Life isn’t just apples and oranges. Its a complex mushy mix of everything.


HIV/AIDS: Numbers don’t sugar coat the facts.

Note: If you haven’t seen my previous blog post, I’m running a half marathon next month to help raise money for a Peace Corps Volunteer started organization Kgwale le Mollo to help send two rural South African kids to one of the best high schools in South Africa. Please consider helping me with a donation! Thanks.

I’ve always been fascinated by the country comparison pages on the CIA Factbook. So much so that I actually carried an offline version of all the information with me into the Peace Corps. It’s amazing the type of patterns and astounding facts you can find in that data

Earlier this week a 10th grader had come over to my house for physics help and we started talking about the world map on my wall. He mentioned how much bigger the United States was than South Africa which immediately made me think of the Area Comparison on the CIA Factbook. I brought it up and showed him and he was just as amazed as me to think that there was an entire country 2 sq km with a population greater than 30,000 or a country with less than 50 people living in it. Looking through the list of country comparisons I saw the HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate and figured it be a good thing for him to see where South Africa fell on this list. He stared at the list for a good 10 to 20 seconds in complete shock mouth almost open. When I looked at the list again I tried looking from the perspective of a 16 year old South African and had almost the same reaction.

If you didn’t click the link to the list, do it now.

Here’s what I noticed after studding the list:

  • The top 9 countries are all the southern most countries of continental Africa.
  • All of these countries have an HIV rate over 10% while the 10th country (Kenya) is at 6.7%. A percentage gap that large occurs no where else in the table.
  • You have to go all the way down to number 23 to get off the continent of Africa.
  • Less than 1000 miles off the coast of South Africa (#4 at 18.1%) is Madagascare (#116 at 0.1%)
  • There’s no trend between GDP, war and conflict, or many other measurable statistics. Somalia is at 0.5%.

To help visualize this data I made a color coded map from a blank SVG map of Africa on Wikipeida and the effect is even more obvious. In the graph, the more red a country is the higher the percentage of HIV/AIDS in the country, when multiple countries through out the world have the same percentage the ranking is done alphabetically.


As the true impact of these numbers slowly materialized in front of the young man he asked me the next obvious question: Why? Truth be told I didn’t really know how to respond to him and would appreciate any thoughts from others more knowledgeable on this subject. Looking at the data and the astounding fact that the most affected countries are all grouped together in southern Africa I figure there has to be some explanation for it. I fumbled through an answer about differences in culture and the like, which in no way satisfied him.

After he left I went to the place that knows all answers and googled for information on the subject. As you can imagine this is a pretty controversial issue with people suggesting things that I’d never heard before and seem pretty preposterous such as the majority of HIV cases are actually spread through immunization needles (does nothing to explain this trend) to the prevalence of concurrent sexual partners in some African cultures (goes a long way to explain the trend I feel).  And making the map from the CIA Factbook data made me remember a Hans Rosling TED Lecture I watched about a year ago. I just rewatched it and highly recommend it, it will be the most enlighting 10min of your day. If you’re a PCV in South Africa I’ll give it to you next time I see you, that lecture is a must watch for every volunteer in the country in my opinion.

Tough Love

Note: If you haven’t seen my previous blog post, I’m running a half marathon next month to help raise money for a Peace Corps Volunteer started organization Kgwale le Mollo to help send two rural South African kids to one of the best high schools in South Africa. Please consider helping me with a donation! Thanks.

One of the things I’ve been doing since the beginning of the year is taking the kids on my street to the town pool once or twice a week. I’ve known about the pool since my first few months here, but until December of last year never checked it out, however since then I’ve been trying to swim once or twice a week. I actually feel sort of bad about this because there are so many things in the community I could be doing during this time after work; such as volleyball or playing trombone at the Salvation Army, both of which I used to do but now don’t have the time for. There’s not enough time in a day for everything I wish I could do, so one must pick and choose and at least for the remainder of summer the pool will win out.

It’s R10 per time at the pool or R100 for a family membership which lets you bring 6 people in for a month, figuring that even if I couldn’t go to the pool 10 times in a month I could at least take the kids on my street as my “family”. I started out swimming laps on Tuesday and Thursday and taking the kids to the pool on Saturday. Weekdays the pool is almost empty and I can swim a kilometer or so is relative peace. The pool officially closes at 5pm but on weekdays that’s never really upheld and I’ve stayed in as late as 5:45. I don’t really understand how it all works because the manger always leaves at 5pm but the old man in charge of maintenance seems to never leave and I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually sleeps there. It’s not quite like doing laps at UVA’s pool back home but swimming there on weekday afternoons is relaxing and a great way to clear my mind.

