Tuesday, November 26, 2013

6 Things I Learned About Nkomazi, South Africa

HEY! You're here! Welcome to Africa!

Eleven weeks is a long time. Or so you'd think. Many volunteer trips--the kind that aims to change your perspective on life--are MAYBE two months. But this is almost three, and it isn't even the halfway point! So you might expect that I have gained significant insight into the world here based on this incredible adventure. However, the truth is that I have only just glimpsed things about Nkomazi. I wouldn't feel comfortable making too many generalizations. I'm just getting to deeply know the Scholars--and it's mostly through interactions with others, especially Scholars, that I can understand life here. However, I'll be brave and make some generalizations to give you a picture of my life, from my point of view:

1) Money can't buy happinness...but it can buy A/C. Of course, I expected heat. The A/C helps with this, but not entirely. When I look through the window blinds and spy our dog laying, beat, under the tree (instead of his usual "chase-the-kids-or-bark" fervor), I know why they call these the "dog days of summer." Moreover, it's not like people here are so used to it that it doesn't get mentioned. Bring up the weather, and anyone lends a sympathetic ear. Anything outside of 50-80 degrees F, and you have a topic of conversation. I have heard about schools here, and how hard it is to learn when it's high noon in a 60-student classroom with no A/C. That makes me count my lucky stars!

2)  The environment of Nkomazi could be hung on a picture frame...it's so pretty you could vomit. As an outisder, Kamhlushwa has a timeless feel to it. The adobe brick huts with cone straw roofs, the neighborhood kids kicking a soccer ball on the tan dirt roads, the sugar cane fields, and the far-away hills framing every sunset (with pink accents!) make it all so interestingly picturesque. Ironic, though, that the history of the town isn't too long, and it is a developing area, far from a "backwater." Also, it's a village, but there are multiple sides of town. I haven't really explored the more suburban-looking side, with green lawns and cars much, but it exists. There's even a pretty tall minaret.

3) There are no hustle-and-bustle city noises, but we have LOUD sounds all our own! Well, this one is specific to our address in the town. The day time isn't actually that loud. We live next door to a creche (preschool), so the mornings are often filled with children's laughter and chanting. I heard crying for the first time ever the other day; these are hardy kids. On the other side of the street, there is a church, so gospel singing is a weekly ritual.

On the other hand, the night time is an interesting mix of sounds. I always hear the gentle chirps of crickets in the background. But the other animals all want a turn too! Some nights, I'll hear a pack of barking dogs, really antsy about something. Other nights, toads from our backyard start burping like they drank too much Cola. And--not lately, but it used to be shockingly common--the very proud neighborhood roosters would cock-a-doodle-doo tirelessly through the night. Myth Busted: those guys don't care what time it is. They've got to wake you up, it's "roosters are awesome" time. I'm a deep sleeper so it was more amusing than a real issue, except that my rooster alarm (kukuklok.com) was no longer effective. Last of the animals, the party animals! Fridays and Saturdays are hot nights for the club down the road. I hear pop/dance/house music. Marvin Gaye has had a few spins this week.

4) Bring your money, and watch it multiply!!! To eat well, it's mad cheap. For restaurant food, I've found prices to often be low enough that it's tempting to live at the restaurant. For some items, the restaurant prices can be so low you wonder what they pay the staff. Also, we are living in the midst of mango, orange, banana, and lychee trees in the peak season--it's an absolute BA-NANZA! Aside from food, other household things are about the same price as in the States. Conveniently, a US dollar is worth 10 South African 'rand.' Many signs around town advertise a ten rand haircut in sketchy-looking shacks. That is literally a dollar cut. Even with (or because of?) the length of my hair, I have often stared at those signs with something more than curiosity. The quality of the cut notwithstanding!

5) It's both the same and different here. I say it's different because lives take very different courses and meanings here. Social injustice, lack of economic opportunity, disease, ignorance, and other issues ensure that does not treat you comfortably. Students have deep wounds or scars that they carry, unnoticed to me until it comes up and completely blows me away. Their wonderful demeanors blind me heavy burdens. It is a resilience that, I think in teenagers is uncommon. Their resilience is underscored by the staggering, depressing hopelessness that they confront daily. It is seen in the endless issues of rape, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, pointless fights, and teen pregnancy that sour the atmosphere of school life. It is also common to hear about both teacher absenteeism, and their corporal punishment of students. I say the same because, in terms of my everyday experience of life, I haven't really experienced a big culture shock. People speak English, I eat the things as I did at home (and things that are different are "'Ooo, new menu item!' different. I think you have to be looking for crazy foods to find it. Many of the same conveniences (such as electricity, Internet, hot water, and electronics) are available, and cultural norms in everyday interactions are pretty similar, or are Westernized. There may not be an Apple store, but I was never an Apple person. Imagine Scholars frequently have very similar ambitions for their lives as motivated students anywhere. Superficially, Kamhlushwa looks like a mash-up of old and new; and in my experience, it seems to be.

