If you want to be happy, plant a garden!

August 21, 2010

You might recall an earlier blog I did entitled “Longing for big box Home Depot” where I’d purchased materials for the new garden at Mpungu Primary School.  We had watched over months the agriculture teacher and learners there try to erect little wooden “goat guards” in tiny shaded plots.  Not much grew, and what did was consumed by either a) the chickens that could get in or b) the goats that broke down the sticks or c) the thieves who raided the gardens just before the little bit of harvest was picked.  We pitched a fence project to Kaia and Jake’s school in Canada who then raised an fabulous $1200Cdn in a few short weeks.  Mpungu Primary was thrilled and in early June I purchased the materials and we got to work later that week.

I worked primarily with the grade 7 teacher and agriculture teacher Mr Sambaka.  He is, from all we see, the hardest working teacher at the school who is interested in going the extra mile for his learners.  Before I was able to purchase the fence materials, he had the learners clear out the trees that were shading the area.  We didn’t like to see the shade go, but it was not actually doing any useful shading.  Administrators in Canada would have winced to see how the trees came down.  Imagine grade 5 boys, high up in the branches, swinging a big axe … in bare feet !!!  Within a week the 15 trees were gone, and over the next month the roots were dug out.  I found out later that these roots were dug by boys serving punishments for coming late to or “dodging” classes (but how do teachers know who dodged if they weren’t in class themselves?)

We surveyed the 75m fence line then the learners started digging the holes 80 cm deep for the fence posts.  The gate went in, and one by one the other 7 larger steel posts, each set in concrete.  The learners came to be experts in finding the sand and gravel and mixing in correct proportions with water.  They were amazing to work with – anxious to help however they could, not complaining about the difficult digging jobs, and happy to learn.  The 15 smaller posts were the dug and poured, the school gate’s posts dug out and new ones put in and gate re-hung.  Sambaka and Mr Haindongo then strung the strong wire along the fence (4 rows of it) in my absence to prepare for the final and most rewarding step – hanging the actual fence.  We had a large team working and within two afternoons had 90% of it done.  We had some fence left over to replace some falling apart sections along the fence line our house shared with the school.

This was all very rewarding to watch/help come together.  But even more rewarding was watching the learners flood into the now-fenced garden in droves over the next two weeks, busily levelling the ground, outlining their group’s plot with rocks, digging/tilling the ground, adding manure and water, then planting.  I have never seen so much activity at that school!  What was most telling for me was to see them working after school was out — tinkering with their plots, and watering etc.  They REALLY cared about this.  And just days before we left we saw the 1st little seedlings coming up!  I think this enthusiasm is a manifestation of the immense need for hands-on learning in these parts.  Learners struggle to understand the English, let alone concepts they sit through in class.  Nothing seems real to them, so interest understandably wanes.  This project was the practical half of their agriculture class.  I suspect Mr Sambaka will notice a renewed interest in the classroom.

A month earlier I had asked my friend Fanuel what community members made of the white family in town.  The school compound is set  a bit apart from the actual village, and we did not actually get to know too many community members.  He told us that they didn’t know what to make of us, because they didn’t really know why we were there or what we were doing (clearly they didn’t talk much to the other teachers either!).  But after the fence was finished, he came over to tell us that we were now the heroes in town, because the community was so impressed with the new fence/garden and happy to see their children farming. They were also eagerly anticipating the harvest because most do not have easy enough access to water to have their own gardens, and what little produce is brought to town for sale is over-priced and not always fresh.  This garden is very large, and with the plentiful and easily available manure around Mpungu, I have no doubt that there will be much to harvest!

So, Ecole Catholique Monseigneur Jamot in Peterborough, Ontario should be very proud of their fund-raising efforts.  The expression “even a little bit can make a difference” is perhaps a bit over-used.  But they really DID make a difference in this case.

For me, it gave me a chance to work closely with 2 of the male Mpungu Primary teachers, and we got to be quite good friends through this project, and they ended up helping with tools for my solar projects (see previous blog entry).

On the Wednesday before we departed, we did the official opening of the garden.  I climbed onto our roof while all the teachers and learners and superintendent assembled in the garden for a photo (see below).  We did a ribbon-cutting (OK, no red ribbons for sale in Mpungu … so how bout a little piece of nylon rope?), a few speeches and lots of clapping.  We mounted a little laminated paper plaque on the gate to remind everyone where the money for the fence came from.  We are really looking forward to receiving photos of the blossoming garden from our VSO replacement Luisa who will arrive in late October.


