Americans Be Crazy…or Is It Me?

Coming back to the States on Medevac has so far been a bit different than the previous times I visited. There’s a sense of finality, knowing I might not go back to South Africa. Instead of simply enjoying the first world life, I keep wondering whether I need to start transitioning back to it. Rather than only enjoying the company of my family and friends, I’m beginning to readjust. To call the USA my home again.

And it’s weird.

I catch myself truly reflection on how different life here is than my life back in the States. More often than not, I find things to be utterly ridiculous and superfluous, I won’t lie. Some adjustments I made in South Africa to my lifestyle seem logical to bring back here, yet wonder if Americans will understand my quirky behavior.

I will admit that I’m thoroughly enjoying my family’s wifi, but I forgot how incredibly FAST it can be. I went to watch a youtube video, and it loaded almost instantaneously. I had opened another window to slowly download another webpage to read while waiting, but almost before I could open the browser window, my video had loaded. I couldn’t believe it. Youtube is way more enjoyable when you don’t have to wait ten or twenty minutes for a short video to load.

I’m trying really hard not to add the unnecessary “u” to words like favorite or behavior, by the way. It might take awhile to remember, so I apologize.

I also don’t fully understand how someone could possibly use a ziploc baggie only once. So what if you put a piece of pizza in there? It’s not dirty. It’s got at least 3 more uses in it. I physically struggle to throw away a baggie, but I know if my Dad saw me saving them, he’d be grossed out.

Though I definitely identify as a bit “crunchy”, or rather an environmentalist, I haven’t recycled in two years. It’s not like riding a bicycle. It doesn’t immediately come back. My muscle memory has been lost. To be fare, I didn’t technically recycle in the traditional, put-it-in-a-bin-on-the-curb sense. I did, however, find a second, third, or fourth use for nearly everything that wasn’t gross-food-trash. Even that was given to my worm farm. Got an old newspaper? Use it like a paper towel to drain grease off food, because I’m not buying paper towels. Got an old magazine? After reading it several times, cut it up and make African-esque paper beads for friends. Got an old rama container? Jackpot, that stuffs as good as Tupperware. But I think if I tried to use newspapers as paper towels, my family would have me committee.

There’s a lot of things in the USA that seem absolutely crazy. I’ve seen photos of a friend’s child’s birthday, and I was appalled at the amount of things that child got. I’m happy for him, but to my eyes it seemed embarrassingly excessive, when I typical child in my village was likely to get a school uniform for his/her birthday, if it was celebrated at all. I don’t know how I will handle the abundance at Christmas. I can’t imagine a traditional Christmas at this point. I’m looking forward to seeing family I haven’t seen in 2.5-3 years, but….I don’t know, it’s hard to imagine the whole gift-giving side of things, and being able to enjoy it fully.

There are a lot of wonderful, absolutely wonderful, things about being home at this time of year as well. Playing Christmas tunes on Pandora, baking delicious Christmas/winter-themed cookies, getting Christmas cards from around the country, seeing a Christmas tree standing tall and proud in our living room, family, eggnog…I haven’t had a Christmas at home since 2010, and the whole festive “feeling” in the air is something I NEVER found in South Africa. When it’s wickedly hot out, there’s no way to feel like it’s Christmas.

But, to be fair, the cold Iowa winter is brutal. I haven’t left the house in two days. I don’t plan of leaving anything soon. ūüôā

I still don’t know if I’m going back or not, but time’s ticking and I haven’t seen a single doctor. Regardless of what happens with my Medevac, my Peace Corps experience doesn’t end here. It’s a lifetime experience…the gift that keeps on giving, if you will.

-Jen

NaNoWriMo…and I Might be Crazy!

I might be considered crazy, but I’ve decided to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. It’s a month long….campaign?…to help “writers” write a 50,000 novel in one month.

To be fair, family and friends would say this is a relatively sane decision, compared to other, much crazier, things I’ve done (join Peace Corps, move to Africa, eat a goat nose, extend for a third year, swim in crocodile infested waters, etc).

But that’s beside the point.

