Under South African Skies

Motivational Speaking

August 25, 2009
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Turn your head and witness how I deal with bullies.

Turn your head and witness how I deal with bullies.

I will let you in on a little secret that might be surprising in light of some of the things I have talked about doing in this blog: there are some days, even in South Africa, when I simply do not feel motivated to get up and get going. I do not mean that in a depressing, the-world-holds-nothing-for-me way. No, I am talking about those days we all know and love, the ones where knocking off the first season of MacGyver on DVD with the occasional jaunt to the kitchen for more Cocoa Pebbles sounds pretty fulfilling. These are the kind of days where talking about the paper you need to write is as much of a success as actually writing the paper.

To be honest, I have been a little surprised in the moments I have felt this way. My naivety has been a fairly recurring theme in these blog posts, and I think it is again appropriate. I was unrealistic about the transformation I expected Cape Town to initiate in me. I had romantic visions of going into this trip as a painfully unaware, ignorant and even selfish American and leaving with the steel will and selflessness of a Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. What I have found, however, is that developing the admirable behavior associated with people like this has a lot more to do with the choices I make than where I am when I make those choices.

The instances that my energy, will power and patience have been most tested have been at my service sites. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I have been teaching a reading class of 6th and 7th graders at St. Mary’s Catholic School in a township called Nyanga. While it has already been a truly rewarding experience, it has also been very challenging. I might ask a student to explain what we read the previous class and get a shrug in reply. I might ask students to prepare a drawing that compares part of their life with one of the characters we read about and discover the next day that none of them remembered to do the work. I have asked students to complete this assignment four times now and still have not had a student bring in a drawing. You know what they say, though: fifth time’s the charm.

The after-school program I teach guitar lessons at has also presented its fair share of difficulties. Teaching a new instrument to someone is in some ways similar to teaching someone a new language. While a Spanish teacher might struggle to teach a topic simplistically when their understanding of that topic is on a more sophisticated level, a guitar player who is more familiar with pieces that are past a beginners’ stage might have difficulty explaining the basics of playing the instrument.

The most aggravating aspect of these challenges, however, is not their presence; it is the reaction they get out of me. The reaction is generally…well, aggravation. It can be pretty perturbing to teach a class when students often do not complete their homework, talk while I try to explain something to them and are silent when I ask questions. The times I feel the worst about getting so irritated, however, are the instances when a student is clearly putting forth a full effort but with little success. There have been times when I have felt my patience waning as I grasped for a simpler way to explain the difference between a guitar’s frets and strings. I have also felt my blood rise as I reiterated yet again that you can only answer “yes” or “no” when playing 20 Questions.

If I have the same kinds of frustrations I sometimes feel in the states, however, I can take comfort in the fact that I have been able to find inspiration the same way I do at home: from other people. Luckily for me, there is no shortage of people in South Africa who are there to remind others through their examples that we each decide whether or not to see our circumstances as obstacles or opportunities.

Linda Biehl, the woman whose daughter is the namesake of the foundation I intern for, is an excellent case in point. As far as I know, Linda was a relatively normal, suburban mother until 1993. That year, her daughter Amy, who was doing graduate work in Cape Town and trying to help the country ease in its transition from apartheid to representative democracy, was murdered by a mob who saw her as a symbol of white oppression. The response of Linda and her husband falls under none of the categories for reactions I would expect: they supported their daughter’s killers’ appeal for amnesty in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, began a friendship with two of these men and set up the Amy Biehl Foundation (ABF) to guide Cape Town youths in positive life directions. When Linda and Ntobeko, one of the men who killed Amy and who now works for ABF, spoke to our Marquette group, I could not help but sit in awe of what life had brought these two people and how they each chose to react: a suburban mother’s daughter was murdered, and she sought to understand and become a part of what her daughter was trying to accomplish in the first place. A young man grew up in an oppressive and racist society, responded to the Pan-African Congress call to militancy, paid for his crime in prison and found redemption through a new mission with the person whose daughter he killed.