Solar-powered enthusiasm

August 20, 2010

[we arrived in Toronto yesterday PM after a long trip back and are at my brother Craig’s in Bracebridge right now.  We squished all and everything into mom’s small car. We make our way to our cottage in a moment, then back to Peterborough on Sunday.  We will be completing the blog over the next # of days.  The last # of weeks in Mpugu were such a blur that we did not have a chance to write about what was happening – and lots did!.  Cam]

Our house in Mpungu does not have hot water.  The thermostat has been broken for years, so we’d have to turn on then remember to turn off the heater before it boiled over.  Then about 6 weeks ago the element burned out so we’ve been doing bucket baths with the kettle since then (’cause it is actually cool in the mornings!).

In early June I purchased materials to build a solar oven and a solar hot water heater with my two physics classes.  I told them in class about the projects, and invited them to join with me in building.  I’d hoped that I’d have at least a half-dozen to help.  The next day (Saturday) I got the materials out at the school and some hand tools and invited the group.  Fist I had 3, then 6, then 10.  By an hour later I had about 20 of them eagerly helping!  The last time I used a hand saw to cut plywood was when I was small, with my dad.  All I had at my disposal was an old dull handsaw, and many metres of very thick plywood to cut through.  NO PROBLEM!  They jostled for position to get to use the hand-saw.  They practically lined up to take turns with the screw driver.  It then dawned on me that none of these boys (only boys at this point) had ever held a tool before!  So, imagine the excitement when I pulled out the electric drill.  And better yet, when I showed them the butane torch we would use to do the soldering.  They cut and sanded about 30 little pieces of copper pipe for the solar hot water heater, then I told them it was time to solder.  Each got to hold the torch for about 30 seconds, and each got to touch the solder to the pipe and watch it melt.  I stood back for a moment and almost cried, watching their enthusiasm and sadly what it represented – a lack of access to real hands-on projects.  By the end, though, I think their favourite tool was the angle grinder – mostly because it made lots of noise and produced even more sparks.

One afternoon while we worked I pulled out the boom box so we’d have some music.  This was a big hit, to say the least – our workforce went from about 15 to about 30 in a matter of minutes.  I have a very vivid memory of them dancing to Bob Marley – as they painted and sawed!

The projects slowly came together over the next 6 weeks.  Sometimes I would be too busy to work on weekends.  Sometimes I would be short a small part or tool – and the nearest store 2 hours away, so would have to wait for another teacher to pick up for me.

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction came one day about 3 weeks into the projects.  I was working at the house on both projects with 6 or 8 boys, when one of my female students showed up.  No girls had helped yet, despite my continuous invitations.  I actually thought she had come to ask me about something else … then realized she wanted to help!  Then another came.  And another.  And soon I had all 8 girls from my grade 11 class there.  They dove in with the hand tools.  When I invited them to use the power tools they were reticent, and the boys suggested it wouldn’t be a good idea. But I shoved the tools into their hands, and the smiles lit up and away they went.  I treasure the photos below of them with the soldering torch and the power grinder.  They were quite proud I think, and really took an interest in the projects from that point forth.

We finished the solar oven about 3 weeks ago but only 5 minutes before the final wire connector was put in place something came loose and a wing on the oven fell onto the glass plate and cracked it!  You can imagine some of my choice words. I did not want to leave the school with a cracked solar oven so bought a new piece in town last week and it is now complete.  We cooked solar bread and solar peanut butter cookies to celebrate, and have since generated quite a bit of interest from passers by, because the oven is actually quite large and shiny (see below).  This was actually one of my goals – to get people looking at and talking about low-tech solar projects.  This particular oven would be perfect for a village to share.  The oven works beautifully, though does not reach the same temp as conventional ovens, so takes twice as long at least to cook.  But we would put our dinner in at 11:00 AM and forget about it, then pull it out at 5:00 and it would be ready to eat.

