Nov 30, 2009


This is a picture from my thanksgiving. A delicious taste of home, made by a South African no less! Good times.
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I'm back!

Sorry for the lack of updates this weekend. I had a lovely traditional thanksgiving, then went to visit another volunteer. I'll be posting some more updates later today. I hope everyone had a good turkey day!

Nov 25, 2009

Moar kittehs!

This picture isn't too good either, but it gives you an idea of the size of 'em.
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Nov 24, 2009


Yesterday the family cat gave birth to four babies. They're tiny, a bit hard to see in this picture. Their eyes are still closed, and they can't walk or stand up. Some people might hate me for saying this, but I really do like cats better than dogs (maybe because the runty, flea-ridden bastards bark every night for hours). The cats seem to have fewer fleas than the dogs as well--I think it's a different species that lives on cats. I find myself considering adopting one of the kittens for my time here. It would be nice to have a companion, and a cat would be so much less hassle than a dog. No doubt as they get older they'll be less attractive, but for now they're awfully cute.

The whole birthing process was interesting to watch. This was the mother's first litter, yet she knew exactly how things should go. When the baby came out, she licked it clean, then bit off the umbilical cord. When the afterbirth came, she ate it immediately. A model of efficency.

It's odd how animals can have that kind of complex behavior programmed into them already. The story with humans (as far as I know) is that as we evolved larger and larger brains, more and more development had to take place outside the womb because the baby had to pass through the mother's pelvis. One could imagine an alien species where there was no such structural restriction (or perhaps a egg-style gestation) and more genetic memory could be retained.
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Nov 23, 2009

Thoughts on the Peace Corps

There's a post that's been kicking around in my head for awhile and reading the blog of one of my fellow South African finally brought it into focus (her blog is great, by they way, you should definitely check it out):
As much as I came into this thinking I was expectation-free, the reality of it is I did expect to see circumstances more along the lines of what I saw in Ghana and Uganda. I’ve been struggling a little bit with this and somewhat questioning the role of Peace Corps here. The biggest problems, as far as I have seen thus far, lie in the lack of morale and motivations of society and continued disparity among races. These are problems that can only be healed with time. Clearly, there is work to be done in the schools and there is definite value to having Peace Corps volunteers working in them. I think my problems are more selfish, in the fact that I have never held much interest in working in education, among other things. Anyway, I know there’s no use in second-guessing since I’m determined to stay regardless.
This is almost exactly how I've been feeling lately, being right up in the face of an education system in almost total collapse. The biggest problem is not the lack of teachers (though that is a problem) it's that the teachers don't do their jobs. For my part, I'm tending to trace this to a problem with the Batswana culture in general, but I won't go into that yet; I'll save it for another post. Yet I too am asking "what the hell am I doing here?" (Not that I want to leave--I'm having a great time for the most part. Think of it as more academic curiosity.)

Matt Yglesias turned me on to this article in the Washington Note:
It is undoubtedly true that the United States remains the predominant military power on Earth - and that countries as diverse as Canada, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Japan (along with many others) depend on American military power to provide security for international commerce as well as for baseline, worst-case scenario security guarantees. There is also little doubt that the United States obtains strategic benefits in exchange for these services in the form of energy supplies, cooperation against common threats, and more.

The problem is that this power - while immense - is not very fungible. That is, the United States cannot easily threaten to withhold a portion of its security guarantee or its protection of international waterways if (say) Turkey chooses not to support the United States' policy toward (say) Iran. Compounding the problem is that the worst-case scenarios in which American military power would be necessary are more difficult to imagine today.
My college history professor reminded me just the other day of something he calls "Segel's First Law: Every problem is essentially a problem in diplomatic history." Here I think I've found my answer. We're here as one of the faces of a new "soft-power" approach toward diplomacy for the new administration. Since we aren't invading random countries left and right one might suppose that America had lost interest in influencing the world, or had perhaps scaled down its efforts. Not so. I'm part of the diplomatic shtick now.

