Wandering solo and loving it?

Solo travel inevitably means a lot of time in your own head, either relishing the opportunity to get to know yourself better, or frustrated and bored with the same thoughts bubbling up on repeat. Solo travel also provides an opportunity to meet people from all over the world and with incredibly different backgrounds, to create fast-paced friendships while engaging solely in activities that make you happy. Continue reading “Wandering solo and loving it?”

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.

Jane of the Jungle

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

I’m dripping in sweat, antsy from bumping along the dusty Botswana countryside for hours, and then a short burst of energy. The vehicle jolts to a stop, pulls aside and our guide points out two elephants grazing lazily on the side of the road. We spring into action, phones clicking for that perfect instagram shot and then we pull back onto the road strewn with potholes for another 15 minutes. As we pull of the road into the seemingly nondescript Elephant Sands campsite, all I can think about is a quick shower, a ton of mosquito spray, and a good night’s sleep before heading north to Victoria Falls the next morning.

Nothing prepares me for the magic of a campsite replete with a watering hole at its center and dozens of male elephants slurping up water and slathering themselves in mud. We draw chairs up on the deck, not more than three or four meters from the nearest cluster of elephants and stare. As the sky shifts from bright blue to a soft pink one elephant asserts his dominance, continuing to charge, trumpet, and growl at other elephants that infringe upon his space. (Me too dude, me too.)

IMG_4091After a magical night complete with one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten (a close second to Buenos Aires), I arise at 3 AM, stumble out of the tent under a brilliant diamond-studded sky, lock eyes with an elephant, and hop into the vehicle, determined to snag a few more hours of sleep before reaching the Zimbabwean border. As we drive north, the landscape shifts from semi-arid to increasingly lush. With the border crossing being as easy as could be hoped, we head to Victoria Falls town for two days at one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Impressive doesn’t even begin to cover Victoria Falls. The roar of the falls greets me long before I catch sight of them, a thundering that can be heard at the campsite 2 km away. Once inside the park, we navigate the slippery pathways staring wide-eyed at the seemingly endless sets of falls and the rainbows cast inside the gorges all the while laughing at the constant mist pouring down on us.

IMG_4127On Saturday we cross the border to Zambia prepared to engage in a day of high ropes adventure (or so we thought). Upon arriving, we pull up to the edge of the Batoka Gorge, a coppery toned cliff side that opens up on a green-carpeted forest floor. The guides hook us up to numerous cable and harnesses, have us practice for our fall on the Gorge Swing, and walk us to the edge. I shuffle my toes until they peek over and as my heart races, I manage to hear the guide count down 3, 2, 1 and I step into the abyss. An involuntary shriek wrenches itself from me as I free fall for what feels like forever, falling the nearly 100 meters into the canyon until the harness finally catches me and swings me breathtakingly as my toes kiss the treetops. This time, a shout of bliss and achievement escapes me.IMG_4146

Sunday morning we head back to Botswana and enter Chobe National Park situated on the Botswana/Namibia border at Sedudu. We embark on a sunset safari cruise and watch a hungry crocodile stalk a herd of elephants and subsequently on failure, a family of monkeys. We watch a mama hippo prod her young underwater for protection and see a buffalo charge at another boat. The evening fades from fiery sunset to starlit night and as we roast marshmallows over a fire in the middle of the bush we watch 2017 fade into memory gracefully (and if I might add, with a lot of gratitude… that it happened, that it’s over).

IMG_4205The curtains open on 2018 with a riveting safari in Chobe, putting us two meters from a pride of lions (cubs included!), too close for comfort from an adolescent elephant who angry at our presence throws dirt and leaves on me, and up close and personal with baby baboons clambering aboard their parents’ backs.

One trip, four countries, and dozens of adventures not even touched on here, this trip was undoubtedly the best possible way to close out 2017 and kick off the New Year. If this trip taught me anything it’s that 1. Traveling solo as a female is unbelievably empowering and 2. That sometimes we need to step off the edge of a canyon and let a free fall rip the utter joy out of us.

The Year of Magic and Meh

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

IMG_4054.jpg
The new Playpump set up at school on a rainy December day.

If you had asked me a few months ago, I undoubtedly would have told you that 2017 had been the absolute worst year of my life. Although plenty of good things had taken place, the dark clouds of the bumpy realities of Peace Corps life overwhelmed them. Fairly enough, my focus remained on events that caused me anxiety, that brought me fear and frustration and that left me feeling weak.

But life has a way of reminding you of your power, of opening the door to sunshine and if you’re lucky, a little bit of magic. Term four, though exhausting and full of tedious examinations, coincided with several successful activities. I began a partnership with a local HIV/AIDS organization and created a working relationship with a drop-in center. I procured two new book donations for my learners and further developed my co-teaching partnership in preparation for co-teaching grades 4 and 7 next school year. Most exciting of all, I procured a Playpump for my school’s borehole to allow us access to water and to provide kids somewhere designed for climbing and playing on.

I reclaimed my strength in term four. When my counterpart told me she was leaving the school next year, I cried, but I was genuinely thrilled for her decision to put herself first. Her constant support this past year has enabled me to stand on my own two feet at school and has made me a kinder and more empathetic person.