The final delay came from a lack of welding-ability.  The one guy who welds in town was never around.  A Mpungu Primary teacher — Mr Haindongo (who I’d worked closely with on the fence project) had just bought an arc-welding machine, but we couldn’t get it to work.  So I ended up begging a welder who lived 55km away in Nkurenkuru to come and help us out.  He arrived only on the Monday before we left so it was down to the wire.  We mounted the collector about 1.5m up, behind our house, facing NORTH into the sun.   I unpackaged the 4ftx4ft piece of glass and was pleased to find it had survived the 180km trip (much on bumpy gravel) 6 weeks earlier.   I connected the black plastic pipe so it would feed the hot water tank (which would now act only as a hot water storage tank).  I told the learners to come by in the morning to see it come to life with the water coming on (there is almost never water in the afternoons).  Unfortunately I was up till 4:00 AM that night working on the computer lab, so I was not thrilled that about 12 of them took my offer seriously and were knocking on our door at 6:45 AM!  I struggled out of bed, opened the tap and  …. found a myriad of leaks in the black pastic connections. DRAT!  These should be the easiest connections.  I told them I’d figure out something, which ended up being to use silicone in the seals.  Next morning (now 2 days before departure) I again turned on the water and … found 4 leaks in our copper joins and leaks still in the black plastic joins.  I had WAY too much to do in my final 2 days to solve these leaks, and was immensely frustrated and disappointed.  Those of you who know me understand that I am a stubborn problem solver and I’d never had to face defeat like this before.  I was especially disappointed for the learners who had poured their hearts into these projects and were so anticipating the results.  I did fill up the system though and let it work for the day.  By days’ end … the storage tank was full of warm/hot water, so at least we know that the design of the collector worked.  The learners were actually very good about accepting the status of our heater.  And I have some small hope that the guy who helped me weld will come back to help fix the leaks. We got to be friends over the day and I’ve spoken to him several times since.  My co-physics teacher will contact him.

This project was further evidence that these learners CRAVE hands-on learning.  And learning it was, because they were perfect examples of heat transfer – solar radiation, conduction of the metal plate into the copper pipes, and convection (the hot water rises out of the collector into the tank, while cold water in the tank falls into the collector – a beautiful loop with no “pump”).  The solar oven was  a good demonstration of the greenhouse effect.  All of these topics we covered in depth in class as part of our syllabus.

I would publicly like to thank the students and staff at Peterborough Collegiate (my school) for raising $500Cdn to purchase the supplies for the oven and collector.  And also my friend Sean Flanagan, for providing the design for the hot water heater and helping me adapt the design to my Mpungu setting.  Sean is in the renewable energy business in the Peterborough area (flanaganandsun.com) and can be contacted if you are interested in building your own collector.

It is going to be hard to get excited about solar energy upon return to Canada – Namibia is a solar geek’s dream.  But I know Canadian students are as keen as Namibians to get involved in this sort of thing, so I have something to come back to!

Reflections on Leaving

August 6, 2010

Nine days until we leave Himarwa Iithete and Mpungu – the school and community that have been our home for the past year.  We truly have felt “at home” here, and it has been a fabulous year.  In the last few months, we’ve found our stride and can really appreciate why VSO recommends 2-year placements.  However, that probably wouldn’t have been the best thing for Kaia and Jake, and it seems like a long time to be away. 

There is excitement about going home to Peterborough, seeing family and friends, and getting involved again in our regular fall activities.  I’m actually feeling like it will be easier to go back to work this September, having not had a long summer holiday!  I like the Namibian system of the holidays being spread out throughout the year:  a month at Christmas, a month in May, and 2 weeks in August.  There are other things I’ll miss about Namibia, as well as some that I won’t!

