Monday, June 7, 2010

The Year Without a Summer

It is hard to type when your hands are half frozen. Winter has hit Kroonstad and I don't like it. I have always preferred warm weather to cold weather but the fact I am freezing in June makes me particularly cranky. 2010 will be my year without a summer. I left at the end of March when it was just starting to get nice in Bloomington. And when I landed in South Africa it was mid Fall. I still have to suffer through two more months of winter and just when the weather should be getting nice and hot, I will fly back home. I love a white Christmas just as much as the next person but come on, how much cold weather can one person take?

Foolishly, when packing I listened to the internet that said South Africa has mild winters, with lows in the 40s. Maybe certain parts of South Africa are like that, but Kroonstad has been colder than that already and July is supposed to be the coldest month. I am a little worried about how we will survive. Our house was built around the turn of the century and it is drafty as something really drafty (sorry I drew a blank on that metaphor). I opened the door this afternoon and it was ten degrees warmer outside than in. The only heat available in our house are these ceramic tile heater things on the wall. There are four of them in our bedroom alone but when I woke up this morning it was so cold I thought that we had forgotten to turn them on. (Oh and it turned out they were on, just not all that effective.) I keep thinking that if I wear enough layers it will be okay but as I said I trusted the internet when packing. I packed two fleece jackets and three long sleeve shirts. All the warm sweaters in my closet are now taunting me from 8,000 miles away.

Well I guess the saying that "what doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger" is applicable here. If I really wanted to I could go buy a couple sweatshirts or an indoor heater. But sometimes its better just to go on a rant on the internet.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Old as an Elephant

Friday was my birthday and I'm 26 years old. It started as a pretty average Friday. We had mass at school and there was a special blessing for me and four students who also had birthdays. Then the children sang Happy Birthday to us, including a verse in Sosotho which loosely translated means "May you grow as old as an elephant." After school, Sarah and Kelly threw a surprise dinner for me. Earlier this week I asked if they would make me a birthday cake and they told me that I was not allowed to plan my own birthday. The day before they spent six hours out of the house, without telling me what they were doing, so I knew something was up. The Sisters and our friend Lebo came over for dinner. We had lasagna, salad, garlic bread, and chocolate eclair cake. After dinner the four of us met up with Ryan and Willy at Moments. We spent the night dancing and having a few drinks. It was a really nice birthday and my roommates were too good to me.

Pigeon Wrangling

I am pretty sure that every teacher has that one class. The class that tries your patients and leaves you frazzled. For me that class is a fourth grade class. I am pretty luckily that of my twelve classes only one is a discipline problem. This class is one of my largest and there are three learners who cannot keep still, keep their hands to themselves, or stay quiet. Every time we meet it is a struggle to stay on task and get through the lesson.

On Tuesday two pigeons got trapped in the hall. We had finally closed the windows because of the cold and the pigeons were not able to get back up the hole in the ceiling. The birds kept flying into the windows and I was sure it was only a matter of time until they knocked themselves out on the glass, stupid pigeons. So most of my students would point at the birds and cower if they flew anywhere near us. But not my grade four class. The boys started chasing the pigeons and jumping up to swat them. I kept yelling at them to sit down but I should have saved my breath. Then I noticed that Tumelo had snuck away and was climbing up the mountain of desks and chairs piled up to the ceiling in the far corner of the room. The pigeons had taken refuge there but Tumelo was determined to catch them. I kept yelling for him to stop, all I needed was for the boy to knock over the tower of furniture and get buried underneath. The next thing I know here comes Tumelo with a bird in each hand. How he managed to catch them I will never know. I told him to take the birds outside and his friend released one outside. But Tumelo took off running before I could stop him. The children started laughing saying that he went to flush the bird down the toilet. I don't think it is even possible to flush a pigeon down the toilet but I didn't see what he did with the poor bird. On the one hand the birds were distracting and I was glad they were gone. On the other hand I was very upset that the children were not listening to me and we lost fifteen minutes of class time to catching birds.

Invasion by Air and by Land

We have an infestation at school: of pigeons AND rats. There is a hole in the ceilingt tile above the chalkboard and it is constantly raining down insulation, feathers, and bird droppings. Each morning I sweep up this nasty debris but I am fighting a losing battle. There is a nest above my desk and we often hear chirping and scraping coming from the ceiling. And in the far end of the hall where I teach there is a pile of extra desks and chairs where rats like to congregate. I try not too look too closely but the other day I couldn't help noticing a dead rat on the ground. I don't know if it was killed by the school cat or if it died of natural causes, regardless it was really nasty. I am tempted to bring a plastic snake and throw it up in the ceiling to see if I could scare them away but I could see that ending badly. If a snake (even a plastic one) fell from the ceiling it would probably freak out the entire class. For the time being I keep watching the floor and the ceiling for various pests.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Freedom Day Weekend

Tuesday was Freedom Day in South Africa, celebrating the first post apartheid elections in 1994.

