Friday, May 29, 2009

Currency conversion at 1:1

Have you ever had such a strange and vivid dream that while waking up, you’d need to concentrate on remembering where you were while blinking your weary eyes open?  That only the wash of familiar surroundings would erode the action-packed emotions experienced in the dream?  We experienced this every morning for the first week after April 18, the day we returned to Vancouver after spending eight months on the continent of Africa.  Our African memories were so vivid, yet so out of place with the comfort and familiarity of home.  We’re no longer fresh off the boat, so I think our Ebola quarantine must’ve expired by now.  Apologies to everyone whose hands we’ve already shaken.

Although everything in Vancouver is familiar, it seems strangely distant.  It’s like 8 months of our Chinese-Canadian histories have been scooped out from our memories, and replaced with strange African experiences.  Experiences such as coping with cold showers, walking in our carpeted homes with shoes on, depending on a schedule or others for transportation, 2 hour bus rides that cost only $4 and taxi rides costing only $0.30, sharing a living space with other people, and driving on the left side of the road.

Living in Africa wasn’t a challenge, as many people would assume.  It was more like walking through a museum to avoid tipping over ancient artifacts, in how we carefully controlled our social movements.  At our schools and local community, we were always aware of the thin line between friend and tourist, limiting our actions and how that may affect our experiences within the community (I never took out my PDA in public, rarely used my laptop outside my office, used the cheapest-looking cell phone possible, and wouldn’t take out my camera in front of students until the final days). In public areas, we averted our eyes from street vendors working the major intersections so that our curiosity wouldn’t be construed as interest to buy, and said “no” countless times to hopeful vendors who wanted us to buy their souvenirs (“I give you special price”).  When we did need to buy things, we’d constantly need to haggle over the unlisted prices for everything from oranges to cans of tuna while mentally converting currencies once a price had been agreed upon.  In Johannesburg, we’d casually glance over our shoulders every few minutes to be sure of the intentions of those watching us, even during the day.  And although all the countries we visited were English speaking, slowing down our own speech and adopting the local accent helped others understand us.

We’ll miss the intimacy of living with the people that we worked with, pedestrians making eye contact and smiling or waving hello to each other, being able to instantly befriend someone you meet on the bus, and eons-old chiefdoms thriving in their spirit of community and family.  For the locals, there are few things more honourable than having a white person (that’s what they called us) visit their home.

They say that when a romantic relationship needs to go long-distance, it’s harder emotionally for the person who gets left behind.  We can imagine that this truth applies to our departure as well.  Our hearts fondly go out to all the full-time teachers and pastors who dedicate not just a few months, but their lives to the service of God’s kingdom and the children of Africa.  Although we were happy to live in environments that were new and unique to us, we did it fully knowing that we had support from the local pastors and missions organizations, and our family, church and friends abroad.

As teachers in Africa, we faced many challenges.  Africans have prioritized learning below that of knowing.  They have little patience for the former, as evident in the teaching styles of the local teachers who focus on memorization as a means of knowledge, and the college-age computer students who would prefer getting a certificate stating they know Excel rather than actually knowing Excel.  The children had exceptional memories when it came to stories, music, and dance, but teaching them analytical thinking was difficult.

Since they are not motivated for learning in itself being a goal, connecting with children emotionally was another technique for teaching them. However, this was challenging as well.  In Ghana, the large Muslim family unit (a husband would marry multiple wives and have many children) would cause children to distance themselves from adults, forming a certain distrust of adults.  Having to say goodbye to past short termers who became their friends never to return further diminishes any trust they have for foreigners.

For most of the students, English was a second language, and it formed a barrier to their learning.  Without any proper ESL classes, students had to translate for each other.  Much like some ESL students in Canada, some would feign the lack of comprehension to get easier work.  Dora formed a buddy mentoring program between the older students and younger students whose express purpose was to communicate only in English and build their confidence in the language.