Weekends on the other hand are completely different. At anyone time on a Saturday afternoon there are about 150 kids at the pool. Keep in mind the fact that there is no adult supervision, no lifeguard, and many kids don’t actually know how to swim. I’ve seen so many things that make the part of me who grew up going to a Northern Virginia community pool all summer cringe just watching. Like the dog who remembers the now none existence electric fence every time she approaches the edge of her yard; every time I see a kid running on the slippery deck, doing back flips into the shallow end, or standing on someones shoulders right next to the pools edge I some how expect the lifeguard’s whistle and yell of “NO RUNNING”. But it never comes and some how amazingly I’ve yet to see a kid hurt themselves. You can read into that what you want, either how an overly litigious and precaustous American society needlessly hampers kids free play or how kids here are so much better at doing things with out hurting themselves even though there seems to be so little attention payed to personal safety. My guess is that its a combination of both.

Another hallmark of my childhood pool experience draconianly enforced by the very same lifeguards which would be just as impossible to enforce here is the hourly “break” where all kids under 14 had to get out of the pool. On weekends when the pool is swarming with kids the manager and maintenance Baba (as far as I can tell the only two people that actually work at this pool) start telling kids to get out around 4:30 and continue to do so for the next 45 min or so before actually succeeding. A far cry a whistle quarter till the hour signaling all the kids to stop having fun in the pool and get out. As so many kids do, I remember spending most those breaks siting at the edge of the pool eagerly anticipating the next whistle indicating I could jump back in. Now if the first time kids here went to the pool and there were lifeguards to enforce the rules and signal break time, I believe they would be even more well behaved then American kids. In everything from the schools to family life kids are taught to be unquestionably submissive to adult authority and power.

Ngiyakushaya (I’m going to hit you) is one of the most common things a child here’s growing up on my street and in the schools I work in. It’s used so frequently that kids respond to little else other than that. Ask them to pick up the trash they just dropped on the ground, close their door, or any number of other things and they normally wont. Tell them you’ll hit them if they don’t and they will. It’s interesting how the use of physical force makes the authority weaker not stronger. In schools a teachers authority is obeyed not out of respect but fear. Often kids have been scolded and even hit enough times for wrong answers that they are fearful even to try in classroom. Obviously, there are other forms of discipline besides physical force that are more beneficial to all parties involved, but if all a child knew was physical discipline you can’t really expect them magically understand this, it has to be learned.

All that is background for the story that happened last week. As usual I took the kids to the pool on Thursday and when 4:45 came around I told them it was time to get out and get ready to go home. Most of them got out but one of my favorite little boys, Mafera, refused to get out of the kids pool (he’s deathly afraid of the deep pool and even though on our street he’ll jump from an 8 ft wall into my hands he wont jump for the pool edge to me when there’s 4 ft of water around). He just looked at me with this silly grin that partially said your going to have to make me get out and partially showed how much he was enjoying still being in the pool. He kept jumping up as high is he could and falling backwards into the water. Even though I was amazed at his simple joi die vire just to be alive and jump in the the water I’d been in the pool for the last 5 hours and was quite tired and easily irritated. I guess at this point I saw how easy it would be just let my annoyance turn to angle and physically pull him from the pool like he expected me to do. Instead I told him if he didn’t get out now he wouldn’t get to come to the pool on Saturday. I’m pretty sure the full meaning of this didn’t sink in as he continued to goad me into getting him out of the pool. After watching him jump about 10 more times and asking him to get out after each I finally turned around told him that was it he wasn’t coming on Saturday. Again, the full meaning of this didn’t sink in, but he understood that the game of trying to get me to come after him was over and there wasn’t any more fun in it so he got out.

Come Friday night when I was telling all the kids to get be ready to go to the pool at noon the next day I told Mafera he wasn’t going because he wouldn’t get out of the pool the last time. Now the full meaning what I said on Thursday came to him and it was heart breaking to see his face at this understanding. The next morning at 9am Mafera shows up at my door asking if he’s really not going to the pool, “Not this time, but you can go next time” I tell him. As I got ready to go do math at the high school he followed me around trying to appease me. Asking if he could take my bike out of the garage, “Yes, but you still can’t go to the pool” or if he can carry my backpack “Yes, but you still can’t go to the pool”. This is where the tough love comes in. It was much much harder for me to enforce the consequences I’d set up for him then it would have been just to hit him on Thursday at the pool and go on. Personally I wanted him to go to the pool and I told him that, but I also told him his actions last time meant that he couldn’t (in the end I did give him a two tennis balls to play with while we were at the pool, little consolidation given all the other kids on the street were gone and he had no one to play with).. However hard it was on me, and how ever much he hated me that Saturday morning I’m confident that he learned more from that experience then he did at school since the beginning of the year. And next time I ask him to get out of the pool, it won’t be a game of trying to get me to force him out, he’ll understand that there are consequences beyond, and worse, then physical force. And maybe, just maybe, someday he’ll apply this lesson to something of much bigger significance and because of that he won’t get HIV, won’t start smoking, or will achieve better in school and in that case I don’t regret that his long sad face as he stayed behind and we all walked to the pool

