Reflections on HaMakuya

(If you need to catch up with Erin Wilkus’ blog series, you can find her other posts here: blog 1, blog 2, blog 3, blog 4, blog 5.)

On August 31, I left HaMakuya. I knew this would be difficult for me. I spent the day of the 30th visiting with everyone who works at Tshulu Camp, preparing myself for the long period to come of not seeing them.

I sat down with Gladys and Phellinah, whom I’ve known since my first visit to HaMakuya. These two women are responsible for all the cleaning and housekeeping at the camp. Beyond these responsibilities, they’ve both been supportive mother figures to me, for which I’m immensely grateful. We sat down at the boma (the gazebo-like dining structure) and looked over photos from when we’d said goodbye to each other the year before. Gladys said many times throughout my stay how grateful she was for what I’d done. I kept trying to express to her that I was more grateful for what they did for me, although I’m not sure they believed me. Phellinah also told me that she and Obed had written a thank-you letter to me using Microsoft Word and that they saved it on a particular computer where I could find it. I never had time to find the note, but the materiality of it was inconsequential compared to the sentiment behind it.

On my last day, I decided to interview some people at the camp about what they thought of the resource center and the Rosetta Stone software. I learned from Gladys and Phellinah that there are no libraries in the 121 km stretch between some of the most developed regions surrounding Pafuri Gate of Kruger National Park (some 200 km southeast of HaMakuya) to the town of Thohoyandou (about 90 km southwest of HaMakuya). When I told this to a friend from the States, he exclaimed, “Imagine having to return the book!”

When Gladys and Phellinah mentioned how most people in HaMakuya are too poor to attend private schools—which they considered the only decent educational opportunity for residents of HaMakuya—I was hopeful that there was now a free way to improve their education.

Nonetheless, I like to think that the shift marks a change in morale about education in HaMakuya. Start Mudzunani talked about how much easier it will be for people to learn because there is now a resource center in the village. As he said this, he turned around to see Fhatuwani working on a Rosetta Stone lesson, and he said, in jest, “See, even Fhatuwani can practice his English pronunciation now.” Start went on to discuss how free access to books and computers is very exciting because such resources help people learn many things. He mentioned how they “had a shortage of that before.”

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Obed Ramashiya and Meshack Malala

The people I interviewed noticed the strengths of the Rosetta Stone program; in particular, they like the speech-recognition technology, which evaluates their pronunciation, and the audio features that help them learn proper pronunciation. Those features are accessible with the headset included in each Rosetta Stone package.

It strikes me that an appreciation for the audio components of the Rosetta Stone program might stem from the oral traditions of Venda culture. I tend to learn words better if I see them written down rather than hear them. Alternatively, Venda culture emphasizes verbal learning. I believe this is a major strength of Rosetta Stone software—it allows learning to be applied more universally across cultures and people. One of my major goals was to encourage an exchange between residents of HaMakuya and our global community. However, communication that crosses cultures and borders must start with a process of learning that crosses cultures and borders. I believe Rosetta Stone presents that process to the community of HaMakuya.

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Sarah Mutshayi

I had to leave HaMakuya to return to Portland and share my experience with my Reed College peers—and I left for the logistical reason that I’d run out of money and needed to find work. Of course, my goal in South Africa was to develop a community project that was self-sustaining. The community itself runs the resource center. My departure would be felt as a small ripple. Since leaving, I’ve continued to monitor progress remotely. Solar panels are scheduled to be installed some time before June 2011, and construction of a small bakery on the same property will get underway in June. The bakery will create new jobs, and the profits will go primarily toward salaries and operating costs of the center.

Not long ago, I received word of a new addition to the royal Makuya family in HaMakuya. One evening, a dear friend in HaMakuya called to tell me that in early February he became a father. His new baby girl would be named after me and enjoy the right to a proper resource center. I hope that this child who is ethnically Venda, with a foreign (Irish) name and a resource center down the street from her house, represents a new generation. I like to believe that her world will be filled with many choices and opportunities.

This is why I love what I do.

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Erin Wilkus

Erin Lynn Wilkus is a recent graduate of Reed College who has spent the past three years conducting research in rural areas of South Africa. As an undergraduate she studied biology and therefore her initial research focused on ecological issues. As Erin’s exposure to South African cultures and rural communities expanded, her research questions increasingly focused on merging social and ecological questions to promote conservation issues and sustainable development. In 2009, she spent three months in HaMakuya, a rural village at the border of Zimbabwe, researching how human settlement and use affects populations of South Africa’s charismatic baobab tree. During her spare time, Erin taught English and math at a local high school and tutored other individuals. Through that work she came face-to-face with the systemic education problems in the community. In 2010, Erin received a Davis Project for Peace award (http://www.davisprojectsforpeace.org) — a grant to fund creative grassroots projects that promote peace throughout the world. She used the award to develop a resource center called Makuya Empowered Voices Resource Center (MEVRC) in HaMakuya focused on communication and environmental action—qualities central to making long-term change in community-based development and conservation. Since English-speaking skills are essential for local residents to transcend the socioeconomic boundaries established during apartheid, a critical reason for establishing the center was training people to use computers and to study English with Rosetta Stone language-learning software. Erin never had a knack for languages, but she learned to speak Latin American Spanish in two months with the help of Rosetta Stone. She introduced Rosetta Stone at the resource center, in large part because of the positive experience she had using the program years before. Erin is currently initiating a volunteerism program based in HaMakuya that will begin in June 2011. The project will work in collaboration with Tshulu Trust (http://www.tshulutrust.org/), a locally run, anti-poverty initiative. Through this program, volunteers from Ireland and the United States will work together with local residents to improve the standard of living in the region.
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