the volunteer in the zoo cage

There is one experience that most volunteers would consider universal in some fashion or another; the feeling of being a zoo animal trapped for the viewing pleasure, commenting, and ogling of curious onlookers. Today I returned home from a fun weekend away, exhausted and ready to rest and prepare for the week ahead. Instead, I came home to a gaggle of young children chattering and beating on my front door, “Sesi Rea… Tshameka le rona”, a roaring soccer game on the field directly across my house attended by nearly half the village, the villages animals in rare form, and of course the persisting drum beat resonating from a nearby tavern. My peaceful afternoon disappeared in a split second.

As volunteers, we are on and working 24/7, and 90% of the time, living under scrutiny like this is manageable. It pushes me out of the house to learn netball with my neighbors, encourages me to go on walks with crèche learners, and enables me to determine the plethora of ways I could potentially serve my village. By now, most people are used to my presence, recognizing me simply with a standard greeting or wave across the field, but for the days when it seems that preschoolers incessantly pass by shouting “Shahp!” or “Sesi Rea!” and when a flurry of excitement and curiosity burgeons as visitors from neighboring villages stop by, the microscope zooms in, and even a trip out to the pit latrine requires greetings and conversations.

On these occasions, my home is simultaneously my safe haven, providing a space where I can close doors and windows and shield myself from the onslaught of spectators seeking a piece of me, and my cage in which I cower, waiting out the exhaustion that accompanies the wave of enthusiasm and the guilt for ignoring the interest of others.

But here’s the thing: it’s impossible to be on all the time. On most days, I humor the curiosity, allow kids to gently pet my hair, ask questions about America, and greet me at every turn. Monday to Sunday I (somewhat) gracefully handle stares from department officials and insurance salespeople stopping by the school, I engage with the taxi drivers and the array of people gawking as I clamber rather ungracefully onto a full taxi at the rank, and yes, I even greet people as I walk from my home to the toilet.

So maybe today it was just one (or three) stimulant too many calling my attention and fueling a sense of unsettled fatigue. But really, it’s just another reminder that life as a PCV is never simple or calm. And in the end, is a never-ending line of adoring toddler fans and shy smiles from preteens really the worst welcome home?

 

wading through a shit show

Host families are integral to the success of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Your family during training teaches you how to hand wash laundry, take a bucket bath, and live safely in South Africa. Upon moving to site, we build more independent relationships with our host families, but allowing them into our lives and enabling them to support us can make a volunteer’s journey much smoother.

Transitioning back to South Africa has been rough. While in the states, I let myself get accustomed to hot showers, dishwashers, and laundry machines. Returning to ZA, I opened the door to my house only to encounter that mice had overtaken it during my time away. Pounds of mouse droppings littered the floor, and almost every object in my home- from books to jeans to my mosquito net- had been gnawed at if not fully chewed through. This startling find was more than I could bear given my jetlagged and emotionally exhausted state- I broke down. I finally summoned the courage to show my host mother the damage, and she invited my cousin, Tumi, in to help me clean. Tumi began cleaning, sweeping things out, mopping, removing furniture, separating objects turned to trash, and the loads of laundry now requiring attention. Meanwhile, I stood there agape (alternating between shock and overwhelming anxiety), still struggling to come to terms with the implications of this infestation.

Seeking assistance is often considered shameful, and yet, actually reaching out is liberating and transforms a situation from one of crushing panic to something you know you’ll laugh about eventually (but definitely not today, today the mouse infestation is still decidedly not funny). My family opened the doors of their home to me, allowing me to seek refuge in the big house until structural adjustments can be made to my home and poison administered to root out the rodents. They sorted through bedding that I deemed useless, and zealously washed it- saving me from my American need to simply throw out and purchase fresh.

South Africans demonstrate affection differently from Americans. Rather than showering you with praise and hugs (although some do dish those out plentifully), they express love by problem solving and taking action- a quality greatly appreciated in situations such as this. This is true grit- simultaneously handling my emotional breakdown, tackling the problem, and providing a safe place for me to strengthen relationships over a meal of goat, mealie rice, and chakalaka.

no mud, no lotus.

