MGG the Best

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

You were. Really truly the best village, community, school that your girl could have asked for. Leaving you, especially so abruptly is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. For two years you were my safe haven. The place where I laughed with toddlers who had no idea what I was saying, kicked soccer balls across dusty fields, got frustrated when my learners wouldn’t listen, and escaped with a book as the sun melted into the horizon. For two years when I thought of home I thought of you, of runs to the silos, steaming hot days eased by a sticky ice guava, of stumbling bursts of Setswana as I ineptly attempted to express my thoughts. Continue reading “MGG the Best”

Closing a door

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

Two years ago Peace Corps dropped me off to the “li li li li li lis” of chanting gogos and host families as they danced their way up the aisle to meet their new host children. Two years ago I was plopped into the middle of rural (ish) Mpumalanga, introduced to a family, and left to (hopefully) become part of it. Two years later it’s clearer than ever that families are not determined by blood, language, skin color, or traditions. Continue reading “Closing a door”

You are an Ocean

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

A day will come

When you will look at yourself

In the mirror and marvel at

How wonderful it is,

How exquisite it is,

To be completely devoid

Of the sadness

Of the loneliness

That once clung to your skin

Like salt to an open wound.

 You have grown so much

Because you have quietly realized

You aren’t just teardrops

You are an ocean.

  • Nikita Gill

Continue reading “You are an Ocean”

Strike…You’re Out!

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

*Pictured above, a bakkie burnt by protesters in a nearby town

It starts off as no big deal. I wake on a Thursday morning, the birds chirp, the sun shines and it all feels a bit too Disney-esque. Not until I arrive at school do the first subtle hints of something amiss arise. Your principal’s office is closed and he and several other staff members are out. It comes in whispers and slowly grasped blurbs of Setswana, “he was detained by the protests”. They tell you that the national road will be blocked tomorrow; people have been looting stores, burning tires and cars…

It’s the start of a fearful roller coaster. I try following the situation through a haze of whatsapp messages and anxiety creeping up inside my head.

This past week a variety of protests broke out across the nation. There was a national bus strike, strikes against the Premier of the North West province, local service delivery protests, and now a national union strike. Given my unique location on the border of two provinces, I found myself sandwiched between two unrelated but increasingly escalating protests.

So not exactly the best feeling situation. By Monday, I found myself plotting a way out of my village (a gravel farm road to a southern exit point on the national road…) just in case it came to that. As low key as I try to keep myself, the stressful blur of mixed messages, multilingual communications, and the sight of smoke are not conducive to a healthy and relaxed state. Finding myself swirling down into an anxiety spiral, I collapsed into stress sleep, determined not to dwell.

But after confirmations that not only were the protests not set to end, but also that they would likely intensify as they coincided with a national strike action on Wednesday, Peace Corps decided to evacuate us.

From there it became a mad scramble of phone calls and whatsapps, throwing clothes into a duffel bag, hopping into a bakkie, and screeching southwards hopeful for a clear path.

And the minute I was out it was like a big weight lifted. I started laughing and chatting with my HOD, the giddiness of being safe overwhelming me like the crash of an ocean wave. I’m chilling in Kimberley at the moment with plans of heading to my favorite beachside paradise (Cape Town) tomorrow for a relaxed long weekend.

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Pink skies, pink lake (courtesy of the resident flamingos). View from Kimberley

So everything’s sorted and it’s all good right? Well, that remains to be seen. With my region in such a state of turmoil at the moment, we’re playing a wait and see game to figure out when we can head back to the vill. So for now I guess I’ll just enjoy the showers, wifi, and beautiful fall weather.

Do the Work

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

Silence

The tragedy is people see you as a victim

And they keep seeing you as a victim

Because you talk about the thing that hurt you.

Because you talk about your trauma

Because you discuss the thing that tore you apart.

 

They do not understand that talking about it

Being brave enough to face it

Understanding it

And allowing others

To see all of your vulnerability

Is courage at its rawest.

 

You are a survivor

Because you are not silent

Do not allow others

To define your survival

Because they lack the patience

The understanding

The courage to hear it.

 

  • Nikita Gill

*Dear readers, I’ve been hella real here. I’ve been super freaking vulnerable. And that’s not easy. So please, be gentle with my soul. I appreciate y’all for caring about my journey. 

