Readjustment after Medical Separation

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while, because it’s difficult to put into words. But I guess I can give a short story and a long story.

The last picture of me taken at Xitsavi.

The last picture of me taken at Xitsavi.

I was medevac’d in early December from the Peace Corps South Africa, and officially medically separated in January 2014, after 30 months of service.

Short Story:
The readjustment and transition back to America has been really hard. More difficult than I ever would have imagined.

Long Story:
When I left South Africa, I wasn’t overly upset. I was seriously injured and dealing with a newly diagnosed neurological condition. I was sad to leave, but I wasn’t devastated In some ways, I was happy to return to my family and excited to spend the holidays with them after 2.5 years. I was also relieved to receive treatment for both my injury and my disease in the States, where I would have access to an internationally-known neurologist who focuses on CMT (my diagnosis). I would be dealing with physical therapy and leg braces, and I needed to be back in the States.

The start of a garden club at a nearby primary school...the only time I got to work with them before I left.

The start of a garden club at a nearby primary school…the only time I got to work with them before I left.

I figured I’d have to get used to American English, flush toilets, driving, and winter again, among other things. But even after going through COS conference and watching almost all of my cohort COS months previously, I had no idea what I was facing.

You see, medical separation is fiercely different than a typical COS, or even an ET. Most PCVs have weeks or months to wrap up projects, pack, and say goodbye. I had two hours. Most end their service with world travel. I ended mine with surgery, pain, and tears. Most PCVs get to prepare for life in the States again, looking for jobs and finding a place to live. I was on a plane just days after they determined I would be leaving for good.

One of my last days in the village...visiting the homes of some of my afterschool care kids.

One of my last days in the village…visiting the homes of some of my afterschool care kids.

I had no idea the emotional toll of all this.

I have struggled to come to terms with my departure from country. Now, almost six months later, I can finally write about it without dissolving into tears. It has taken that long.

The Xitsavi garden that I had to abandon.

The Xitsavi garden that I had to abandon.

I can look through photos and remember incredible memories, rather than feeling guilt-ridden and intensely homesick. I can read through my journals. I can talk to people easily about my experience in South Africa. The dreams of being back in South Africa have mostly ceased.

I want to be open and honest here, so that if someone else stumbles on this blog in the same boat as me, they can know they aren’t alone. It’s an entirely unique COS, reentry, and readjustment situation.

One of the last pictures of me in South Africa.

One of the last pictures of me in South Africa.

Rather than simply dealing with life back in the States, I have had to deal with being torn away from my job, my home, and my friends, then be sent back to friends and family who just can’t understand it all. Because you can’t understand it unless you’ve been through it.

I’m still readjusting. Every. Single. Day. I still feel homesickness for my life back in South Africa. Just about every single day. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about what’s going on there, my organization and school, and my friends.

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I know my life has been fundamentally changed through my experience with the Peace Corps. I know some things will never be as they were before I left. I have changed. But in some ways, I am still transitioning back. It’s taken longer than I ever thought it would.

-Jen

PS. If you have been medically separated and are experiencing some of the things I’ve mentioned here, feel free to email me at jenpcv (at) gmail (dot) com. Let’s talk.

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Readjustment and Medical Separation

Time seems to fly while I’m at home, and I haven’t posted in a while.

The good news is: I’m finally gaining mobility and a wee bit of strength with my arm, and I’ve been fitted with leg braces, which help a lot with my walking issues.

The bad news is: I am definitively not going back to being a PCV in South Africa. My new official COS/Medical Separation date is 16 January 2014.

Being home has been wonderful, but also a bit difficult. Leaving South Africa in the way I did…little warning and no chance to wrap up projects and say real goodbyes….it’s hard. Nearly traumatic at times. Readjustment to American life was a baptism by fire. It is still. Life hasn’t returned to a normal yet, and my mind is still very much in a South African PCV mode much of the time.

I catch little differences often. Like how I completely ignore the gas gauge and speedometer when driving, since I’ve scarcely driven in the past 2.5 years. Or how I still second-guess which side of the car to get into. I struggled at first to shut lights off when I left a room, because I was so used to living in one room with a light that a scarcely used. And how I often forgot to shut the bathroom door at first, since my pit latrine at site didn’t have one. There are lots of little things like this that I catch myself doing (or saying) which are very much PC/South African/etc. Thankfully, my family is forgiving and deals with my quirks.

I never imagined I would be facing medical separation from Peace Corps. Even after I broke my shoulder, I thought I’d be back at site within the allotted time. Now, I realize that was completely unrealistic. I’m still in intensive physical therapy, and will be until probably March. It’s frustrating that the recovery timeline wasn’t clearly communicated to me while in SA, by the surgeon. But I am very thankful I was medevac’d because I’m getting great treatment here, and am not dealing with an injured shoulder at site. It seems that I’ll be recovering fully, which is a blessing.