Give the gift that last a lifetime: Education

Once again this year the Peace Corps South Africa community is coming together help support the Kgwale le Mollo (KLM) Foundation. KLM is a non-profit started in 2004 by two SA-11 (I’m in SA-20) Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to bring high quality education to young students who show exceptional potential but live in rural areas of South Africa where access to high quality education is basically nonexistent. Each year the foundation grants a 5 year scholarship to two 8th grade students to attend one of South Africa’s premier high schools, Upplands College, in Nelspruit. To date there have been 8 KLM scholars and Upplands has found the program to be so successful they’ve started offering their own scholarships. As part of the scholarship the students are required to compete a Home Investment Project during their junior and senior years to give back and build the community they came from. In this way KLM doesn’t just help train students from rural South Africa to become part the next generation of African leaders, but also bring much needed talent and experiences into the rural areas from people who know it best, those that grew up there.

If you’ve been following me through my blog, twitter, or facebook you know a little about the condition of education in South Africa. It’s truly impossible to describe it all in words. First, the disparity in quality of education as you go from rural to town schools in immense. It runs the gambit from primary schools with swimming pools and computer labs to ones like a fellow PCVs where they just recently got rid of the bats in the grade 4 classroom after 2 years to high schools in my township were 12 grade students can’t do basic arithmetic but are expected to do trig and calculus. Second, the problems facing rural education are numerous, rooted in deeply embedded remnants of Aparthied. Much progress has been made in the last 16 years, but the South Africa is still along ways off from reaching the ideals set out in it’s constitution. The KLM foundation offers a unique solution to help bootstrap the process of rural development in South Africa by educating students with great potential who just happened to be born in a place where the local education wouldn’t let them reach that potential.

One of the life lessons I’ve learned over the last 19 months is that the life isn’t the meritocracy the American Dream teaches us. We like to think that if you have the skills and potential the sky is the limit. But if the teachers at your local high school spend more time in the break room than the class room, the class sizes peak between 40 and 50 students, and the average pass rate is below 25% your not thinking about flying, you don’t even know where the runway is. KLM is designed not only guild a few young South Africans to the runway but provide them with wings.

What can you do?
Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. I completely agree with that and hope you do too. In which case I hope you’ll make an effort to support KLM.

In order to raise money for this scholarship the KLM Foundation has teamed up with the annual Longtom marathon, and this is where you come in. On March 27th I’ll be running the half marathon (21.1km) and would love it if you could help sponsor me by donating to the KLM Foundation in my name. Donations can be done through a secure web form on the Foundation’s website (when you click donations your browser will most likely ask you if you want to see the pop, this happens because the KLM site sends you to name of site to securely handle any financial data). Or by snail mail, see details below. Please give what you can. It doesn’t have to be much, $5, $10 and $20 donations add up and you’ll be providing a child in rural South Africa with the gift of a lifetime: an education (plus its tax-detectable!).

Snail Mail Instructions
The online donation is preferable (at http://www.klm-foundation.org/) , but if you need to mail in a check, please make it payable to “Kgwale Le Mollo (US)” and send it to:
KLM Foundation (US)
c/o Bowen Hsu
461 So. Bonita Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91107
Also make sure to include a note that your donation is on my behalf.


Nelson Mandel’s said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” And he should know, South Africa is a country of 11 official languages. TV shows here have multiple languages in just once sentence! I’m not quite sure how anyone can keep it straight. (Interestingly, that goes in reverse to. For my first 6-9 months here when ever I’d say Ngiyabonga (Thankyou) I didn’t actually feel like I’d thanked the person until I’ve said Thankyou in English. Rationally I knew that Ngiyabonga = Thankyou, but emotionally it took about 10 months for Ngiyabonga to feel like Thankyou.

You wouldn’t believe how far a simple greeting can go to bridge gaps between cultures and people. Often all I have to do is greet someone in SiSwati and not only will they be amazed that I “speak” SiSwati, but their whole attitude towards me changes. Greetings might not be as big a part of the culture here as else where in Africa, but I still say them hundreds of times a week, so it be pretty hard for me not to know them by now.

There are two versions of SiSwati greetings (well four if you count formal and nonformal versions, but that just complicates matters), but for this post I only want to talk about one. Here’s the formal SiSwati greeting between person A and B with a literal translation in the middle and roughly what one might say in America in a similar situation.


Literal Translation


A: Sanibonani
B: Yebo
A: Ninjani
B: Siyaphila, nini ninjani
A: Nati siyaphila
A: We see that you see us.
B: Yes
A: How are you all?
B: We are alive, how are you all.
A: We are also alive.
A: Hello.
B: Hello.
A: How are you?
B: Fine, you.
A: Fine.

