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. 🙂

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

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Medevac….Going Home

As I write this, I’m sitting in my bed back home in America at 4:30 in the morning. I’ve officially been medevac’d back to the USA for continuing treatment for my arm and to explore the options for another condition I was diagnosed with last week. Clearly, considering the time in America and the fact that I’m wide awake, I’m struggling with jet lag a bit. 😉

Medevac means I have 45 days in the USA to show enough improvement to go back to South Africa. If I am cleared medically sometime within that 45 days, Peace Corps will send me back to South Africa to finish out my third year. If I am not medically cleared by the end of 45 days, I will be medically separated, which means my service will officially end.

The decision was passed down from Washington DC last Wednesday, and after the Thanksgiving holiday (which PCSA staff gets off), I went up to site to say goodbye and pack anything I’d want to take home. I had to pack as if I’m not coming back, which is pretty stressful and emotional. I came back to Pretoria on Saturday afternoon, and flew out on Monday evening. After nearly 24 hours of solid travel and two delayed flights, I found myself hugging my Mom in the Des Moines airport, heading home for Christmas for the first time in two years. I flew with Delta, and considering my broken arm, they were wonderful the whole way, helping me preboard and stow luggage, get a seat where someone wouldn’t be bumping my arm, and helping navigate the Atlanta airport with two large checked bags. I was very thankful for all the help both Delta and random people gave me throughout the journey!

I’m home now, well, back in Iowa. It’s hard because I have a home in South Africa as well, and I’m not sure if I will be going back. It’s been an emotional week, after the decision was passed down, and I’m still trying to process everything. Once again, the readjustment is hard, made more difficult by the uncertainty of medevac and the cold Iowa winter. The first thing I did here in Iowa was buy a winter coat. It’s been nearly 3 years since I’ve dealt with an Iowa winter.

I will say that if I had to choose a time of year to be medevac’d, I nailed it. 🙂 I think only people who have lived abroad for an extended amount of time can understand what being home with family for the holidays means. Though I’ve celebrated holidays with friends and near-family back in SA, it also feels like I haven’t had a real holiday for two and a half years. I feel so blessed to be home for the holiday season, though the reason for me being back isn’t wonderful.

It’s still hard to believe I’m home though!
-Jen

Medevac/Medical Hold, Part 1

The last week or so has changed a whole lot of things. The short story is that I fell, broke my arm, had surgery, and will spend 6 weeks recovering in Pretoria. If you don’t want any details, you can stop reading here. If you want more info, read on. I will slowly but surely manage to type out the story!

Last Thursday, I was working at the food security project, and we happened to be harvesting tomatoes. Towards the end of the day, we were separating out the last few tomatoes to take to the market the following day. I had my hands full of tomatoes and was walking towards a pickup truck to put them in the back. I tripped, and my right arm flew up, catching on the side of the truck. I face planted into the tire, and the rest of my body was against the ground. I immediately knew something was wrong, as my arm HURT at the shoulder. I flipped onto my back to figure out what was wrong, and my arm just sort of flopped to the side. I knew then that something was seriously wrong. I waited a bit to see if the pain subsided, then called my PCMO to see where he wanted to me to go. He directed me to the Tzaneen private hospital, and after a few more calls, a ride to town was arranged.

The ride was horrible. My arm hurt badly, and a few kilometers on a dirt road, then the rest driving very fast down a tarred road with potholes meant I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t get comfortable, but at least the ride was only about half an hour.

I arrived at the hospital, and after a bit of confusion, managed to sort everything out with the PC paperwork that was faxed in. Then rushed me into a room and tried to make me comfortable, and later sent me off to X-ray. At this point, I thought I had dislocated my shoulder, so when the technician said “it” was broken, I was pretty concerned. It wasn’t a simple fractured wrist….it turned out I had essentially snapped the humorous in half right near the head of the shoulder. It was a clear break, but serious.

