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

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. ūüôā 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. ūüôā

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. ūüôā

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. ūüôā 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

The Crazy Third Year Volunteer Life

By the nature of the education sector in South Africa, my first two years of service were pretty structured. I went to school five days a week, from 7:30-2:30, roughly. What I did at school was sometimes far from structured, but I was there. I had a schedule, and rarely was a not around during the workweek.

For my third year of service, I switched from the schools to working with an organization that promotes rural development. I wasn’t really aware how much things would change in the structure of my service. I didn’t realize that I was getting myself into a whole new service dynamic.

The structure schedule I have been working under for the past two years has been entirely thrown out of the window. I still haven’t had a normal workweek. Usually, I spend M/W/F at the Trust, and T/Th at the food security project. But this week alone, I spent Tuesday in town working on getting an invoice to purchase materials for a seedling nursery at the food security project. Then today, Friday, I spent the morning having a meeting at a nearby primary school to discuss the creation of a garden there. And on Wednesday, though I was at the Trust, the day was insane because we handed our food parcels to 90+ of our OVCs.

I’ve tried crafting a schedule, but things haven’t settled into a normal. I suppose this is my new normal. I’m in a quasi-supervisory position at the Food Security Project, so my responsibilities are a bit different than a normal volunteers. Plus, I’m starting for form partnerships with area schools to help develop gardening schemes there, which will mess up my non-existent schedule even more. At any rate, it all keeps me on my toes!

I’m still in the process of getting my programmes up and running, but I’m seeing some positive trends, even if my life happens to be a bit chaotic. The meeting at the primary school went remarkably well, and I’m excited to work with another PCV to establish a school garden there!
-Jen

Blessings in Disguise

When I started to fill out my application for Peace Corps in October 2010, I didn’t do it lightly. ¬†The idea had been sitting in the back of my mind, and eventually I couldn’t ignore it anymore. ¬†I prayed about it, asking God if it was His will. ¬†I was a little bewildered because I thought if God was going to call me to live abroad, it would be as a missionary, not as a Peace Corps Volunteer. ¬†However, after some time, I finally submitted to His will and sent in my application.

When I came here two years ago, I was adamant that I would only spend two years here. ¬†I couldn’t extend for a third year….it was not an option. ¬†Two years, done.

Surprise! ¬†I’m extending.

Life has a funny way to changing your plans. ¬†And by that, I mean God’s plan is often different from my own, and sometimes I even choose to follow His plan, rather than mine. ¬†When I was considering extending, I prayed and prayed, trying to find out if this idea was my own, or God’s. ¬†And since I’ve moved to my third year site, I’ve been wondering that again, and praying more and more about it.

You see, I was under the impression that if I *chose* to extend, God would make my life easier. ¬†I would have a good org, better living accommodations, and be able to do exactly what I wanted to do. ¬†But it hasn’t worked out that way. ¬†My organization is just fine, but it hasn’t been perfect. ¬†There were some serious problems with my first home, but I have since moved. ¬†And thought I do get to draw up my own job description, more or less, I do have to work within the tribal authority I work for, which isn’t without its own bureaucratic problems. ¬†It hasn’t been easy.

Then again, God never promised it would be.  He wanted me to stay, not that doing so would be easy.

However, as my life settles into a new normal, I’m starting to appreciate this blessing God has given me. Maybe a blessing in disguise, but a blessing nonetheless. ¬†One thing I’ve learned in the past two years is that I am extremely lucky (blessed) to be an American. ¬†Even though my family wasn’t exactly affluent, I’ve been afforded many opportunities that people in my host communities never had, Peace Corps and all its difficulties included.

Through all the difficulties of leaving one community and figuring out how to live in another, I have received many little blessings. ¬†Mostly I ignored them, as much as I hate to admit it. ¬†I was too focused on what I hadn’t been blessed with….rather than what God was blessing me with.