I absolutely love what this greeting means. Ngiyaphila, I am alive. It’s a deceleration of being and a subtle reminder of what ultimately and is truly important. In the end nothing else really matters. It’s pouring rain (or snowed over 3 ft). Siyaphila, We are alive. Overwhelmed with work and stressed about the ever growing ToDo list required to maintain normalcy and fight the entropy of life. Ngiyaphila, I am alive. The day didn’t go as planned, you broke your favorite cup, spilled tea on your laptop, lost your wallet or phone: Unjani? Ngiyaphila. How are you? I’m I alive!

But just as it’s important to remember your aliveness in those times when life throws you an inevitable curve ball unexpectedly and you feel like your treading water just to breath, its also important to be aware of the fact that uyaphilia (you are alive) when life seems beautiful, full, and peaceful. It’s really the same thing as counting your blessings. Being appreciative of a spectacular sun set. That sunset should make you sing; Ngiyaphila, I am alive. Eating a delicious meal, savor each moment of it and know that uyaphilia. Bought the coolest new gadget in the shop, marvel at the human ingenuity, tenacity, and industry that created it and know that uyaphilia. Going for a run, playing with kids, watching a bird make its nest, staring up at the stars, searching the internet, reading a book, watching TV, making dinner, doing the laundry; every action is a reason to remind yourself that you are alive and be grateful for the chance experience it with wonder and awe.

The essence of knowing your alive was eloquently stated by Paul Hawken at the University of Portland commencement address in 2009.

Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, … can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life.

This prompted me to do some research into what exactly happens in those septillion simultaneous activities. Obviously I’m no cell biologist and most my sources come for pages I found on the intertubes and would hardly stand up to scientific rigor, but that’s not what I’m going for. I’m going for the crux of what it means to be alive and that can not be found in anyone fact, it’s the sum total of all those septillion activities over each and every moment. However, it helps appreciate how undeniably amazing everything that is you does, just so you can be you.

There’s never nothing going on in your body. At an average heart rate of 80 beats per minute your heart beats 115 thousand times a day and 42 million times a year all to so about 25 trillion red blood cells (approximately a quarter of all your cells) can each complete a circuit of your body in about 1 min so that in one day 400 gallons of recycled blood are pumped through the kidneys. For a muscle that roughly adds 1 pound to our body weight that’s impressive. Each one of those red blood cells has a around 270 million hemoglobin molecules so that the total amount of iron in your blood is about 2.5 grams.

Estimates have placed the total number of cells in the body at 10-50 trillion. Of those 300 million cells die in the human body every minute. But not to worry; every day an adult body produces 300 billion new cells. The you today isn’t the same as the you of yesterday or the you of tomorrow.

Every square inch of the human body has about 19,000,000 skin cells. While in one square inch of our hand we have nine feet of blood vessels, 600 pain sensors, 9000 nerve endings, 36 heat sensors and 75 pressure sensors. You get a new stomach lining every three to four days. Just your feat along have 500,000 sweat glands and can produce more than a pint of sweat a day.

Keeping your body going takes a lot of work. You use 200 muscles just to take one step and that’s something you do thousands of times a day. All that work creates a lot of energy and in 30 minutes, the average body gives off enough heat (combined) to bring a half gallon of water to boil.

Most amazing of all is the 3 pound group of cells between our ears. When we touch something, we send a message to our brain at 124 mph. Nerve impulses to and from the brain travel as fast as 170 miles per hour. This may pale in comparison to the speed at which electrical signals travel on a quad core computer processor. But the neural connection graph of the brain dwarfs any we have yet created in silicon. There are about 100,000,000,000 neurons in the adult brain each neuron being connected to between 2,000 and 5,000 others. In fact if you estimated the amount of energy needed not only to keep you thinking all day, but coordinating the great cellular symphony that is you in M&M’s it come out to around 250.

Below is a picture that I took of one of the kids I play with everyday after work.  To me this picture emodies Siyaphilia.  The aliveness each and everyone one of us feels and knows.  Let it be a reminder to you so that the next time someone asks you how you’re doing you can replay with an enthusiastic: I am alive!

I love sun sets like this.

Some sources

On Window Screens

It really is a simple invention that in hindsight seems as obvious as the wheel, but apparently it wasn’t until 1861 that the putting wire mesh over a hole in the wall became common place. While it’s rare to find a house in the United States without window screens, it’s just as rare to find one that does here. Part of this might be due to the type of window used here. I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve seen a Sash Window here. That classic sliding window that I had in every room growing up just doesn’t seem to exist here, and I can’t figure out why. Originally I thought maybe that’s what they used in England and Holland, but no Sash windows were in use in Europe by the mid-17th century.

