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”
*** Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. ***
“Ma’am, can I get another one?” A shy smile creeps across Kgomotsego’s face as she begs me to let her in my office so she can check out a new book to read. She walks out triumphantly, clutching Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go before being shadowed back into my office by a gaggle of giggling grade six girls eager to lay their hands on books. Each child peeks at their toes or back at their friends, snickering their way through English greetings and attempting to get away with requests in Setswana, “Ma’am, nkadime buka,” One glance at my incredulous face and English bubbles through along with tales of the last book they read and how they learned about libraries or pirate ships or sneaky crocodiles.
From the moment I could read I devoured every book I could lay my hands on, slipping into Narnia or becoming best friends with Hermione Granger. Books have always been my favorite escape and a constant coping mechanism throughout my Peace Corps service through which I have powered through 130 books to date.
Watching learners eager to read stuck reading the same stories in their rainbow workbooks or textbooks irked me. These books didn’t provide the same interesting, culturally relevant, and eye-opening tales spun in children’s books. Over the course of my service I have devoted myself to procuring books for my school’s mini library. By engaging with organizations like Nal’i Bali, Biblionef, and Darien Bookaid I have been able to secure books that span reading abilities, languages (English, Setswana and isiXhosa), and that provide both windows and mirrors for students to see characters that both look like them and who push them to think critically about worlds unlike their own.
Every day at break I am swarmed with children seeking a book to read and upon walking out of my office I find learners lined up like ducks on a bench, noses deep in a book and blissfully unaware of the chaotic nonsense swirling around them. Sure, books help learners develop language and literacy skills, help them improve reading comprehension, and challenge them to learn about new subjects, but books are also an escape. In much the same way that I curl up with Cheryl Strayed in Wild to breathe in the cool air of the Pacific Northwest and feel the strength of powerful women mucking their way through tough stuff, my kids dig into books where girls are star soccer players and boys develop artistic skills.
By developing a mini library I help provide kids with a safe space to come and chat in English, a place free from corporal punishment and a place they can pack in their bags and hide away in no matter the reality at 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.
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.)
After 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.
On 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.
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).
The 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.
Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.
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.
Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.
A few brief paragraphs cannot possibly express the extent of my gratitude towards my grade seven learners for an incredible (and challenging) year together. But after everything, my unexplained absence in term two, my raising my voice more than a few times, and a canceled farewell, these kids continue to demonstrate joy and appreciation for the small things. They celebrate the end of exams and by extent the end of primary school by scrawling on the chalkboard #pensdown #robapen (break pen) and quite literally dancing to the beat of their own drums as they pound their hands on the tables.
One of my favorite parts of the end of the school year was always getting my yearbook signed by my teachers. Getting someone I admired to commemorate that year with a special note put a smile on my face, and these notes in my yearbook continue to be treasures that I cherish when I need a bit of motivation. Although my learners don’t have expensive yearbooks to sign, I adapted this tradition with the use of a pen, markers and a sheet of A4 paper. I wrote 62 unique letters, hoping to convey even a tiny piece of the love that I share with all of them (even the troublemakers).
When the kids finished writing their history paper they were eager to run home, no longer primary school students, but at my behest they stuck around for another 10 minutes and a brief reflection on the year. Their reaction to personal letters was beyond anything I could have imagined, pushing me to the brink of joyous tears; my heart so full there was nowhere for it to spill but back into the universe.
We shoved our way outside where the kids hammed it up for the camera, asked for my number (a decision I may or may not regret…), and gave me some of the best hugs ever.
This year was never about me. This job was never about me. The exhausting work I do is for these kids, to bring them a sense of confidence and for them to know that someone believes in them despite their circumstances. My students remind me daily that it is not through grand gestures that cost thousands of dollars that we impact each other but through our small actions that we effect change.
Some of my learners may never finish high school, some may go work on the farms, some may become pregnant as teenagers, some may go on to vocational colleges or even university, but hopefully all of them remember that they once had a teacher from America who laughed at herself and believed that they could all achieve anything they put their minds to.
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.
One year. One year of service. 14 months in country, 1 incredible journey. Life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is not nearly as simple as one might think. Survival on some days takes a strength much deeper than you can possibly imagine. One of the biggest struggles for volunteers is the deep loneliness at site. We are often miles away from the nearest volunteer, separated by several provinces from our good friends, and ensconced in a daily routine where we are supposed to create support networks in the village.
In the village, we are constantly surrounded by people, under continual supervision, examined as we undertake even the smallest of tasks. But- there is a sense of knowing people without being known yourself. Folks at site know me superficially, but they don’t know my challenges, internal battles, or my life pre-South Africa.
Though one of the goals of Peace Corps is facilitating cultural exchange, this goal often sanitizes relationships. We are viewed as representatives of an entire country and most questions posed to us relate to American stereotypes: everyone in the U.S. is rich, life must be like Keeping up with the Kardashians, and we all know celebrities. Not exactly my reality.
And so, lacking the anonymity of a big city that enables you to be alone without feeling lonely, the microscopic nature of village life ensures that everyone knows who you are without them ever getting to know you. I long to be known, to be seen, to be heard. I yearn for someone to ask my favorite type of music and recall that I said nope not gospel as I’m Jewish. I would love to be able to have conversations that go beyond the weather, teaching, or food.
But I am not of this society. No matter my level of ability in Setswana or continued presence in the community, I will remain Rea or Elysa in the village, a shadow of myself- one who constantly smiles, has it all together, and probably goes to town too often.
I seek this kinship from other volunteers, friends, and family at home- and as much as I wish to be known for myself in my daily life, I recognize that one day I will miss this persona: this chameleon who easily attaches herself to South African life despite a soul seeking to burst free.
“ ‘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
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.
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.
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.
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.