Thursday, November 5, 2009

3 Grievances and the Minister of Education

*This blog was written in mid-October, but somehow didn’t get posted until today, which is why there are 2 blogs posted for today, so when it says “On Monday…” it really means “On Monday, 2 weeks ago…”*

With the school year quickly drawing to a close, all the kids on my homestead are frantically studying for their final exams, which they’re taking this week and next. Last week, my Sisi Londiwe came to me for help with a composition (essay) she was assigned to work on her persuasive writing. This was the topic:

It is necessary for teachers to beat students so that they will learn. Why do you agree?

Like a fool, I assumed the question part was a mistake and that the students were to choose a side and defend it, so I asked her if she was going to write in support of the statement or if she disagreed. She looked at me like I was crazy and told me they didn’t have a choice. Why would you ever disagree with the fact that students need to be beat? It’s so OBVIOUSLY true that the students weren’t even given a choice of which side to argue.

When we came to Swaziland, we were warned that corporal punishment was the norm, and I thought I could live with that. But, after a year of witnessing the beating of students and kids in general, I’m finding it difficult to be culturally sensitive.

I tried to start a debate with her, telling her (honestly) that I don’t agree with the statement. That no teacher has ever whipped, hit, paddled, or otherwise beat me in school, and I still learned. But getting beaten is so much a part of their school day that I don’t think she believed me. That afternoon, she told me, her teacher had lined all the students up in a single-file line to play a “game” to test their knowledge in science. He asked the first student in the line a question, then went down the line. A correct answer meant it was the next student’s turn, no praise necessary; an incorrect answer earned 5 whips on the hand with a softened reed, which makes it more like a whip than a stick (this is more painful than a stick). She showed me her hand, hot, swollen and covered in welts. She had gotten all 5 of her questions wrong. But, she said, she would remember the answers to all 5 of those questions on the exam. (What about the other 95? Wouldn’t it be a better strategy to teach all the kids all the information throughout the whole year than just punish them for incorrect answers the day before the test?)

Perhaps this is why the students are reluctant to answer questions when we play Jeopardy.

I wonder whether this kind of punishment actually works, though. When I was in school, I was afraid of the principal calling my parents or of disappointing my teachers or of failing myself, not of being hit. I know that, in schools here, beatings keep students quiet, on task and subservient, but what about in the real world? What keeps a 30-year-old, who knows she’s not going to get beat, from stealing or lying or being lazy? As I see it, corporal punishment only teaches people to behave as long as getting beat remains a threat, but more abstract punishments—grounding, scolding, all the things my parents did to me—are what keeps people well-behaved for the long-term.

But who’s thinking about the long-term?

As Sarah Erdman so eloquently described it in her book “Nine Hills to Nambonkaha,” one of my biggest frustrations in Swaziland is the “now” philosophy. Some Swazis seem to think only of the “now,” lacking foresight, not bothering to plan for the future. The “now” philosophy. I see it in financial planning, where my Sisi comes home with a big, expensive pack of cookies and then complains she has no money for laundry soap. In health care, where a person who doesn’t feel sick right now refuses to test for HIV until he or she feels sick, at which point it is often too late for treatment.

I am most frustrated by the “now” philosophy when it comes to family planning. Or the lack thereof. In the rural areas, people have as many children as possible. It’s like Little House on the Prairie: every boy is one more farmhand, every girl will help with the chores around the house, and you have to have lots in case half of them die. Lots of women get pregnant once a year, or maybe once every 2 years if their husband works in South Africa. Sometimes, they get pregnant every year even if they don’t have a husband. Thus, when I explain to people that I don’t have a child because I don’t have a husband, a job, a house or enough time to raise a child, they think I’m crazy. (If I tell them I don’t want a child, or that I want to finish my Master’s Degree first, they are completely confused because, to women in the rural areas, my only purpose should be to marry and have children.) To many of the women in my community, it seems that to have a baby you don’t have to have the MEANS to raise a child, you just have to have sex.

A few weeks ago, there was an article in the Swazi Times titled “Please Help Starving Triplets,” which I saved because it made me so angry. I’ll spare you the poorly-written article, but here are the facts: The mother is in her mid-twenties, unemployed, unmarried, never finished high school and already has 3 kids from 3 different fathers. She lives at home with her mother and a few nieces and nephews born out of wedlock that her siblings have dumped on her and her mother. She isn’t breastfeeding them because, she says, “there’s no milk coming out of her breasts,” which is usually the excuse given when an HIV-positive woman chooses not to breastfeed but doesn’t want her family to know her status. She complains, “I don’t know what to do when it comes to feeding them. I seriously have nothing to feed them with. No one is employed here at home and we rely on donations only.” She says that the father of the triplets was searching for a job in South Africa, but had been rejected everywhere he went because he had no work history. At the end of the article, she says that the triplets were a blessing from the Lord but that she doesn’t want to have any more children. Why? Not because she has no way to take care of them, but because it was painful to give birth to three children at once.