There are many people we have had the good fortune of meeting that have different but equally inspiring stories. Judy Mayott, an American woman who was instrumental in beginning the Service Learning in Cape Town programme, has been a part of countless organizations and has won award after award for her tireless human rights activism. While in a war zone, she stepped on a landmine and lost the ability to walk. Nonetheless, she continues to work for the causes for which she has paid an incredible price. There is Desmond Tutu, whose wit, wisdom and humor were shining lights for South Africans during some of the darkest days of apartheid, as well as during the revelations of that darkness during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even my housemates, who are also working tirelessly at their sites to make real differences in others’ lives, floor me. Megan Yohann, for example, wrote a proposal for an initiative to feed 20,000 people. Terry McGrath has been administering HIV tests for people in townships. And Charlie Birts will sometimes show up at Tembalethu School and be told what he will be teaching a group of disabled children less than an hour before the class starts.

The people that inspire me the most here, however, are the very students that can give me so many headaches. For while they can forget to do their homework or chatter in Xhosa while I try to ask them why Bella was sad about leaving Phoenix in Twilight, they also demonstrate remarkable determination considering the way some of the proverbial chips of life are stacked against them. English is their second language, their school libraries consist of books such as Fred Savage: Totally Awesome and they come from a socioeconomic background that does not afford them the comforts that I take for granted every day. Despite these setbacks, however, the students show up. While they are not always quick to answer questions, some of them volunteer, especially if I coax them with bonus points or the promise of snacks (they said my first attempt at chocolate chip cookies was acceptable). That is not to say that it is not tough, or that it will not continue to be tough. But in those few moments when I have felt that I really could not take any more, something has always happened. I see one of my students trying harder than I have ever seen someone try before. It may be an effort to read a series of words that they have never seen and cannot pronounce. It may be a guitar part they cannot understand. But as they shake their heads with frustration over each mistake, and then bow their heads back down to their task, furrowing their brows in determination to get it right this time, I take a deep breath, realize that it is time for me to do the same, and walk over to try and help them.

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Everybody’s Gone Surfin’

August 11, 2009
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This blog begins with my dad, who has never surfed and has therefore found his way to the beginning of an entry with this title under questionable pretenses.

 Anyway, my dad occasionally makes reference to things he learned while in the Boy Scouts—how to build a fire from scratch, how to decide what trail to take at a fork in the woods, and how to wrassle a grizzly bear. I think he would probably talk about his time in the Boy Scouts more often if my brothers and I didn’t tease him whenever he brings it up. Perhaps this is out of self-consciousness; the three of us barely made it past the Cub Scout stage. By the time we neared the age where we were old enough to march in the Fond du Lac County Memorial Day Parade, we had bigger fish to fry.

 One valuable thing my dad may have picked up from his merit badge-chasing days, however, was a willingness to experiment (i.e. with fire-building techniques) and try new things (a choke hold on a grizzly bear). Whether my brothers and I were learning to snowboard, trying to play guitar or going to South Africa, he and my mom encouraged us to pursue new endeavors.

This also may stem from my dad’s love of science. A biology major in college, my dad is now a dentist (I like to call him Dr. Tim Medicine Woman in tribute to the science-loving, pioneer protagonist of the television show I watched if Saved By The Bell and Hey Arnold weren’t on). Biology has led him to believe that before asking someone how to do something, it doesn’t hurt to try doing it on your own. A good case in point was the time he chastised me for not using the Scientific Method to determine why my printer wasn’t working. Just around the time I was deciding whether background research came before or after forming a hypothesis, my dad presented me with my printer, fixed and ready for action.

I certainly had a desire to try new things when deciding to travel to South Africa. I wanted, however, to be more adventurous not only in the things I was willing to try but in how I was willing to try them. I have no doubt that I used to take risks. But whenever I began trying to learn a new language, play a new instrument, or get accustomed to a new school, people who were ready to help were always close by. While this was very comforting, it was also sometimes very stifling.