The new Palin book

Apparently Sarah Palin wrote a book called Going Rogue (really--well, someone ghostwrote it for her). I'm not going to read it, but Matt Taibbi hits this post out of the park:
Palin — and there’s just no way to deny this — is a supremely gifted politician. She has staked out, as her own personal political turf, the entire landscape of incoherent white American resentment. In this area she leaves even Rush Limbaugh in the dust.

The reason for that is that poor Rush is an anachronism, in the sense that his whole schtick revolves around talking about real political issues. And real political issues are boring.

Listen to Rush any day of the week and you’ll hear him playing the old-fashioned pundit game: he goes about the dreary business of picking through the policies and positions and public statements of Democrats and poking holes in them, arguing with them, attacking them with numbers and facts and pseudo-facts and non-facts and whatever else he can get his hands on, honest or not, but at least he tries. The poor guy nearly killed himself this summer trying to find enough horseshit to arm himself with against the health care bill, coming up with various fairy tales about how state health agencies used death panels to try to kill cancer patients who just wanted to live a little longer, how section 1233 is Auschwitz all over again, yada yada yada.

Rush is no Einstein, but the man does research. It may be fallacious and completely dishonest research, but he does it all the same. His battlefield is world politics and most of the time the relevant action is taking place in Washington. As good as he is at what he does, he still has to travel to the action; he himself isn’t the action.

Sarah Palin’s battlefield, on the other hand, is whatever is happening five feet in front of her face. She is building a political career around the little interpersonal wars in the immediate airspace surrounding her sawdust-filled head. And in the process she connects with pissed-off, frightened, put-upon America on a plane that’s far more elemental than the mega-ditto schtick.
Read the whole thing. Funny.

Nov 22, 2009

Things I never learned in school

You've gotta embiggen this picture and check it out. I never knew pot caused diarrhea!
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Nov 20, 2009

Burning trash

I had a good blaze going last night from my monthly pile of trash. This picture is from after it burned down quite a bit. Burning trash (as well as littering) is strangely thrilling. There's not much else to do with it--there are no dumps, and I don't want to bury things where people drink the water right out of the ground. Yet so many unspoken codes are being broken I feel almost criminal, in a good way.

At first, I started a small fire in case the plastic didn't want to burn. Then I upended my fridge's cardboard box with most of the trash in it over the top. This sealed well at the ground, making a square pillar of trash with the fire at the bottom. I thought it would smoulder slowly for a while, but after a couple seconds it burned like a gas flare. For a few moments the sides of the box contained it, and the fire poured out the top like the tresses of some demonic Rapunzel.

I wished that I had my camera, but I didn't want to miss it, and sure enough, it died down in only a couple minutes. Does taking a picture of something that beautiful and ephemeral cheapen its essence? Perhaps some of the beauty is due to the sheer transitory nature of flame. Still, I would get a lot of pleasure from posting a cool picture online, even if some fairy thing I couldn't see had to be imprisoned to do it. Maybe I'm just selfish.

Ruminations like this should be punctured. So in any case, with the box I think I acheived a much higher average temperature and burned most of my trash with much less soot and carcinogens than the average.
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Keep your wits about you online

Felix Salmon details a sleazebag practice:
In general, the customers of these companies have no idea that they’re customers until they discover mysterious charges on their credit-card bills. When they investigate further, they find that during the checkout process at reputable websites like or, they inadvertently clicked on a link which automatically gave their credit card details to these rip-off merchants.
By the way: CPM means cost per thousand, or how much these companies pay the website per thousand clicks on the ad (I learned this in the comments). Previously those same companies harassed another blogger in court about this same thing. Definitely a good reason to keep your an eye on your credit card bill.

Via Kevin Drum.

Nov 18, 2009

Nov 17, 2009

News: the road goes ever on and on

This is a picture of the road to Heuningvlei.

Not much has changed here in my village. The students are taking their end-of-year tests, as the year is over the second week in December. I’m helping write the exams, as I’ve been teaching nearly all the English and maths classes for the senior phase (grade 7-9). I’m getting ready for the Thanksgiving celebration in town, which should be a nice get-together for us Northern Capesters. I’m also preparing for my Christmas vacation in Eastern Cape with a load of other Peace Corps. It will be nice to get out of the desert for a time.

