Why I March

“Power means knowing that you will be heard. Not necessarily obeyed, but knowing that you will be heard, not shouted down.” Tina Fey

I may be half a world away from the inauguration of a new president, but I remain intensely close to the stinging pain inflicted in waves by our nation’s new leader. Though I cannot be physically marching with the thousands of women in Washington D.C. and across the globe, I continue to consider how women “can proceed with dignity in this incredibly misogynistic time”[1]. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in a Let Girls Learn country, I feel particular urgency to utilize my role as a volunteer to encourage and enable girls and women in my village to find their voices and acknowledge and stand up against injustices inflicted upon them.

My contributions may seem small- identifying the capabilities of men to complete simple tasks, inviting girls to play cards and practice speaking English, reminding them that they have the power to say no- and they are small. They are a small step towards engaging the “tens of millions of girls in every corner of the globe who are not in school (and even those who are)—girls who are so bright, hardworking and hungry to learn.”[2].

As a volunteer in my village, I have a certain level of power not granted to most women my age. Encounters with sexual harassment of varying degrees occur daily. These experiences come to be so normalized in our day-to-day lives as women that we brush them off as a coping mechanism- but they continue to diminish our sense of agency and cause us to question our actions and choices (Is this outfit too revealing?, Maybe it would be better if I wouldn’t have said anything. Etc.) In light of these frictional points of give and give on behalf of women, I choose to stand my ground. While I understand the importance of cultural values, the 2nd goal of Peace Corps is to help Host Country Nationals (South Africans) to better understand the United States, and in so doing, I use my voice to question the men in my life here. And it works… most of the time.

So male staff members no longer ask me to make tea for them (regardless of the fact that I never make tea at school), but that doesn’t stop other men from making lewd comments or making passes at myself or fellow volunteers. But I know the value of my voice, I know the power of women and girls, and I know that just as misogyny and sexual harassment are learned behaviors, so can the values of dignity, equality, and respect be sown amongst the children of today.

As I march in spirit today, I recognize that “feeling like you can say no without any negative repercussions is an important kind of power”[3], one too often denied to females and the disenfranchised by the media, men, and on too many occasions, ourselves. Despite the obstacles placed before us, 2017 can and will continue to be a year of change and one that can inspire awareness and awakenings in ways beyond our imagination.

But shrinking in the face of bias, bigotry, and bald-faced lies hinders my ability to reach and motivate others for “I can lose my hard earned freedom if my fear defines my world.”

[1] Tina Fey

[2] Michelle Obama

[3] Tina Fey

In and Out

No, not In ‘N’ Out, though certainly I wouldn’t turn that down… (animal fries anyone?). On a more relevant note, in and out of the village is a tough place to be. During PST, I cherished our three brief visits to Pretoria and Jozi, an opportunity to eat food outside of the basic staples of pap and meat, pap and veg, pap and pap… Trips to town also provided an opportunity to slow down the immensity of moving to a small village halfway around the world- a way to realize the incredible development that has swept South Africa by storm. And during lockdown, the three-month integration period following PST, I yearned to peace out of my village, go to a city and just enjoy the simple things.

But, flitting in and out of the village, particularly in a country as economically and developmentally divided as South Africa, is a trip. The more that Magogong feels like home, the more difficult it becomes to navigate the so-called first world/third world divide. How can I hold in my head these two seemingly incompatible South Africas that continue to demonstrate the harmful after effects of Apartheid?

The spread of unequal development in this country, though certainly not unique throughout the globe, represents an unparalleled level of inequality yet experienced by me. Starbucks, H&M, Zara, Whole Foods-esque grocery stores and the like dominate the nation’s big cities. For perspective, shopping in my village includes small spaza shops selling goods like bread, ice pops, soda, and soap.

This immense dichotomy extends beyond access to basic goods to housing, jobs, healthcare and more. Slipping between these two worlds is, simply put, jarring.  Increased exposure does not equal greater comfort, but rather the exact opposite. As I weave in and out of the fabric of these communities, I continue to recognize and acknowledge the immensity of my own privilege. Though many learners at my school have never been beyond the confines of the village (even to shop in the two towns 14k away), I float back and forth- traveling to Pretoria, Rustenburg, and the like.

In and Out emphasizes the privilege of mobility and the incredible work that remains to be done as South Africa continues to work to diminish inequality. In and Out emphasizes for me once again, that no matter how hard I work as a PCV, and no matter how much time I spend integrating in my village, I have privilege that enables me to know both South Africas. And even though this time is often spent productively and for the benefit of Peace Corps activities, the fact of the matter is that this is a disconcerting experience and one denied to many citizens of this nation.