I deal with a lot of PC guilt…common among volunteers and exacerbated by the loose ends I was forced to leave behind. There’s not much I can do about it though, besides ignore it.

Now I have to face the “real world” and find some work. I don’t enjoy job hunting, and was looking forward to postpone it until much later this year. However, the real world is knocking!
-Jen

Medical Hold, Part 2

I know I haven’t written in a few weeks, so I thought it might be nice to update a little.

So, after falling, breaking my arm, and having surgery, I spent three days in a hospital in Pretoria. It wasn’t an overly pleasant experience. The hospital was modern and the doctors were great. But, unfortunately, the nursing staff was overall not fantastic. Three days was more than enough hospital time for me.

I was released after a total of four nights in two different hospitals, and here’s the kicker-I didn’t have clothes. I came to Pretoria only with the few things I had at with me at work the day I fell, such as a pack of colored pencils, a book, my bank card, and my two cell phones (no charger). My supervisor had taken the clothes I wore home, with the intention of bringing clean clothes when I was released. However, due to having to leave Tzaneen quickly to get to surgery in Pretoria, she couldn’t get to town and bring a bag of things for me to take to Pretoria.

So, I was released from the hospital in a nightgown, robe, and slippers that my supervisor had bought in town the day I was admitted.

Then I had to go shopping for new clothes in my nightgown. In a mall in Pretoria. Yes, now it’s funny. But at that point I was dying of humiliation!

I’ve spent the time since in Pretoria hanging out with friends, writing my novel for NaNoWriMo, and not doing much else. After a week, someone from my site happened to come to Pretoria, and they brought a bag of stuff for me, mostly clothes and my computer. I’m so thankful for it, as otherwise I’d be out of luck!

I’ve been doing lots of physical therapy and have had an overall good time, though Pretoria does start to get boring after a while. PC determined that I’d be here the full six weeks, which is a long time!

But at least I finished writing my novel for NaNoWriMo. With a late start, I ended up writing 50,000 words in just two weeks!
-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. 😉 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

The Saga of the Leaky Roof

So, it seems that the “Saga of the Leaky Roof” is nearly at an end. Praise the Lord!

Yesterday my APCD was up to visit from Pretoria, which ended up being perfect for two reasons: one being a grant I’m writing that she needs to look over, and the other being my leaky roof that I need fixed. You might remember a post or two on this whole leaking roof thing (actually, I thought I had written two posts about it already, only to go back and find none), and it has caused me a considerable amount of stress over the last few weeks. Last night I was up until 2am dealing with an internal deluge of rain.

So my roof leaks. Not a drip-drip trickle. A constant downpour of water from a wooden beam, numerous drip-drip-DRIP-PLUNK leaks, and crying walls. It takes 2 containers and three basins to manage this, one being my huge laundry/bath basin. It means disrupted nights and preoccupied days. And a constant worry about when the next rain is coming. Even now, the sky is filling with clouds. Sigh.

We had a guy over last week to fix the holes. He got up on the roof and laughed. It seems that my roof dips in the middle, causing water to collect there and eventually pour into my room. Sometimes over my bed. Without taking off and essentially replacing the whole room, it’s unfixable.

However, yesterday I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. My APCD came and checked it out, and we decided I would move. A whole 10 meters to the rondeval next to my room!

A rondeval is a circular thatched roof house that is what most people envision houses in Africa to be. I’m actually kind of excited to move into it. Because the roof is high up and thatched, it’s quiet, doesn’t leak, and is COOL in the summer (praise the Lord again). It’s huge, and just a cool place to live. Some small repairs have to be done before I move in, and burglar bars have to be installed. But hopefully over the weekend a good portion of that can be done.

No more leaky roof. It’s somewhat of a trade-off because I might get more critters in the rondeval (spiders, mosquitos, lizards, and bats), but I can handle those. If anything, they make for very interesting (blog) stories!

-Jen

Food Insecurity and Inequality

Many people have misconceptions about South Africa, thinking it is a developed country without many of the problems the rest of Africa faces-poverty, disease, environmental degradation, food insecurity, corruption, etc….and in some parts of that country, that’s more or less true. You can go to highly developed areas of the country and find every modern convenience, mistaking it for some city in America.