The doctor quickly mentioned surgery, which freaked me out a bit because I hadn’t had a chance to discuss anything with the PCMO since I first called him. I told the doctor I preferred the non-surgical option, so he rigged me up in a sling and wheeled me off to a room to spend the night. I called the PCMO, and he was very surprised the doctor wanted to do surgery. He set a whole bunch of things in motion, including calling the other PCMO, the medevac regional doctor, the country director, a surgeon in Pretoria, and PC in Washington DC.

I don’t remember much about the first night, so I assume I was seriously drugged up. I do remember the sling being very painful, and thinking that surgery was definitely in the cards-I couldn’t stand six weeks in that sling, waiting for the bone to heal naturally.

My PCMO came up the next morning, and after talking with my doctor and a doctor in Pretoria, decided to move me to Pretoria for the surgery. The trip to town was very unpleasant, compounded by the fact that the AC wasn’t working in the car and it was in the 90s. I was happy to be in a car with diplomatic plates (which can’t be stopped by the police), as the normally 4.5-5 hour drive took only 3.5 hours. I made it to the hospital in Pretoria a little after 4pm, and after checking in, went straight into surgery. I woke up later in pain, of course, but feeling much better than I had before.

I’ll write more about my three remaining days in the hospital later, and what has happened since. Now I’m on medical hold in Pretoria for 6 weeks. PCSA doesn’t really do medevacs, since we are a medevac country, but that’s essentially what I am. I’ve got 45 day (6 weeks) to recover and get back to site, which the doctor is confident will happen. If not, well….theoretically I could be medsepped, but the doctor is confident I’ll recover enough to return to site.

For now, I’m on a medical holiday in Pretoria. I’m sure I’ll be bored out of my mind soon enough, but with a bunch of PCVs here now, I’m enjoying it.
-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

Community of Gardens

As a third year volunteer, I have a bit more freedom in my projects than I did the first two years, and I’m planning on taking advantage of that. I’m using this freedom to address a wide-spread food insecurity problem in my village. Few families have home gardens that produce year-round, even though the growing season extends throughout the year. So I’ve put together a plan to address that in about 5 of the villages near where I live, which I’ve termed the “Community of Gardens” project.

I’ll be working with (potentially) 3 primary schools, 2 secondary schools, the Xitsavi youth centre, and 2 clinics to establish community gardens at those places and encourage home garden creation. Beyond that, we’ll be doing workshops on nutrition, particularly nutrition for malnourished children and HIV+ individuals, which are two of the populations that are most at risk when there is food insecurity. I’m putting together a proposal for a VAST grant for the equipment and materials needed for the project. Let me tell you, VAST grants are a little crazy to apply for!

In the appication process, I also have to meet with each location at least once to propose the project idea, identify the needs of the organization, and gauged whether they want to be involved. This has consumed much of the last two weeks. I’ve been to 4 of the schools at least once, and hopefully go to the remaining school and the clinics tomorrow. I literally live next door to two of the locations, which is frustrating because it’s so close, but I can’t just walk it. I have to find a counterpart to go with me and go through the proper channels.

It can be a little maddening for a take-charge American. Of course, I’ve had two years of practice, which helps.

We went to the tribal office today to meet with the Indunas of the villages I’ll be working in. Indunas are a little like a city council member….that’s the best analogy I can find. As luck would have it, none of the Indunas were there and the weekly meeting of all 32 Indunas was delayed by a few hours, so we left without meeting anyone. On the plus side, I got two package slips, so I’m hoping to knock off work early today to swing by the post office.

The deadline to apply is next week, and one way or another, I’ll get this all done. Though I’ve written one other grant before, this one has been a lot more work. I will say I felt super-special-important writing out the grant objectives and indicators specifically for my project-it felt so official. 🙂 The budget part is making me want to pull my hair out, as is calculating the number. Just to confuse you a bit, I have to know how many adults, teenagers, and children are direct beneficiaries of the project (divided into gender groups), then magically calculate the indirect beneficiaries (again, divided into gender and age groups). Among those, I need to identify random characterists, like whether someone is a “service provider” or lactating/pregnant. Oy.

