Sunday, March 22, 2009

They Had Opened Up Their Home

by Oliver Borzo

I live in an apartment complex in the city of Tzaneen in Limpopo province. If the weather is amenable, the parking lot of my complex will be swarming with children looking for something, anything, to do. One day as I walked home from work, I noticed a steady stream of children running in and out of one of the flats with their faces smeared with frosting and other foodstuffs. Loud music emanated from the flat; music that was neither South African nor American in its origin. My interest sufficiently piqued, I wandered closer to get a look inside the open door. I passed the door and was immediately beckoned in by who I presumed to be the host of the festivities.

Against one wall sat three elderly Shangaan ladies. I knew they were Shangaan speakers because of their traditional clothing—a colourful cloth draped over various undergarments in the manner of a toga. Each woman held in her hands a large can of Windhoek Lager and looked a little flummoxed by the goings on of the party that surrounded them. We were celebrating a birthday, but the birthday boy, who had just turned one year old, was currently asleep.

The parents of the child, and in fact most of the party goers, were East Africans, but I could not tell from what country exactly. Since I felt uncomfortable bluntly asking where they were originally from, I tried a less straightforward tact.

“What kind of music is this?” I asked slyly.

“Yes it is very good”, one man answered with a smile.

“Where is this music from?” I asked realizing my mistake.

“My brother…” the man said warmly.

After some additional back and forth, I ascertained that I was spending my time with a large group of Ethiopians. They had opened up their home to all of the kids living in the complex for this party, which was a brave thing to do. The kids were running around the living room, eating and spilling slices of cake on the floor. The children living at my apartment complex reflect Tzaneen’s diversity—there are Shangaans, Afrikaners, Bapedi, Somolians, and Indians all causing havoc, together.

The host asked me if I eat meat. I answered in the affirmative and was instantly provided with a plate heaping with Ethiopian food. There was sizable piece of injera, the thin, spongy bread traditionally eaten in Ethiopia, which had been rolled up into a sort of bread-scroll. There were also a few different stews, all of which tasted very different than the traditional South African food I had had so much of lately. I looked around and notice that I was the only one with food. Normally I would feel a little guilty about that, but I was also starving.

One of the Ethiopians asked me if I like the music they are playing. He must have assumed that all of my questions about the music indicated some special interest. I nodded enthusiastically. He asked my name and I tell them the answer, which is Oliver Borzo. Something about my name seemed suspicious and a few questions later I was forced to reveal that I am an American. This created a stir and I suddenly felt like a department store Santa who gets caught unexpectedly during his lunch break. In between bites of what was glorious food, I posed for pictures with nearly everyone in the room.

While much of 2008’s headlines focused on xenophobic violence in South Africa, my experience in Tzaneen has been far removed from that. Here, diversity is not viewed as a threat and expatriate communities are able to share their culture with pride.

Oliver is a CHOP (Community HIV/AIDS Outreach Project) volunteer living in the Limpopo Province.

If you'd like to write something for the Diversity Blog, please contact Jade ( or LaTosha (parkld82 at gmail dot com).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"So, Refilwe, You're Retarded?!"

by Erin Gannon

When I was in second grade I went through a bunch of tests and was eventually told that I had a learning disability. The word “dyslexia” meant very little to me but as I got older and started to see clearly that my mind really did work differently than others, “dyslexic” became a word that described me, a part of my identity.

I was raised in a family where my father was involved with disability rights issues for his entire career. Growing up I knew many adults with all different types of ability and disability and I was raised with a universal respect for people. When I was identified as dyslexic, my parents sat me down, explained to me that this was how my mind worked and I should never be ashamed of it but I should also never use it as a crutch. This conversation with my parents created a simple framework for understanding myself as a person with a learning disability – there are things I cannot do but there are many, many things I can do and I am proud of my mind which is indivisible from my disability. I went on to study art education and I did my Master’s thesis on the intersections between disability rights and art education practices. I chose to locate the rights of all people with disabilities in both my personal and professional lives.