I’ve been practicing my Setswana, which seems to be improving, albeit very slowly. Oddly, I’ve been practicing Afrikaans a lot, and improving very fast. I think this is mostly due to my possession of a good Afrikaans-English dictionary, and a couple Afrikaans books. I’m not quite sure why I want to learn—the language has a strange attraction for me. All the double letters, the harsh yet romantic sound of it (consider words like “belangrik,” or “Highveld”), it’s just cool. I've always liked the idea of speaking other languages in any case--which ones are of secondary importance. I think I’m almost alone in this pursuit—that and my obsessive blog posts are my most distinctive attributes amongst my cohort of Peace Corps. Though on the other hand, Afrikaans is very close to Dutch, which is very close to German and Flemish in its turn. If I ever turn up in Europe I may be glad for my studying.

I’m also integrating into the village, even more slowly than I’m learning Setswana. This weekend there was a funeral for one of my neighbors, so a whole bunch of my host family showed up to hang out and spend the whole weekend shitfaced. A local mentally ill guy with a crushed nose showed up as well, and he would not stop speaking to me in Afrikaans no matter what I did. That was a bit off-putting, but I also talked for a long time with a woman named Maletsatsi (my host niece technically, I think, but she’s 29) who is a civil engineer for the local government. It’s always interesting to talk to someone whose English is good enough that I can’t easily confuse her—with most everyone else I can drawl a bit, or talk fast, or use a few idiomatic expressions and become unintelligible.

As I speak to other volunteers I’m getting the impression that I am in a nearly unique situation. It’s definitely against Peace Corps policy for my family to sell alcohol, and living in what amounts to a tavern can be a little weird sometimes (like when I wake up on Sunday at 8:00 to find a couple guys already staggering drunk). Yet I like my host family, and I try to participate where I can, like helping brew some of their hooch. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to handle rough situations, to not be disgusted or scared by poverty. One of my few talents, if I can call it that. I might not be sophisticated, or have good taste, or be able to cook, or have sexy hair like Cary Grant, but I can handle indigence. Still, being a female here would be out of the question. South Africa is a rough place to be a woman.

One other thought: the power of English continues to amaze me. So adaptable, so plastic, so many different little dialects everywhere around the world—mostly I’m astounded at the how far the language has penetrated foreign countries, and how much it is embraced by different cultures around the world. Knowing English as well as I do gives me tremendous power, and I’m just beginning to realize the extent of it. (Of course, English might be as it is because it was the language of the world’s most powerful empires for several centuries, and we've made it a huge advantage to know English well, but that’s a question for another time.) I wonder if anyone will be speaking Setswana in 100 years.
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Test fail

Today the grade 9s took a bit of the second part of their massive test they've been working on for the last few months. This was the first question, referring to a map of a bit of the Free State. The only problem? There was no such map included with the test. They couldn't have answered the questions anyway, but it was still galling.

Bonus points if you notice the grammatical mistake.
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Article of the day

This is a really interesting piece on reformed Islamists in England, and their process of reform. Perceptive and enlightening.

Nov 16, 2009

Terrorism: war or crime?

Matthew Yglesias puts down what I have often thought, but more clearly:
...I think it’s pretty clear that international terrorism has some dimensions that go well-beyond ordinary law enforcement, but if you have to put the whole thing in either the “crime” box or the “war” box, there’s a pretty strong case for erring on the side of crime.

In political terms, the right likes the war idea because it involves taking terrorism more “seriously.” But in doing so, you partake of way too much of the terrorists’ narrative about themselves. It’s their conceit, after all, that blowing up a bomb in a train station and killing a few hundred random commuters is an act of war. And war is a socially sanctioned form of activity, generally held to be a legally and morally acceptable framework in which to kill people. What we want to say, however, is that this sporadic commuter-killing isn’t a kind of war, it’s an act of murder. To be sure, not an ordinary murder—a mass murder—but nonetheless murder. It’s true that if al-Qaeda were something like the “blowing up train stations” arm of a major country with which we were otherwise at war, it might make the most sense to think of al-Qaeda as fitting in with spies and saboteurs; criminal adjuncts to a warrior enterprise.