Perhaps I had avoiding such the crutch of comfort in mind when I made the potentially stupid and quite certainly embarrassing decision of trying to surf without having received a lesson. Some of our group had decided to take an overnight trip to a nearby town called Muizenberg for a day of catching rays (check), mingling with the attractive locals (negative) and hopefully surfing.

We arrived and dropped our bags at the traveler’s lodge where we stayed. After a chat with the man who runs the place, an older bandana-wearing man called Dion (“Like Celine,” he told me), some of us headed to the beach while others went to grab lunch. After a few minutes of throwing a frisbee with my housemate Sam, I saw another housemate, Terry, approaching us with a wetsuit on and a surfboard in tow.

“How much is it?” we asked Terry.

“One hundred rand for a wetsuit and board for two and a half hours,” he replied.

One hundred rand is about $12, so we immediately realized our friend had landed a deal. But he had also landed this deal from someone who had offered us the same two-and-a-half-hour bargain with a lesson for 270 rand. Reasoning that a lesson would be unnecessarily expensive, boring and maybe even unhelpful, Sam and I went to collect wetsuits and boards. Fifteen minutes later, we were posing for the killer photo below and preparing to enter the ocean.

 

Dude

Dudes

The idea, Terry told me, was to look behind until I saw my wave. As it neared, I was to lie flat with my stomach on the board, beginning a strong, fast front-crawl stroke with my arms. As the wave reached me, it would hopefully begin to carry me forward. Then I would push myself to my knees, rise to my feet and ride the wave to shore, all the while looking like a total badass.

            There were a few holes in this plan. On Attempt #1, I was too far forward on the surfboard and when my wave came, the nose of the board sank under water. I was crestfallen…I hadn’t even had a cool wipeout to accompany my failure. Determined to get up, I paddled back into deeper water, carefully positioned myself further back on my board and waited a few moments before another wave came.

            This time I got up. I had apparently positioned myself so I was neither too far forward nor too far backward on the board. As the wave approached, I paddled frantically, occasionally looking behind to see the wave swell larger and come closer. Once it caught me, I felt as though three sets of hands were lifting me above the water. I gingerly pushed myself to my knees, which wobbled as I slowly rose to my feet. Arms outstretched, I scanned the beach as I completed my five-or-six second ride, eventually falling as gracefully as a lanky 6’4” guy can.

            I probably got up another five or so times that day and even rode a few waves all the way to the shore, but none of the rides could quite compare with the feeling of the first one. It was one of those all too rare senses of having accomplished something completely on one’s own.

            As luck would have it, I got another chance to chart some new personal territory the very next day. As some of our group prepared to take the train back from Muizenberg to our house in Observatory, my housemate Ryan and I decided to stick around and hike a section of Table Mountain National Park that we hadn’t seen before.

            I’m glad we did. Of the four major hikes we’ve had (including last Friday’s trek up Lion’s Head to view a gorgeous sunset along with a view of the lights of Cape Town’s night life), this was clearly the trail that the fewest number of feet had stepped on. Wildflowers marked the trails we sometimes followed and sometimes formed as we made our way towards rock walls that were formidable by our standards. Pulling ourselves to higher elevations, we eventually reached our desired destination: a cave. Called Dragon’s Cave, the cubby-like space had an opening that allowed us to look out across Fault’s Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and essentially how far we had come.

We continued on, every once in awhile stopping by a rock to share some victory wine. Soon, we had descended the mountain and were back on the road near the train station where we would board to head back to Obz. Surprised to find we had hiked about 5 km, we again celebrated by picking up gourmet snacks at a grocery store and fighting exhaustion, we finally hopped on our train, satisfied that we had gotten our time’s worth in Muizenberg.