Now, as I begin my third year, I am going to intentionally try to focus on all the blessings I receive every day….big ones, little ones, and even those ones in disguise. ¬†God brought me here to teach me something, and I’m still learning. ¬†I know this year won’t be easy, but I am trusting in His plan. ¬†And I know I can lean on Him when things get though.

-Jen

Leaving this Place Better than Before, Part 2

Though I’m not yet leaving South Africa, I am moving from one site to another as I switch from my original assignment to my third year assignment. ¬†In one way, I am finishing up my service and starting anew. ¬†This past week, I attended the COS conference for my cohort, SA24. ¬†Of the 57 of us who came to country, 47 made it to the end of service. ¬†For SA, this is amazing….most cohorts lose far more than we did due to ETs. ¬†45 of us were at our COS conference…two having already COS’d. ¬†And while most of the information given at our COS conference won’t be relevant to me for another year, it was a time for reflection on what I’ve done so far.

Have I really left this place (my old village) better than it was before?

The Village.

The Village.

One of the things that is unique to SA is that just by being in my village for two years, I make a small impact. ¬†Children and adults in my village were able to interact regularly with a white person-one who was learning their language, making efforts to honor their culture, and who tried to help them. ¬†This certainly hadn’t happened to them before. ¬†Children began to change their attitudes: instead of being terrified that a white lady was speaking to them, they began to laugh, then they stopped laughing and greeted me normally. ¬†At the end, children would run up to me, gleefully shouting my name and greetings in English and Setswana. ¬†Adults stopped averting their eyes and speaking Afrikaans to me, and instead happily jabbered at me in Setswana, or tested their shy English skills. ¬†I scarcely heard “lekgoa!” being shouted at me as I walked through the village. ¬†Women would stop and offer to help me carry my things, and men would help me find transport.

IMG01528-20121106-1544.jpg

Even if PCVs in SA do nothing else, we change the stereotypes.  We leave our villages a little bit better than they were before, no matter our race.

My host family.

My host family.

Yet there were a multitude of projects I wanted to start, and things I wanted to teach the children. ¬†There were things I allowed to slip through my village, whether through exhaustion, frustration, or simply not knowing how to solve the unceasing problems. ¬†I wanted to do many things: start a girls’ club, host a Camp GLOW, get funding for the garden club, reach out to more home gardeners, significantly improve English and NS scores, start a LoveLife, set up a library, focus more on HIV/AIDS nutrition, engage the community….and many more than I can’t even remember now. ¬†It’s easy to set your goals too high and dwell on the things we failed to do.

P1020606.JPG

But I believe that every PCV leaves their home a little better than before. ¬†It could well be that all of my projects have completely failed six months from now, and that the people in my village forget my name. ¬†Maybe they’ll start to forget that I was ever there. ¬†But small things will remain: the adorable Grade R who ran to greet me each day might vaguely remember how to plant seeds, my 13 year old host sister might have strong enough English skills to attend university someday, my counterpart may glance at the garden year plan we made from time to time, and the teachers might remember to take the learners outside every now and then and teach in the garden. ¬†Or they might not.

101_2547.JPG

It was really hard to leave my old village behind. ¬†I had invested a lot of time, blood, sweat, and tears over the past few years. ¬†Even though I saw my counterpart and the Garden Club learners take ownership of our garden, I didn’t want to let go. ¬†I wanted to stay and see what they do next. ¬†But I can’t. ¬†And while I’m hoping to visit in 2014, who knows what the future holds.

SSA44511.JPG

I hope and pray that I’ve left my old village a little better than before. ¬†I doubt I’ll even know if and how, but as long as one little things changed, or one opinion shifted, then it was two years well spent.

Adios, my village.

Adios, my village.

-Jen

Leaving this Place Better than Before

At our COS conference, our CD showed us this video that PC Africa put together for it’s regional conference earlier this year. ¬†I’ll talk more on it later, but I encourage you to watch this video. ¬†It’s truly inspiring and shows the PC life all across Africa. ¬†If you’re at all interested in Peace Corps, this video will make you want to fill out the application today!

 

-Jen