Disclaimer: I initially wrote this post a week ago, but I was waiting for confirmation of my medical clearance to share this with you all. I am overjoyed to be returning to site (like jumping up and down, dancing around the room, singing at the top of my lungs kind of happy). Thanks for bearing with me and allowing me to open up my heart and soul to you!

Read and remember; not all Peace Corps service experiences are the same. True as this is in understanding characteristics unique to each village, province, and nation that a volunteer serves in, it also reflects the journey that a volunteer embarks upon. Upon applying for the Peace Corps and throughout the preparations for departure we tend to sum up an experience which we fail to fully understand in the best way we can, “It’s a 27 month commitment, so I’ll spend the first three months in language and technical training and then the next two years at my permanent site as a volunteer”. This barebones explanation of service that we tend to clutch tightly to throughout Pre-Service Training and the early phases of service fails to create space for the reality of a Peace Corps Service.

Peace Corps service is hard. I’m not complaining, I knew what I signed up for, and I love it, I’m simply stating my truth. It’s hard in ways that you cannot possible prepare for or imagine no matter the extent of your research or training. Regardless of the length of time a volunteer has served for, it is often all too impossible for another volunteer to fully understand and empathize with any other volunteer’s experiences. For every similarity that builds the bonds of the Peace Corps network and develops mutual understanding of the PCV lifestyle, there is a twist, something to differentiate your experience- whether a challenge or a success, your experience is different.

While I can elaborate on the dozens of things that make my service unique, this post will focus on one. Where have I been for the past few months? Silent on the blog, initially because I was swamped with work wrapping up term one, then attending a regional training conference, then on vacation in Mozambique, and finally because I’ve been home in the United States for the past five weeks.

I’m currently on Medevac, a 45-day opportunity for volunteers with various health conditions to return home and recuperate while seeking and receiving treatment. While on Medevac, a volunteer’s sole job is to get better, a tall order considering the short time frame, and the current toxic environment surrounding healthcare in the US. But you press on, meet with the doctor, and focus on activities that bring you joy- again, easier said then done. Because that things that bring you joy may have shifted over the previous 10 months, and if not, following a traumatic event, you may not be physically or mentally able to enjoy them in the same way. But day-by-day, week-by-week, things get easier. At yoga class you don’t shudder when an instructor provides an adjustment, and you can manage to really relax into the vulnerable pose of ultimate relaxation- Savasana. You don’t freak out at being in crowded places or with people swarming right behind you, you start meditating, reading more, studying for the GRE, and begin to rebuild and embrace the abundance that life has to offer.

But then it’s time to go back. Six weeks flew by in the blink of an eye and all the hard work you’ve done feels as though it’s coming to a crashing halt. Fear and anxiety creep in calling you to question your desire to return. And then you remember all the work that has to be done to rebuild a sense of safety and security, work that will require repeating upon returning to your village. But the thought of not returning fills you with an immense sadness and a fear of not reclaiming your life. So you listen to the wise words swarming around you, “one day at a time”, “the choice to go, to leave, to stay, and to change your mind are always yours”, and my new personal mantra, “no mud, no lotus”. The gross, the gritty, the messy, and upsetting are intrinsically connected to the wonderful, abundant, joyous, and calming experiences of life.

So while the thought of my learners and family in South Africa beckons me earnestly, it is this deeper understanding of myself that drives my return. I return to South Africa on my own terms: I can choose to take each day as it comes, with plenty of options and support to combat the overwhelming, in one month, I will get a break as I journey back to the U.S. for my sister’s wedding, and I am armed with the knowledge that whatever decision I ultimately make bears no judgment on my character. The journey continues, reflective of life, it is messy, frustrating, and deviates from the expected- but the reward of growth and the continual pursuit of greater understanding, empathy, and self-love provides the strength to keep going, despite the murky paths ahead.

