Thursday, March 4, 2010

Form over function, more on money/eating, and suffering animals

So, one thing I've noticed, since coming to South Africa, is that there seems to be a priority of "form over function."  For example, I was handed this binder with the request: Can you put these pages into page protectors?

Now, what this binder contains is all the information you could ever want to know about a campaign launched in 2008 by the South African Department of Education to help learners reach "milestones" or learning objectives in literacy and numeracy.  It was issued in 2008 with an end projection date of 2011.  I was handed it TODAY.  (March 4, 2010.)

So, as I'm placing each sheet into its page protector, I'm considering the state of education in South Africa.  There are four sections in the binder, one section for each term, each section about 140 pages, and the last two sections, for terms 3 and 4, are missing.

Since the end of Apartheid, the South African government has spent a lot of money and a lot of time to rebuild their education system.  It has certainly proved a daunting task.  What I've noticed is, there seems to be an excellent curriculum in place, and even more excellent initiatives, campaigns, etc., to explain HOW to implement the curriculum, but no effective way to actually IMPLEMENT the curriculum.

One of the reasons Peace Corps is here, is to help South African educators and administration find ways to implement the curriculum.

One problem I've noticed, that at least in the rural areas, that most of the educators aren't fluent in English.  Every word written about the South African national curriculum is written in English.

I have a supreme advantage over my colleagues of the primary school (and really, even the college) in that I read English fluently.  Even though I'm new to their curriculum, I can read it, and somewhat figure it out.  It's all there: you just must be able to read and understand it.  

It is somewhat cumbersome, because while the curriculum is there, it's somewhat buried under a lot of repetitive explanation.  Since I'm fluent in reading of English, I can somewhat muddle through the bulk of it and quickly find the necessary information.  My South African counterparts, however, because of the effort required of them to read and interpret the information, seem to feel quickly overwhelmed with the material and say, "to heck with it." 

I can't blame them there.

Also, the Department of Education, in order to ensure that the curriculum is implemented and functioning, has created a lot of "policy" to make sure things are running as desired.  As with the curriculum, the policy is written in English, and is somewhat tedious.

And also I've noticed, that there is a huge disconnect between the WHY the educators, supervisors, principles are asked to follow all of these policies and the having to actually follow them.

The heartbreak of it all is that the policies  are to HELP the educators/administration teach and run the schools more easily.  However, because they feel so overwhelmed with the bulk of the policy, they seem panicked and shut down about it.  It's almost as if they've adopted an attitude of "This is impossible, I'm not even going to try."  It seems very demoralizing to them.

For example, there is a lot to do about "lesson plans" and making sure that in our lesson plans that all of the learning objectives and assessment standards are met.  The educators hate doing them and I'll admit, it is a bit of work, but once the lesson is planned, the hard part (of teaching) is over.  You run the class as planned and all the goals/objectives are met.  Presto!

(Again, I have a supreme advantage over my South African colleagues: I read and understand English fluently.  What takes me 30-45 minutes takes them much, much longer and with a lot more effort.)

So, as I wrap each page in plastic I realize the information is not only 3 years too late late, but it is likely that once my task of "tidying up the binder" is finished, the binder will likely never be opened again.

Form over function.

Just like the educators' "files."  We all keep a binder with our lesson plans, year planner, etc.  But the most important thing about the binder?  COVERING IT WITH PRETTY PAPER AND PLASTIC TO PROTECT IT.  Are we worried about contents?  Of course not.  :-)

Another thing (but this isn't about form over function, but related).  Maybe it's because I was a Girl Scout.  Does South Africa have Girl Scouts?

If you knew that you needed to sign in, every day, with black ink, wouldn't you know to bring a black ink pen with you?  If you knew, every day, that you're likely to need an eraser?  Would you not bring an eraser with you?  If you're likely to need a glue stick?  Would you not bring a glue stick with you?  White Out?  You get the picture. 

I'm switching on you: new topic!

I've revisited this whole "living stipend" thing and have been in error.  Mea culpa.

I was in a mild panic about "I don't have enough money to live on" and conducted an informal survey of other volunteers and their living allowances.  Imagine my shock when more than one of them replied: I have over half of my allowance left over every month.

I was astounded.

Now, I thought I was eating modestly.  I eat beans and rice (daily), fresh vegetables (but nothing fancy: carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, onions) and fresh fruit (here too, nothing fancy: apples, bananas, pears), and  a dozen eggs twice a month.  I don't buy cold drinks and I don't buy snack food or sweets.  I've switched from buying olive oil to sunflower oil (and am still crying about it) and have started using other herbs and spices instead of black pepper.

I thought I was eating modestly.

And I was reminded: In Peace Corps, you're expected to eat in the same fashion as your South African community.  Ah, here is where my mistake lies.

A typical South African villager probably buys a sack of mealie meal (pap, bagobe) for R20 and a couple bags of chicken for about R200 and eat for R220 for a month. 

With my much more "affluent" diet of fruit and vegetables, I'm living much more "high on the hog."  I spend about R1200-R1400 on food.

As with the politics of food ability and healthy eating, "the rich" (me) eat better than "the poor" (the villagers).

And lastly, I'm feeling ever so tender about animals again, or still.  Last night, I was at the public phone and a brand-new, baby bird canary hopped up, as big as he pleased, and sat looking at me.  I was worried he'd think I was his mother.  He was all ruffled and awkward with big black blinking eyes. Students were milling about and as we were on the walkway, I was worried he'd be squashed.

I saw mom or dad nearby and shooed him away.

After hanging up, I examined the scene more carefully.  It was mom or dad and TWO fledglings.  My goodness, those two were all over the place.  Sure enough, a big predator bird (one of those Retz's shrikes, I believe) came swooping down and mom or dad and I frightened the big bad bird away.  You could tell he badly wanted his dinner.

I watched as long as I could, in the deepening dusk, wondering what sort of fate awaited these two.  They could not fly to the safety of their nest.  A cat?  Snake?  Another bird?  Squashed?  Eish.

And I've spotted a starving dog roaming around.  She's all bones and mange and scrounging for whatever she can.  When I see her in the morning, rummaging in the tall grass, I tell myself, "Don't look at her, don't look at her."

And I read a poignant piece of fiction last night about a dog rescued from abuse, but the story left the ending ambiguous.  Did the dog make it?  Or was the dog doomed to die or suffer more abuse?

Last night, lying in my bed, I was weeping.
Soon, Karen


  1. You sound lonely, frustrated and sad. It must be very difficult to be so alone in that world right now. I sent you a letter today and will pray for you while I'm at our paradise on Earth tomorrow. Hoping today finds you feeling better.

  2. I'm wondering why I seem to get so upset at seeing the suffering of animals, yet seem unable to access the same compassion with suffering people.

    I think it's because relieving the suffering of animals would be relatively simple: unbound their feet, feed them, take them to the vet.

    However, with the suffering of people, there seems SO MUCH that would have to be accomplished to relieve suffering.

    Also, the animals don't ask for anything. And too, seeing the animals suffer, ON TOP OF EVERYTHING ELSE may be a breaking point for me.

    I hate cruelty and I hate suffering and feel helpless, most of the time, to alleviate any of it.

  3. Will you be grateful to be back in America?

  4. YES, I will be grateful to be back in America... Are you kidding???

    Although, we certainly have our share of suffering in America...

  5. I was thinking there would be more conflict in your answer...:) Gratitude is a beautiful thing.

  6. I'm trying to keep the conflict to myself.
    The capital letters (YES) are supposed to IMPLY the conflict. :-)