  • I won’t miss the intense and relentless heat of September and October when it was almost impossible to sleep … but I will miss baking bread in the solar oven.
  • I won’t miss the water being shut off every day at about 2pm and not having running water until 6am the next morning … but I will miss living in a community of people who know and respect the value of clean water.
  • I won’t miss the sand that is everywhere – in my shoes, in my kitchen, in my bed … but I will miss having a very small house to keep clean.
  • I won’t miss the long dusty drives to Rundu and grocery shopping for 3-4 weeks at a time … but I will miss the local mahangu (millet), veggies from our garden, and being able to sit down with my family for 3 meals a day.
  • I won’t miss doing dishes and laundry (especially towels and bedsheets!) by hand … but I will miss my great year-round solar dryer (a.k.a. clothesline) and visits from Johanna, a young woman who often helped with the laundry, always working with her baby on her back.  She can get clothes cleaner than any machine I’ve ever used!
  • I won’t miss the twice weekly staff briefings at 6:30am … but I will miss being finished teaching classes by 12:50.
  • I won’t miss the timidity of learners to speak up in class … but I will miss their discipline and genuine respect for teachers.
  • I won’t miss the never-ending demands on teachers’ time (for extra classes, long meetings) …but I will miss living only 200m from work and being right next door to Kaia and Jake’s school.
  • I won’t miss working in a system that doesn’t include supply teachers, where learners as young as grade 1 are regularly left unsupervised for many hours … but I will miss the slower pace and lower stress of teaching here.
  • I won’t miss the general lack of initiative … but I will miss the excitement of feeling like I can make a difference by following through on even a simple idea.
  • I won’t miss having to take malaria pills, and I won’t miss the cockroaches in the kitchen (no redeeming qualities there!)
  • I won’t miss trying to teach in classrooms that have too few basic resources (like chairs, desks, chalk, chalkboard erasers, doorknobs, and lightbulbs) … but I will miss teaching English with my best teaching aids ever:  Kaia and Jake!  (When I asked one teacher what her class thought of my first lesson, she said they told her, “We like those small ones.”  It was hard for me to compete!)
  • I will miss the amazing night skies and having access to a world class game park like Etosha. 

Speaking of which, we are off for a last weekend of game-viewing (our 4th visit to Etosha) later today.  This time, we are taking 2 grade 12 learners who have lived here all their lives and never been to the park; never seen an elephant or a lion.  Kaia and Jake are really hoping to see a rhinoceros this time to complete their “big 5” (elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, and rhino).

sorry, no time for photos this time.


Hockey night in Mpungu

July 30, 2010

The hockey sticks we brought over as a piece of luggage stayed under the bed for many months.  But when the weather got cooler, we took them out and introduced a new sport to the boys of Mpungu.  They love it and never seem to get tired of it!  An empty classroom at our school has become the floor hockey arena (“S-goat-ia Bank Place”).  We play 2 on 2 or 3 on 3, and they are high-scoring games – one got up to 64-62!  Sometimes we play with the long sticks, and sometimes with the mini-sticks.  Sometimes we play outside and the goals are the gates at our house and the one across the road at the circuit office.  It’s a bit dusty, but there’s not much traffic!  A few sticks have gotten broken, but we are having a good time!  (As long as everyone keeps their stick on the sand.)  


Longing for Big Box Home Depot

June 26, 2010

I knew it was going to be a challenging trip to the hardware store, but never dreamed it would take more than 24 hours!  A few weeks back I took the kids to Ngepi camp 2 hrs east of Rundu for an environmentally-themed conference weekend with other VSO volunteers, and timed it so we’d be in Rundu on a Monday to hit the stores.  I had planned to build a solar hot water heater from scratch with my grade 11 and 12 physics students (our house doesn’t really have hot water, and it’s actually quite cool in the mornings now so showers more of a challenge).  And I wanted to build a high-end solar oven.  And we were about to begin a 90m garden fence building project at Kaia and Jake’s school (funded by their school back in Peterborough, Canada).  And I was doing a preliminary plan/estimate for a pumped water system for Tuguva Combined school that now fetches water from Kavango River 800m away.  I had spent literally hours putting my materials and tool list together for the 4 projects, as we live more than 2 hrs from store and would not be back for 3 weeks at least.  A far cry from the 1km it is from our house in Peterborough to Home Depot!

 “Handy” do-it-yourself” type folks will appreciate the challenges I faced:

  • Had to drive across town to all 3 building supply places to figure out the cheapest, and decided on “Build It”
  • The carbon brushes on my electric drill motor had broken weeks earlier when I took it apart to show my learners in class.  Special trip to the one  “parts” store.  Closed for lunch.  Came back, find about 20 people pushing around the long counter – no sign of a que.  But I persevered and have a working drill again
  • trying to re-work all my plans into the metric system after arriving at the store.  No 2x4s, or 4’x8’ plywood, or ½ inch x 6’ copper pipe.  So had to recalc everything to metric  in my head
  • it was hard to find help.  I would hunt around all aisles in the store to find someone to help me.  Then they would start wandering around other parts of the store to find someone who COULD help
  • similar plumbing parts were in 3 different corners of the store, and I needed lots of small parts
  • I needed special metal paint and primer.  Paint guy didn’t speak much Engish – I had about 9 different cans in and out of my basket over the 15 minute deliberation
  • There was only one thickness of plywood and it was thicker/more expensive than I wanted.  And they do not cut for you.  How would I get this huge thing it into the truck?
  • You have to wait in a slow moving line to talk to the clerk to find out how much it costs for stuff outside in the yard (all my fencing/poles/gate/wire/cement etc).  But he doesn’t really know what I want, so he sends me out in the yard to write down product codes.  I wait in line again, and then he makes me a price list.  I take the list outside and ask the yard boys to start pulling my large order.  They tell me I have to go back inside and pay for it in full before they will assemble it.  So I get back into the long line again.  This guy rings me through, and when I hand him my Visa card, he directs me another counter/line where I can wait to have my card processed. The card system is on a very slow dial-up service, so it takes literally 5 minutes plus to do transaction.  Then I go back to the clerk to have him print out my receipt to take to the yard boys
  • On Monday I trailed the kids around for hours – in and out of stores, and wandering the aisles.  After 4 hrs of shopping I realized we needed to overnight in Rundu, so next morning I left them alone at a friends place with a video and told them I’d be back in a few hours.   4 hrs later I’m getting anxious to so return to the house to check on them and have some lunch.  I was rather desperate cause I hadn’t had time to go to the one coffee shop in town (I come apart without coffee), so put the kettle on and found some instant coffee in cupboard.  Phew.  Had to rush to have lunch with kids and get back to finish shopping, pack everything in/on and get home before dark.  Poured the water in, and then  realized it was actually filter coffee instead – I needed a bodum. No bodum or perker.  OK, add some milk and drink it anyway.  Damn – the milk was sour. 
  • Bid the kids farewell again and rushed to the window glass store – I’d been there already that day to place my order, but the cutting was out.  Placed my order for a 4’x4’ (OK … 1.2m x 1.2m) pane for the solar heater and smaller one for the solar oven, then back to hardware store.  They told me they didn’t have any cement (for fence posts) so would need my card back to refund the money.  I couldn’t face doing another 5 minute transaction and  I couldn’t build fence without cement so told them to look again.  I found some myself in their storage yard, but couldn’t find anyone to carry it for me
  • They couldn’t find a cutting disk for their grinder to cut my sheet metal – I had no way of cutting in back in Mpungu. Eventually someone found one and cut it
  • Store didn’t have some crucial plumbing parts – so had to redesign, and put a bunch of parts back and start over
  • Store didn’t have any real lumber – so had to instead redesign the sides of collector and oven using the plywood – good thing I’m a math teacher
  • They were out of some tools I needed, and others needed an explanation – they don’t sell propane for soldering – instead an expensive torch that fits onto a canister of butane.
  • Rush back to glass store (3rd trip now) to pay and load this huge sheet onto the roof of truck, then back to Build It
  • As we start loading stuff into the truck they tell me they don’t have the little “dropper” posts for the fence – I would have to buy them somewhere else.  I would need a refund.    Back to the clerk, then back to the Visa counter to await that lovely dialing sound …
  • It was a geometry puzzle getting 3 huge fencing roles in back along with 4 50kg bags of concrete, 15 fence posts, barbed wire, copper pipe etc.  And glass, plywood, sheet metal  and large gate for fence on roof in a way that glass would not break on bumpy ride back to Mpungu
  • I am now a mere 15 minutes from finishing loading and they tell me they don’t have the lengths of large diameter copper pipe I needed and had paid for.  Instead I would have to get a refund for that size and then buy the larger length that they did have.  In addition to another 20 minutes at various cashiers, this would mean lots of wasted expensive pipe.  I had already spent over $1000 Cdn at the store,  and was really running out of good humour (I started shopping at 7:30 AM and it was now 3:00PM, plus I’d spent 5 hrs the day before).  I told them to just put the longer pieces in my car and let me get the heck out of there.  That wouldn’t be possible they tell me.  I asked for a manager.  He said no.  I insisted on seeing the owner.  The white Namibian owner took pains to explain how he couldn’t possibly give me the other pieces because his stock would not match the records.  I gave him quite a loud and condensed version of a “Customer Relations 101” course (“where would you like me to spend my next $1000?”) in front of many surprised customers.   I think he read the look on my face and started to back down and went to look at the pipe shelf himself.  When we arrived, the security guard who had been watching all this had already dug around and found an unopened package of exactly the length of pipe  I needed.
  • 28 hours after beginning my hardware shopping, I finished tying things on the roof and finally drove out of that parking lot – ran into coffee shop for some caffeine to get me home, drove to the other hardware store to buy the missing fence post “droppers”, back to house, packed up, kids in car (I pretty much had to stuff them in  – front seat and half of back seat was full of our camping and other shopping)  then headed west into the falling sun.  Drat – a 10 km detour through a dusty suburb of Rundu.  My load was literally hanging out of the back of the truck (see photo below) and it was jiggling loose in the VERY bumpy gravel so drove at 30km/hr, stopping every 5 minutes to check and push back in. I had bought 3m long steel angle iron pieces that meant I had to open the cab window into the back section, so the dust was rather pouring into the cab.
  • Last 50 km of trip again on bumpy gravel, so had to slow right down and regularly stop to push load back in.  Extremely dusty, and now dark.  Thick dust just hangs in air in cool night air, and there are cattle and donkey loose on this road, so a very tense ride back.  Never has it felt better to get home to Mpungu – a 2 hr drive had turned into 3.5.