After all, do we really want to send the message to the world that a self-starting spree killer like Nidal Malik Hasan is actually engaged in some kind of act of holy war? It seems to me that we don’t. A lot of people in the world are interested in glory, and willing to take serious risks with their lives for its sake. Insofar as possible, we want to drain anti-American violence of the aura of glory. And that means by-and-large treating its perpetrators like criminals.

Pension day

Today was the day when the grannies get their pension. They set up shop right outside my house, and it was the site of a little capitalist scrum where people were selling popsicles, peanuts and booze. At least that government handout is going somewhere.

My host mother was roasting those peanuts this morning; I trust she had a good take. The head of department tried to convince me that my mother was putting something called "come again" on the little bags of peanuts. They were pretty delicious.
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The view from my window

That's the chicken coop there, in the back, and the goat pen behind that.
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Nov 15, 2009

Sometimes the world is depressing

Bad news from Costa Rica:
But haphazard development, in tandem with warmer temperatures and rising seas that many scientists link to global warming, have vastly diminished the Pacific turtle population.


Worldwide, there are seven sea turtle species, and all are considered threatened. (Turtle populations in the Atlantic have increased over the last 20 years because of measures like bans on trapping turtles and selling their parts.)

The leatherback is considered critically endangered on a global level. Populations are especially depleted in the Pacific, where only 2,000 to 3,000 are estimated to survive today, down from around 90,000 two decades ago. Cooler sands alone will not save them, given the scope of the threats they face. At Playa Junquillal, markers placed a decade ago to mark a point 55 yards above the high tide line are now frequently underwater.
Turtles are truly magical creatures (just ask my mother). Swimming with one is as close to a spiritual experience as I could describe.

I fear the leatherback is probably doomed. A terrible shame; I always wanted to see one.

Nov 14, 2009

Quote of the day

"I'm so old I can remember when ritualized symbolic execution of public officials wasn't cool." --Josh Marshall

Apparently some teabaggers are planning to burn Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA) and Nancy Pelosi in effigy.

Want to buy a cow?

This is a picture of a newly-built cattle auction house, complete with scale and all the trimmings. It's roughly equivalent to a place called the "Sale Barn" back home. It was supposed to work as a co-operative selling stray cows from around the area, but people were apparently unwilling to raise anyone's cattle other than their own, so it sits empty. Maybe they'll find a use for it someday.
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Nov 13, 2009

Things kids do at my school besides learn, part IV

It's just a simple soccer game. This might be a bit hard to see, but I somehow managed to catch the ball in midair.
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Nov 12, 2009

James Joyce was a good writer

"At Duke lane a ravenous terrier choked up a sick knuckly cud on the cobblestones and lapped it with new zest."

Morning assembly

One of the (few) things I like about the school system here is that every morning they get together and sing a few songs. At a middle school, it's kinda cute, but at a decent high school, it's deeply impressive. When we visited a high school in Marapyane, they sung us a song and it was Mormon Tabernacle Choir-quality, with seven-part (or more) harmony and resounding bass.
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On complaining

The APCD (associate Peace Corps director) visited me today, and we had a very nice chat. A subject that came up was the amount of complaining relative to other countries that we had visited. He brought up Uganda, where teacher salaries are genuinely meager, where most teachers have to take a second job to make ends meet.

Yet here, where my principal makes $2400 per month (with zero housing cost), and even a normal teacher can afford a house and a car, complaining is like the national sport. From my parents I have a deep dislike of whining, a kind of British stoicism that I value highly. (Of course, I like to sit around and bitch the same as anyone--I'm talking about serious complaining, like when one's house has burned down.) My principal teaches one class, goes back to the staffroom, and spends the rest of the day talking about how tired he is. I just have to bite my tongue and smile.

A lot of people here seem...spoiled, I guess the word would be. Of course, they're not spoiled in a literal sense, as in having lots of material things and taking them for granted. They're spoiled in the sense that they don't know how good they have it, especially compared to countries like Zimbabwe or Sudan, and they don't value staying strong and not whining all the time. It's a weak, sickly kind of attitude, always demanding help from the government, and complaining bitterly when it doesn't come.

