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.

no mud, no lotus.

Disclaimer: I initially wrote this post a week ago, but I was waiting for confirmation of my medical clearance to share this with you all. I am overjoyed to be returning to site (like jumping up and down, dancing around the room, singing at the top of my lungs kind of happy). Thanks for bearing with me and allowing me to open up my heart and soul to you!

Read and remember; not all Peace Corps service experiences are the same. True as this is in understanding characteristics unique to each village, province, and nation that a volunteer serves in, it also reflects the journey that a volunteer embarks upon. Upon applying for the Peace Corps and throughout the preparations for departure we tend to sum up an experience which we fail to fully understand in the best way we can, “It’s a 27 month commitment, so I’ll spend the first three months in language and technical training and then the next two years at my permanent site as a volunteer”. This barebones explanation of service that we tend to clutch tightly to throughout Pre-Service Training and the early phases of service fails to create space for the reality of a Peace Corps Service.

Peace Corps service is hard. I’m not complaining, I knew what I signed up for, and I love it, I’m simply stating my truth. It’s hard in ways that you cannot possible prepare for or imagine no matter the extent of your research or training. Regardless of the length of time a volunteer has served for, it is often all too impossible for another volunteer to fully understand and empathize with any other volunteer’s experiences. For every similarity that builds the bonds of the Peace Corps network and develops mutual understanding of the PCV lifestyle, there is a twist, something to differentiate your experience- whether a challenge or a success, your experience is different.

While I can elaborate on the dozens of things that make my service unique, this post will focus on one. Where have I been for the past few months? Silent on the blog, initially because I was swamped with work wrapping up term one, then attending a regional training conference, then on vacation in Mozambique, and finally because I’ve been home in the United States for the past five weeks.

I’m currently on Medevac, a 45-day opportunity for volunteers with various health conditions to return home and recuperate while seeking and receiving treatment. While on Medevac, a volunteer’s sole job is to get better, a tall order considering the short time frame, and the current toxic environment surrounding healthcare in the US. But you press on, meet with the doctor, and focus on activities that bring you joy- again, easier said then done. Because that things that bring you joy may have shifted over the previous 10 months, and if not, following a traumatic event, you may not be physically or mentally able to enjoy them in the same way. But day-by-day, week-by-week, things get easier. At yoga class you don’t shudder when an instructor provides an adjustment, and you can manage to really relax into the vulnerable pose of ultimate relaxation- Savasana. You don’t freak out at being in crowded places or with people swarming right behind you, you start meditating, reading more, studying for the GRE, and begin to rebuild and embrace the abundance that life has to offer.

But then it’s time to go back. Six weeks flew by in the blink of an eye and all the hard work you’ve done feels as though it’s coming to a crashing halt. Fear and anxiety creep in calling you to question your desire to return. And then you remember all the work that has to be done to rebuild a sense of safety and security, work that will require repeating upon returning to your village. But the thought of not returning fills you with an immense sadness and a fear of not reclaiming your life. So you listen to the wise words swarming around you, “one day at a time”, “the choice to go, to leave, to stay, and to change your mind are always yours”, and my new personal mantra, “no mud, no lotus”. The gross, the gritty, the messy, and upsetting are intrinsically connected to the wonderful, abundant, joyous, and calming experiences of life.

So while the thought of my learners and family in South Africa beckons me earnestly, it is this deeper understanding of myself that drives my return. I return to South Africa on my own terms: I can choose to take each day as it comes, with plenty of options and support to combat the overwhelming, in one month, I will get a break as I journey back to the U.S. for my sister’s wedding, and I am armed with the knowledge that whatever decision I ultimately make bears no judgment on my character. The journey continues, reflective of life, it is messy, frustrating, and deviates from the expected- but the reward of growth and the continual pursuit of greater understanding, empathy, and self-love provides the strength to keep going, despite the murky paths ahead.

When Violence is Normalized

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

“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

“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

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. “