So, an unemployed woman who lives with her parents has 6 kids, no husband and no way to take care of them. Nothing to feed them. She relies on donations from organizations like World Food Program and USAID. What about when she has 6 kids who need school fees paid? Or when they need clothes or school uniforms? Or when she has to take the triplets to the clinic for their shots? It’s only E5 per child (about $0.50), but, over time that will add up to a small fortune for a Swazi. What if they get sick? Will she take them to the hospital? Probably not. Didn’t she consider the cost of a child before having one?

(Please note that I know this happens elsewhere, too. In the US there are people who knowingly have more children than they can take care of, including that woman who had octuplets or something last year and planned to raise them on her disability check. I think that’s ridiculous, too. It just seems so sad to me that these children are literally starving and may not have a chance to ever go to school simply because their parents selfishly want to have children.)

When I was in high school, there were billboards all around my hometown that said something like “A baby costs $1200 a month. How much is your allowance?” I really want to make one that says “A baby is expensive. Birth control is free!” Maybe I’m turning into a bad person, but every time a woman comes up to me and says that she has no money to take her baby to the clinic, or begs me for food for her baby (this happens probably twice a week, more often if I hang out at the clinic), my only thought is that she should have been on birth control.

Fortunately or unfortunately, aid agencies like World Food Program, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services International, Save the Children, USAID and various agencies of the United Nations step in to compensate for the lack of family planning in Swaziland. But, personally, I think a lot of these programs are short-sited, too. In studying international development in college, we always debated about the value of international aid. Does it do more harm than good? How can you prevent international assistance from creating dependency? What does “sustainable development” look like?

I realize that all of the organizations I listed do a lot of good in the world (in fact, I’m hoping to make a career of working for one of them), but on the ground in the rural community I am coming to realize the important distinction between “aid” and “development.” As the old adage goes, “aid” is simply giving a man a fish; “development” means teaching the man to fish. In Swaziland specifically, hundreds of NGOs and IOs came to the country in the 1990s to provide food assistance to rural communities devastated by drought, which I know saved lives. Then, they stayed to help combat the spread of HIV and TB throughout the country, which is also necessary. But just how much is “aid” and how much is “development”?

Here’s what I’m seeing on the ground:

Early one Friday morning, as I began my trek to the main road, I passed a gathering of women at the end of my driveway, all sitting atop bags and buckets of un-milled maize. They do this every other Friday (I think), waiting for the Bahle Benguni truck. Bahle Benguni is a maize milling company that visits the rural communities on a bi-weekly basis to do one of two things: (1) exchange bags of whole maize for a bag of maize flour, of the same weight, for families without mills, or (2) purchase bags of whole maize or maize flour from families that grow more than they need. This they then sell to the grocery stores throughout the region. My Gogo (grandmother) had just exchanged her bags for cold, hard cash, which was unusual because usually she just exchanges maize for maize flour, but I didn’t think too much into it. But all the other women seemed to be exchanging their maize for money too, which was strange.

I was confused. Until I rounded the first bend on the dirt road and saw the World Food Program truck, full of maize meal, waiting to give out free maize flour. The women were taking perfectly good maize flour and selling it to the Bahle Benguni truck, only to go to the WFP truck to get their share of free “emergency food aid” that they obviously didn’t need. They were basically getting free money out of the deal.

To give WFP some credit, though, I think they noticed the problem. Later, on the way home, I noticed that the truck was still there, bomake (women) were still sitting around waiting for their food. Usually it only takes an hour or two, so I asked my friend Nombuso (who acts as my translator in a lot of meetings and is my go-to girl when I need to know what’s going on in the community) why the food distribution had taken all day. Apparently, the people from WFP told the community that, starting in November, only the “poorest” families would be eligible for food aid. Everyone was angry about it, I guess, but I don’t really know how that’s going to change. Every family in my community takes care of at least one OVC (Orphan or Vulnerable Child—WFP’s criteria for being “poor”) simply because being born out of wedlock makes a child vulnerable. But still, I know that for a lot of families (including my own), the burden of caring for OVCs HAS made them desperate for food, despite the fact that the family works hard and plants a lot of maize each year. So, the question is, is WFP creating more harm by creating dependency on international food aid, or would it do more harm by NOT providing food aid and starving the children of hard-working families that still can’t make ends meet?