Having said all this… I was able to gain some perspective on my “long” day as I got out of Rundu and drove past many many women with huge loads on their heads, babies on their backs, walking god-knows-how-far in bare feet , and past many others who where trying to flag me down for a ride in the dying light.  I didn’t have room for their chickens, let alone them.  But you have to wonder how long they wait into the dark before giving up.  And I didn’t bother sharing my challenging shopping experience with anyone back in Mpungu.  I think they’d be pretty happy to find themselves in a position of spending $1000.

I’ll write later on the progress of the projects, but I will happily report now they are going much better than the shopping trip did.  I realize just now as I type that I have not taken the cardboard off the pane of glass to see if it made it back in one piece!

Finally, thanks to Monseigneur Jamot Elementary School for the funds for the fence materials, and to my Peterborough Collegiate for the funds for the materials for the 2 solar energy projects.


April 29, 2010

I thought we’d better update the blog before we head out for 3.5 weeks of vacation.  Tomorrow we drive to Rundu, then east 2hrs and south into Namibia’s wild and remote Kaudum National Park with 5 other friends in 2 vehicles.  This park has virtually no services and the campground is not fenced in, so we’ll be camping with the lions and elephants maybe! We’ll exit out the south end of the park and camp in a Conservancy run by the San people (remember the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”?).  From there we cross east into Botswana at a tiny border post and explore a large set of caves in the middle of nowhere.  Then east into the infamous Okavango Delta area.  This is a geographical anomaly – this large river does not flow to the ocean – instead if flows into the continent, then evaporates and infiltrates in this massive delta area that is teeming with life.  We transit through to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe/Zambia for a couple of days, then retrace our route through Chobe National Park and through Moremi.  These parks are supposed to be Southern Africa at its best – wild, beautiful and teeming with wildlife.  We’ll be back to Mpungu May 24th.  I think we might be picking email up along the way but not sure.

 Our silence on the blog speaks to the pace of our work here over the last month.  All is going well but we’re a bit over-extended.  We just finished exams and report cards (that’s a big one for me because I wrote the report card program so am sort of in the middle of that process).  Our principal tacked on 5 extra days of teaching/learning for grade 10 and 12 teachers/learners – he was basically given the edict from above, in response to the region’s poor national exam results.  It was done without consultation of any sort, so it didn’t go over terribly well with teachers, but there is simmering culture of complacency/acceptance/fear around addressing management, so teachers mostly just took it on the chin.  The teacher’s union is weak here – in part because they are aligned politically with the ruling party.  Can you imagine admin in Canada trying to tack 5 extra days onto the teaching calendar !!  I led a staff consultation around the issue (and others) and took the concerns to management but that went absolutely nowhere.  They didn’t like the concept of one teacher representing others – I think in part because they wanted to put names to specific complaints/concerns.  And that was the whole point of our approach – to allow teachers to voice their concerns anonymously without fear of reproachment.  They concluded by saying that teachers should feel safe to voice their concerns openly.  But I heard indirectly that after the meeting they were trying to guess who the rabble rousers were!  Yvonne and I (and just about every teacher we talk to) agree that management here (in virtually every school) does not seem to understand or appreciate the benefits of opening up the decision-making process to their staff.  Decisions therefore lack teacher buy-in, little change takes place, and morale is compromised.  We participated in a wide-ranging meeting with regional staff around school improvement where we voiced concerns over the decision making process.  I was encouraged to find out yesterday that all principals will be attending a workshop in a few weeks time that will include a focus on this issue.  Yvonne and I ran one of the staff meetings around result-improvement, and did so by having the teachers work in groups to identify root problems.  By the end of the meeting there was very strong consensus that the main root problem was the lack of understanding of spoken and written English (the language of instruction/exams).  But the principal then in two sentences brushed all this aside and said our solution would be to visit the local private school to see how they got such good results.  I thought that was already clear – their learners write entrance exams, and they get turfed out if they don’t perform well.  So surprise surprise, they end up with strong national exam results.  We plan to address the English issue at the 1st staff meeting back so an action plan can be put into place.

