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.

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

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

Souns Update

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I’ve been doing the Souns programme for a few weeks now, and my 3-4 year old class is doing really great.  They’ve mastered some of the sounds, and we are adding a few more each day I work with them.  Now I’m working on developing word “attack” skills-meaning that they are now learning a few new English words and practicing spelling them out phonetically.  They are working on sounding them out in order to spell them, which will give them the skills they need to attack unknown words once they start reading.

I made some picture cards to help me out.  I decided to teach in English, as from Grade 1 they will start learning English.  In grade 4, they will take their exams in English and have all their classes taught in English.  I want to give them a heads up in a language they don’t often encounter.  Of course, this adds a new dimension to the Souns programme.  I have to teach new vocabulary as well as letter sounds.  

So I found some pictures of basic, phonetic, three-letter words that they kids can practice sounding out, spelling, and reading on.  This week is the first time we have done it, and I’m so proud of my class.  They are brilliant!  Of course, they struggle to figure out how the sounds I have taught them related to the picture, but one by one they are figuring out that the sounds actually make up the word.  They are starting to understand that “pot” is made up of three sounds, sounds they already know: “pih” “ah” and “tih”.  

I’ll be continuing to focus on sounding out the new English words I teach them in the coming weeks, and then we’ll focus on having them write the words they hear.  It might be an interesting experience teaching kids how to hold a pencil!  From there we’ll start to focus on reading, which is the last part of the programme. 

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However, they are starting to decode and read the words I’ve given them.  I’m not sure if they are aware that they are reading, but bit by bit they are.  

The kids seem to love it when I come.  They start yelling out to me when they see me with the Souns bag.  On Wednesday, one of the kid was hanging out in the entrance hall at the end of the day.  I called him over, and wrote down a few letters for him to sound out.  He was all smiles as he sounded them out!

-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!