I suppose this like many other problems can be traced to Apartheid, which while stomping down the African tribes also kept them at a bare minimum of existence. I imagine this would quickly lead to a loss of motivation and an embrace of victimhood, as there was mostly no other option.

One of the tenets of adapting to another culture is accepting or even enjoying facets of that culture. The example they gave is bargaining, which I don't like much, but could imagine getting used to. Yet I don't think I will ever appreciate this aggrieved atmosphere (or the constant begging for money). Knowing where it comes from may help me tolerate it, but I'll never like it.

Nov 11, 2009

Structural reform in the Senate

Matthew Yglesias has a couple of good posts on the nihilistic cesspool that is the Senate:
A persistent liberal failure in terms of legislative tactics seems to me to be the repeated belief that if you try to make a compromise proposal, that the compromise will be adopted and then you’ll get half a loaf. The reality of the way the legislative bargaining process works, it seems to me, is that you make a proposal and then a bloc of moderate legislators demands concessions. Whatever you propose, you then have to make concessions since the moderates wouldn’t be moderate if they didn’t make the liberals make concessions. So you might as well have had the bill start with a sweeping expansion of abortion rights—require that all Exchange plans offer a full suite of reproductive health services. Then you start bargaining.
And this one on the devious practice of the "hold:"
So now it’s Senator George LeMieux of Florida’s turn to screw things up with a hold.

Neither DeMint nor LeMieux invented the abuse of the hold procedure, but the Republican Party of the 111th congress has taken this to such new heights that it’s about time the Senate take some responsibility and start organizing itself like a legislative body of an important country and not like a country club. The ability for one senator to delay confirmation of key executive branch personnel indefinitely for no real reason has never been a good idea. At times, this power has been abused to advance policy goals I believe in. Oftentimes it’s used to advance bad policy goals. More recently, it just seems to be being used as a matter of principle—maximum feasible obstruction. It needs to be changed.
I've often regretted that the Democrats didn't allow Cheney to destroy the filibuster. A parliament would be a much better setup, but we're stuck with the Senate, so we have to make do with what we have.

Department of WTF, anger bureau

This pretty much speaks for itself:
WASHINGTON — Top executives at Blackwater Worldwide authorized secret payments of about $1 million to Iraqi officials that were intended to silence their criticism and buy their support after a September 2007 episode in which Blackwater security guards fatally shot 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, according to former company officials.
Some of the perils of using mercenaries. One wonders if this will problems will disappear if we have totally robotic armies.

Nov 10, 2009

Nov 9, 2009

A further thought on administrators

A few posts back I was talking smack about the Peace Corps and put down administrators rather glibly. My grandmother reminds me that my grandfather was an city manager in Tempe years ago, and by all accounts a good one.

Americans especially are mistrustful of government employees, and it's easy to find examples of mindless bureaucrats callously stamping on someone. Yet for the most part our government works fairly well. When Republicans ask if I'd like a health care system that works like the post office, I reply "hell yes!" Relatively cheap, reliable, a bit rickety, always running out of money, but they get the job done. At least they aren't actively trying not give me what I paid to have.

Decent bureaucrats are one of the most glaring necessities in South Africa. Especially in a heavily socialized country like this one, if one doesn't have a semblance of professionalism throughout the government, your state-run electricity tends to go out all the time (just one example).

Of course we in the states have a long way to go to achieve the efficiency of, say, Denmark. Yet it's not 1984. The mail gets delivered and seniors get their social security checks. It's probably a good idea to be skeptical of bureaucrats and managers, but we must appreciate the decent ones when they deserve it.

Another dead snake

Found this one squashed on the road in my village--the last one was outside of it. It's almost certainly a puff adder, the most common snake in South Africa. It's pretty venomous, which is a little disconcerting. Not as bad as a black mamba but bad enough.