None of the Above

“All of humanity shares an African heritage. We are one, diverse species across the globe with our roots in Africa.”

            Unsurprisingly, given South Africa’s past, race remains both a contentious and divisive issue. For a system of legally entrenched oppression, like Apartheid, to flourish, classifying people in an effort to enforce levels of racial superiority and inferiority is a must. The Apartheid government sought to separate people under four main categories: White, Coloured, Indian, Black. In the Black communities, the divisions became even more explicit, with the regime seeking to separate out language and ethnic groups by creating language divides in order to further consolidate their own power and inhibit the strength and possibility of the seemingly powerless majority rising against them.

Though South Africa sits 22 years out from the fall of Apartheid, its lasting grips on society continue to impress me. Without a doubt, one of the most immediately obvious effects of this system is the need of most South Africans to classify each person that they meet according to the racial categories inflicted upon them during the Apartheid era. This in turn, leads to one of my own greatest dilemmas. For regardless of what my outer appearance may tell you about my racial or ethnic identity, the story beneath is much more complex and not one that can be neatly tied up in a little box checked white.

My parents hail from colorful backgrounds and I find my family’s history to be something to celebrate. My mother grew up in a Jewish family in Minnesota to parents of German and Austrian descent. My father was raised in a deeply impoverished area of Mexico City and although much to his chagrin as a child, his lineage reaches back to Spain and Portugal and not that of the Aztec warriors he so greatly admired. So sure, I do come from a European descent, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’ve never identified that way, when I check boxes on forms it’s always as Hispanic/Latina.

However, in South Africa, Hispanic or Latina are not options. Categorization here is done based on snap judgments determined by looks, inviting such comments as: “I looked for the first European looking person I saw”, “But you don’t want your skin to get too dark,” (upon seeing a photo of me as a baby) “but you had an African nose!”, and the most deeply frustrating; the discussion of hired Black help as “boys and girls” when they are most certainly adults and the usage of the hideous K word. I have been invited and initiated into a club in which I feel no kinship. The club of whiteness that (even when done so “nicely”) denigrates the various races with which they share a country with is no club to which I seek membership.

But the fact remains that based on perception of skin color, regardless of my own personal identity I am ascribed a level of privilege not often granted to others who share the same identity as me. It is this dichotomy that I continue to grapple with, how do I level my privilege to better serve the views that I hold dear? How do I ensure that I am not (without realizing it) advancing myself at the expense of others? How can I use my privilege to call others out on the presence of “nice racism”? How can I check my own inherent racism (because like it or not, I know it is there)? How can I make myself a better ally for other people of color?

The fact of the matter is that the answers to these and other questions won’t magically pop up in my head overnight, but will be things I will struggle with my whole life, and especially here in South Africa. And as I continue to define myself as none of the above, I ask us all to remember this fact: “You are 99.9% the same as any other member of the human species. There is only a 0.1% difference between you and the person standing next to you. “

On the Things We Take for Granted

As humans, we find ourselves capable of easily adapting to circumstances as need be, flitting between different identities, making do with available resources, picking up new languages, etc. It is for this reason that even when faced with new ways of approaching things that may seem incredibly strange to us we tend to be able to go with the flow. Living in the United States, most of us have access to an immense amount of resources and gadgets designed to facilitate our lives both easily and smoothly. In much of the rest of the world, including here in South Africa, that is not always the case.

On water: In a drought-ridden world, access to water remains a dire necessity and one which those who can simply turn on a tap and have water pour out take for granted. In South Africa, many families have boreholes, which pull water out of the ground, but for those of us without, access can be an immense struggle. My host family uses the municipal water, which since October has been off approximately 90% of the time. To get water, my host mom often wakes up at 3 AM to fill jerry cans and buckets to store up for the coming days where they may not be any water. At school, water is stored in giant jojo tanks, but there are many days where there is no water, meaning learners frequently pass out from dehydration and heat exhaustion- no water and 100 degree weather make a frightening combination. Many weeks, it is necessary for me to supplement my water supply by purchasing 5-liter jugs of water in town at a local grocery store, a luxury not many people have.

On the “basic” every day tasks: At home, when I finish working out, I hop in the shower and bask in a long hot shower. In the village, bathing means utilizing a bucket. I fill the bucket with water, invariably cold, though if I choose I can boil water in my electric teakettle before bathing. Washing dishes means yet again hauling water inside, and reusing the same now slightly dirty water to clean everything. Laundry, however, is the greatest ordeal. Laundry requires two big buckets full of water, one with soap and one with fabric softener. Clothes soak in the first bucket for about 30 minutes to an hour before being scrubbed and transferred over to the second bucket and finally hung on the line to dry. The length of this process means no slacking and waiting several weeks before taking care of laundry.