It’s been a season of personal reckonings. Of really sitting with the growth and experiences I’ve undergone in the past 21 months of service. And that inevitably means wading into thoughts and emotions that are tough, that really hurt. But the fruits of that emotional labor can have resounding effects, rippling far past my little personal bubble and affecting relationships with others and even unaware, seemingly unrelated people. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

About a month ago I was invited by my Program Manager (PM) to be part of a meeting to reevaluate the SCRP (School and Community Resource) Project Framework, essentially assisting Peace Corps to determine the best use of education volunteers in the upcoming years. In this meeting was PC upper management, school principals, two other volunteers, and representatives of both provincial and national Departments of Education. And as volunteers, we were asked to bring the reality of our service to the table. To elaborate our successes, challenges, and suggestions going forward.

In my first draft for this meeting I skated over some of my realities, instead sticking to the surface level challenges that are well known throughout Peace Corps- language barrier, counterpart buy-in, etc. And I was proud of what I had to say. Except. Except it wasn’t the truth, not the whole truth at least. The reality is that my service has been incredibly affected by my being female. By the excessive harassment that I face, by the patriarchal society that I’m serving in, by severe anxiety stemming from my assault last year.

And so I rewrote. And I shared. I went vulnerable in a most terrifying way, feeling that if there is even the slimmest chance for change that could protect others, that it was my obligation to do so. And I was received. I got men wondering about the prevalence of these experiences across the nation and women empathizing that they too have been there. And I got people saying thank you.

This disclosure was but the start of a rabbit hole I journeyed into. I spoke with my PM the next day for three hours, outlining my experiences, thoughts and suggestions for staff. I emphasized that these experiences do not detract from the successes of my service and her rose-tinted perception of my service, but rather that they add another layer through which you can better understand PC service.

My experience is that PC service is far from easy. There are days when I don’t want to climb out of bed or do anything beyond the bare minimum. And there are days when I want to go for runs and stay late at school working on projects. That’s life. Sure, could I have gone home after all the shit I’ve dealt with? Yes. But would that really change anything? Would I be dealing any less with the patriarchy (unfortunately, probably not)? Would I be able to stop it all and just wallow? (I mean theoretically…) But no. Life continues either way, here or home. As much as I joke that I stick it out to get the R (in RPCV or returned volunteer), I stick it out because I love my work here. I stick it out because I feel that I have so much to share with other volunteers. I stick it out because it’s genuinely not all bad. Like everything, PC service is a mixed bag. And sometimes the bad is really bad and sometimes the good is incredible, peaks and valleys.

So I do the work. I struggle through the emotional moments to deepen my own sense of self, to maximize my self-growth. I do the work not because I’m dwelling in a victimized past, but because it allows me to gain perspective and fight for what I know to be important.

 

 

Books Matter

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

“Ma’am, can I get another one?” A shy smile creeps across Kgomotsego’s face as she begs me to let her in my office so she can check out a new book to read. She walks out triumphantly, clutching Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go before being shadowed back into my office by a gaggle of giggling grade six girls eager to lay their hands on books. Each child peeks at their toes or back at their friends, snickering their way through English greetings and attempting to get away with requests in Setswana, “Ma’am, nkadime buka,” One glance at my incredulous face and English bubbles through along with tales of the last book they read and how they learned about libraries or pirate ships or sneaky crocodiles.

From the moment I could read I devoured every book I could lay my hands on, slipping into Narnia or becoming best friends with Hermione Granger. Books have always been my favorite escape and a constant coping mechanism throughout my Peace Corps service through which I have powered through 130 books to date.

Watching learners eager to read stuck reading the same stories in their rainbow workbooks or textbooks irked me. These books didn’t provide the same interesting, culturally relevant, and eye-opening tales spun in children’s books. Over the course of my service I have devoted myself to procuring books for my school’s mini library. By engaging with organizations like Nal’i Bali, Biblionef, and Darien Bookaid I have been able to secure books that span reading abilities, languages (English, Setswana and isiXhosa), and that provide both windows and mirrors for students to see characters that both look like them and who push them to think critically about worlds unlike their own.