When Violence is Normalized

There is a culture, certainly far from unique to South Africa, whereby violence has become an accepted and condoned aspect of society. Under the Apartheid government, violence in South Africa was pervasive and permeated all aspects of society from police brutality to the necessary actions taken by protesters to fight for their vital human rights. Since the transition to democracy, violence has not disappeared from the daily lives of South Africans; rather it remains present as those socialized in violence continue to impart those values among the youth. It is not to say that this is wrong, rather that this is the reality of growing up as a tool of a system of oppression.

I witness violence daily- amongst my learners’ families, between learners, and imparted by teachers and other respected community leaders. The links connecting these various forms of violence is not lost on me, when children see adults committing violent acts, they learn that these behaviors are acceptable and in turn partake in similar actions. But at what point does learners hitting each other in class, or beating one another with sticks stop being just “playing”? And how does one impart values of love, caring, kindness, and mutual respect in children who have been taught that hitting, shaming, and throwing stones are acceptable actions?

I continue to urge my staff and learners to remember that violence cannot possibly lead to the same cohesive nature guided by a society built on mutual respect- but my background is not theirs. I grew up in a society where I was taught to respect authority, because authority had my back. I was taught not to hit others because there were systems in place to handle students who broke the rules. I was shown that violence is not the answer by living in a loving and caring household where my voice was valued from an incredibly young age. In other words, my childhood was incomparable to that of many South African children- and my values, entrenched in the largely privileged set of cards I was dealt at birth, naturally differ from those I am now experiencing.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to me to set an example of love and respect for my learners. In my classroom, we apologize for hitting others, sticks are banned, and I strive to learn each learner’s name in an effort to demonstrate the importance of their humanity to me. Hugs, high fives, handshakes, and sharps (or thumbs up) are prevalent in my classroom, simple methods through which I aim to sow seeds of understanding in my kiddos.

So while the reality is that I cannot change the violence witnessed and experienced by my children outside of my classroom, I can demonstrate to them that there is another way, that by using our words we can combat our perceived, and sometimes very real sense of helplessness and by so doing, we can more deeply connect with other humans as we work towards similar goals.

Am I the Only One?

“I have an everyday religion that works for me. Love yourself first, and everything else falls into line.” –Lucille Ball

South Africa is a deeply religious country, one where over 80% of the population identifies as a member of the Christian faith, in one variation or another. These branches of the Christian church present themselves in a plethora of forms, from churches like the ZCC (Zed Cee Cee or Zionist Christian Church) which have 8 hour long services, to churches which intersperse traditional African beliefs amongst Christian teachings, to those we are familiar with in the States including the Anglican Church or the Roman Catholic Church. From my house alone, I can see three churches, and can walk to a fourth in no time flat. At school, and in any major function, religion presents itself through prayer before and after meetings, Christian songs and other language.

I grew up as a reform Jew, attended Hebrew School, holidays with family, became a Bat Mitzvah. As a kid, many of my happiest moments stem from Jewish summer camp, an annual event that undoubtedly shaped my character and feelings toward religion. And while I am far from unfamiliar with being the only Jew, there are plenty of days where I don’t wonder if I am the only Jewish person in the whole of the Northwest Province.

In order to deter continual invitations to church, I informed my staff and host family early on of my beliefs, for while South Africans struggle to comprehend Atheism, and the lack of belief in a higher being, they can understand belief in a different religion. But a surface level understanding (“Oh it’s the one with the star, right?”) doesn’t erase the sense of loneliness. For while I’m more likely to be considered a lapsed Jew than anything else while home, I continue to enjoy the company of a Shabbat dinner (not to mention the matzo ball soup).

So in an era where residents of my country are being actively pursued on the basis of their religious choice, I endeavor to share mine and to learn from others, to deepen mutual understanding, and to diminish perceived difference. I follow in the footsteps of my mom by teaching about Judaism in Life Skills classes, I share my beliefs with curious teachers, and I listen with an open mind to all that I hear. And I am constantly impressed by how much more we share in common than not.