6) It IS an experience that you can't fully put in words. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I am so lucky to be experiencing all of the things that I have, and from the perspective I have. A lot of it is so personal to me that I'm afraid of sounding trite. But to be here, for me, does open up new ways of being alive. I'd love to return to this idea of self-discovery, maybe in another post though.

In the next blog, I'd like to talk about the students. The students are what make it all worthwhile, and fulfilling, and bring thoughtfulness and purpose to each action. We are less than a week from the beginning of summer break(!) I am personally less than a week from heading to Liberia, and seeing my incredible girlfriend, and her school More Than Me Girl's Academy. In January, I'll get to discover Imagine Scholar all over again. I'm looking forward to that time. Oh, how I wonder what future me will think about this list!

Until then, Hamba Kahle ("Go well")!

Hamba Kahle! Quit monkeying around -_-

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Where is the water? A basic human right for Imagine Scholars

Water is the world's most precious resource. Yet for residents of the Nkomazi, it is also a potential threat. Much of the water available through tap or other sources is not made safe from disease and bacteria. Last year, the lack of clean drinking water was "a significant catalyst for service delivery protests" across the region. This is the situation that is motivating one of our Scholars to design and build a wind-powered water pump for his town (and I am VERY excited!). Imagine Scholar aims to support the next generation of African leaders, so we want them to be at their best in mind and body.

What I have found in my time with the Scholars is that the drinking water our program offers is a tremendous benefit. As much as any workplace anywhere, the water cooler is a popular spot because--not only does it rejuvenate them from the heat outside--it is a prerequisite for the thinking needed here! Picture taking the SAT (or ACT) without a drink, or even much to drink beforehand.

The cost of this necessity is about $60 a month, or $2 a day. This provides for 35 Scholars. I want to have a lasting impact, and am aiming to cover the next 6 months of our water supply--that I also drink from--with your help! If 18 people donate $20, that will ENTIRELY cover our needs! Last but not least(!), over the next 7 days, in appreciation, I'll post a new water-related activity on my Facebook, ending with me dressed as The Waterboy for Halloween :D

Where is the water? Water is here, let's keep it here!

One more thing--I've finally adjusted to the rhythm of life and work here, and have so much to say since my last post. Look forward to a much more active blog in the next month :)


Friday, September 6, 2013

Arrived in Africa!

 I have my first class tomorrow but I'm excited to share a little of what I've seen! Here goes:
 There was a HUGE backup of traffic due to highway construction. We were eventually re-directed through a back road.
 The car luggage was HUGE too! Here I am squeezing in between luggage&groceries from 3 people!
 And...here's Imagine Scholar! I am so looking forward to making things happen in these walls. I have my dormitory in the building, just to the left. The kitchen is on display, definitely going to be making great use of that :D
...Imagining Imagine Scholar. Need I say anything else?

Thanks everyone for reading! I'm super pumped for my first class, which is tomorrow (Saturday). We'll be beginning our Spoken Word poetry unit, how exciting :D

Special earth shattering announcement!! The More Than Me Girl's Academy grand opening is happening Saturday! It is then, that everyone--from parents of the girls, to the President of Liberia, to you and me--will be celebrating the immense achievements and dreams made possible for the 100 young girls of the West Point slum in Liberia. They were, in another's words, "forgotten by society," but today society will remember them again. And Lauren Decker, girlfriend-extraordinaire, will be in the whirlwind of it all--having coordinated the event, worked tirelessly for it, and now seeing it through! Six months ago, we talked about opening a school in Africa one day; now, she is doing it. Can you "imagine" what is possible when YOU dream? ;)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Wall of Fame

  • Anonymous (6): You know who you are. The Anonymous people in my life have also been some of the most supportive people I've ever known. From childhood friends, to college friends, to Cincinnati friends and more! You've went bowling with me, planned fundraisers with me, laughed and cried with me. One of you is the love of my life. One of you is my Mom. Thank you, all of you.
  • Laura Wagner: Laura is awesome. She manages to put together a hectic life that seems impossible, and at LEAST when I've seen her, she makes it look easy :P Always so insightful and supportive. How does she do it all? Must be...magic. Thanks so much Laura!
  • Kirstie Mattheis: Kirstie has helped me in so many ways, all the way from California! She has been a great influence and somebody I can talk to. She is super talented and I wish her all the luck with her filmmaking dreams! Thank you Kirstie!
  • Clarissa Carbonell: Mom! At least at Binghamton. Clarissa was a great PAL in Philippine American League, and caring person. She is a role model, and I'm lucky to be her son. Thank you Clarissa!
  • Amy Cubbage: Once, I only knew her as the engaging student leader I shared stories with at the Food Co-op. Now-she's off to the world of nonprofits and weirdness called Eugene, Oregon and I'm thrilled to hear about every step of the way! Sometimes, there are people whose paths you cross and, despite distance, are fortunate enough to grow as friends through your similar life aims. Thank you Amy!
  • Bacha Sharma: The children of my Aty. They are some of my newer cousins, and have a very warm family. I'm looking forward to growing up with them. Thank you Bacha Sharma!
  • Meng Zhu: An awesome friend! One of the student leaders I am so fortunate to know, she was a welcoming presence in student org's that I wouldn't normally consider coming to (Women In Business? Hey! What's this meeting about?), and an inspiring person. She connected me to great opportunities on and off campus--yay Indian food! Thanks Meng!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A vaccine feat and video treat!

