriculum developed by the Ministry of Education aims to address such issues. And although the Guidance & Counseling Department of each school has been mandated to be the “vehicle” of this curriculum the Ministry of Education has been wise to acknowledge that Life Skills are neither measurable nor something that must necessarily be “taught.” That is to say, Life Skills (such as assertiveness, high self-esteem, confidence, interpersonal communication, etc) can and should be taught in a variety of settings; hence, the concept of “stream-lining” the curriculum.

The Ministry has now charged all teachers to implement and integrate the Life Skills Curriculum into the regular curriculum. I am a fan of the concept but a critic of its implementation.

In a nutshell, the teachers have the resources to integrate Life Skills into their individual curriculums. The issue, however, is that the resources are not easily accessible and many of the teachers aren’t actually trained on how to use those resources. And what I mean by “accessible” is not that the resources are not there, but that they are not easily utilized. As useful as an abstract discussion of Life Skills is to understanding the importance of Life Skills, it is less so for the teacher who must construct her or his lesson plan from scratch. How does an agriculture teacher promote assertiveness skills? How does a math teacher promote decision-making skills? Although not impossible, it is, admittedly, challenging.

I want to make it easier. The teachers at my school are stretched thin as it is, with 20 teachers filling the committees and the roles normally filled by 50 to 100 teachers in larger schools. Lesson planning is time consuming, and it is not always easy to be creative. If I can make the Life Skills resources provided by the Ministry more subject specific, I think the teachers are more likely to utilize them.

IDEA 2:

Most of what is learned in life is learned outside the classroom. While it is not a bad thing to address such issues in the classroom setting, it is negligent to not address such issues outside of it.

My school is small: it numbers about 200. The great thing about a small school is it offers more individualized attention and an intimacy lost in larger schools. However, this also comes with a poverty of resources and opportunities.

I want to give students opportunities to build their self-esteem, to develop interpersonal skills, to have their efforts and successes recognized, and to feel a sense of ownership of their school.

There is unfortunately a poverty of such opportunities in my school. In conducting appreciative interviews with several of the teachers, I tried to find out what sort of student clubs and activities our teachers have the knowledge, talent, and interest to run. And I would also like to find out the sort of clubs and activities the students themselves would like to see at their school. What I ultimately hope to establish is a variety of student-initiated, student-lead, and subsequently sustainable groups, whose activities are guided, recognized, and appreciated by teachers.

07.17.09 mogobane

Posted in personal by stuart sia on July 17, 2009

Today marks my 2nd week living in my house, and my 4th week here in Mogobane. At the moment there are two men painting my bathroom door. It’s 10:09 on a Friday morning, which means, I ought to be in school, but they wanted me here to supervise, I suppose. Like many day laborers here in Botswana, they are from Zimbabwe and speak Shona, which I’m sure my Swahili teacher, Mwalimu Zuhura, would be stoked about, having studied Shona herself.

My fridge came a couple days ago, and I couldn’t be happier! It’s been great cooking without worrying if I’d be able to finish everything, or if this meat would go bad, etc. My kitchen is now complete, with a stove, refrigerator, and water filter. I just need curtains for the window.

I have two bedrooms, one of which I use mostly for laundry. My bedroom has a desk, a bed, hot pink curtains graciously donated by my counterpart, Thuli, and a bamboo mat (the one I got with Laura at the Game City mall in Gaborone) where I do my exercises every morning and evening [cue gasps and disbelieving shaking of heads from friends who cannot imagine I would have such self-discipline; I’m trying to keep in mind the New Year’s resolutions I made half a year ago.]. I was thinking of putting the mat in the living room, it certainly is large enough, but then I thought, my room ought to be a refuge and a sanctuary—somewhere I feel safe and comfortable. Call me Asian, but I love the feel of bamboo pressing up against my bare feet.

My bathroom has a new door as of yesterday, which is getting a fresh coat of paint as we speak…or as I type, rather. As I reported in a Twitter update earlier, I do indeed have hot, running water, which is a commodity here of which I am very much appreciative. The broken light has not yet been replaced, though I haven’t exactly been pushing for it; I bought a candle last weekend and have been bathing by candlelight every night since. No complaints here.