So if there aren’t sliding windows here, what are there? They are all Casement Windows. And not the type you sometimes see back home with the crank shaft to open them up from behind a window screen. No, these you just slide a latch and push right open. If you can visualize that for a second it means there can’t be any window screen, because you’ve just pushed right through it to open the window. I’ve seen and heard of some usual solutions to this problem. Some volunteers in the group before me used double sided Velcro and an old mosquito net to try to bug proof their room. Every time they wanted to open the window, they’d peel back the mosquito net, unlatch and push out the window, and then reattach the Velcro. Even more elaborate, at a guest house in Kimberly on my recent vacation the had build giant screen cages to go around the open windows! Some volunteers, and most people on my street, go with the the closed window option. But, when it’s over 90 degrees in my room I consider that to much suffering and much prefer to sleep under my mosquito net and feel a slight breeze to sweating it way on top of my sheets.

All this got me thinking about what a screen window or door really represents. Living here without AC or central heating sometimes its hard to remember how in the States a house is a bastion of control and stability against the chaotic elements and seasonal fluctuations outside. My room here is a sauna in the summer and I have to ware a warm hat to sit at my desk in the winter. I am not in control of the inside temperature and must adapt accordingly. A screen on the window is a selective sieve by which we can bring the outside in. It lets the cool breeze and humid air pass right through put keeps the insects out of the pristine home. It represents both our control over our environment and our eagerness to escape the stuffiness we feel at that control. As a kid I always loved sleeping with the window next to my bed open, even on hot summer nights – where I’d put my head right next to the window urning for the smallest breeze – and crisp fall ones – where I’d wrap my self up in a warm blanket and feel the nights chill on my face. Maybe that’s also why I ended up here in the Peace Corps; I didn’t want to be locked up behind a window looking out, but wanted to through that widow right open and experience what ever was on the other side.

When is the Internet not the Internet

Friends are often surprised to see how often I tweet or how frequently I’ll email back home. And in ways I find it amazing how I can know what’s happening in almost real time all over the world from my room, not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Peace Corps. But its a fact of the modern world that communication technology has permeated all aspects and all areas of life throughout the world. However, the internet I get here is most defininetly not the same internet I got back home in Virginia. Yes, technically it’s the same webpage that is served up – well almost there is quite a lot of redirection so www.google.com goes to www.google.co.za and www.amazon.com goes to www.amazon.co.uk and my facebook ads are about South Africa, other than that its all the same – but it’s still not the same internet because the bandwidth is limited both in quantity and quality (speed).

I connect to the internet by tethering my cell phone to my computer, something your not actually allowed to do with most phones back in the States because cell phone companies don’t want you sucking up copious amounts of data. However, here we don’t have unlimited data bundles like back home. I buy a set amount of data and when that is up I have to buy more, or if 2 months goes by and it’s not finished I lose it. Because the pre-paid model is so ubiquitous here it’s really easy to check your remaining balance and thus insure that you don’t unexpectedly run out.

Since every single byte that leaves or comes to my phone counts, I’m meticulous about where all my data goes and keep a close watch on the current usage throughout each session (ifconfig ppp0 | grep byte is by far the most used command on my terminal). There are many ways you can conserve data and I like to think I’ve got it down to an art. The first week I was here I switched over from IMAP to POP email, which means that all of my mail for the last 5 years can be viewed offline where I can read, replay, and compose before connecting my phone and sending email. When I browse not only is all flash off, but pictures as well – thus the internet I see is most definitely not the one you see, even if all the text is the same. With all my hacks to decrease my data usage I can normally get by on just 250MB in one month (that’s 1/3 of a CD) and when I splurge on data I use 500MB in a month. Back home I could go through 500MB in 30min. Below is a graph the data left on my bundle each day from March to June of last year.

Data Usage For March - June

As you can see, my day to day use of the internet barely uses any data. With that I can read my email 3 times a day, follow my top 10 favorite blogs, check twitter and facebook, and browse a few other random pages each day. Every now and then there’s some program I want, or someone sends me an email with pictures attached, or (and these are the worst) I get an email from someone pointing to a Youtube video. What I normally do is put the link in a list of things to maybe check online if at the end of the week I didn’t go over my data allotment.

Yes I could just buy 1 or 2 gigabytes of data each month, but then I’d spend all my hours watching Youtube videos and not actually getting out and experiencing the community. Plus to be fair about once every 3 months I get package from my Mom filled with about 4GB of podcasts that range from TWIT, FLOSS and a few others from Leo’s network to NPR’s Speaking of Faith and This American Life all of which make hand washing laundry, 4 hour taxi rides, and long walks much much better. You might think it’s crazy for my Mom to send me podcasts all the way across the ocean when I can download them right from my room. But I did the calculation (see tables below for Vodacom data prices): for me to download 6GB of data it would cost just over half of what I make in a month R 1200 or $160, the average price of a package from Virginia to South Africa containing a few magazines, DVD’s of podcasts, a letter or two and a few other surprises is less than $15, plus the knowledge that my parents put the package together is priceless.