Nevertheless, I reckon snakebites should be avoidable for the wary. I don't go tromping around in the bush, mostly just in the riverbed or where the walking is nice and open. Things like this make me keep my eyes open, and indoors at night.
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Nov 8, 2009

Department of WTF, angry bureau

This can't be for real:
As the unemployment rate crossed the 10 percent threshold at week’s end, we learned that bankers were helping themselves not just to bonuses as large as those at the bubble’s peak but to early allotments of H1N1 vaccine. No wonder 62 percent of those polled by Hart Associates in late September felt that “large banks” had been helped “a lot” or “a fair amount” by “government economic policies,” but only 13 percent felt the “average working person” had been.
Torches! Pitchforks!

Nov 7, 2009

On logistics

One of the big concepts they talked about a lot at PST was "a slower pace of life." The idea was that here in South Africa people are less concerned with progress, getting things done, etc., so things tend to take a lot longer. I envisioned this as somewhat similar to what I saw in Belize where the unofficial national motto is "go slow," and work starts late and ends early. Yet when the work is actually in progress, it goes reasonably fast. On a side note, I'm not wholly familiar with Belize and I could be misconstruing the place. I use it only for purposes of contrast, so forgive me if I'm making a grievous error.

I find the South Africa version of this is not at all the laid back, "screw it, let's do it tomorrow, them beers ain't gonna drink themselves" philosophy I was expecting. Rather it has more to do with the lack of organizational prowess that is endemic here. Here's a story from one of my fellow PCVs:
I reached my absolute breaking point with this the other day. Wednesday I had planned to be in the Grade 2/3 class all day and help the teacher in class. Of course, as things here never really go according to plan, my principal felt this morning would be much better spent switching the staffroom and the grade 2/3 room. Her reasoning: the staffroom gets too dusty when its windy. Naturally this would be a much better environment for the students. Like I said… logic = NONEXISTENT. So after 2 hours of making every single learner carry desks, chairs, papers, even a fridge, back and forth, the classrooms were officially switched.
Let me emphasize that there is an epic level of laziness and procrastination here. But what really drives me nuts is that when people are trying to accomplish something, they can't organize themselves worth a damn--and of course the government employees are ten times worse than anyone else.

I'll give you an example. The other day I went with my principal to Kuruman so I could buy a fridge. We were supposed to leave at 10, but first he forgets his glasses, then his ATM card, then his wife, necessitating three separate trips back to his house. Then the construction workers at the school want to get some sand, so they borrow the truck for about an hour. We finally get on the road at 12:45. Once we get to Kuruman at 2:30 we stop at the ABSA ATM for my principal to get money, which put us in a furniture store at 3:00. They have a fridge advertised for R1500, but it's out of stock, so I put in an order for that and pick up an electric kettle. I try to pay with my ATM card, but it doesn't work, so I have to go draw money at the FNB ATM. Before we do that, though, my principal drives 30 km to the municipality (back towards my village--we nearly passed it on the way) to pick up an application to be a contractor for installing pit toilets. Of course no one knows where it is, so we have to wait 20 minutes while they look. We make it back to Kuruman and the wife calls, wanting to be driven across town, which we do. It's now 4:30 (most shops close at 5), so we go back to the first store and pay for the fridge and the kettle. We have to time to look in one more shop for a stove, but it's more money than I have and I've already maxed out my one-day limit on the ATM card.

So my principal and I give up and head to Shoprite for some groceries (because it closes at 6). By 6 we're out of Shoprite and we head back to the wife, who's getting her hair done. How much longer, asks my principal. Ten minutes, says the wife. An hour later we're on the road back to my village.

Oh, and that application from the municipality? It was due three days later. How long is it? At least 250 pages. Just like on November 4th my principal wanted help finding some college application forms off the internet for his friend. When is the last possible date to apply to any college in South Africa? October 30. Yet this was the first time they had tried to get forms together. I felt like shaking them.

I confess that (being quite lazy myself) I find the Belizean way a lot easier to deal with. I don't like to work more than the next bum, but when I work, I want to see results--I don't want to be standing there, trying not to shout "Why the hell are you doing it like THAT?!" Is that cultural imperialism? Quite frankly I don't much care.