It feels a little strange when I think about how much some of these things meant to me. Simply trying to surf is pretty inconsequential. But a month ago, I probably would have laughed at the idea of trying to do it without a lesson. There was also never any serious danger in the hike Ryan and I took Monday, but the fact that we were making new trails made me feel a sense of adventure that I never seemed to allow myself so much at home. Hell, I even felt proud of the fact that most of our house went to a South African Springboks rugby match Saturday; most of us don’t know all of the rules or even much of the scoring involved in the sport, but nonetheless, we went and tried to figure them out.

There is certainly nothing wrong with asking questions in a given situation, but sometimes, it pays to give something the old college try before trying to get someone’s help. We always run the risk of failing, and we probably often will. I tried making scrambled eggs for the first time Saturday, for example. They tasted like crap. But you know what? I tried again Sunday, and they were a little better.

I think part of studying abroad is putting oneself in situations where there is no choice but to try something without agenda, preparation or guidance. Sometimes, the effort will crash and burn (my egg-making escapade, my plan to teach students how to tune guitars, learning the moonwalk). But other times, we might surprise ourselves with what we are capable of.

It turns out catching a wave does put you on top of the world. Who knew?

 

After the Goldrush

After the Rush


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Doe, a Deer, a Female Deer

August 2, 2009
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I’ve really got to get out of the habit of naming blog posts after songs from The Sound of Music. But fear not faithful readers. It all ties in.

 Yesterday was the kind of day one has to write a blog about. Meeting Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu calls for some kind of recognition. 

We had been anticipating a service with Mr. Tutu for weeks. The plan was that we would get up early on a Friday morning, attend an Anglican service that he would preside over at St. George’s church and then go on to breakfast with him. The past few times we were to do this, however, the service was cancelled due to the archbishop having other scheduling commitments. So when we found out that we would actually get to attend the service this time, we knew how special it was.

Mr. Tutu, diminutive in stature but a historical giant for his role in bringing peace and reconciliation to South Africa after the fall of apartheid, entered a small section of the chapel and lead us through the service. Apart from the lack of music and a few word changes in some of the prayers, the service was not unlike the Catholic masses that much of our group is familiar with. When it came to the portion where a priest would typically give a homily, Mr. Tutu went around the small congregation of about 40 people and asked where everyone was from—Germany, Holland, the U.S. He warmly welcomed us and when the moment came for us to grant peace to those around us, he walked around the chapel, smiling and shaking our hands.

After the service, most of the congregation lined up to shake hands with Mr. Tutu and have him sign a book or postcard. I have been reading a copy of his book that I found in our house, so I brought along a piece of paper for Mr. Tutu to sign. As my turn came, however, I began to feel self-conscious about asking him for his autograph. At 77 years old, he was clearly becoming tired. I also felt a little presumptuous expecting someone I really don’t know to put his name on a piece of paper for me. Though we were all very glad to get his signature—because he is someone who we admire very much, through his work for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and in his strong stances against many injustices around the world—I felt almost as though I was treating him like a product or a historical statue rather than a man. Mr. Tutu did not seem to mind signing for us and is also probably quite used to signing autographs for people, but I found myself thinking about how important it is for me to value the people I meet in South Africa as humans rather than some caricatures I have in my mind.

 

Hanging with the Arch

Hanging with the Arch

 

 

This is a particularly important lesson at my work site. I feel like I may have come to South Africa with some preconceived notions about what it would mean for me to work with students in African schools. Like the plot of that generic Hallmark movie that seems to be remade every few years, I would arrive, struggle to connect with the students who so badly want to learn but have not had sufficient opportunities, reach some sort of a breakthrough, push them to success and then leave a better man all in time for the credits to roll to the tune of an inspirational Michael Bolton song. But like my naive initial impressions of Desmond Tutu, I realized that the students I’ll be working with are not flat characters in a movie. They’re kids: they like to run around during recess, sneak food into their mouths during class and talk while the teacher is.