I’ve wanted to write something more substantial for quite awhile, and “write a book” was even officially added to my bucket list. Of course, I thought it would be my Peace Corps memoir…stay tuned for that in the far future. But since I’m at a point in my life where I would consider myself “not busy” much of the time, such as every night and weekend, I thought it might be nice to use that time constructively. The options were: get a guitar and teach myself to play, start crocheting teddy bears for the kids at my creche, or write a book. So I settled on the last one for a variety of reasons.

For now my novel is going to be set in a rural Tswana village, focusing on a young girl Dineo. I’ve got a few ideas of the direction the story will go in. Though it isn’t based on any experience from my Peace Corps life, it is a way to share the Tswana culture, language, and life to others. That is, if anyone ever reads it. ūüėČ I wanted to honor my host community in some way, and this seemed like a nice way to do it.

So, hopefully I will not fail. I’m a little afraid. But I’m also super excited to start writing on Friday!
-Jen

Star Trek and Peace Corps: The Prime Directive

I’ve never really watched Star Trek before, and never really wanted to. However, since I’ve started watching the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper has convinced me to try watching it. I started with the 2009 movie-it was surprisingly good, and I moved from that to watching Star Trek: The Next Generation (with Sheldon’s childhood hero-Wesley Crusher). I’ll freely admit it: I’m hooked. It’s not just another “flying around space and fighting with aliens” show. It’s more than that-from an anthropological point, it’s simply fascinating.

Star Trek’s most important rule is the Prime Directive: Whatever Star Fleet does, there must be no interference to the internal development of an alien civilization. No handing out advanced technology, going into schools to teach new theories, or taking control of a government to sort out civil wars or internal conflicts. Star Fleet aids civilizations when necessary and protects them from exterior foes, but they (above all else) will not interfere with a civilization’s laws, beliefs, or development.

I live in South Africa, a country where the modern world and rural Africa collide. Sometimes the transition from First World to Third World is smooth, but more often than not, it causes conflict.  I serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer here, and I live in a rural Xitsonga village which has a rich culture and proudly practices its traditions.

Peace Corps is about sharing our culture and learning from another. Star Fleet did much the same. However, by living and working among people from another culture for two years, it’s inevitable that we start to influence each other. I learn the importance of greetings, and my counterpart sees how greetings have a different role in America. ¬†I eat odd foods and share my own odd foods with my host family. I am able to teach colloquial English phrases to children and they teach me some in their mother tongue. Cultural exchange is at the heart of Peace Corps’ mission, and has a huge impact on the lives of the volunteers and their host communities.

Cultural exchange

Cultural exchange

There are other impacts though, unintended cultural faux-pas that affect my work with the community and their perceptions of me.  Perhaps I remain in my room on the weekend, rather than going out and participating in a village function, and my family becomes concerned for me.  Or else I bring American technology to a rural village and change how records are kept at the school.  It may be more efficient, and wanted, but in the end unsustainable and unhelpful.  Often times, people in the village view me as more intellligent and capable than my supervisors based on my race, which is untrue and causes tension in my organization.

My living in a rural African village would likely go against the Prime Directive, but that’s not to say it’s bad. ¬†I have learned a lot about the people I have spent the last two years among, and I hope they have learned from me. ¬†Yes, I might have instilled potentially unrealistic hopes and dreams among some of my students, but I want them to reach for the stars. ¬†Expectations in the villages are so low, it breaks my heart. ¬†Through living and working in a rural village for two years, some small things start to change in the development of that village. ¬†Star Fleet knew the smallest glimpse at a different life could greatly impact a society’s development, and therefore they would work undercover for years, understanding the culture first. ¬†However, in PC, we are sent to village to aid and sometimes change the development happening there.

Writing grants, getting new technology, and improving the lives of the villagers is the basis for PC’s work in our communities. ¬†Though Star Fleet wouldn’t approve, I have found it to be ultimately rewarding.

