On Returning

Back. Back in the land of cuddly puppies, frozen yogurt and rapid-fire English. Back to driving myself around, blasting my own music or podcasts, no longer at the mercy of taxi drivers booming gqom or gospel. Back to yoga sessions sweaty from a heated room rather than a baking under my tin roof, back to family, back to friends, back to almost familiar ways. Continue reading “On Returning”

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.

Searching for the Rainbow

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

Rain on a tin roof. In the soundtrack of my life it’s a sound that falls somewhere between soothing and relaxing and my roof might crash in please get me a helmet. As the blissfully cool days of winter wrap up, taking its teeth chattering nights with it, the rainy season returns and with it- life. Critters of all sizes creep back in- the spider making its web across my pit latrine, eager grasshoppers, and yes, even the roaches. Babies are being born, from faltering baby goats, to puppies that are terrified of pigs, to monkeys clutching to their mamas’ bellies.

In parts of South Africa the return of the rain equates to instant greenery and lushness. Right now, I am spending a few days at the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC) in Ixopo. Ixopo is about two hours northwest of Durban in Kwa-Zulu Natal and sits in beautiful lush mountains. If you hike out to the cliffs, you can see villages nestled in every tiny crevice, their flickering lights barely penetrating the thick fog at night.

For one of the first times in my service, I am somewhere I don’t speak the language. Certainly, English is widely understood at the Centre and in the city, but the twisty taxi ride wound its way through the peaks and valleys blasting radio programs in isiZulu. Beyond the basic greetings (Sanibonani! and Yebo!), I am at a loss, a tough break for someone who regularly relies on language skills to create a wider safety net and to engage with the people around me.

This week’s school holiday between terms and the trip to the BRC comes at a much-needed moment in my service. Term three proved exhausting, rocky, and interminable. Highlighted by small achievements- distribution of reusable menstrual pads, expanded usage of the mini library, and stronger connections with the staff at my school- term three was nonetheless incredibly difficult. I continue to remind myself that hiding out in my room is okay, that counting down the days to my next trip is normal, and that being frustrated with myself and my students comes with the territory. Don’t get me wrong; I still enjoy my Peace Corps service. I still find it rewarding and full of new growth opportunities, but I also find myself more in tune with myself and the crucial importance of not letting my service come at a cost to my mental health.

Next week, my cohort will come together at our Mid-Service Training (MST) for doctors appointments and to mark the start of our second year as volunteers. As excited, as I am to reconnect with the rest of SA34, I find MST mildly anxiety-inducing. In a meet-up of this nature it will be impossible not to compare services, taking all my strength to be proud of the projects implemented by my fellow PCVs while I feel sapped.

So this week, I am trying for a little rain in my brain. I am trying to push the sludge of term three away and make space for year two to blossom. Connecting with my soul in this way is painful and tiring- but if Peace Corps has taught me anything, it’s that growth doesn’t come for free and resilience takes some serious practice.

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.

 

Until the Cows Come Home

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

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

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 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

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

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.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