Vodacom Data Bundle Prices

Data (MB) Coast Rand Rand/MB $/MB Cost For 30min Youtube
R $
1 2 2 0.27 60 8
5 9.25 1.85 0.25 55.5 7.4
20 28 1.4 0.19 42 5.6
75 88 1.17 0.16 35.2 4.69
150 119 0.79 0.11 23.8 3.17
250 139 0.56 0.07 16.68 2.22
500 189 0.38 0.05 11.34 1.51
1000 289 0.29 0.04 8.67 1.16
2000 389 0.19 0.03 5.84 0.78
3000 589 0.2 0.03 5.89 0.79
5000 989 0.2 0.03 5.93 0.79

Obviously it pays to buy the larger bundles, and if they can really give me data for R0.20 a megabyte I don’t know how they get away with R2 a megabyte for no bundle. And I know plenty of people who don’t buy bundles, I’ve tried to explain this chart to them but spending R88 at one time sounds more expensive then spending R150 in R2 intervals. Part of the problem is that many people I work with have know concept of what a megabyte is and how much data it represents.

The best metaphor for explaining megabytes is to compare them liters. Just like water takes up space, so to do all the pictures, text, and videos you download or have saved on your computer. A 4MB of data will be twice as much information as 2MB just like 4L of coke is twice as much as 2L. Still a little abstract but at least it gets the concept of data taking up space across.

I’d be interested to know how these prices compare to data costs back home. I never actually used internet on my phone when I was in the States (Peace Corps opens up your world in so many ways!) so I have no idea if pay by the byte/megabyte plans are comparable to these. If I’m not mistaken the iPhone unlimited plan is around $60 which would get you 2GB on this plan. It’s going to be interesting going back home because I’m definitely used to having internet on my phone, but really like the prepaid model since I can control how much I spend – in 2MB chunks if I so please.

Umuntu ngaumntu ngabantu

During training we would often hear that life in South Africa was unique because of a concept fundamental to its culture: Ubuntu. In Nguni languages (isiZulu, siSwati, isiXhosa, isiNdebele) this is most often expressed through the adage “Umuntu ngaumntu ngabantu” – A person is a person through other persons”. We were told that because of Ubuntu there is a closer sense of community and unity then elsewhere. Ubuntu is commonly explained as similar to the Golden Rule: “Love thy neighbor as they self”. But even if there is some overlap in the core sentiments invoked by both Ubuntu and the Golden Rule, there are also some key differences; which make translating the ideas between cultures difficult. Most importantly, embedded in the Golden Rule is a sense of “I”, and in fact that individualism is found throughout western thought – epitomized by René Descartes “I think, therefore I am”.  While embedded in the idea of Ubuntu is community and unity.

If you followed the link to the Wikipedia article on Ubuntu you saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s definition of the Ubuntu philosophy:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

As an American living among South African culture it’s often difficult to see the ideas of Ubuntu in daily life here. I’ve often participated in conversations with other volunteers centered around the idea that Ubuntu is dead. Perhaps the only times we are able to see it is at weddings, funerals and cultural events where everyone is invited and often times a cow or two is slaughtered. But these are big important events, when looking for Ubuntu in daily actions it’s elusive at best. Certainly in most aspects of the education system, the political system and the way children are treated and raised it’s nonexistent. Perhaps the the culture norm that bothers me, as well as other volunteers, the most is the casual way trash is discarded wherever one may be. If a sense of community and interconnectedness of all people is so important to the concept of Ubuntu why do people just drop plastic bags as they walk, unwrap a candy and let the wrapper fall to the ground where they stand, and throw coke bottles out the window. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished a snack or drink on a taxi and the person next to the window offered to through it out for me! Or the weird looks I get when I’m handed a coke can to through out the window and instead put it in my bag to place in a trash can. As American’s we take all these things to mean that Ubuntu is dead, but I think this sentiment comes our different cultural backgrounds. And every now and then an aspect of Ubuntu that we can relate to our understanding of the Golden Rule seeps through.

This blog post is really about one of those times.

Last week as I was biking to a school my chain locked up on the way down a hill. I’d never seen a bike chain get stuck like this one; somehow 5 chain links had got caught between the smallest and middle gears in the front. I flipped the bike over and tried pulling them out, which only served to get my hands dirty. I next tried to use some near by rocks to hammer the chain outwith out much luck. I’d been working on this for maybe a minute and a half before someone asked what was wrong. When I explained she stopped someone going someone going in the opposite direction and told him what was wrong. He immediately turned around and told me to follow him to his house, which was about a block away. There with the help of a screw drive and hammer we proceeded to unlock the chain (and luckly this hasn’t reoccurred). I thanked him for all his help and was about to jump on the bike and continue to school, but he insisted on taking me back to the sink and having me throughly scrub my hands. I’m pretty sure my attempts to unlock the chain with out real tools would have failed and forced me to walk back home, but thankfully I didn’t have to.