Long weekends were made for road trips, even if they are only short ones. So Monday we decided to go to Welkom which is about 40 minutes away. Rumor had it that Welkom was a bigger city, complete with shopping malls and a movie theater.

The drive to Welkom was my favorite part of the trip. This part of South Africa is mostly farmland and in many ways it reminds me of home. Once we arrived in Welkom we stopped for directions to the movie theater, which consisted of going left at the first traffic circle, right at the next circle, and straight through the next two. Welkom is a city of traffic circles, which I hate. Luckily we managed to find it without incident. By this time it was lunch and we stopped at this seafood restaurant for lunch. I got fish and prawns (whole shrimp, heads and all) and it was really good. After lunch we went and saw the Blind Side. Kelly and I had both seen it before but we didn't mind seeing it again. It was interesting listening to what the audience found funny. After the movie we wandered back to the car, where we had inadvertently parked in a casino parking lot. We decided to check out what a South African casino is like and it was exactly like an American one. In the end we left without gamboling. Finally we decided to walk around town before going home. Not far from the casino was a town park with unlit Christmas lights, which reminded me of East Peoria (they even had the dolphins). And just past that was the mall. I wasn't planning on doing any shopping but I was a little disappointed to realize the shops were exactly the same ones in Kroonstad. Maybe it stems from having lived in small town America but I am confused when I hear people complain that there isn't much to do in Kroonstad. With the exception of a movie theater, Welkom didn't seem to have more to do than Kroonstad.

Tuesday we were hoping to find a parade or something in Kroonstad but it was not meant to be. We spent the day relaxing and running a few errands. All in all it was a nice holiday weekend

Thursday, April 22, 2010

World Cup

South Africa has World Cup Fever. Everyone seems to be talking about Bafana Bafana (the South African team). Every Friday people wear soccer jerseys to work. At the end of the nightly news they show a countdown to the World Cup. When World Cup tickets went on sale, people camped out over night to get the best games and tragically one elderly man died of a heart attach while in line. School will be closed for most of June and July because of the World Cup.

I have never been a huge soccer fan. In the US I don't really follow though sport but living in South Africa, it is hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the World Cup. Kelly, Sarah, and I all agreed that we wanted to see a game. The closest venue to us is in Johannesburg but by the time we bought tickets all the good games there were sold out. So in the end we decided to buy tickets for the third and fourth place championship game in Port Elizabeth. Port Elizabeth is on the coast and is supposed to have awesome beaches and surfing. World Cup tickets are ridiculously expensive for foreigners (at least when compared to what a South African can buy the tickets for). But we couldn't pass up the largest sporting event in the world.

White Lions

Last Saturday Sr. Mehlte took Sarah, Kelly, Sr. Janice (an American SND), and I to see white lions. White lions are caused by a recessive gene and are indigenous to South Africa. This "reserve" first started breeding white lions in the 1970's when there were only a handful left in the wild. I was a little disappointed that this was more of a zoo than an actual reserve or game park. There are usually two or three lions kept in a fenced hectacre of land. We were able to drive through the enclosures in a special safari vehicle and we were only about three feet from the lions. One of the lions had recently given birth and there were four day old cubs hiding in a bush. After the tour we met two five month old cubs that had been hand raised. As soon as we walked in one of the cubs goes straight to Kelly and tries to clamp his jaw around her knee. The guide just told us to slap it's nose if it did things like that and it would stop. Pretty soon we were petting the cubs and it was like playing with overgrown puppies. They would roll around and they liked to chew on my shoes. At one point a cub was rolling around and it playfully put its paw on my leg. Unfortunately their claws were so sharp it cut my leg, but it all works out because I can now tell people I was nearly mauled by lions. The lion cubs were so sweet and it was fun playing with them.


In general I don't like new beginnings. I hate first days, being unsure of what I am supposed to do, where I am supposed to be, what is expected of me. Even though I was excited about going to South Africa, I was still anxious about the start of work. Fortunately my fears were unfounded and starting at St. Peter's was painless.