There is a darker side that is perhaps unique to Peace Corps South Africa. ¬†I mentioned it before, but here the First and Third World exist alongside each other. ¬†Even in the most remote villages, you’ll find smartphones and nice cars. ¬†There is so much influence from American and European cultures that it has started changing the cultural traditions of villagers. ¬†Music starts to change to reflect American pop influences or styles, and dances begin to incorporate modern moves. ¬†Languages evolves to include words for new technology, either blatantly (Computhere for computer in Setswana) or more ambiguous (sefofane, meaning “the thing that flies above” for plane in Setswana). ¬†Certain things are lost as Western cultures become more pervasive in South Africa. ¬†For the Khoi San, this means there language is nearly obliterated. ¬†How long until other cultures face the same disruption?

Teaching new skills

Teaching new skills

At the end of the day, I obviously believe in the development model of Peace Corps, even if it does against the Prime Directive, in my opinion. ¬†We spend a lot of time learning about the new culture and language(s) we will be living among, and we devote two years to living among our host communities. We don’t fly in without explanation and dump foreign practices on unsuspecting societies-we work alongside the people to determine what they need and what is the most sustainable way to accomplish it. We try our best to help our communities improve themselves.

-Jen

Pension Day

In South Africa, anyone over a certain age (somewhere in the 60s, I think) receives a pension. ¬†I’m not 100% sure if only families living below the poverty line get it, or if everyone does, but for all intents and purposes, everyone in my village gets a pension. ¬†It’s delivered to a specific spot in any given village one day a month, paid out in cash, and I believe it’s R1200 ($120). ¬†In my village, it’s given out in a few places, including across the street from my center, at the tribal office, and in a bushy area down by the river.

The food security project I work with often sells at the pension market, and I asked if I could go this week. ¬†Even though I’ve been in South Africa for two years, it was never feasible to go. ¬†In my old village, it was on the other side, which is a 5km walk from my school. ¬†So I’d have to miss school and walk 10km roundtrip, and I knew I wouldn’t buy much if I had to go. ¬†But I’ve been wanting to go to see a pension market for a long time.

It’s a cross between a farmer’s market and a flea market, with a good dose of rural Africaness added in for good measure. ¬†In other words, it’s utter chaos, but in a good way. ¬†We pulled up with our bakke full of beetroot, green pepper, and spinach a little while before they were paying out, but there was already a good crowd there, and we started selling right after we parked. ¬†Picture it: a beat up old bakke full of fresh veggies pulled onto the dirt along a tarred road, women sitting on bits of cardboard nearby, selling all manner of goods, chattering away in Tsonga.

I got a lot of looks, but far fewer than imagined. ¬†For laughs, I’ll let you know what I looked like: a young white lady in a nice knee length skirt, white cardigan, and mary jane shoes….I came straight from work and was a little overdressed. ¬†Oops. ¬†And I forgot my hat and/or umbrella. ¬†Double oops. ¬†Most of the women were in some form of traditional dress, so I definitely looked more out of place than usually. ¬†But it was all good!

We stayed there for a few hours (in the hot, hot sun), and sold almost everything, which was very encouraging. ¬†I bought a few avocados and bananas, and enjoyed seeing what was all for sale. ¬†Next month I plan to bring my new site mate to the market. ¬†They sell everything, and for really good prices: all sorts of produce, steel wool cleaning pads, ice cream, live chickens, tobacco, mealie meal, sugar, minchekas and xibelani skirts, beadwork, buckets, basins, mopani worms, funeral plans, life insurance, achar, vetkoeks, biscuits….so much stuff, and I didn’t even leave the bakke. ¬†I only saw a small portion of the market!!

I had an unpleasant experience with a very irate gentleman, and my race probably added insult to injury. ¬†He wanted us to move our bakke because we were in his friend’s spot (there aren’t assigned spots…mass chaos, remember?), and I couldn’t, and my counterpart was away looking for avocados. ¬†I didn’t have the keys, but it was also unreasonable for him to ask. ¬†Mind you, his friend wasn’t even there. ¬†It put me in the awful position of having to reinforce some racial stereotypes, which made me feel awful. ¬†Though his cussing me out didn’t make me feel any better.

Overall, it was a great day, and I really enjoyed seeing the market. ¬†I definitely got a kick out of the women I’d see carrying live chickens tucked under their arms….guess what’s for dinner. ¬†I look forward to going back, and I might just buy myself some traditional beadwork or a xibelani skirt. ¬†But probably not a live chicken. ¬†And, we sold quite a bit of produce, which supports our food security project!