Every day at break I am swarmed with children seeking a book to read and upon walking out of my office I find learners lined up like ducks on a bench, noses deep in a book and blissfully unaware of the chaotic nonsense swirling around them. Sure, books help learners develop language and literacy skills, help them improve reading comprehension, and challenge them to learn about new subjects, but books are also an escape. In much the same way that I curl up with Cheryl Strayed in Wild to breathe in the cool air of the Pacific Northwest and feel the strength of powerful women mucking their way through tough stuff, my kids dig into books where girls are star soccer players and boys develop artistic skills.

By developing a mini library I help provide kids with a safe space to come and chat in English, a place free from corporal punishment and a place they can pack in their bags and hide away in no matter the reality at home.

Looking Inwards

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

Visiting PST, regardless of what point of service you’re in, is a complete trip. Returning to a space where trainees are incredibly eager to learn and get started, eager to please and do exactly as they believe Peace Corps expects of them, and unsure how to and to what extent they can set boundaries while maintaining cultural sensitivity can be exhausting and plain weird. But visiting PST while being in a cohort nearing COS and after 20 months of the roller coaster that is Peace Corps is surprisingly a bit of an emotional ride. When talking to PCTs, you’re pushed into a space of mentorship despite your own remaining confusion on how you have managed to push through the muck thus far. Trainees tend to accept the words eschewed from a volunteer’s mouth as gold, clinging to any taste of life beyond the PST bubble and causing volunteers to very carefully weigh the words uttered in their presence.

Beyond the opportunity to meet a set of new faces intent on embarking on this insane journey, a visit to PST forces introspection. You are instantly sucked into remembering your own mental space during training and all the ensuing shit you’ve persevered through to be standing here. What trainees don’t see when they meet visiting volunteers is the fights they’ve had to crawl their ways through, the bitter and depleting days when you stay up all night questioning even staying.

I’m not typically one to humble brag, but I recently had someone who knows the struggles of my service well tell me that “lesser people would not still be here”. It gave me pause. Has my service really been exceptionally challenging? The reality is that it has been hard as hell. It’s a goddamn miracle that I’m not only still kicking but that I have found the strength and resilience to grow into love and acceptance for my service.

Today I’m an emotional mess, not because I’m plagued by depression or anxiety but because I’m overcome with gratitude. If anything, my Peace Corps service has been a crash course in resilience, growth and vulnerability. As I begin to contemplate my last few months in country, I do so a completely different person from the girl who stepped off the plane on a freezing July day.

My Life is Chaos…but what’s new?

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

Before departing for Peace Corps service an RPCV friend gave me what is quite possibly some of the best advice I have ever received. He told me that successful volunteers have the capability of working in deep chaos, in situations with little to no direction. Undoubtedly, Peace Corps throws volunteers into some of the most unstructured and confusing work environments out there and it is the volunteer’s responsibility to identify their role, sometimes essentially creating their job on the spot.

The beauty of being an education volunteer is that our roles as teachers tend to be pretty clear. Last year I was assigned a set of classes to teach and provided a regular schedule with most of the chaos coming in the form of sorting out secondary projects and just navigating life. This year, however, has been an assortment of confusing moments.

At the start of the school year my school lacked a principal, vice principal, a 4th and 5th grade math teacher and a 1st grade teacher. Simply put, it was a mess. So my initial plan to not teach at all and work on developing literacy skills and secondary projects quickly evaporated into thin air. I was tasked with co-teaching English in grades 4 and 7 in order to cover the shortage of teachers. As I anxiously began my prep work, I was pulled from grade 4 and told to solo teach grade 7 English. About a week into teaching grade 7 my school received a brand new principal and I was pulled out of English and asked to teach math in order to cover for the missing teacher. That goal disappeared in a heartbeat (I mean my Setswana is good but not math vocabulary good…).

If 19 months in country have taught me anything it’s that you have to stick up for yourself. As much as I strive to be as competent as possible and capable of doing a million things, I have to care for my mental and physical well-being and remember that the school has to be functional without me. So I sat down and talked to my principal, laid out my recommendations and promised my flexibility.