While in Africa, we developed a stronger sense of our own culture.  We met only two other westernized Asians in our 8 months.  All other Chinese were from either mainland China, running small businesses, or from Hong Kong as part of the Ghana ministry.  Everywhere we went, we’d be asked where we were from.  The answer was never short, as “Canada” was never a satisfactory response, so we had to explain our heritage (“our parents are from China, but we were born in Canada”).  Old Chinese martial arts films were the basis of their Chinese education (we saw a group of kids watching such a film in Tanzania) so kids everywhere would show off the language they learned (“ching chong chang”) and their kung fu skills (kicking and punching through the air) as we’d walk through their villages.  In Canada, we fit in as nearly everybody is typically from somewhere else.  Contrast this with Africa where the furthest that half the young adults in the computer school have travelled is a few hours drive outside the town where we taught school.  Few have ever been outside their country.  Those who have were usually from a different country (like Nigerians immigrating to Ghana, or Zimbabweans escaping into South Africa).  Without much chance to experience another culture by travelling, the culture that comes to them instantly grabs their attention, and we embraced this, using it as an opportunity to talk to people and allow them to share their stories.

Spirituality, largely absence in the western world, is very much alive in Africa where the spiritual world is recognized as having significant impacts on their everyday lives.  This is true regardless of the religion.  In Ghana, we heard about a family that was broken up because of a curse by a fetish priest.  We sat in church services where individuals proclaimed to be healed of pains in their legs or stomach.  A “prosperity gospel” preached in many churches promised that prayer and faith would result in an easy and rich life.  There were satanic churches in our community that introduced dangerous suffocation-inducing games to our school kids.  This religiousness zeal underpinned society in rural Africa.

What’s it like to be back?  It’s as easy as putting on your shoes after a day in rental inline skates or skis.  It’s always easy to return to comfort, to forget the small blisters and calluses while remembering the unique once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

On Sunday, May 31 at 10:45 (we start promptly at 11am), we will be giving a (1:30hr) presentation at our churchduring the English Sunday School (Vancouver Chinese Alliance, 3330 Knight Street).  At or around 7:30pm on Thursday, June 4, we’ll also be sharing at the prayer meeting also at our church.  We’ll be giving a slide show and sharing more about the culture of a continent few have experienced, and answering any questions about our experiences and how we can support Africa.

Many thanks to all our supporters over the last eight months, without whom this trip would have been impossible.

Tim & Dora

Friday, April 17, 2009

101 photos of Africa

We're awaiting our flight home in the airport. We'll have memories of this continent and its people forever.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Kids just want to be loved

After 3 months of hanging out, giving countless detentions and puzzling over how these kids can learn math, I realize that the only lasting impact that I can leave is for them to feel loved.

To recount, I've been teaching 2 math classes a day to the grade 4/5s and grade 6/7s, acted as the school's remedial teacher, and started a "buddie" program between the older kids and younger kids. During the weekdays, we've spent so much time together, during and after school (even when we were sleeping as I could hear all of them breath/sleep talk during the night) that I felt like I was breathing kids. Now that the term is over and they're all back at home for their 2 week break, I can't help but to wonder what their lives at home are like.

On the last day of school, the school principal brought us to the Bopsfontein squatter camp (an informal settlement where people live on someone else's land because they're not being kicked off) where about a quarter of our school kids come from. We saw sights that were similar to Ghana, shacks that were made of of sheet metal and any other scraps instead of mud, uneven dirt roads, stray dogs going wherever they please, garbage strewn around and small stalls selling bags of snacks and food. However, unlike Ghana, people seemed less happy, and in the air hung a feeling of purposelessness. I wondered how such poverty and destitutness could exist in the same country where just a few miles away, white folk could be living in large houses surrounded by manicured lawns. On the other hand, I wondered how I could contine with my luxurious lifestyle (in comparison to these people). The irony is that I can't see myself living any other life.

I asked many of the children what they would be doing during their break, but most answered (like most kids) with a general response that they would just play all the time. One child, Tshidiso answered that he'll probably help his friend cut hair. That was an odd reponse but I soon understood that he, at such a young age of 13, wanted to try to earn a few extra bucks. I knew he came from a home where neither father nor mother cared for him, and whether or not he would see either of them is unknown. Most other kids were given a bit of money to buy snacks and extra food from the school's shop. He never got any.

On the last day of school, Tim and I tried to say good-bye to as many kids as we could by taking pictures and giving hugs. Even the naughty ones who fought and talked to others as much as they could get away with wanted a hug. It makes me feel that they only reason they got in trouble was to get a bit more attention, a bit more love. I'm not certain about what math concept will stick with them after 3 months of learning about place values, number patterns and multiplication, but I hope that whatever love God has given me to give to these children will stick.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

No more teachers dirty looks (almost)

Our final day at Aurora is tomorrow. It has been a jampacked three months here, bringing the school into the age of computers. Prior to our arrival, the school operated in a paper-only environment where student details were stored in binders in a filing cabinet, and monies brought in to the school were manually tallied each week and debited when items from the tuck shop were purchased. Attendance lists and mark tallies were hand written in books with ruler-created gridlines. Now, our student records are stored in a networked Access database system where the staff can look up monies stored in student accounts and quickly print out class lists or export them to Excel. We've issued students ID cards on which their student numbers are encoded as barcodes to make purchases from the tuck shop quick and relatively secure.