Uniquely Peace Corps Experiences

Life as a PCV can be intriguing and unpredictable in some many ways, and there are many experiences that happen to be uniquely Peace Corps. ¬†Some are just so out of the ordinary that a US citizen living abroad still wouldn’t experience them, but Peace Corps Volunteers do. ¬† A lot of it comes down the community that is Peace Corps, worldwide.

Through Peace Corps, I have friends around the world: Peru, Jordan, Botswana, the Ukraine, Lesotho, Benin, Panama, Zambia, Azerbaijan, to name a few…countries that many Americans probably don’t even know are countries. ¬†Primarily we have been brought together via friends-of-friends, the internet, stumbling across blogs, or random encounters in airports, and some have become close friends. ¬†No matter what country, we are connected through our experiences with the Peace Corps. ¬†It’s a family. ¬†A very diverse, strange, open family that reaches to all corners of the world.

The past week has highlighted the connections I have with other volunteers. ¬†Last Monday, a site mate moved into my village. In many PC countries, site mates are common, but not in South Africa. ¬†The fact that we live maybe a mile apart, and that I can see her school from my house, is nothing short of amazing in SA. ¬†She contacted me just before moving to the village, and we made plans to meet up on Friday. ¬†Favi, as I’ll call her, was pretty much a stranger to me. ¬†I had spent two days training at their PST, but since there were about 40 PCTs, I didn’t catch many names, and I don’t think we ever chatted.

So, essentially I was meeting a new neighbor. ¬†Should be awkward, right? ¬†Well, remember we are both PCVs. ¬†So when we finally met up, it was like we were long lost friends. ¬†We literally couldn’t stop talking, and I’m sure anyone who saw us on the street were amazed by how fast we were talking, and how animated we were.

Later on, an RPCV (returned PCV…aka, finished with service) from Liberia called me up and stopped by my place. ¬†We had met through a PC couch surf group, and she was wanting to see what a PCV site in SA looked like. ¬†We had chatted quite a bit on Facebook, and I was delighted to show her and three of her friends what the rural areas of SA are like. ¬†She spent about an hour at my place, and we all had a great time learning about each other’s PC services. ¬†We talked about all manner of things, and it was fascinating to learn what PC Liberia is like.

PC is a very unique experience. ¬†Very few organizations send Americans abroad for such a long amount of time, and to be completely integrated into a new culture and language. ¬†PCVs are trained to speak the target language, and embrace the culture of their host countries. ¬†Typically, volunteers live at the level of the people in their community, and give up many comforts of modern life. ¬†Of course, each county is different, but the highs and lows, joys and sorrows, struggles and successes, are relatively the same. ¬†They’ve even worked out a graph depicting the mental state of volunteers over their two years of service-worldwide, not country specific. ¬†PC can identify when volunteers will hit their highs and lows in service, based on a worldwide average, and it’s pretty darn accurate.

When I met with my cohort in Washington DC two years ago for staging, it was like I was meeting a group of friends I had known for years. ¬†We didn’t know anything about one another, or even our names, but we had a strong connection already. ¬†Each one of us had spent months (or years) applying for PC, and had fought through challenges to get there. ¬†After two years, we are still a closely connected group. ¬†We’ve been through some much while serving in PC, and there are some things that only other PCVs can understand. ¬†It has been like this with every other volunteer I’ve met. ¬†We understand each other on a deeper level.

Being a part of the PC community is amazing.  I look forward to returning to the states next year and getting involved with the Peace Corps community there, and for the random encounters with other volunteers in the future.

-Jen

PS…..random fact, but this is my 300th post. ¬†I thought about doing something special for it, but then decided the PC community was special enough. ūüôā

Stereotypically African

Life in Limpopo is settling down into a nice, new normal. ¬†Thought I’ve been at my new site for 3.5 months, I’ve been gone about 8 weeks of that for various things. ¬†So in reality, this place is still pretty new to me, but things are steadily becoming familiar and normal. ¬†One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how “African” things seem in my new home. ¬†Stereotypically African, maybe.