And then there’s a few odd problems with the excel-style application. One problem which had me nearly beating my head against the cement wall was the date. It said to enter it as MM/DD/YY, but in reality it was apparently YY/MM/DD, but showed up as DD/MM/YY. Seriously, almost too much confusion for my brain to figure out.

But, despite the grant writing procedure, I’m super excited to start with this project, which will run from about now through July, so nearly the duration of my service. And to the best of my calculating abilities, over 1000 children will be direct/indirectly impacted. That’s not even counting the teenagers and adults!
-Jen

Prov Con

Midway through my service, PCSA started having provincial conferences, or Prov Cons, as they came to be known. They are weekend long, optional, volunteer led conferences. No PC staff, and the volunteers pay their own way, with a little help for food from our VSN committee. They were started as a way to help PCVs from different cohorts meet and network with each other.

Being in North West Province, which only had SA24 (no other cohorts), we never had a prov con. We just did our own thing in Kuruman on holidays like Thanksgiving and Cinco de Mayo. 🙂

However, now that I’m living in Limpopo, where there are volunteers from SA23, 24, 25, 27, and 28, plus the 26s from Mpumalanga….I finally got a chance to attend a Prov Con last weekend. I lucked out because it happened to be held in my shopping town, Tzaneen, at a great backpackers called Satvik Backpackers. About 50 PCVs from both Limpopo and Mpumalanga came, and I was lucky enough to get one of the nice Chalet rooms, complete with an outdoor shower.

Seriously, taking a hot shower at midnight with only the African sky above you is an amazing experience. I’m considering building on at site. Or rather, I wish one would just appear at my house.

I ended up meeting my site mate in the morning to discuss a project we’re doing together at her school, and we left for Tzaneen around noon. We spent some time wandering around town and meeting up with various groups of PCVs on their way to the backpackers, and got some amazing Pakistani food at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in town. Literally, R25 and I was stuffed to the gills. That’s $2.50 for a full meal.

The other two volunteers with me couldn’t believe I had never eaten Pakistani food before. They were both from the West Coast, so I had to remind them about the overall lack of diversity in the Midwest. 🙂

We got to the backpackers a little before 5pm, and headed down to the Tzaneen Dam which bordered the property. Despite the warning that crocodiles live in the water, and the knowledge that hippos are all over this area, several of us went swimming. I waited until several volunteers had swum out a ways before getting in….kind of like how penguins push some unlucky guy off the cliff first to see if the seals are waiting below. We had a blast swimming, since it was a dreadfully hot day. Nobody got eaten, either. Though I’m sure we all got Schisto.

Saturday was spent having sessions led by volunteers. Nothing was set in stone beforehand, and those of us who had experience with a specific project got up and shared. I talked about permagardening, moringa, the warden system, and Souns, among other things. This was really beneficial to the newest group, SA28, who had just arrive at site in September, as they could hear about any manner of projects they might get involved with throughout their service. It was nice to chat and network with volunteers who are doing similar things to me. Plus, we got to swim a bit more during lunch break.

That night we had a potluck and braai. I brought beetroot to share, figuring a typical South African dish ought to be served. There were salads galore, salsa, guacamole, cakes, cookies, chakalaka, pasta, chips, veggies, fruit salad…..all sorts of delicious things, plus hotdogs, hamburgers, and chicken. I ate too much food, but since it was all delicious, it was ok. 🙂 I spent the rest of the night talking with various volunteers, and had another nighttime outdoor shower.

On Sunday we got up and ate leftovers. For breakfast, I had Niknaks (cheetos), cake, a few cookies, and coffee. Very healthy, I know. The owners of the backpackers came to meet with us, and it was great hearing from them. They are super supportive of PC and I look forward to visiting again. After that, we headed to town in small groups and did a bit of shopping. I got some pizza with some PCVs and did grocery shopping, then headed back to site with my site mate. I spent the rest of Sunday relaxing and preparing for the week ahead.

I was wonderful to get together with so many other volunteers. Though I had technically met almost all of the PCVs, I didn’t now them that well. But now I have a few new friends and look forward to hanging out with more of the Tzaneen cluster, since I actually know who they are now!

I can’t wait until the next Prov Con!
-Jen