It would be ridiculous to say America has a monopoly on logical thinking--some would probably argue that Sweden or something is much better in that regard. Yet I feel that it's a distinctly (but not uniquely) American quality to look at things, especially government programs, with some unvarnished skepticism. If it's not working, then fergawdsake let's try something else. Cut the BS!

There's a war going on, and the stakes are nothing less than Glenn Beck's internal organs

Last night I broke down and downloaded a video, using up 15 or so of the precious megabytes. I was not disappointed.


I do miss home, but in some ways I'm glad I'm not back there:
With the release of the jobs report on Friday, the broadest measure of unemployment and underemployment tracked by the Labor Department has reached its highest level in decades. If statistics went back so far, the measure would almost certainly be at its highest level since the Great Depression.

In all, more than one out of every six workers — 17.5 percent — were unemployed or underemployed in October. The previous recorded high was 17.1 percent, in December 1982.
Hell of a time to graduate from college. South Africa is feeling the bite too, but as most people in my village didn't have jobs to start with, it's not making a huge difference.

Nov 6, 2009

Nov 4, 2009

Things kids do at my school besides learn, part I

Yesterday the principal had them build a little brick shack for building a fire and cooking when the power goes out, which happens all the time these days.

I'm beginning to get the idea that most of the problems at my school are due to the principal. He's not a bad person, but he's a terrible gossip, doesn't teach his classes, and generally fosters an unprofessional atmosphere. For the few classes I've seen him teach (I've counted him in the class three times since I got here) he mostly just sits and chats with the students in Setswana.

The reason I mention gossip is that today I was talking with the Grade 8s during a break and they said I should go and visit America. I told them I don't have enough money, and they replied that the principal had told them that I am a "rich man." I told them that the principal is a liar--kinda pissed me off, actually. No one in my village believes that I am actually as poor as them in terms of my income. They all believe that I brought piles of money from America, and the principal's big mouth pretty much guarantees I'll never convince them otherwise.

I mentioned this episode to some of the other teachers and they spoke of the principal with open scorn. The few actually dedicated teachers are mostly in the lower grades, and they said that the principal brags to the students about his own salary or tells them how much the other teachers make and other such business.

I also got a chance to visit the lower grades, and the discipline was miles better than the upper grades. Apparently having no teacher for years tends to erode discipline. Who knew?
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A goat story

Goats are my favorite animals at my house, I think. Cows are too large and alien, chickens are too damn loud and shit everywhere, and the dogs bark and jump on me. The baby kids do make a noise (what do you call that?) during they day, an eerily human kind of wailing, but it's not nearly as loud as a rooster and they sleep at night. Still, more than once I've walked out my door to see who had left their baby in the road only to find a lonely kid broadcasting its location to goatdom.

The other day I was sitting outside and reading, and half-watching the animals swirl around me in the hopes that I would drop something savory. One of the smaller goats (a couple months old, I'd guess) was trying for a one of the low walls that lie around our compound, about waist-high. Goats are fairly nimble, but this one was just a bit too small to make the leap. Finally he backed away, got up a head of steam, and made a running leap. He made the wall, but carried a bit too much momentum and fell over the other side into a large water trough. I only looked up in time to see his hind legs disappear amid a half-human burbling scream. He thrashed around in there for a good minute, splashing around and making a terrific racket. I'm not sure if I've laughed that hard since I arrived in Africa.
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Nov 3, 2009

Another tortoise

Shamefully, I picked this one up to give a sense of scale, but I reckon it was fine after a few minutes. He was much smaller than the last one. Cute, eh?
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My school's new additions

This is a picture of the staffroom of my school. On the left and the right you can see the new additions that started about a month ago. It's a kitchen on the left and an office for the principle/storeroom on the right. (One of the good things about the school--perhaps the best one, actually--is that the kids get a solid meal every day.) The cost, according to my principal, was 200,000 rand (about $27,000).

I've laid out many problems with South African schools, but money is not the chief one. Sure, they're nowhere near the monetary level of an American school (or the glitzy "Model C" schools here in South Africa that actually get near 100% pass rates on the matric test), but they've got more than enough to make do. They've already got two industrial-quality laser printer-copiers, and today the government dropped off another one (don't know why.) Massive piles of books go unused or even sorted.