When I envisioned moving to Africa, I had a picture in my mind of the little thatched roof hut I would live in, tucked in among the exotic fruit trees of my mountainous home. There would be animals roaming through the yard, and a ramshackle fence separated my yard from the dirt path outside.  Kids would play games in the street, hollering my African name whenever they saw me. Beautiful, quaint, and decidedly third world.

Anyone who has ever done Peace Corps will tell you how ridiculous it is to have a mental image of your future site, and I knew that. ¬†But it was still nice to imagine. ¬†So when I got to my dusty Kalahari, cement block home….needless to say it was the polar opposite of what I would imagine. ¬†However, I came to love that home, and the reality that is the village life in rural Africa.

For my third year, I moved to a more developed village in Limpopo province, and I was a little sad to leave behind the quiet, deep rural Kalahari village that had been my home for two years.  I would miss the slow life, the sound of infinite roosters awakening me in the morning, and the stunning sunsets outside my window each day. That was my little piece of Africa, a home that had found a place in my heart.  Of course, I was looking forward to moving to my new site, but I was worried that I was stepping away from rural Africa a bit, and entering the first world more.

I wasn’t wrong, exactly. ¬†My host family has running water (though I don’t), cars, and even and iPhone. ¬†I walk out my gate to a tarred road, where I can find transport to work or town any time of the day. ¬†I can find all sorts of fresh fruits, vegetables, and any manner of canned food in my village. ¬†There are shops that sell buckets, clothes, food, tires, construction materials, etc, all in my village. ¬†There even an ATM and a post office. ¬†My workplace has high speed internet AND wifi, plus modern conveniences like flush toilets.

But there are some things that are so very African, that I feel more immersed in the culture than I ever did in my old village. ¬†The Tsonga culture is alive, and very present in my village. From an American viewpoint, my new village fits our stereotype of Africa much more than my old one did: Women carrying their laundry down to the river to wash, children and old ladies headed to the veld to gather firewood, large bundles perched upon heads with babies wrapped around the mothers’ backs, women wearing Micheka (traditional clothes) left and right, children dancing and singing in the roads at night, young ladies dancing the Xibelani in their intricate, beautiful beadwork sold at markets and in the taxi ranks, and grannies embroidering beautiful village scenes on black fabric on the roadsides. ¬†My daily life is surrounded by rural Africa and the modern world, yet they dwell together at peace.

I am delighted to be in a village that has held onto its culture, and that practices it so strongly. ¬†Though I still only know a few words in Xitsonga and couldn’t dance the Xibelani to save my life, I thoroughly enjoy being immersed in this new, vibrant culture.

-Jen

“The Day that Changed the World”

Life in South Africa is still a surprising adventure, even though I’m starting on my third year of living in this country. ¬†I still routinely discover new things and the village life never ceases to amaze me. ¬†And this morning was no exception.

When I woke up and glanced at my phone, I immediately saw the date….as an American, I don’t think September 11th will ever pass unmarked. ¬†But I didn’t expect to hear anyone talking about it in my rural village in the mountains of South Africa. ¬†However, I hopped on the taxi to get to work this morning, and the guys on the radio were discussing their memories of September 11th. ¬†How one got home from school and saw the first tower burning, then sat glued to the television for the next 45 minutes as the world changed. ¬†How the other guy thought he was watching a movie, then could hardly believe that it was really happening.

The spoke of the lives lost, and how America changed. ¬†How the world changed. ¬†I was only on that taxi for a few minutes, but I finally understood how much that day in America affected people around the world. ¬†Yes, all of us in America were glued to our televisions, horrified and praying for a wounded nation. ¬†But we clearly weren’t alone. ¬†People around the world were watching with us. ¬†I remember sitting in my living room, sick as a dog, as a twelve year old who didn’t really understand what was happening until I saw my mother’s reaction. ¬†My world changed. ¬†But I wasn’t alone in the feeling. ¬†We, as a nation, weren’t alone.

September 11th didn’t just change America, is was a day that changed the world, as the opening words to the radio segment mentioned. ¬†Clearly the radio announcers had eerily similar reactions to the events on September 11th that we felt in America, even half a world away. ¬†It changed their world as well.

-Jen