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.

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