At least that’s what I encountered when I began teaching reading lessons at St. Mary’s school in the township Nyanga last Monday. Though I had had initial meetings with employees of the Amy Biehl Foundation through which I’m working, as well as e-mail exchanges with Allison Schommer, the Marquette student who did a fantastic job at St. Mary’s last semester, I felt like a fish out of water as I prepared for my first lesson.

The roughly 10 students, all about 12 or 13 years old, trooped into a small room that also serves as a teacher’s lounge. They chattered in Xhosa as I prepared to address them. How do I organize class so they have fun yet improve their reading skills and learn? How do I maintain some sense of order and authority in the class while also being someone that they like and see as a friend? How do I, someone who has never taught before, even prepare a lesson? The students’ homeroom teacher had answered all of these questions with the same response: it was up to me. Empowering or terrifying?

We began the class with introductions—name, age, favorite school subject and favorite book. Apart from a girl named Cindy, I heard Xhosa names that are as foreign to me as the rules of rugby: Asihpe, Siyamptende, Thembisile. Learning the students names might be as challenging as learning how to teach.

Then we moved on to talk about what the class would entail. This was their course, I told them. What do they want to read? How can I help them? What would they like to learn about? I was surprised and impressed by some of their answers:

-“Long Walk To Freedom,” Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. This is an excellent book, but it is very large and dense. I’ve heard people my age regal it as “too long” and “never-ending.”

-Steve Biko. I attended an exhibit Friday about this young revolutionary who was murdered at the hands of South Africa’s repressive police force in 1977. Immortalized in the memories of those who believed in what he stood for (and by Peter Gabriel’s song Biko) I was thrilled that the students wanted to learn more about him, because I do, as well.

Twilight.  I’ll have to swallow my pride on that one, but it might provide a nice opportunity for the students to come to our Kimberley House to watch the movie based on the book. The students told me that my predecessor Allison had them over to watch The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and eat her homemade dinner. They expect nothing less from me. Thanks for setting that bar, Allison.

After I teach reading classes, I go on to another township school to teach guitar lessons in an after-school program. This, in a way, was even more daunting than giving reading lessons. I had already witnessed the excellent marimba class offered at the program, and though I consider myself a proficient guitarist, I have never taught the instrument and am poor at reading music. I decided to teach the 10 or so students to tune the guitars so they could get their hands on the instruments while learning a very necessary aspect of playing them.

Bad idea. Tuning guitars is as boring as Driving Miss Daisy, and I soon lost the students’ attention. I returned the second day determined and intent on teaching them some chords and a song, hopefully empowering them in their new knowledge of how to play something on the guitar. I had decided on Pete Seeger’s If I Had A Hammer when the students asked me to show them the Do-Re-Mi scale. Taking the opportunity, I showed them how to play the scale on the low E string and then explained how this scale could be used on the guitar’s five other strings. While an invisible orchestra didn’t kick in to back me the way one did for Julie Andrews when she taught those adorable little Germans the Do-Re-Mi scale, I still feel like I learned an important lesson in teaching: come with a plan but be flexible.

Flexibility is probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve taken from this experience so far (which is ironic because I learned last week that I’m double jointed). I have had many plans about what this trip will mean for me and what I will learn from classes, my work site and Cape Town’s culture. Sometimes my plans have panned out. Sometimes they haven’t. I certainly didn’t expect to walk away from Desmond Tutu’s service thinking about how I value people, and I certainly didn’t expect that I would be reading Twilight with a group of South African 12-year-olds. Sometimes all you can do is go along with what comes your way, using your plans when you can, changing course when necessary, and trusting that in all of the crazy things that happen, there is a lesson to be learned.

Begin Michael Bolton song…now.


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About author

I'm a 20-year-old Marquette student currently studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. I like to play the guitar and piano, watch the Mighty Ducks trilogy, read, travel and write. My favorite Judd sister is Winona, and I share a birthday with Dan Quayle.

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