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

Heritage Day Singing

This is a video I took of the children’s choir at our After School Care centre. OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) come each day from about 5 different schools, grades 1-11. They learn lifeskills, practice cultural traditions, play sports, participate in a Scouts troop, receive homework help, and eat a good meal each day.

Last week, our centre hosted another drop in centre from Nkowankowa, in honor of South Africa‚Äôs Heritage Day, and this is a video of our children singing what I believe is a gospel song. Though my Xitsonga isn‚Äôt good enough to tell. ūüôā

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!

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

After Two Years….the Things I’ve Learned

I arrived in Africa two years ago, a wide-eyed, fresh-out-of-college, born and raised in Iowa girl, and I distinctly remember freezing through my first night, almost in tears, wondering why in the world Africa was so COLD! ¬†I grew up thinking Africa was hot, all the time. ¬†Silly me. There was so much I didn’t know….

Leaving home-can you feel the sisterly love?  (Yes, we are goofballs!)

Leaving home-can you feel the sisterly love? (Yes, we are goofballs!)

I’ve learned a lot over the past two years, especially that Africa is NOT always hot. ¬†Especially the Kalahari. ¬†I’ve learned how to communicate with people 8,000 miles, studied a little bit of every South African languages (there are 11), and figured out how to cross cultural lines. ¬†I learned that I should have told my village I was a vegetarian, because goat meat is not very delicious…especially the liver and the nose. ¬†I’ve learned how to expertly pass off unwanted attention and proposals, and how to look a guy in the eye and destroy his dream of having a “white woman”. ¬†I’ve learned how valuable family and friends are, and how new family and friends can pop up in the unlikeliest of places-like at a gardening workshop. ¬†I’ve learned more about my passions and God’s plans for my life.

I’ve learned to sing, dance a bit, greet the chief, dress for a funeral, make a speech at a village function, hail a bush taxi, rush to the front of the bus line, make change in a complicated taxi payment transaction, never to go to the grocery store at month’s end, hide all my valuables while traveling through town, bucket bathe, garden in the Kalahari, teach crazed 12 year olds, beat off thieves, inspire adorable 5 year olds, mourn the loss of a family member from afar, wrangle the best spot on the taxi, say goodbye to my sweet little dog, manuever through a herd of cattle, kill scorpions, dispose of tarantulas, to drive on the left side of the road, what shaving my head feels like, cook pap, insure that the windows stay open on a bush taxi, chase out bats from my bedroom, dwell at peace with smaller spiders, ride in a donkey cart, overcome language barriers, love my African families, carry things on my head….I could go on ad nauseam. ¬†Peace Corps is a whole lot of learning, both deep things and shallow things.

I’ve come to understand discrimination and racism intimately, and it breaks my hearts. ¬†I’ve seen literally starving schoolchildren, and find joy when their eyes light up when they see me. ¬†I’ve understood loss, sadness, blessing, and great joy.

My Grade R babies!

My Grade R babies!

Peace Corps is truly a roller coaster ride…one of a lifetime. ¬†There are some days where I desperately want to pack my bags and head home, and others where I wonder if I can stay forever. ¬†Luckily the latter outweighs the former.

My Peace Corps journey isn’t over yet-I’ve got a whole year left to learn new things. ¬†Yesterday I learned how to wear a traditional Tsonga dress, and the day before I learned how to greet the entire tribal counsel (32 Indunas and the Acting Hosi of the Valoyi people). ¬†This strange-but-amazing adventure isn’t nearly over yet, and I’m glad. ¬†As hard as some days came be, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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-Jen

Fourth of July-Tsonga Style

Happy Birthday America!

Random SA/US flag display in Pretoria.  Not sure what it was, but we weren't near the Embassy or anything.

Random SA/US flag display in Pretoria. Not sure what it was, but we weren’t near the Embassy or anything.

Two years ago, I was enjoying my last day at home before I departed for two three years in Africa. I believed my family grilled out some steaks, and my sister and I enjoyed a fantastic fireworks display, as per tradition.

One year ago, I was at home for a 2.5 week visit, and once again, we had great food and great fireworks.  The holiday was much more special to me, after spending a year in another country.  And I really appreciated the awesomeness that is the US of A.

Not exactly America.

Not exactly America.

This year….I’m definitely not in America. ūüôā ¬†Another PCV has been visiting me this week, so instead of celebrating the 4th, Tumi and I have been celebrating America week. ¬†We’ve been enjoying some delicious American food (tacos, chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes, mac ‘n cheese, brownies, etc). ¬†We’ve both been chattering endlessly in our American English and joking around far too much. ¬†We’ve watched some great American movies and listened to some good music.

Tortilla making time!

Tortilla making time!

But above all, we are in Africa. ¬†And so, with Tumi’s first visit to a Tsonga area, we’ve been doing a few uncommon Independence Day activities. ¬†I’ve been teaching her to greet in Xitsonga, we’ve been chattering with my coworkers about differences in our culture, singing the South African national anthem, listening to African music, and today we wore our brand new Xitsonga traditional dresses.

Our traditional dresses and the staff at the Xitsavi Centre.

Our traditional dresses and the staff at the Xitsavi Centre.

 

I think almost every PCV goes home being more grateful to be an American, and all the opportunities that affords us. ¬†While there is still poverty, suffering, and inequality in the USA, it doesn’t come close to touching the reality in Africa. ¬†Even in tiny American towns, children can get a good education, go to college, and find a good job. ¬†There are numerous things about my homeland that I am eternally grateful for after living abroad for two years. ¬†While life isn’t perfect “that side”, I appreciate the life I’ve been blessed to lead in the States.

Me, Kokwani, and Tumi.

Me, Kokwani, and Tumi.

Next year at this time, I’ll be wrapping up my three year Peace Corps service, and I have no clue where I might end up. ¬†But wherever that is, I’ll be celebrating the “land of the free and home of the brave” and I’ll be thankful to call myself an American.