The Emotional Journey

Edging in on 13 months of service, it’s not difficult to feel the full-blown force of the dreaded Mid-Service Crisis. That point in time when PCVs question the slightly insane logic behind their decision to be volunteers and wonder whether the seemingly inconsequential gains they are making at sight truly outweigh the icky feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, and general frustration. It comes in waves- one moment I’m tossing a Frisbee and playing netball, the next I’m overcome with sadness and anxiety- reevaluating my every move and pushing myself to snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag as I binge on yet another episode of Grey’s Anatomy.

Some days it’s fleeting, a brief moment of overwhelming emotion washing over me, and sometimes it’s a full 24 hours where I need to stop, reach out to a friend, and embrace some serious self-care.

This past week I hosted trainees at my site. Their fresh eyes, eager to embark upon their own journey, demonstrated the depth of my emotional growth since last July. One year ago self-care was a phrase I threw around because Peace Corps constantly made me consider my coping mechanisms. I made the lists of self-care activities: yoga, coloring books, reading, (sleeping)- not yet fully aware of the level of importance these activities would take on and the immense difficulty it might take to bring myself to partake in them.

When my hair is gritty and greasy, unwashed after a week because there is no water in my village, simply washing it is both strenuous and an act of self-care. Exercising when all I want to do is crawl back into bed is an act of compassion for myself- though so is allowing myself to chill out and watch that extra episode when the reality is that that is all I can bring myself to do. When I can’t name the emotions coursing through my veins or the reasons for the sudden influx of emotions, calling or texting a friend grounds me- reminds me to breathe, to sit quietly with myself, and to bring my focus inwards until I can once again manage to consider the world outside of me, through a podcast or a shy knock on my door from a learner asking to borrow my basketball.

Wading through the muck of service is painful.

But I sit and remind myself to embrace it all, this too. This pain, this anger, this confusion, this joy, this bliss, this anxiety, this immense love… this too. All of these experiences combine to build my unique experience of service and are integral aspects of the often-nicknamed 4th goal of service- personal growth.

Though I look forward to overcoming the slump of Mid-Service Crisis, each phase of service presents its own emotional challenges. And in each moment, I must continue to be accepting and gentle with myself because, as I know all to well, this too shall pass.

Around the World in 48 Hours

In less than two days I emerge from wandering the pier on a gloriously sunny afternoon in Seaport Village to sweeping mountains of chalky red dust out of my home in rural South Africa. This journey around the world encompasses immense change- from time zones to food, weather to language. It’s tough to believe, as I sit in my camp chair peeking out at the quickly fading afternoon light, that just 48 hours ago I sipped a Cold Brew coffee from Starbucks and mindlessly scoured Instagram- blissfully unaware of my data usage.

But as difficult as it was to hop from the U.S. to Germany and over to South Africa- all the while swapping SIM cards, sorting through cash in a desperate hurry to find the appropriate currency, and pulling on and off my thick North Face as I navigated the divide between summer and winter, frozen tundra airplane and unspeakably warm terminal- that other place so quickly fades away as I sink into the slow pace of the village.

Arriving in my village, at least on a sleepy Friday afternoon, wipes away the stress injected into the daily activities of the developed world. As I reflect upon the journey- spotting the bright lights of Rome and Tunis, skimming the ocean in San Francisco, and bumpily pushing through a smoggy Johannesburg morning, I breathe a little easier, these adventures belong to memory, attaining a dreamlike quality that causes me to question if indeed that chaos is how I spent my last two days.

As I travel more and live in more places, I attach exponentially more identities to myself- shimmying in and out seemingly as easily as flipping a light switch. In South Africa, slipping on my village identity means being quick to smile, grasping for Setswana, drastically lowering the pace at which I operate, and storing my nicer clothes for vacation. It also means bracing myself for anxiety-riddled scenarios, accepting isolation, and shedding my innate desire to do everything myself.

So 48-hours ago I flipped from station to station on the radio, irritated by songs I disliked and the impressive amount of commercials, and today I listen to my few downloaded Spotify songs on repeat echoed by the hoots reverberating from nearby conversations and the steady ever-present thump of the bass rising from the taverns. I think it’s safe to say I am physically and mentally in a very different place, fully aware that I don’t need 180 days to take myself around the world to a different home and a different Alyssa.

Until the Cows Come Home

Almost one year ago, when I first arrived in South Africa, the cows scared me. Not just like a minor freak out, rather a desire to walk a completely different path going way out of the way to where I was going in order to avoid the cow kind of a big deal. Growing up in the suburbs my limited experiences with cows extended to the times that my mom called animal control as cows streamed down our street after escaping from a local farm with a broken fence. So upon arrival I really didn’t know what to make of these guys, they’re loud, large, and horned- a combination that doesn’t typically bode well. One year later, I barely give the free roaming cows almost any thoughts, except that as they pass by their cowbells contribute beautiful chimes to the background rumble of the village.

One year ago my idea of a fabulous Saturday night wasn’t handstands and solo dance parties in my long underwear as a means to keeping warm. One year ago I freaked out about cockroaches, pit latrines, and bucket baths. One year ago I didn’t consider a trip to the grocery store with a friend to be the highlight of my week(end). One year ago, cows scared me.

Last week as I was on my evening walk around the track, listening to NPR’s Invisibilia, a herd of cows moseyed through, splitting my route in half. I paused with a group of girls as we got caught in the midst of this dusty, stomping horde, which could clearly care less about us. And in the middle of this swirling, mooing, clanging chaos, I realized that I’d made it. Two weeks out from beginning my second year in South Africa I’ve banished my fear of cows.

Life’s still tough. Living in a village comes with a certain dose of monotony, bucket bathing will never be fun, and yes roaches definitely suck- but cows, cows now mark the passing of time- a year, a day, a lap around the track.

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.

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…