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.

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

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.

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. “

And then I was all on my own…

Only not really. Following an incredible swearing in event in Pretoria, where I gave a speech in Setswana, I headed out to the Northwest Province and my new village in the Greater Taung area. My new school is home to close to 800 learners- many of whom are orphans and vulnerable children. These kids face incredible obstacles to their education; malnutrition, gigantic class sizes, teachers who don’t show up to class, and so much more. And yet, they still strive to learn, asking me to come teach their class  when no one else will. 

I am currently shadowing teachers, co teaching grade 6 life skills, and even tackling some grade 7 English all on my own. I am working hard to encourage my male learners that they are just as capable of cleaning the school as the females, and promoting confidence and participation in my shy and uncertain learners.

Outside of school, my days consist of hanging out with learners in the afternoon playing netball or jumping rope, walking to the local tuk shop, and hauling water for my day to day activities.