I was filling out the most recent batch of PC paperwork last week. (For the record, it never ends. The initial application is not a hurdle; it is a plateau.) I had to send out a resumé and a statement of aspiration to South Africa so that they’ll know what to do with me once I am over there (I’m sure my family could narrow it down to two words: padded room). Funny thing is that I have to talk about how I plan to do a job when I don’t quite know what that job is or even exactly it will be (for an example of my quandary: you’re told you will teach in the US. Will that be in the UP? Kansas? Texas? Southern California? Virginia? Now, what if each spoke their own language as well? Though I guess Texas already does…).

However, I do know something about the job. I will be teaching children. And by “children”, I mean 6 – 15 year olds. I had a bit of a panic attack on realizing this. Wait, me, hang out with kids all day? The guy who expressly requested when working at camp to be placed on maintenance instead of counseling? Being placed with the one group of human spawn with whom I have no experience teaching?

Examine the typical life-cycle of my interests. I become intensely enthused, study excessively, find a problem, freak out, whine and complain and annoy people around me. Fortunately, the next few steps are usually to calm down, tell myself to shut up and deal with it, learn about what I was panicking about, and find out that it actually is more interesting than I thought. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So I’m at the calming down stage now and picked up some books on primary education pedagogy from the library. And really, I like the idea of teaching young children much better than teaching blasé college students. It is a chance to actually make a difference, to shape habits when they are most moldable. I mean, I still won’t be working wonders, but there’s something to be said about teaching science to students who want something more than the “practical” applications of it, or of teaching medical habits when they might actually become instilled. And in addition, I’ve reframed it to myself as a challenge. Dealing with children and breaking up information into easily digestible pieces are not strong suits of mine. Therefore, I should get better at them.

I’m still working on getting myself excited about teaching arithmetic and word problems, however.


Sexism and Material Conditions

Very highly-defined gender roles are the norm in much of the world. Women tend to be stuck at home; education and privileges for women are undervalued. Of course it would be nice to change all of that, but first lets look at some reasons why that might be the case.

You are in a subsistence farming community, or some other community which involves harsh life conditions. Children for you are not some luxury that you have in order to feel fulfilled in life, as some abstract (albeit biologically engendered) goal. Children are a necessity. They do work for you around the house when they are young, and they provide for you when you are old. If you don’t have children, you don’t have support for the many things that need to be done when you are either busy or falling apart from age.

On top of that, life is uncertain. How many of your children will survive to adulthood? Who knows? You can’t pin your hopes on any one. You can’t afford to invest all of your resources into a small family. You have to have a large family so that someone might live long enough to support you.

So a large family is not some “love of life” or “love of children.” It is your welfare program in a harsh environment. But someone has to have these kids, and biologically, it just so happens that this someone has to be female. So women are going to be making lots of babies. This restricts their time and level of physical exertion, and so their options in life.

This is all on top of the the social conservatism which is necessary to support such a community, but that is a different post. My point is this: we Americans can talk about sexual equality because we are well off. We have the luxury to have intellectual jobs that don’t demand heavy physical labor, to have institutions that support maternity (or paternity) leave and pay, and for people to be provided for when they reach retirement (through social programs and/or through their own savings). We can invest our resources in small families since there is a fair assessment that our children will make it to adulthood. Or we can even just decide that we don’t want kids, without there being any shame or hardship involved.

If we want to increase gender equality in the world, there are many things that must be done. However, there is no chance for women to have equal rights until a society has the resources to support it.

Sanibonani! Goeie dag!

Started work on Afrikaans and isiZulu.* Both are beautiful languages, though I admit that occasionally the guttural nature of Afrikaans gets to me (though it depends on the speaker). isiZulu sounds like you should be telling a spellbinding story in it. To hear some basic isiZulu, go here: To hear some Afrikaans, click on links here:

There are actually 11 official languages in South Africa, and even I am not crazy enough to try to learn them all. However, I can actually find resources for these two (and I think I have a bit of a grasp on English already; though if I can come back with a South African accent, all the better) and I stand a good chance of using these two.

The media in SA is evidently mostly in English, although English is only the 5th most spoken language there. The top 3 are isiZulu, isiXhosa (closely related to isiZulu and the native tongue of Nelson Mandela), and Afrikaans. And that X in isiXhosa? Nothing as ordinary as a simple “ks” – it’s one of those famous click consonants. Yay for learning cool weird sounds.

* Sometimes you will see the name of the language as “Zulu”. Why? Well, in a language like Spanish, there are masculine and feminine nouns. Masculine Spanish nouns tend to end in -o, and feminine nouns in -a. Languages in the Bantu family, like isiZulu (and isiXhosa, seSotho, or Kiswahili – also known as Swahili) have multiple noun categories usually indicated by prefixes. European languages tend to use genders to group nouns. Bantu languages are more abstract. So, for example, umZulu is a Zulu person, amaZulu are the Zulu people group, and isiZulu is the Zulu language.