St. Peter Claver's School has about 800 students in grades 1-9. It is located in Maokeng which is about 20 minutes outside of Kroonstad. While most of our neighbors have nice house, beautiful landscaping, and shiny cars parked inside gated lots, Maokeng is full of tiny cement houses with corrugated roofs, awful dirt roads, and other telltale signs of poverty. In any given restaurant in Kroonstad I blend in with the Afrikaner majority. In Maokeng I am once again in the minority, which I find oddly comforting.

So my morning begins bright and early at 7:10, when school starts. (Next week the winter schedule goes into effect and I don't have to be there until 7:30. Yeah for sleeping in!) We start every morning with a school assembly, where the children sing and pray. Then the first of elven class periods begins. I spend most of my day in the hall, a long building that prior to my arrival was mostly used for the weekly mass. I work with each of the three classes in grades 4-7. I teach 6-9 students or learners as they are called here, who are academically behind the rest of the class. I have each class four times a week, which is divided between English and Math.

The most difficult part of my job has been trying to gauge where each student is at. For instance I have one student in 5th grade who barely speaks English and the other kids whisper everything to him in Sosotho. In all of my English classes we have been going over the difference between nouns, verbs, and adjectives. It seems strange to be teaching the exact same lesson to both 9 and 14 year olds but I think it's important to have a firm grasp of the basics before moving on. The older students have obviously been exposed to this material before but they couldn't remember much about it. In Math, I have some learners who still add on their fingers and some who can do long division faster than I can (although I like to use Becky's excuse of that's arithmetic not math). I am not quite sure how to teach such a varied group.

All in all, I love my job. I found it intimidating the few times I taught an entire class of 40 students in Nigeria. But in a small group it's much easier to be flexible with the lesson and to maintain decorum. All of my students come from classes of 35 or more students and they enjoy being singled out and the more individual attention. I like doing problems on the blackboard and in an effort to get called on the students start waving their hands and yelling "Ma'am! Ma'am!" Some of my learners actually clap when I give out their homework assignment. Despite their academic difficulties, these students are eager to learn and their attitude is infectious. They make me want to work harder and I hope that together we can make a lot of progress.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Contact Info

Hi Everyone.

I just wanted to give out my address:

Katie O'Dea
Sisters of Notre Dame
P.O. Box 476
South Africa

My phone number is:
27 720 853 826

For the record South Africa seems to have a very reliable postal system and it should be safe to send almost anything. It is always nice to hear from everyone back home, so feel free to write or call me.


Love from Africa,


Slowly but surely I am learning to drive in South Africa. The first time, Kelly explained the fine art of driving a manual transmission and we stuck to the little road between the Lodge and the Old Convent. The second time I tried going alone but Sarah took pity on me and the car and came along with some pointers. Other than that I have mostly been going out on my own and teaching myself. The problem with driving in South Africa is there is so much to remember. First of all, there is the hassle of driving a stick shift. Usually I do alright with that but when I screw up and stall the car I get flustered and stall it ten times in the same exact spot. Then there is driving on the left hand side. Fortunately, I only once started to turn into the right hand lane once and I recovered quickly. And last but not least our car doesn't have power steering. So taken individually those three things seem like minor inconveniences. But the three of them make driving much more stressful than back home. It is a little demoralizing to drive around with a huge L in the back window (referring to someone who is just learning to drive) even though I have had a driver's license for ten years. The good news is that I almost feel confident enough to drive by myself in town. But for the time being, drivers and pedestrians be ware...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

My First Weekend in Kroonstad

This has been my first full weekend in Kroonstad. Last week was a little slow because I wasn't working. So I was looking forward to hanging out with Sarah and Kelly this weekend. Friday night we went out to dinner at the Tennessee Spur. It was a nice little sit down restaurant that served everything from steaks, to Mexican food, to snails, to schnitzel. Saturday was what will probably be a typical Saturday here. We started out by going to the bank, so we could set up a household checking account. The bad news is that we didn't have the right paperwork to open an account, the good news is we found a form to buy World Cup tickets. After the bank we went to the grocery store, to stock up with food for the week. Once we got home the three of us did our weekly communal clean up. That evening it was my turn to cook and I made tacos.

