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.

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.

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.

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.

 

See You in Two

Does it ever feel real? Does the surreal nature of the fact that I am about to move to South Africa for the next two years ever diminish? My days of relaxing on the beach, living at the yoga studio, and binging on Gilmore Girls are quickly coming to a close, but a sense of trepidation remains. While I am firm in my commitment to serve in the Peace Corps, and beyond excited for this brand new adventure, the unknown is inherently scary- not the kind of scary you want to run away from, rather the kind I want to run headfirst into and embrace with open arms.

On Monday, I’m off to Philadelphia for our staging event, a short three day orientation where we will cover safety and security basics and meet the other members of our cohort. Staging marks the transition from being a Peace Corps Invitee to a Peace Corps Trainee, and is my last stop in the U.S. before a 15 hour flight to Johannesburg on Friday.

As I attempt to cram my whole life into two bags and carry ons (while simultaneously not wanting to be the girl who brings way too much, or the one who is missing all the necessities), I can’t help but focus on how unimportant the things that I bring and the things that I leave will be. It is the relationships that I will forge in South Africa that will encourage and motivate me, it is through my personal mindset and intention that I will build a home I can thrive in, even halfway around the world.

So as I prepare to say “see ya later” or more appropriately, “see you in two”, I feel grounded, energized, and yeah maybe just a little bit anxious. Oh, and one more thing- internet access will likely be very limited for the first couple weeks or months, so if you want to get in touch with me please click the connect button on the side to find my address and feel free to send me snail mail!

One Month Countdown…

Today, June 3rd, puts me just shy of one month until my Peace Corps Staging event (July 4th) and very close to my flight to South Africa (July 7th). After a conference call yesterday with Peace Corps South Africa staff and receiving detailed information for further preparations, and even a schedule for my first week in country, things are getting very real.

Suddenly, I’m trying to imagine my life in Africa, wondering how I will manage the challenges that even small daily tasks are certain to become, and anxiously anticipating finding out if I will be studying IsiZulu or Setswana. As I desperately try to gain an understanding of what the next two years hold, I am voraciously reading anything I can get my hands on; Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to FreedomThe Power of One, and Kaffir Boy among others. These books, and the instagrams and blogs of current volunteers currently form the basis for my understanding of the Rainbow Nation and incite an eager willingness to dig in to life in South Africa.

One month from now I will be loading up my bags, spending one last night in my own bed, taking one final yoga class, and snuggling with my dog, Shadow in anticipation of embarking upon my biggest adventure to date. One month from today, I will be asking myself, where did the time go? who will I be when I return to California? and of course, most importantly, how am I going to sit on a plane for close to 15 hours?

P.S. I also have an address now! If you want to send me snail mail during training, hop on over to the contact me page for info on how to do so!

Why Peace Corps?

Many people don’t understand, and some never will understand the draw of moving to a foreign country for 27 months to work with underserved communities and contributing to participatory development projects. Quizzical looks cross their faces…so you want to live in a hut? there won’t be any running water or electricity? My honest answer is that I don’t know yet. While I know I’m headed to South Africa in early July, the nature of my experience remains a mystery, my site placement will remain unknown until I near the end of training, and the experiences I encounter will certainly differ from those even current volunteers know.

Peace Corps is something I initially considered upon returning from serving as a Phoenix Sister Cities Youth Ambassador to Chengdu, China the summer before my senior year in high school. At that point, I was determined to pursue a career that would enable me to work internationally, though in what respect I remained unsure. Over the course of my college career, I expanded my international experience through study abroads in Brazil and Chile, volunteering in Ecuador, an internship at the U.S. Embassy in Suriname, and all complemented by the pursuit of a degree in Global Political and Economic Development. These experiences combined with the exposure to returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) heightened my desire to serve as a PCV.

The nature of Peace Corps allows for development on a personal and maybe even community level, but when the efforts of those involved are combined globally, enables real improvements. I’m not naive, I don’t expect to change the entire world over the course of my service, but I do hope to make an impact on those around me, to encourage pursuit of secondary and maybe even higher education or to instill a love of reading or running in a child who feels they lack these abilities. During my service, I expect for my community members to impact me as much if not even more so than I can possibly impact them, but these interactions will contribute to a future in development or diplomacy, in which there is the potential to make greater waves.