Cynical Optimism

As part of my preparation, I’ve also been hunting down some more negative reviews of Peace Corps. I had read Village of Waiting a while back, and posted my review of it. Here are a couple other more negative articles I just read, for the sake of full disclosure: here and here.

But of course, even reading this, I plan on going into PC. I wholeheartedly accepted my invitation and look forward to the next couple of years, difficult though they may be. And perhaps even ineffective as they may be. Why?

First, much idealism is misplaced. People don’t often do great things – and those that do, are often assassinated or endure years of imprisonment in the meantime. Doing something small is the best that we can hope for. This is a lesson I learned hard from university teaching, even here in the US (and while we usually don’t have the problems of corruption that one sees endemic in much of the rest of the world, Marquette had all the problems of overadministration and fruitless bureaucracy one could hope for). So there is nothing to complain about when one finds that only small projects succeed, or that most of a classroom is unruly.

Second, human beings take as much power as they can get and do whatever they can with it, to either cover up mistakes or to benefit themselves. Of course I hate what people do with power. But when I’m truly honest with myself, I’m not sure that I would do better in their position. It’s part of being civilized apes. This is the actual world we live in. And we only succeed by responding to the world as it actually is. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and so on are only remembered as great because society around them sucked and they took that suckitude seriously. If we can’t find something to do in the midst of corruption and ineptitude, then we can’t actually do anything to help the world when and where it is needed most.

Third, failure is instructive. If I spend two years not getting through to anyone at all, then I plan to document and study those two years the best I can. I am a researcher and I plan to use that skill. I have benefited from hearing about the problems I will most likely face. I plan to make my problems clear to others so that they can build the next step. Two years of “failure” would just be two years spent figuring out a solution. Since we all only make small contributions to the world and since all real change takes time and preparation, such a study is just as important as anything else. After reflection, I have learned much from my failure as a university professor, perhaps much more than I would have from a year of success.

Fourth, there are three main goals of Peace Corps. Only one is development of the community. The other two are teaching people here in the US about the culture I’ll be entering (a primary function of this blog), and teaching people in that culture about the US. I hope to leave a mark on the community – that would be fantastic. But something is still gained by learning about how another section of the world lives and works. Culture isn’t all music and dancing. Sometimes it is alcoholism and poverty. But in learning that, I can decide to do something about these issues in the rest of my life. Following one’s passion on its own is silly and self-indulgent. Follow where your interests, your ability, and some need intersect.


I have the official information now. I will be in South Africa, with orientation starting 10 July. Evidently, my job description in the invitation packet is that of “primary education”, without many specifics in the way of math. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than that I will be maintaining flexibility in the months to come. The two provinces I may be in would be Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, two of the easternmost provinces. But the specific site won’t be decided until I’ve been overseas for a month and a half, or so I gather. All info is subject to change, of course.

I’m currently adding and revising links over in the right sidebar so that people can have some basic info on the country I’ll be visiting. As I read up on history and culture, I’ll post some of that here too.


Got the email today. I’m in. July, teaching secondary ed mathematics. Where and when, you ask? That I’ll find out in the next 10 business days as the physical invitation is mailed to me. But it’s official.

I think this calls for a martini.

Update on the medical stuff (since I know that no one wanted to see that at the top of this message): the problem was not necessarily my asthma, but rather that I have been to urgent care recently and they needed to find a site that was within 4-6 hours of medical care, should I need it. So I won’t be way, way out in the boonies (which, actually, I kinda would have liked). But they found something for me, so I am happy.

Evals In

I got the correspondence back today from my medical and dental evaluations. I hadn’t heard back from dental because I didn’t have enough xrays done. (Actually, I’m pretty sure that I followed the instructions that they gave me. But I seem to have mailed those in instead of keeping them, so I can’t doublecheck my suspicions.) However, I just need to get those in a month before leaving – which would entail that I can get an assignment to leave before doing so. So I’ll just get those done before leaving Milwaukee.

The medical evaluation confirmed my suspicions: I’ve been qualified due to asthma. I’m not sure why – I only use an inhaler as-needed, which is almost always because of a bout of bronchitis. Giving me a couple albuterols should be sufficient, and I don’t see how location plays a role in that. But, that would (according to the PeaceCorps Wiki, over in the sidebar) remove me from service in Burkina Faso, and likely from West Africa in general. Given the rest of the info I’ve gathered and have been told, I think I know where I will end up. In the meantime, I’m trying to teach myself how to pronounce click languages.