 Speaking of English instruction … you’ll know if you’ve read earlier entries that we’ve really zeroed in on this as the major challenge to success in learning here.  Yvonne has spent considerable energy trying to get things rolling in Kaia and Jake’s classroom and a number of others.  We actually went so far as to suggest to VSO that instead of replacing us (secondary math/science/computer advisory teachers), they should instead get a circuit-level primary English language advisory teacher who would work with teachers in the 30 primary schools to improve their methodology.  VSO and the regional office accepted this proposal late last week.  And then yesterday we got an email from a newly recruited volunteer in Australia who had been offered the job!!  Wow .. that’s fast turnaround!  She has lots of questions about how things work here, with isolation, driving, etc etc.  Yvonne is actually typing a response to her as I write this.

 We received quotes today from travel agent re. our return trip to Canada around Aug 20th.  It seems that time is flying by now – when we get back from vacation we have barely 2.5 months and then we’re done here.  Yvonne and I both would be happy to stay another year, in terms of our lives and work here.  But our jobs at the schools we like so much in Peterborough would not be secure, and the kids would not thrive with another year I believe.  Over the past month they have spent less and less time at their school, as we realize how little is happening.  And they cannot really communicate with any of their peers.  Confounding that is a major (and VERY MUCH needed) renovation that took place at the school.  Classrooms were emptied out for painting and new concrete floors, blackboards were replaced, leaky roofs fixed, doors replaced or painted, outside walls painted (see photo), broken windows (eg. almost all) were repaired and frames painted.  I was inspired to see the progress.  But the principal did not have a plan to deal with the disruptions.  So classes were outside for a while under various trees, but this enthusiasm gave way to general anarchy with virtually nothing happening.  So … K&J stayed home.  Sadly though, old habits seem to prevail … teachers left all the doors open after classes/exams ended, and there are goat droppings and pee all over the new floors !:(

 We discovered a day-old litter of puppies beside the Teacher Resource Center (TRC) 2 weeks back.  We were distressed though after 3 days the mother disappeared.  After 2 days’ absence we were considering trying to nurse them along – the kids were really quite enthralled and had the time to attend to them (chance of survival limited at best though).  On the day we’d set for that decision, mom came back! Turns out she’d followed her owner who went away for the weekend.  We’ve been watching them grow each day, but their eyes still closed.  One of our teacher friends will adopt a couple to keep the jackals away from his chickens at the farm.

 Garden is doing very well.  We harvested and processed the mahangu we’d planted.  Actually, I harvested and learner Penihafo processed it.  It’s quite a job – kernels beaten from the stalk, then pounded, then wet and pounded once more.  The birds got about 90% of it – after all was said and done, we had enough mahangu flour for one large meal!  But we got to see how this staple crop is grown and processed.  Keep in mind that this flour is eaten by most in this area at least once a day.  We’re enjoying our 2nd corn harvest – this time sweet corn.  Tastes SOO good.  Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and basil coming nicely.  Had a nice harvest of ground-peas.   Big sweet-potato and peanut harvest should await our return.  And I’ve got 1 large new garden coming with corn and re-planting 3 others tomorrow.