My living room has a couple chairs, a love seat, a coffee table, an ugly old desk I use as an ironing board when necessary and a corner table for my books in all other instances, another set of hot pink curtains (ke a leboga thata, Thuli) and beautiful pictures of all my beautiful friends all over the walls…the ugly pictures of my ugly friends are in the laundry room…just playing ;) But forreals, I love my living room. It was with careful thought that I put my pictures up in the living room instead of my bedroom. Inasmuch as I wanted my room to be a refuge and a sanctuary, I did not want it to be a hermitage or a hole I would seal myself in. My friends, you are with me in Botswana, in the photographs scotch-taped to my living room walls. Now, if only I could figure out how to bewitch them to move like they do at Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world…

Speaking of which, I’m totally bummed to be missing out on Harry Potter fever. But, I think they may be showing HP6 in Gaborone. I know a few Harry Potter fans here who would be keen to check it out. Maybe I should come dressed like Harry Potter…or not…what kind of nerd do you take me for? Jesse Carrasco (a big nerd who works for UCLA Orientation)?

I taught a couple lessons this week. One was on peer pressure (for the Form 1’s; equivalent to 7th grade) and the other was on date rape (for the Form 3’s; equivalent to 9th grade). I love teaching. I love the classroom environment. I feel at ease. And I love talking about this sort of stuff. Walking up and down those aisles, chalk on my hands and my coat, I could have very well been back in Los Angeles with Planned Parenthood’s Middle School Program talking about sexuality with middle school students…except every now and then it would be Setswana that I would have to translate something into instead of Spanish.

The date/acquaintance rape lesson was a particularly important one for me personally and one that I wanted to make sure was taken to heart (see my post entitled “take the high road, and just walk away”). We had a great discussion going, and I tried to illuminate (almost used the word “illustrate,” before I realized that might send the wrong picture…) for them the difference between sex and sexuality, (i.e. sex isn’t the only way to express sexuality) a concept, I think, they were able to appreciate after the discussion. Having decided that dating was certainly one way to express sexuality, and one that did not always lead to sex, I asked, but do some people think it leads to sex? To which they responded, yes. To which, I explained, well that is how date/acquaintance rape happens, when one person thinks sex is going to happen and forces it to happen regardless of what the other person wants.

One thing I was afraid of in approaching this topic was challenging traditional beliefs and values, because in a relationship, traditionally, the man makes all the decisions, even simply whether or not to have sex, let alone the decision whether or not to use a condom. This belief is engrained even in the ceremony of matrimony, where the groom is required to pay a lebola, or bride price, to the bride’s family in exchange for the bride. Of course, I am in no way suggesting that Setswana culture is any more or less chauvinistic than our own American culture (we certainly have remnants from our patriarchal past, some of which are benignly vestigial, but others of which continue to hamper the progress of women today). But, while I feel liberated to openly criticize my own culture, I feel understandably less so here in Botswana.

So, to lead them to the conclusions I hoped they would arrive at, I gave them a brief, annotated history lesson: A long, long time ago, in America, there were some white people who thought they owned black people. Just as I own this book in my hand, and can take good care of it, if I wish, dust it off, if I wish, read it, if I wish, or can step on it, rip out its pages, or burn it, if I wish, so too did those white people feel it was their right to control, command, neglect, and punish the black people they “owned.” [Was that fair?] Now, not all people felt this way. Some white people, despite having the power, despite having the “right,” forfeited that power and that right, claiming (righteously so) that it was never theirs to give up—some notion of “all men being equal.” [Would it have been easy for you to give up such power?] It took a long time for America to learn that all men are equal, that a white man is American, a black man is American, and even someone who looks like me is American. [Did you think I was an American when you first saw me?] And it may take a longer time, still, for us all to learn that all people are equal, because, just as those white people had thought they owned black people, do some men believe they own women? [And as important as it is to embolden and empower women, in the same way people of color have been emboldened and empowered in America, is there a role for men to play?] Speaking to the men in the room: Just as there were brave and righteous white people who forfeited the power the law had unfairly given them over black people, so too can we, as men, forfeit the power society has given us in our relationships.

I rather enjoyed that lesson.