After my most recent blog post, there was a substantial outpouring of sympathy and encouragement from friends and family. It was heartening. And while I appreciate the love – and its humbling to receive so many expressions of support – it seems as though I did a poor job of conveying the true message of the post. It was a reflection of the lessons I’ve learned during my service, the skills I’ve gained, and an appreciation of the value of experience. It was not intended as a requiem.
With this blog, I’ve endeavored to sustain a comme il faut tone, differentiated from the standard fare that characterizes most PCV blogs. I have attempted, with varying levels of success, to rein it in from the blather of daily routine, the cloying posts of death and disease, and the rollercoaster emotional field reports. My desire has been to write as detached from day-to-day activities as possible, instead reflecting on larger themes through the intimate and gritty lens of personal experience.
That being said, it now occurs to me I may have overcorrected and posted precious little in the way of success stories. That’s an error I shall take great pleasure in remedying now.
Siyakhula Boys Club is a life skills club that I facilitate along with the deputy principal from one of the primary schools to which I’m attached. We meet once a week, after school, for two short hours, with 31 male learners grades 6-8 that together represent five of the six schools in Steenbok.
Siyakhula is modeled off the Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) framework developed by PCVs in Eastern Europe during the 90s and now part and parcel of almost every Volunteer’s experience. Originally designed to empower women emerging from the suffocating veil of communism in economically imperiled countries, today it serves as a springboard to issues as far-ranging as HIV/AIDS awareness, economic empowerment, and life skills transfer.
The two previous Volunteers in Steenbok coordinated GLOW camps – the typical, week-long, sleep away camps at which girls and young women, surrounded by their peers, feel comfortable to discuss often taboo topics, be themselves, and grow personally and as a group. They are fantastic exercises in empowerment and I wish they were held regularly in America.
In South Africa, however, at least in the rural areas, men drive most social structure and cultural tradition. In addition, male behavior is a primary factor behind many of the problems plaguing the country today, including the rapid transmission of HIV/AIDS (multiple partners, refusal to strap up, sex as an on-demand right, a sugar daddy culture), economic disenfranchisement (women must tend the home), crime (figuratively and literally distant father figures), and violence (real men use their fists). This isn’t to lay the blame solely at the feet of men; but South Africa is very much a patriarchal society and to begin to address the challenges it faces means addressing the subset of the population that in strong part fuels those fires and must itself lead the charge in putting them out.
For this reason and a slew of others, my goal since day one has been to organize a Camp GLOW for young men (call it “Gents” Leading Our World). Unfortunately, while massively successful volunteers in their own right, both previous PCVs also handled the lion’s share of organizing their respective camps, but then let educators participate as facilitators. This set a precedent that I was not prepared to follow when I set mine in motion. For almost six months in the first half of 2010, I struggled with the educators that comprised our planning committee (step 1 in organizing a Camp GLOW), desperately encouraging them to own the club by actually performing the tasks they themselves had assigned each other and promised to do.
I understood eventually it would not happen if I waited for them so, instead, I partnered with my friend and closest colleague, the deputy principal, and adapted the Camp GLOW framework to a weekly after-school club that the two of us could plan and facilitate ourselves. (Peace Corps manual: “Volunteers will need to demonstrate resiliency and flexibility with regards to their projects.”) Since late 2010, after a few test runs and the successful application for a VAST Grant through the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, Siyakhula Boys Club has been meeting regularly – and it has been amazing.
Earlier this year, we participated in the OneWorld International Art Exchange. The boys all painted pieces of art – whatever they wanted, it only had to come from the heart – and I shipped them off to the NGO in America. In return, we will receive the same number of pieces of artwork, from the same age level children, from between 6 – 12 different countries from around the world. It’s going to blow their minds.
Two weeks ago, we talked about self-esteem, how it’s important in all our lives but especially young men’s, and how we can help build the self-esteem and thus self-worth of our friends and family. At the end of the session, my counterpart and I taped blank sheets of paper to their backs and had them walk around for twenty minutes writing something nice about that person on their back. The only rules: it had to be positive and it had to be genuine. I’ve never felt so proud.
For our last session, in two weeks, I’ve organized with the local health clinic to come and give a presentation on myths and facts about HIV/AIDS, do a condom demonstration, and then perform an HIV/AIDS test on me, in front of the boys, to try and demystify the whole thing. (Credit here must be given to my “mentee” and good friend PCV Sean Smith, whose fantastic idea this was and from whom I shamelessly ganked it.) The condom demonstration is especially important. Many South Africans have heard of the rare but alarming cases in which someone contracted HIV even after using a condom and this has led to the even more alarming beliefs that condoms are purposefully laced with HIV/AIDS by Western governments or corporations to intentionally infect Africans or that the condoms have holes large enough for HIV/AIDS to pass through during intercourse. The simple truth is that, in 99% of these cases, the condom was put on incorrectly and tore during sex. Thus, the demonstration.
My counterpart and I are also planning a big surprise trip for the boys for their “graduation” after classes get out in June – more on that soon. I’m also working tirelessly with the corporate social outreach divisions of regional companies to secure corporate support of Siyakhula for the immediate future so that it might endure once the embassy funding runs out (something the Camp GLOWs are supposed to accomplish by establishing that planning committee but, without which, always fails to happen).
In all, it’s been the lifeblood of my service and without it I would have long ago ET’d (Early Terminated). So, while I have frequently expressed frustration with other counterparts or shared a sobering account of failed projects, I do not for a moment wish I had done anything differently. Every volunteer’s service is unique, but not everyone is as lucky to have influenced the lives of so many promising South Africans – and to have been equally influenced by them. They are the future of this country and I am infinitely proud to have worked with them
Oh – in our local language, siSwati, siyakhula means “we are growing.”