I think this is an important example of why Peace Corps is a 2 year commitment. I can’t help but think a similar situation would have played out if this had happened not after I’d been biking around the township for over a year, but in my first month here. I’m sure someone would have helped me eventually, but I doubt it would have been that fast. Having lived here for the last 15 months I am now part of the community and that has certain benefits. Maybe to much sometimes, because I also can’t help but wonder how fast someone would have stopped to help if it wasn’t “that weird umlungu American that lives in the township” and just your average person on a bike. But I can never know, for I can only experience life here being treated a 23 year old American and never as someone who was born and raised here. But I’d like to think the fact that I’m the only white person living in the township had little to do with the help I got, and that the same would have been extended to anyone.

To Blog or not to Blog

Wow it’s really been a long time since I’ve written anything here. And you know what, with a few exceptions, that seems to be the a general trend within the Peace Corps community. There are tones of blog posts about the leaving America transition as one contemplates all the unknowns in their next step along life’s journy. During training their might be one or two posts, but in general your so busy, overwhelmed, and scattered brained to find the time (that and the fact that during training there’s very little access to the internets). Then in the first few months at site there’s a consent stream of posts. The volunteer is like a child in a toy store, everything one does is amazing, new, and exciting. You wish you could put on special glasses and pipe video back home as you walk down the street because its all just that cool!

But one thing that makes Peace Corps unique is that by the time that phase has died down and daily life at site begins to feel normal your not packing your bags to go back home, instead you have 20 more months to live here and call this place home. You now know everyone on your street, you have contacts with people all over your village (in my case a township), you become part of the daily ebb and flow of daily life. This means that blog posts become rarer and rarer. And when they do arrive their not about how unique and exotic life here is, but about people, projects and life philosophies.

Over the last 6 months since I last posted there have been many ideas for a post I’ve head and I’d diligently put “write blog post” on my to do list. But then the kids across the street would call me over to play catch, there’d be an amazing sunset and I’d just have to climb up on my roof and watch it, I’d be taken on a trip to a village for the day. It always seems like there is a choice to be made, between going out and living life and being a Peace Corps Volunteer, and sitting in my room chronicling what its like. The computer screen is this magical window into a different world and can so easily suck you in. But when I enter that world I leave behind the world outside my room, and it’s to experience that world that I decided to go on this grand adventure. So, as my twitter feed will attest, instead of blogging I’ve been off living.

But, I’ve decided I need to start blogging again, because there is just way to much on my mind that I’d like to share here. So I’m going to do my very best to do a blog post a day for the next week. That really sounds like a lot, but if your going to jump in the pool you mind as well do it all at once and with great enthusiasm. After a week we’ll see if I keep it up, but I know I have enough to say to fill that up, and by committing to that now, in this post, hopefully I’ll stick to it.

Not Blogging

July Trip Part 1

This week I returned to site after my second extended trip through South Africa. Traveling in South Africa is always great fun, partly because there are so many great things to do, great (cheap!) places to stay, and great things to see. The Rainbow Nation’s landscape and geography are even more diverse then its people and there is a bit of anything you could ever want with in it’s boards. This trip was made all the better because I was accompanied by one of my best friends since 9th grade Christine Breton. She actually went to UVA as well but we each had separate groups of friends which only occasionally overlapped. So it was great to travel around such a wonderful country and see so many great things with her. She brought her iPhone along on the trip – it’s true, once you get an iPhone there’s no turning back they change how you interact with the world, truly a revolutionary piece of technology – and was able to blog the whole thing from her phone as the trip progressed. You can check her blog out here. Also joining us for most the trip was one of my best Peace Corps friends Steve Gerner.

Since we packed so much into a two week period I think I’ll make the whole trip multiple posts. In this post I’ll give a general overview and talk about beginning of the trip. Below you’ll see a map of our complete trip.

July Trip Travel Map

As you can see we traveled a good portion of South Africa. With the exception of Cape Town and Barberton each night we stayed at a new, and often very interesting, place. I never thought South Africa was so big. The CIA fact book states that it’s “slightly less than twice the size of Texas” so maybe I should rephrase that to: I never thought Texas was so big. All together we traveled over 3500km (2100mi) and I spent I little under R6000 ($750), which considering everything we did is extremely awesome and since I’m on a Peace Corps budget extremely necessary. The first leg from Jo’burg to Cape Town was done on a bus. It was supposed to be on the Shosholoza Meyl, but they canceled my reservations 2 hours before I arrived at the station to pick the tickets up (sent them feedback saying they shouldn’t do that during the world cup). As it turned out this was quite fortunate for two reasons.

First, it gave us time to do the Soweto Bike Tour. I bike through a township everyday, although not as large or of as much historical significance as Soweto, and still really loved the tour. It was very well done and I highly recommended and hope to to go on it again with other Peace Corps Volunteers (or if anyone else wants to come visit I’ll do it two more times!). Second, we had a very unforgettable 17 hour bus ride from Jo’burg to Cape Town. SA Roadlink, like most bus companies in South Africa, has large double decker coach buses. Christine and I were lucky enough to sit in the top front and so for the parts of the trip when the windows weren’t foggy (not very often) we got a great view. The bus seemed to stop about every two hours for reasons beyond comprehension, though as veterans of many a long Marching Band bus trip Christine and I coped fine. Starting at around 6:30 am we even got to watch all three Back To The Future’s in reverse order!