I brought my belief in disability rights with me to South Africa, packed along all of my other cultural baggage. I knew support for people with disabilities in rural villages would probably not be at the same level as the support people get in the US, but I didn’t know what to expect.

Very early on the simple fact hit me that if I attended the schools in our training village (or in my current village, or really in most villages) I would never have learned to read. I would have probably dropped out of school by the end of primary school. I would surely have been told I was “slow” and possibly been beaten for my inability to keep up with the “clever” students in my classes. The educators in my life are incredibly hard working and dedicated, but they are under trained and the concept of a learning disability is pretty far outside of their life experiences. Kids like me get lost in the chaos of trying to educate children in rural villages.

Once, I tried to explain learning disabilities to an educator I had been working closely with. She was complaining that there was a girl in her class who was “clever” but “refused” to understand some simple maths problems. I had worked with this kid before and although I’m totally not qualified to diagnose LD in a student, I did see some indicators that seemed to point to a learning disability. I explained that some people have learning disabilities and that this as a sort of gap between their intelligence and their ability to perform in certain areas. The educator looked at me and said, “So, she’s retarded?”

I responded that a learning disability was a different thing than mental retardation and that mental retardation was defined by a low IQ. I then took a deep breath and decided to do something I regularly do with Americans but had never done with an African, I told her about my dyslexia.

She seemed to think for awhile, she searched me with her eyes, and then she asked, “So, Refilwe, You’re retarded?!”

It was clear that she felt betrayed, she had been taking guidance and forming a friendship with a person who was mentally retarded. In that moment I was also wounded because I realized everything we had worked on had been undermined by my honesty. Also, undoubtedly we come from a culture that values intelligence and to have mine questioned was a matter of pride. It was an emotional moment for each of us. She felt betrayed, and I felt a little too close to my days in middle school when classmates had yelled, “short bus!” and did grotesque impersonations of people with cognitive disabilities as we left our LD tutor’s room.

I went on to try and explain further, I found some articles on learning disabilities and how to best serve children with learning disabilities in your classroom, I talked to the principal about the appropriate channels for educators to follow if they suspect one of their learners had a Learning Disability but in the end my efforts sort of flopped and no matter what I did I never managed to repair my professional relationship with that educator.

There is a fair amount of humiliation involved with having dyslexia and hiding it. I still shake when I have to write on a board in a workshop I am giving for fear that I will spell something wrong even though I have typed everything and spell checked it. In taxis I avoid the front seat like the plague because the simple computation involved in taking the money is beyond me. I do my best not to let my teachers see me counting on my fingers. I use all the hiding mechanisms I used in grade school because once again I’m trying to “pass” as someone without a learning disability.

I continue to be open with my Peace Corps colleagues about my dyslexia but I have made a choice to not share my status as a person with a disability with my South African colleagues and learners. This is probably not the most constructive thing, of course there are opportunities for education and growth in my sharing with South Africans about my life as a person with a learning disability. All things considered, though, I have made this choice in an effort at self preservation and a preservation of my professional status within my schools. It’s an extremely personal decision what parts of your life you chose to share in a culture that is not necessarily understanding of some differences. It is also important to your happiness and mental health to identify what battles you want to fight and which things are simply outside of what you will address in your service.

In your service you will probably encounter people with disabilities. One UN estimate put the worldwide percentage of people with disabilities at about 10% and stated that that number is higher (and harder to measure) in developing countries. You will also encounter a variety of circumstances that people with disabilities are living in. My host brother has Downs Syndrome and lives the typical lifestyle of a young man in the village, working on the families’ mealie fields and hanging out at the shop. I also know a family with a child with a severe cognitive disability and he is living at home with limited opportunity but unlimited love from his family. I know kids who have dropped out of school and we will never know if it was a learning disability that prevented them from succeeding. Disability is one of my “cultural lenses” Peace Corps is so fond of talking about and so this colors my experiences here.

Erin is a volunteer with the Education program in Northwest Province.

If you are interested in writing something for the Diversity Blog, please e-mail Jade ( or LaTosha (parkld82 at gmail dot com).