 Speaking of gardens … we’ll be working with teachers at Mpungu Primary school to build a new fence around part of school property so the school can have a large garden.  Currently the learners use sticks to fence off little areas against marauding cattle, goats and chicken, but the animals usually prevail, and production is low.  I have priced out a fence and we have approached Kaia and Jake’s school in Peterborough to raise funds for the project.  An email arrived 15 minutes ago from their principal – she just received the videos we created to explain our lives here and pitch the fence/garden project to them.  And .. they had an assembly this morning and have launched a raffle project centered around gardening to raise funds.  We’re very pleased. 

 As part of this project I am going to build a “bottle”-walled storage shed for garden tools with their learners.  Beer bottles are tossed/smashed in Namibia – they have no monetary value.  So the walls will have bottles laid on their sides mortared into place with concrete (see photo).  The approach will re-cycle beer bottles, will result in much less concrete needed, and will allow light to pass through and remove need for a window.  I’m looking forward to that – we’ll start that project as soon as we return from holiday.

 We really enjoy our colleagues at Himarwa Iithete.  We had a number of them over last night for drinks around the fire.  It was lovely – stars and a full moon, and perfect temperature.  We laugh and share a lot.  They got a big charge out of descriptions of winter camping – they were trying to imagine what -25deg C would feel like.

 So, Y &I taught our last extra lessons today and the grade 10 & 12 learners and all other teachers departed.  It is almost spooky how quiet/empty it is now, as the school compound is situated a few hundred metres on the outside of Mpungu.

 We’ll check in again in about 4 weeks time.  We’re heading off on quite an adventure, and we’re very excited.

I made it to Africa!

March 29, 2010

This is Yvonne’s mom Betty checking in with my 1st blog entry.  Overcoming my angst about coming to Mpungu was my biggest hurdle.  Yvonne and Cam and their friends along the way smoothed any bumps.  My husband Flemming and Yvonne worked out a smooth if long trip.  I anticipated it ending with a family reunion in a parking lot or bus station—it was actually a gas station in Rundu.  Well, 3:30 am, there I was with my baggage under the spectacular night sky.   A fellow passenger and the steward of the bus each came to ask if I was being met.  “Yes”.  And the bus drove out toward Victoria.

The air was warm and I felt calm and surprisingly secure.  Yvonne arrived.  Kaia and Jake had wanted to come.  We came to the house in Rundu where the family slept in their tent in the back yard of their friend’s house.   Before we could stop talking and fall asleep, the family came in.  All wanted to get going to the resort in Ngepi, and so we did.

Kaia had a special wish to see where the Cuito River from Angola runs into the Kavango River.  She followed our progress on the GPS; we made the right turns, saw the rivers, and continued on to Ngepi .  This resort stay was Kaia’s birthday present and what a way for a grandmother to acclimate to hot southern Africa.  We swam in the Kavango River in a hippo and crocodile proof cage.  We felt the strong current of the river. 

As we drove in the nearby game park, it became obvious that Jake is the animal expert in the family.  They were all good at spotting animals, distant and near.

At home in Mpungu I settled into the kids’ room sharing their bed with one of them every other night under the mosquito net while the other sleeps in the livingroom, also under net.  The family has three meals a day together and the parents are in and out keeping their busy work schedules.  There are a dozen or more knocks on the door each day: learners needing help or information, teachers wanting help with new technology, and little children wanting to borrow the ball, a game or the building set.  The last must ask in English and are usually granted the request.  Games and building toys are usually used on the front stoop.  Sometimes Jake will join them, but usually he and Kaia are busy with projects in the house.  Jake draws animals, devises games and puzzles, invents new animals and new worlds.  The kids play well together.  When Kaia has free time she picks up the Namibian Atlas and studies towns, features, history, rainfall, topography, temperature, and so on.  The long African names spill easily off her lips.  When they are with parents with other teachers in remote places, they frequently quietly correct errors in names and pronunciation.  Yvonne and Cam will ask for the Rukwangali word and Jake or Kaia will supply it.  It can open or ease communications.

Jake has a best friend, Sikongo, who makes clay animals.  They have had great fun with the “helicopter” Francesca from Peterborough sent with me.  Athletic Sikongo directed the efforts to get it off the roof the other day but Yvonne had to add the height by letting him sit on her shoulders.  There is a friendliness and ease of life here although as Kaia pointed out to me on the first day, everyone will be looking at you.