Saturday night we went out to Moments, a local bar. There are three or four bars or night clubs in Kroonstad, but Moments is the one that caters to a younger crowd. It comes complete with pool tables and a dance floor. The only down side to Moments is that it is an Afrikaners' place and it had a very segregated feel. Still I had a good time last night.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

South Africa by the numbers

Days in South Africa: 10
Number of roommates: 2
Nights spent in Johannesburg: 2
Times I drove a stick shift: 2
Times I stalled the car: Countless
Beers drank: 1
Ice cream cones consumed: 2
Number of movie rental memberships: 1
Masses attended: 2
Times I accidentally set off the house alarm: 2 (both in the early morning)
Trips to the grocery store: 2
Students at my School: 868
Days I have actually worked: 0

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Here at last. Here at last. Thank God Almighty I'm here at last!

Okay so it has been a really long journey (and I mean that both literally and figuratively) but I finally made it to South Africa.

Tuesday afternoon Mom and I drove up to Chicago and we spent the night at a hotel right next to O'Hare, which is the way to travel. That evening I hung out with Mom, Dad, and Amy. My last American meal was at the White Eagle, which is one of the best Polish restaurants in the world. The next morning we woke up, grabbed some breakfast, and the hotel shuttle dropped us off in five minutes.

My first flight left O'Hare at 11 am. It was a short little ride to Washington DC. The lay over was just long enough to grab lunch at the Fudruckers and then hang out at the gate. My second flight was from Dulles to Dakar, Senegal to Johannesburg, South Africa. The good news is that I can cross Dakar off my list of tarmacs to visit. The bad news is that we had to stay on the plane for the hour it took to refuel. So after 18 hours of sitting in the same seat, in an increasingly stuffy plane I made it to Joburg.

That was Thursday night and I pretty much crashed the minute I was shown my room. Friday I got up for breakfast but an hour later I fell asleep reading. I did manage to wake up in time for mass on Good Friday which was nice. After a mere three hours of sleep last night (all those naps catch up to you eventually) Sr. Biddy Rose drove me to Kroonstad this morning. It was a two hour ride and I got to see a little bit of the country.

I must say I was shocked when we arrived at the house. Sr. Biddy was telling me the story of the building on the way but I didn't realize that was where Kelly, Sarah, and I would be living. In 1907(?) the Sisters of Notre Dame were invited by the bishop to South Africa to build a girl's academy. Although they were originally told not to, the SNDs took it upon them selves to build a second school for the children of poor black railway workers in Kroonstad. Unfortunately the two schools were stretching the SND's resources too thing and they decided to put everything into just one of the schools. The SNDs being who they are, decided to give up the well respected and prosperous girls' boarding school. It has handed over to the government and eventually was used for military purposes during the war with Angola. When the war was over the school was closed and left to vandals. Eventually the government decide it would cost as much to repair the building as it would to demolish it, so it was turned back over to the SNDs through an umbrella company of several religious orders. Slowly but surely they have been seeing to repairs and have started providing job skills training.

What was once a wing of the school (music classrooms to be exact) is now our house. Kelly, Sarah, and I share two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a nice kitchen, a dining room, and a living room. It is a really nice place. We have running water (although we have to boil it before drinking), electricity, heating, and even a tv. We also have a car at our disposal. Eventually I will need it to drive to work but first I need to learn how to drive a stick and adjust to life on the left side of the road. The whole set up in Kroonstad is so much more than I hoped for.

Wow, I just realized how ridiculously long this posting is. Thanks to anyone who actually read it all. Happy Easter.

Love from Africa,

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

South Africa

You know what they say about the best laid plans... Well my plan was to return to Nigeria but apparently that is not what God had in mind for me. When Sarah, Kelly and I were waiting for our visas to come through something awful happened. One of the Sisters was kidnapped at gunpoint and held for ransom. Eventually she was released, thank the Good God. But we eventually decided that we should not go to Nigeria this year because of the security situation.

So Sissy and company managed to start a whole new program just for us in Kroonstad, South Africa. I will be working at St. Peter Clavier School. I am not exactly sure what I will be doing but I am getting pretty good at filling in wherever I'm needed. Sarah, Kelly, and I will be sharing a house just outside of Kroonstad. I should be leaving early next week and I am pretty excited. Hopefully it is true what they say about things working out for the best.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Coming Soon...Year Two

I have decided to return to Nigeria for a second year and I am super excited about all the upcoming fun. Unfortunately there will be a delay in getting our visas. One of the required letters did not have the correct information so we are waiting for the Catholic Secretariat in Nigeria to reopen on January 11th. Hopefully we will only be delayed a week or two and eventually we will get the visa for a whole year. For now I am at the NDMV Orientation in Baltimore and just hanging out with my fellow volunteers. So stay tuned because I will soon be posting more blogs from Africa.