And then there is the realization of the immense magic that fills my life, from the everyday variety that comes in wildflowers and “shahps” with toddlers to drinking in the vast turquoise ocean spilling out of Table Bay or embracing a group of scrambling lemurs. My life is replete with joy. Not every day, week, or even month is easy, but the slumps eventually “unslump” themselves with victories big and small, and a whole lot of compassion.

While I continue to be excited for a fresh start in January, I also recognize that 2017 was far from a complete loss. 2017 was a year intended to test my sense of self, my dedication to future goals, the depth of my perseverance. The culmination of 11 months of an emotional roller coaster brought the gift of returning to my favorite city in the world and sharing my bliss as my sister and brother-in-law visited the Mother City.

I am Privileged

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

“ ‘Equity’ means both holding people of differing needs to a single expectation and giving them what they need to achieve it.”

I am privileged. Distinctly so. As much as I identify with minority groups as a Latina and a Jew, my appearance and upbringing often suggest otherwise thus supplying me with a level of privilege not afforded many of my counterparts. I look white, which is all that is needed to glean the benefits of a society built to favor white people. I grew up in a family that was more or less socioeconomically stable, and even during the tough times where my parents struggled to maintain a home over our heads, I remained blissfully oblivious, able to continue expensive cheer teams and piano lessons.

I am incredibly grateful for my upbringing, for the opportunities to travel, take on unpaid internships, and volunteer in my free time rather than working a minimum wage job to support my family- and grateful that when I did start working, I was able to save the money for my future endeavors due to the support of my family. Buy I recognize that the pathways to these opportunities are not entirely due to my family working harder than any other, but to a racial system that boosts us and enables us take advantage of all that America has to offer.

Here in South Africa, I constantly struggle with being a deeply privileged person living in a distinctly unprivileged segment of society. When I engage with people from outside the village bubble I find echoes of the American battle with white superiority. In South Africa, as in America, “segregation enables avoidance, which enables denial, which creates the illusion that white privilege doesn’t exist” (Irving, 74). White Americans tend to hold people of color at arm’s length, rarely befriending or engaging them except as a token friendship to disprove shouts of racism. This separation replicates itself in South Africa, as white and black people move in entirely different circles- living across provincial lines, in cities versus townships, on farms instead of villages. As we all want the best for our children, white people who have grown up comfortable, confident, and with all the skills needed to navigate the systems are capable of fighting for their children, families, and neighborhoods- thus ensuring that the best remains with them, further entrenching racist institutions, all while black people who grew up with little to no education or fearful of a state designed to beat them into submission opt to avoid painful conflict which could quickly erase any semblance of progress.

As we observe one another as outsiders peering in, white people blithely unaware of the realities the others live reach out to serve the “underprivileged”, “less-fortunate”, or “inner-city” dwellers. Without understanding the systematic oppression that has led to necessitate assistance, we address problems in a way that “disempowers and ‘fixes’ it by aggravating a wound and infantilizing” (Irving, 125) those served.

As white people, it is crucial to develop the cultural competency skills people of color develop daily. It is crucial that we recognize that white is not neutral; something against which we judge everything else, nor do good intentions erase impactful microagressions.

Continuing my work in South Africa, I strive to empower the voices around me. Rather than needing to be the leader or most outspoken, I seek to listen, contribute where appropriate, and step back to let the magic unfold in a culturally appropriate means.

 

Quotes come from: Waking up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by: Debby Irving

Lo a Rasa

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

Or maybe not. Don’t be quiet, don’t close your mouth.

One of my enduring goals for my service is to instill a sense of pride in my learners. On a daily basis, these kids are yelled at to “shut up!” and “stop making noise”, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that they have valuable things to say when we give them a chance. As much as I am guilty of getting frustrated when trying to create some semblance of silence in my classroom so I can deliver my lesson, I also recognize that many of my students are never told that they matter.

As a child, I bonded with adults who acknowledged my value, who engaged with me as they would another adult and who made me feel seen and important. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I strive daily to provide this space for my learners- reminding them not to be shy when speaking to me, even if their English isn’t perfect, and leaving my door open for kids who need me.

Part of this journey is combatting cultural norms that contribute to immense shyness particularly among girls. Girls are often shy to look adults in the eyes when they speak, they cover their mouths when they talk, and urge their friends to speak for them so they can stay more hidden. These rituals drive me crazy- that 10-year-old girls have been taught that they should filter their desires and be fearful of an adult’s response is tragic.

I strive to build in fun ways for kids to gain public speaking skills and small spaces for them to hang out with me and confide if they so choose. Last week, I taught my learners how to play Miss Mary Mack and then allowed kids to demonstrate for the class how quickly they could perform the rhyme and hand claps. It was a huge hit with some of the shyest learners stepping forward to prove their skills.

My open door policy has yielded kids stopping by to chat about their favorite books (Hansel and Gretl and the Three Little Pigs are very popular), singing songs, and kids shyly confiding their secrets and concerns.

It’s hard to feel important when you’re constantly told otherwise, but I sincerely hope that by providing a safe space for kids to talk and be taken seriously I can fight the loneliness and insignificance just a little bit.

So in class, we lift our chins, take a deep breath, and bua ko go dimo (speak up) because what we have to say matters.

 

When Violence is Normalized

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

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

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

“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.

Why I March

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

“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

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