We got to Cape Town around 11:30, only 30 min late despite leaving Jo’burg 2 hours late just to give you an idea of the type of driver we had. Cape Town is a beautiful and fun little city with so many things to see that we couldn’t even come close to seeing everything in just 3 days. Some highlights included: our trip out to Cape Point where the rain seemed to always start when we were furthest from our car, normally up some rocky path. And “accidentally” walking half way up Signal Hill in search of a tea house that was only 70 street numbers but about 10 steep blocks from where we started. On the plus side we got to have an amazing tea with some great views of Table Mountain, the city, and the water front. By our last day we’d rented the car we would use for the rest of the trip and decided to do both Table Mountain and Robben Island in one day before driving out of the city to stay further down the coast. Table Mountain was covered in a giant tablecloth of clouds and we could barely see people standing 10 feet in front of us, let alone the city. But when it comes down to it I would much rather have had good views of Table Mountain then good views from the top which is exactly what we got.

I think that’s enough for my first post about this trip. The next one will be about our fast passed journey from Cape Town to Barberton, almost exactly opposite sides of country. I would also like to mention a couple we met in Cape Town staying at the same place we were. They’ve been traveling west around the world from South America through Australia and Asia for the last 8 months and plan to continue up through Africa and Europe. Their blog, which is filled with lots of pictures and longish articles, can be found here. It was quite cool to talk to people who had seen so much in the past year and managed to do such a trip on limited savings. I invited them to come visit me in Barberton if they make it this far in their months stay in South Africa. They say they don’t really plan much before entering a country and figure it all out day by day. The best way to travel in my humble opinion.

GTOT and Confederations Cup

I got back yesterday from a week away from site. I spent all of last week with 10 other volunteers preparing for the next group of volunteers – SA20 – to arrive late next month at what Peace Corps calls General Training of Trainers or GTOT. This means I was at the training college in Marapyane were my Pre-Service Training (PST) was held last July. Instead of spending a night in Pretoria to catch the Peace Corps provided transport at 10am I decided to stay with my PST host family before GTOT started. It was great to spend the night with them and see how they were doing. In the morning I made my way vie public transport from their small village to the training college. It was amazing to realize how easy that actually was, but I never once did it during the three months of PST last year.

We put a lot of work into designing the schedule and divided up when we will all return to facilitate sessions at SA20′s PST. SA 20 will be replacing the SA 16 education volunteers leaving over the next few months and will mostly be on the opposite side of the country from me in the North West Province so I’m glade I’ll get a chance to meet them at PST. They will also all be learning Tswana. At our PST people learned 5 of South Africas 9 official languages: Sepdi, Tsonga, SiSwati, iNdebele, and Zulu. With so many languages being learned large group sessions had to always use English and practicing with people not in your language group was basically impossible. Our PST was a microcosm of the linguistic soup that makes up South Africa, but it wasn’t very conducive for learning or cross communication. It will be interesting to see how SA 20′s language training goes.

Sunday also happened to be the start of the FIFA Confederations Cup here in South Africa. There has been lots of build up to this international event in the news media. The Confederations Cup is a test run for the World Cup next year and from what I saw in Pretoria earlier this week I think they’ll be ready. I actually got to go to the USA vs Italy game on Monday night, and although it was 1 – 3 Italy it was very fun. There were plenty of buses between remote parking centers and the stadium and roads were closed around the stadium making it easy to walk there. Wait lines going in weren’t very long at all, though it did take a while to get out. My one complaint would be that there was very little order in the concession and bathroom lines during half time, it was pretty much a free for all mob and you had to force your self to the front to get anything. Never having been to a World Cup game before I’m not sure how much of a chaotic mad house half time concessions are but I think there’s was some room improvement. Maybe putting up queuing lines or something.

Coming back to site always requires a major mental shift. Your going from constantly being around other Americans where conversations that seem normal and not forced to being the only person from your cultural back ground and understanding. But its also nice to be back to the familiar routine, sounds, and feel of my little street in the township. There’s about one and a half weeks left in the school term here before a month long break. I want to try to get the ground work for projects I want to work on next term done in that time. The first week of break I’m planning to do math prep classes for the grade 12 students at a few high schools in this area. In November all South African 12th graders have to take matriculation tests to pass high school and over the next few months they will all put enormous amounts of energy into studying. I’m hoping to give them some tools that will make their studying easier and more efficient. After that I’m planning to go on a trip from Cape Town through the Eastern and Western Cape with a few other volunteers and a good friend from high school who’s coming to visit. So I also have a lot of work to do planning all the details of that trip.