So one month into the school year my teaching plan is finally (mostly) sorted out. I’m officially co-teaching English in grade 4, and as exhausting as it is, it is truly thrilling to see the kids making connections and beginning to cope with my accent. Co-teaching enables us to provide more one-on-one and small group attention to learners and helps us to avoid the language barrier by ensuring the children hear English with opportunities for Setswana translations as needed. Co-teaching also allows me to work on Peace Corps’ goal of teacher development by assisting my colleague with her English skills and helping her develop more creative and student-centered lessons.

I have always considered myself as being relatively confident and comfortable speaking to figures of authority, but feeling comfortable enough to put myself first and to engage with my staff in a culturally competent manner took a year and a half of service. I guarantee you that a year ago I would have begged my counterpart to fight the battle for me (or at least with me) or that I would have muddled through the chaos, overstretched and frustrated.

It’s 2018. I’ve been a Peace Corps volunteer for 19 months. I’ve served through two Olympic games, two American presidents, two South African presidents, two birthdays, and now my third school year. My life is still chaos but now I know how to navigate that dynamic without driving myself crazy at the same time. My life is chaos but it’s a chaos I’ve come to thrive in.

Musings on Love, Curiosity, and Family

*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men (and women!) and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

In July 2016, I walked into a stranger’s home, was hugged, given a Setswana name, and immediately welcomed into their family. This family lives in rural South Africa and has provided a home away from home for me and created a familial bond that I have never felt outside of my real family.

My host mama is brilliant, a hard-working nurse who lives alone most of the time, tending to her garden, cooking some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, and constantly upgrading her home. She speaks beautiful English, took in her sister’s child after she passed away, and ensured that all her children went to university in order to secure a bright future. She knows of a world outside the village, is often up to date on news before I even am aware, and firmly believes that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

I have two little host siblings who I adore, Botshelo and Onkgopotse. These two children, about to begin grades 1 and 2 respectively, give me the biggest hugs and smiles after being away for months at a time, ask me to read books and play soccer with them, and eagerly call for me as if I was really one of their own, “Sesi Reya, o kae?”

Add in Granny, who dances everywhere she goes and my host aunts who work incredibly hard and I can always find cooking a steaming vat of pap or scrubbing piles of messy kids’ clothing, and you begin to get a picture of my family.

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My amazing host family and I at the end of PST (Sept. 2016).

Perhaps it’s because I have the privilege of traveling or maybe because I devour books at a ridiculous pace (111 since the start of service!), but my perception of the world is that it is a complex place full of differing customs, languages, and traditions and that each of those cultures is valid and worth understanding (and definitely not just because some U.S. American just said so).

Over the course of my service I have met hundreds of South Africans, been welcomed into three families, and learned from the children I’m supposed to be teaching. These people continue to welcome me into their lives, trust me with their kids, and provide me with love and strength. They seek to understand my country and my roots better, asking about traditional dances and marriage rituals, wondering about everything from the cost of bread in the U.S. to the role religion plays in schools and government to our proclivity for a sport ‘incorrectly’ dubbed football.

As I share and ask questions of my own, I can’t help thinking about all the seemingly well-meaning people back home who inquire about my trip to Africa, as if it weren’t 54 uniquely rich countries, or who automatically assume that everything I see must be devastating poverty. There’s good (well not good but understandable) reason for this, U.S. schools focus very little on geography beyond Western Europe, and colonial narratives widely spread throughout the states fail to elaborate on minority cultures in our own society let alone distinguishing the places people were forced out of, immigrated from, or continue to happily call home.

I hope to impress upon you that the little corner of South Africa that I call home has welcomed me in with open arms. They didn’t need the burden of a white looking girl who hates washing her laundry by hand and who often needs entire meetings repeated in English for her benefit. But they embrace me anyway, they acknowledge my broken Setswana and appreciate it for what it is, seek to understand my strange gymming habits, and graciously provide me with water when I inevitably manage to run out.

As a volunteer and a representative of my country, it hurts to see Host Country Nationals (HCNs) inquiring about derogatory remark. It’s exhausting and anxiety-inducing to navigate appropriate responses to their confusion and visible frustration. It’s heart breaking to know that these people who have unquestioningly invited me into not only their country, but their homes wonder if they might be extended the same courtesy in return.

                                                  Ke a le rata, lelapa la ka. Ke a go rata, Afrika Borwa.

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