I recognize that there is a place for “aid” in emergency situations. But what defines an emergency? In the case of the tsunami in Southeast Asia, I think it was correct to give food, medical and housing aid. I think medical aid should be provided for refugees in Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere there is conflict. I think temporary schools should be provided for school-aged youth in the case of natural or man-made disasters. But at what point is it the responsibility of the local community and government resources to take over?

Peace Corps puts a huge emphasis on “sustainable development” so that most of our projects are focused on education, building capacity, skills training and basic infrastructure—things that will remain long after our service has ended. The idea is that Peace Corps Volunteers are a human resource, not a monetary resource, so that what we do provides abstract rather than concrete things, or gives communities the resources to better itself even after the volunteer leaves. And, encouragingly, Peace Corps isn’t the only organization doing that. Doctors Without Borders is training local Swazi nurses on how to distribute anti-retroviral treatment for HIV. World Vision is hosting debate competitions to get high school students talking about HIV. Local organizations sponsor support groups for people with HIV where they can learn about nutrition and positive living. Sustainable development IS happening in Swaziland, but that doesn’t make the unsustainable aid any less frustrating to me.

In related news, I took my business studies club to Manzini for their presentation to Technoserve, the School Aged Youth Entrepreneurship Program, local businesspeople, USAID and the Minister of Education. Our Sales Manager (the General Manager was voted out on Thursday before the competition) gave a really great presentation on the process, successes and challenges of building a business. It was exciting to see the students talk about what they’d learned in the program and how they would use it in their everyday lives. Sustainable development! We didn’t win anything, but Tim Cook (another volunteer) and his club at Ngwane Central High School won best overall club, the top prize. My students seemed content, however, with free beef and a water bottle from Total. (Granted, I was pretty excited about these things, too. And the large quantity of pudding I was dished up. Mmmm.)

The highlight of the whole affair was the Minister of Education. And I don’t mean this in a good way.

The event started at 9:00, and the Honorable Minister waltzed in around 11:30. The moment his black Mercedes pulled up to the door at the front of the hall, right next to the presenter, the MC interrupted my club’s Sales Manager, who was presenting at the time so that everyone could focus their attention on watching the Minister walk in. Which he did very slowly. After the audience had made a suitable amount of fuss over his entrance, my Sales Manager resumed her presentation, only to be interrupted again by the Minister’s car alarm, which was 20 feet away from her and continued to scream throughout the rest of her presentation until somebody got around to shutting it off.

But wait, there’s more.

After all the student presentations, it was time for the guest of honor, the Minister, to speak. He got up to the podium and read a speech, verbatim, from a couple pages in front of him. His speech was all about the importance of education, of teaching students entrepreneurship skills, of the program we’d all been a part of. And then he stepped back from the podium and started on a long tangent about money. The basic point of this impromptu speech was that education is NOT important and that he knows plenty of learned men who still drive Toyotas, but that every businessman he knows drives a Mercedes. He pointed out the examples of high-ranking government officials who had not even finished high school but were still wealthy, and then said that if he had it to do over again he would just go into business and not go to college. This from the Minister of Education. This should explain a lot about the education system in Swaziland.

Anyway, it was ridiculous. Finally, 10 minutes into his rant about the importance of being wealthy, he started dancing to demonstrate some point and all the Americans in the room exchanged looks. I was embarrassed on his behalf. Tim took a video of the catastrophe and, hopefully, posted it on his blog for all the world to see. Check it out. (Google Tim and Jamie Cook to find it.)

That’s all for now. I’m super busy this week finishing up my budget for a Partnership Proposal project, which should be approved sometime in December. I’m also pretty busy trying to survive the bats that have, once again, invaded my house. I think it’s seasonal, that they come when the bananas and papayas are ripe on the trees. But I KNOW that they’re super aggressive this year and that they don’t like to have flashing lights shined on them. (Ask my mother, who I called in a panic one night after they dive-bombed me repeatedly in search of the June Bug that kept flying into my headlamp while I was reading. It was horrifying.)

Oh, and the new anti-virus I paid a small fortune to have installed on my computer recognized my camera as a virus and deleted all the photos from the last 2 weeks and the software I needed to transfer photos from my camera, so I won’t be able to post new photos until my sister arrives on Sunday with a Memory Stick reader. Cameras create problems in this country.

Salani kahle (stay well)!

Love from the Swaz!

1 comment:

Erin said...

here's the link to Tim and Jamie's blog:
I watched his video and saw you in the background for about a second. :)