South Africa is a rich country, especially by the standards of Africa. As I might have said earlier the city of Johannesburg accounts for fully 10% of the GDP of the entire continent. Like most rich countries the government is fairly corrupt and lazy, and throwing money at a problem is a good backup choice when their imported "National Curriculum Statement" collapses like a Goldman Sachs asset bubble.

I must say that the scent of concrete, sawdust, and paint made me unexpectedly nostalgic for home. Good old solid construction work--there's something honest about it that warms the soul.
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Nov 2, 2009


"WASHINGTON—Claiming that the president was preying on the public's fear of contracting a fatal disease last week when he declared the H1N1 virus a national emergency, Republican leaders announced Wednesday that they were officially endorsing the swine flu."

Beauty alert

This was from a couple days back, before one of the big storms.
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I hope everyone is doing well as the northern hemisphere settles into winter. Here it's getting hot, and also raining a lot. It's kind of a monsoon feel, but it doesn't rain in the afternoon, rather in the night. Clouds start building in late afternoon and roll in heavy about sundown. This tends to kill the cell phone signal, as well as the electricity. The storms are powerful--two nights ago was literally the most intense lightning storm I've ever seen. The lightning came so fast it was almost like a strobe light, or a fireworks show finale, and a couple bolts struck less than 200 yards away by my reckoning. Like the unzipping of the fly of God Almighty (as the old man said). The rain was so heavy (or perhaps my roof so lousy) that water ran down the walls and drenched a couple of my books. Not to worry, they've mostly dried out now and I've got many spares. One of these days I hope to get the roof fixed up. I do have a screen door now, which is all kinds of awesome. It's definitely fly season here and an open door is something they can't resist, the pugnacious little devils.

The storm was hard on the local livestock, too. We lost a puppy and eight smallish chickens--I assume they must have drowned, as it wasn't that cold. Maybe the wind and the rain could make it that cold? They are very small. The puppies are hard to manage. They're not quite big enough yet to look after themselves, but big enough to get in trouble. Last night I watched a man trod on one in the dark. It flailed around, whining pathetically, unable to stand. That was a bit troubling--I kept imagining snuffling around in the dark, suddenly trapped under the crushing weight of a giant. I thought its leg was broken for sure (= death, no vets here), but today it's walking around fine. They ought to fix these animals, but no one seems to do that. It's more of the law of the jungle here. I bet I've seen 25 dead chickens since I came here at my house alone.

Here at my house the drinking continues apace, but my host mom (or Ma Setlholoeng as she is known) definitely keeps them in line. The other day I watched her (she's past 80, remember) nail an errant drunk at four paces with a donkey whip. That made me feel a bit better about things.

There's not much to report on the teaching front. I've mostly given up lesson planning for now until I get a better idea of what the kids know. Today I planned to review long division with the 7th grade class only to learn that almost all of them did not understand division at all. I'm flailing a bit, but getting better. It's remarkable how good the kids are--even the "bad" ones will try, if I can keep a handle on them. My job is much easier in many ways than a US teacher--I shudder to remember the stories from teachers in the Bronx.

Peace Corps continues to surprise me with their cluelessness. I've adapted an Abbey quote for them: "As governmental agencies go the Peace Corps is a good one, far superior to most. This I attribute not to the administrators of the Peace Corps--like administrators everywhere they are distinguished chiefly by their ineffable mediocrity--but to the actual working volunteers in the field, the majority of whom are capable, honest, dedicated people." It's astounding that they do not realize that if they give us a ridiculous task we will not do it. A fault with managers everywhere--creating an atmosphere that paves over the reality of the situation with nice, comfortable bureaucratic language. You give me the form, I make up the results and return it, everyone is happy, nothing is accomplished. And the managers have no clue.

Nov 1, 2009


This isn't too good of a picture, but the one in the middle there went right through the sole of my shoe into my foot. Not far, but it still took me by surprise. I should really get some new shoes...oh wait.
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