Beyond the activities mentioned above, lack of access to resources translates across all spheres of life in the village from food shortages to using pit latrines instead of flushing toilets to getting creative with brushing teeth without running water. Though I am certainly still navigating the complexities of completing day-to-day activities with limited resources, I find myself shocked at the incredible joy I now receive by such simple things as taking a hot shower or bath on a weekend away or the even simpler pleasure of turning on the tap in the yard and finding water sputtering out.

 

The great language debate

South Africa’s immense diversity continues to astound me. This country truly is the Rainbow Nation in so many different ways. Linguistically, South Africa plays home to 11 official languages although many more tongues can be found. This great linguistic spread can create confusion when dealing across ethnic or traditional boundaries. Luckily, many South Africans are capable of speaking numerous languages and can navigate the divide between languages with relative ease. 

Unfortunately, this ease does not tend to translate into the learning, teaching, and speaking of English. In most schools in South Africa, learners study in their home language (in my case, Setswana) from Grade R-Grade 3. During those early years, learners will (ideally) complete one hour of English each day. When learners reach Grade 4, English is no longer just the First Additional Language, but the language of instruction. This means that all subject content (math, history, science, etc.) is expected to be conducted in English. 

For those attending schools in a deep rural area, this immediate switch can be disconcerting and even impossible. Many teachers feel incapable of communicating the subject material in English and rely upon the home language to make their points. 

So the question often discussed by educators is whether learners would be better off completing all their studies in home language and completely disregarding the use of English? While it seems to me that it would be almost guaranteed to improve scores by teaching solely in home language, I feel it would deprive learners of access to the outside world and inhibit future opportunities beyond the village. Similarly, I believe it would create a disconnect across the nation, making it devoid of a common language to share. 

That said, I understand that many feel that by using English, we are perpetuating a system of oppression imposed by the British. 

Language selection remains a far from easy decision. Many teachers in my community opt to send their children to private schools where they study in English and Afrikaans, a language protested not long ago for its own oppressive links. Some schools opt to identify English as a home language, beginning instruction in Grade R and supplementing the traditional language as a First Additional Language. 

While I am certainly no expert, I do know what it feels like to look at a math test and have the gut wrenching feeling that I have no idea what is on the page in front of me. For my learners who see nothing more than specks of ink splotched across a page, I am sorry. For me, the importance of mastering a second, third, or fourth language has never been more clear but the path to success remains murkier than ever. 

On this day

On this day above all others I as a Peace Corps Volunteer must hold my head up high and remember the reasons for serving my country. On this day it is important to acknowledge the pain, frustration, anxiety and disgust that envelopes many of us. On this day I must demonstrate to my learners, to my village, and to all that I meet that the United States is more than what we read in newspapers and see on TV. On this day I must prove that as a Hispanic, Jewish female with an immigrant father, that I matter, that I can continue to be a role model for others, and that my voice cannot be contained regardless of who is in power. On this day I must remember to show compassion for my nation that is reeling from great pain. On this day I must remember that there is a future, one that can be brightened by spreading the message of peace, equity, and kindness. On this day, while I hurt and rage and feel sick to my stomach, I must strive for a path forward. On this day I must remember that some days are truly horrible, that the hurt and fear felt is exponentially greater for many and that I remain incredibly lucky to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa. 

We are Beautiful


In my small corner of rural South Africa, and many others like it, young African children struggle to come to terms with their appearances and identities. When kids reach out to pet my skin or run their fingers through my hair it’s often a symptom of both subtle and blatant messaging reiterating that particular appearances embody beauty- and rarely that with which they identify. This messaging is deeply entrenched throughout South African society, from the toddlers chanting lekgoa, or white person, as I walk through the village to the taxi driver who passes up families flagging him down in order to take me to town. 

Being a PCV presents me with opportunities to not only learn from my community, but to challenge preconceived notions. Today in my Grade 7 English class we tackled the topic of beauty. We completed a CLOZE activity to Beautiful by Christina Aguilera and discussed the components of beauty. At the start of class, these traits included primarily physical characteristics- hair, body, skin etc., but throughout our discussion, the idea of inner beauty surfaced. Learners commented on traits like respect, trustworthiness, honesty, and kindness. We honed in on the imperfections or beautiful mistakes that enable the existence of our unique beauty and discussed the importance of feeling our beauty in our hearts rather than something that is derived from the thoughts, words or actions of any other person. 

Though this lesson remains an ongoing discussion, we rounded out class singing loudly for the whole school to hear: “We are beautiful in every single way. We are beautiful no matter what they say.”