But the reality is that South Africa is plagued by inequality and poverty, leading to widespread food insecurity. It’s estimated that at least 12 million South Africans go to bed hungry each night. In the rural areas, where I’m living, this is pretty evident just looking at the children. Many children show signs of long term malnutrition, through stunting or kwashiorkor. Others show signs of emaciation, indicating short-term or seasonal malnutrition. This affects their development, and impacts their success in school and beyond.

Malnutrition is a problem in South Africa, but it’s often hidden by the modern advances of the First World.

There are a lot of things going on in South Africa that affect food security, and race happens to be one of the factors. During Apartheid, black people were removed from some of the most fertile land in South Africa, freeing it up for white farmers. They were removed to some of the harshest, least productive areas of the country. At the end of Apartheid, much of that farmland was retained by the white farmers. Now, twenty years later, vast inequalities in land ownership exist. 36,000 large-scale farmers control 86 million hectares of land, while 1.4 million black farmers have access to 14 million hectares. (iol.co.za)

Stop and look at that sentence again, and really think about what it means. Out of 100 million hectares of farmland in South Africa, 2.5% of the population of farmers (non-black) control 86% of the land. And 97.5% of the population of farmers (who identify as black) control only 14% of the land.

Imagine how that impacts food insecurity, and which ethnicity is most impacted. Yes, there are white households that are food insecure. But the vast majority of families who face insecurity are either rural black South Africans, or township (think urban slums) black South Africans.

I work in a rural village trying to improve food security through small-scale, intensive food gardening, working with potential young black agriculturists. Many of the children in my village are considered orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and come from food insecure households. Even if their family has frequent access to food, it might be only during certain times of the month/year (i.e. near payday), it might not be enough food, or it might be food that lacks proper nutrients (i.e. pap, or maize porridge). My goal during my third year is to work with both adults and children to teach sustainable home gardening methods that are high-yielding, low-technology, and which use water responsibly. The idea is that if a family knows more efficient ways of growing food, they can contribute to their own household food security by growing healthy vegetables.

Food insecurity has the potential to cripple this nation, and the problem gets worse as food prices rise. Pensioners in SA receive 1,500 rand/month from the government (about 150USD). For each child in the rural areas (for needy families), the parents receive R250 (about $25) to care for the child. Can you imagine raising a child on $25/month?

Many of the kids at my workplace are one of several, and some belong to households of 8-9 people who rely on 1 or 2 child grants and perhaps a pension from the grandparent. This means that many children either go hungry, or only eat pap. Pap fills the stomach but provides little in terms of nutrition.

But this is why I’m here…in hopes that I can many some small change to increase food security.
-Jen

Visiting the Clinics

Though I’ve been in South Africa for over 2 years, I’ve never really been to a clinic. I think I went to one once, during a visit to my permanent site over 2 years ago, and met with the “matron” or head nurse. Then again, that was an insane weekend and I don’t really know where all I went. I vaguely remember visiting a sick relative of my principal in a hospital at one time (one of the most awkward experiences of my service….”Hello half dressed, very ill man. I’m a young white woman who can’t speak your language, who has come to sit in the corner and stare awkwardly not-quite-at-you”), and I went to a hospital once to hand out teddy bears to babies with another volunteer (another awkward experience involved scarcely clothed, breastfeeding women and adorable babies). Those were nice facilities in larger villages that were technically hospitals and not clinics.

Now I live next to a clinic. I have since July, and still haven’t gone. If I get sick, I’ll go to the private hospital in town, not the clinic next door. Seems insane? I thought so too, until I went there.

Have you seen movies of overflowing, run down clinics in The Middle of Nowhere, Africa? That’s about what the clinic was like. The facilities were old, but in good condition. However the waiting room was packed with narrow benches without backs, on which sat many old women and babies, squished together as much as humanly possible. The line of (almost exclusively) women and babies stretched down the hall, and women sat on the floor, waiting their turn which was unlikely to come for hours.

I went into what appeared to be an examination room to meet with the “matron” about starting a gardening programme at the clinic, and a huge box of medicines sat on a rickety old table, and medical supplies lined the wall. Everything was chaotically arranged, and I can only imagine what it must be like to take inventory.

I went to another clinic, which was much larger. The wait line was smaller, but the same scene awaited me at the waiting area, just with less women. The rooms were still roughly organized, and women appeared to be crammed together in one examination room I passed (perhaps they were family).

These are public clinics, supported by the government and at little to no cost to the people who seek services there. I hate that I would go to a modern facility in town because I can afford to take advantage of the private services. I hate that inequality has created a system where the people that most need medical help get substandard services.

Yet at the same time, it’s wonderful that my village has a functioning clinic, one which is being used and helping to curb the HIV/AIDS and TB crisis in this country. They are likely understaffed, underfunded, and under-equipped, but the clinics are doing great work.
-Jen