Today was an eventful day! Not only did I finally secure an event location (with the gracious help of Pattie Byron of Pop Revolution Gallery), but I went to the clinic for my shots! This was a moment of truth for my nerves and my wallet, but fortunately it turned out well!
                            showing off the new tattoos (angry birds bandaids)
The shots were over before I knew it, and so was the pouring rain outside. The only part that dragged was the traffic on the Interstate. But even the traffic turned into a fortunate accident. When I left to take an alternate route home and got lost, I found an art supply store. Knowing that my girlfriend is in Africa, opening a school that could use more supplies, I asked the store owner for help. She helpfully offered plenty of stickers, cards, and other goodies that might eventually make their way into eager kids' hands. It's what I think of as searching for a meaning behind a messy situation :) Only once I was leaving did I remember to ask for directions! Other than that, I also took up a spontaneous offer to volunteer at a small, annual gathering of families. I messed around with a bunch of kids under 5-the highlight may have been fulfilling a few wishes in getting them to slam dunk a tiny basketball with a little lift. I also spoke to an East African family about my work in South Africa. One of them impacted me significantly when he told me that, as an immigrant from East Africa, he would go back to his home country and not bat an eye at a kid without shoes on the street--that used to BE him. But when a child of his extended family went to the country and saw the same thing, she was moved to give the person the running shoes off of her feet; as a teenager, her dream is to return and help those kids. He said that this girl spoke at a fundraising party for those kids, and brought home to him the poor conditions that he had became used to.

Speaking of fundraising parties--I wonder what I will say to my friends and everyone who will be at my fundraising and farewell dinner. I will definitely show them a video! Today begins the video messaging I am doing directly with students. They sent me a message today and I have to respond to it, a very awesome icebreaker to have!
                        Tricia and Elaine say Hi!
I have a lot of reasons to want to be doing this work, but perhaps the decisive reason that I am so excited about Imagine Scholar are the videos, pictures and even blog posts where I can get to know the students I'll be working with. These are personal, and they are real. Without knowing what exactly I am getting into, the students' energy and potential seeps across the computer screen. That is what motivates me to make a difference in the world in this way.

Monday, August 19, 2013

From the Imagine Scholar blog: Another Student poem published!

Reading this gets me even more excited to meet these students! Check it out:
It has not been easy to keep track of all the student achievements in the past several months. Twelfth grader Zodwa had her poem “The Black Nation” selected by not one, but two, publications (read it here – http://live.fundza.mobi/home/fundza-fanz/say-it-in-a-poem/the-black-nation/). Tenth grader Christina’s poem “I Am From” was printed alongside Zodwa’s. Tenth grader Ncamiso and eleventh grader Jabulane constructed an electric vehicle and won a racing challenge in the nearby city of Nelspruit. The most recent success came from ninth grader Siphila. His poem, entitled “What if we could not read…”, was published in the South African Sugar Journal.
Not only did Siphila accomplish a feat few others have at his age, but he went an extra step by offering to present his poem at the annual Rally to Read. The event was hosted by the Rally to Read Programme, a local organization that began in 1998 to promote student literacy in rural schools and motivate greater educator involvement. Since its inception it has invested millions to realize its goal. This year’s Rally to Read began early in the morning with hundreds of students piling in to collect books, shoes, sporting equipment, stationary and other items that their schools desperately need. It was here Siphila had the courage to stand up as a representative of his secondary school and share his poem. He didn’t just do his school proud, but Imagine Scholar as well.
What awesome perspective and drive! I think a great future awaits :)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Got unused board games? Donate 'em :)

Hi all!

As I continue to prepare for this extensive, 1-year(!) commitment, I've heard that the students are in need of a few brain-building board games. Scrabble, scattegories, and similar games would be G-R-E-A-T!  :)

Thanks again... To contact me, send an email at mark@imaginescholar.org-I'm looking forward to hearing from you!