Two staff members, Agnes and Sipho, after being trained to use the tuck shop scanner

Previously, communally watched videotapes on a TV held seniority as teacher of mathematics (none of the human teachers here like teaching math), but now students can watch the videos at their own pace in a 9-computer Windows 98 computer lab through a web site which holds 60 hours (40gb) of mpeg video. The same videos have been backed up to VCD to allow for both conventional DVD players and the cd-rom equipped computers to still be able to play them in the event of a network outage/hard disk crash.

I've installed the "Tux" line of open source educational programs in the lab to help me teach mouse dexterity, math, and typing three times a week. Our school fees are very low, but extra-curricular activities, such as computer lessons, are fee-based, so student order is determined via a loose FIFO algorithm combining the date of their last payment and their latest computer lesson. It remains a very popular activity, as the waiting list is about 2 weeks long.

To celebrate the last day of school tomorrow, Dora and I will host a dance contest to show off rhythmic skills of the kids here (seriously, everybody has rhythm here).

Dora's a little busy sleeping now, so she'll post her report "just now" (South African for "eventually").

Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Friday, a thunderstorm released buckets of water upon our school. The first photo is just minutes after the storm began and some of Dora's students were navigating the newly formed river back to their classroom. Later on our way home, we saw piles of snow! (well, hail).
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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Not Springfield

When we first arrived in Johannesburg, it seemed strangely familiar...
Cooling towers resembling a nuclear power plant...

Jebediah Springfield

But then we find this in our bathroom sink to remind us we're not in Springfield anymore.
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You Canadians have it lucky

It was under a full moon that we experienced one of the most physically grueling trials of our lives—summiting Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. And it was under a full moon that I prepared for the most emotionally testing trial in South Africa—applying for an extension to our 90 day visa (we’re in the country 100 days). In Canada, the most stressful part of the ordeal might be finding parking downtown prior to waiting in line at the passport office. Here, a combination of factors makes it much more eventful here.

The Department of Home Affairs takes care of all things related to passports and visas. When I asked where that was, nobody was able to give me an address. The locals remember locations by directions rather than maps and addresses, so I needed to be taken to the office in the nearby town of Germinston at 9pm Wednesday night. I had read about not stopping at red lights (locally referred to as red robots) at night, but in the Edenvale area of Joburg where we stay, it’s not an issue. In Germinston, it is. There is virtually no traffic at 9pm (it’s like Vancouver at 2am), and the route to Germinston was straightforward, but my guide and I kept our eyes open as we cautiously rolled through intersections. Stories of smash-and-grabs (glass of car smashed as purses and etc. are grabbed in the commotion) ran through my head as I readied myself to take off at the first sign of somebody running towards our car.

Eventually we reached the office, where my guide explained the strategies involved in seeing somebody the same day that I arrive. The queue would be filled with refugees, mostly from Zimbabwe, and I would have to get there early. There are two other teachers at the school who’ve had to also line up, and they got to the office at 4am, and didn’t leave until noon.

At 5am Thursday morning, a mere 6 hours after I got home, I returned to the office. I found I was already number 23 in the queue, as I added my name to a sign-up sheet. Not so bad, until you consider that many of the names belong to agents who represent 20 or more clients whose applications need to be processed individually. I returned to my car to get a bit of rest before returning to the queue at 6am to add my name to a second official list taken by a security guard. A few people hadn’t returned, and I became number 20. At 7:30, the office opened, and the queue became a mass clogging up the front door while the security allowed those in who had registered properly to proceed upstairs to the office where we once again queued up. We were split into two lines—one for applying, and one for collecting. I then became number 4 in line as those collecting would only be served after those applying. The line for applying moved one every 30 minutes, and by 9am I was served. 25 minutes later, I was out. Yes, it took 25 minutes to make sure the forms I brought were properly filled out, that I had brought the correct documentation, and to print out a receipt (which alone was 10 minutes).

At least I got to leave before lunch time. But that doesn’t console me for my return to the office in two weeks when I need to pick up the visas.