Good Enough is not Enough

“The greatest single challenge facing our globalized world is to combat and eradicate its disparities” – Nelson Mandela 

            With the seemingly unending string of attacks on American institutions taking place at home, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the systems that exist here- particularly when it comes to education. As a proud product of the public education system (kindergarten through bachelors degree), I can attest to the necessity and value of a public education, but I also know I was lucky. I attended school under the best circumstances- parents who pushed me and held me accountable, teachers willing to engage with me and encourage me to pursue my interests, and the opportunity to partake in advanced placement and honors courses.

But here in South Africa, the significance of a public education is driven home. For at least 90% of the almost 900 learners at my school, the absence of a public school would mean no access to education. Due to their socioeconomic situation, the government in almost every way imaginable provides for these learners: free lunches, textbooks, stationary, and even uniforms if need be. But it’s not lost on me that these kids still receive a poor education. With 50 plus learners per class, a dramatic lack of resources, and exhausted teachers it’s little surprise that they struggle.

The brutal truth is that these kids, who have such a zest for life, and already encounter problems beyond my imagination in their daily lives, are shoved in three to a desk in a classroom and expected to master a menagerie of subjects in a language that is completely foreign to them. And yet we wonder why it is that “more than 85% of primary pupils make the transition to lower secondary in most countries in Europe, Asia, North and South America, but in 19 out of 44 African countries, more than half of all children will not complete primary school” (UNESCO Global Education Digest).

And while, providing these children with a safe space to be, where they may learn something is certainly better than nothing, the reality is that “the focus of development should (and must) look forward, beyond universal primary education”. So while people continue to attack the public education system at home, I urge you to consider that increasing barriers to access will not only disproportionately harm minority groups, but that it will in the long run build a society unable to keep up with the social, economic, and technological advances and demands of the globalized world. There is no single greater (or more crucial) investment in the future for, “ Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” (Malcolm X). And, as I hope we can all agree, the future belongs to every child, and for them, an education that is “good enough” is simply not enough.

Home Sweet Home

As a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, our housing has only a few main requirements:

  1. The room has its own entrance that is separate from the main house and cannot be accessed by anyone else.
  2. The room has burglar bars on all the doors and windows.
  3. The school will provide one desk and two chairs.
  4. The department of education will provide a bed and a dresser.

That’s it. Electricity? A lovely perk, but not required. Running water…. only if you are extremely lucky. I love my humble abode; complete with its leaky tin roof that lets in exaggerates any sound upon it. No seriously, the first time it poured and subsequently hailed, I had a minor freak out and turned on Julie Andrews’ “My Favorite Things” and crawled under my blanket until it subsided. So yeah, it’s loud, but a handy-dandy mini speaker does wonders to allow me to continue watching my hard drive even in the noisiest of storms.

My two rooms are just perfect for me though, and luckily came stocked with a few items of furniture to help: a filing cabinet (which I use as a dresser), a small cabinet set which my kitchen sits upon, and an extra table where I rest my pantry and wash my dishes.

Take a peek inside my house, and get a feel of what it is like to live in South Africa!

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My kitchen: 2 plate hot plate, microwave, electric tea kettle, and bucket to catch the rain drops about to arrive

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Kitchen part 2: mini fridge and water filter

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kitchen part 3: my “pantry”, iron, and underneath the table, my dish washing bucket

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My stockpile of water and, yep you guessed it…. my bath

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My desk, where I spend too many hours lesson planning, studying for the GRE, and staring at this beautiful world map

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My cleaning corner, because as a PCV you learn that one broom is never enough…

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My wall of love: cards and pictures from home, and a map of South Africa

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My bed, thankfully wrapped up inside my wonderful mosquito net. Also, see two varieties of Raid, never far from me.

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My PC provided dresser, books, and a backpack

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My filing cabinet dresser, toiletries, yoga mat, etc.

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The entrance to my home

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If you were curious… yes, that is the bathroom…