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?

 

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.

Home Sweet Home

As a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, our housing has only a few main requirements:

  1. The room has its own entrance that is separate from the main house and cannot be accessed by anyone else.
  2. The room has burglar bars on all the doors and windows.
  3. The school will provide one desk and two chairs.
  4. The department of education will provide a bed and a dresser.

That’s it. Electricity? A lovely perk, but not required. Running water…. only if you are extremely lucky. I love my humble abode; complete with its leaky tin roof that lets in exaggerates any sound upon it. No seriously, the first time it poured and subsequently hailed, I had a minor freak out and turned on Julie Andrews’ “My Favorite Things” and crawled under my blanket until it subsided. So yeah, it’s loud, but a handy-dandy mini speaker does wonders to allow me to continue watching my hard drive even in the noisiest of storms.

My two rooms are just perfect for me though, and luckily came stocked with a few items of furniture to help: a filing cabinet (which I use as a dresser), a small cabinet set which my kitchen sits upon, and an extra table where I rest my pantry and wash my dishes.

Take a peek inside my house, and get a feel of what it is like to live in South Africa!

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My kitchen: 2 plate hot plate, microwave, electric tea kettle, and bucket to catch the rain drops about to arrive

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Kitchen part 2: mini fridge and water filter

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kitchen part 3: my “pantry”, iron, and underneath the table, my dish washing bucket

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My stockpile of water and, yep you guessed it…. my bath

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My desk, where I spend too many hours lesson planning, studying for the GRE, and staring at this beautiful world map

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My cleaning corner, because as a PCV you learn that one broom is never enough…

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My wall of love: cards and pictures from home, and a map of South Africa

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My bed, thankfully wrapped up inside my wonderful mosquito net. Also, see two varieties of Raid, never far from me.

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My PC provided dresser, books, and a backpack

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My filing cabinet dresser, toiletries, yoga mat, etc.

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The entrance to my home

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If you were curious… yes, that is the bathroom…

 

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. “