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.


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’s Heritage Day, and this is a video of our children singing what I believe is a gospel song. Though my Xitsonga isn’t good enough to tell. 🙂

How I Didn’t Learn the Xitsonga Word for Bat

Remember a few months back, when I posted a terrifying and hilarious story about a bat in my room, and how that taught me how to say bat in Setswana?  No, well then, you can read it here.

Last night, I was sleeping soundly beneath my mosquito net when I woke up right around midnight, and hear something going bump in the night….er…swoosh in the night, really.  I had hear the squeaking of bats in my walls for awhile now, so I was pretty sure I knew what it was.  I worked up the courage to stick my arm out from under my net and turn my solar lamp on, and didn’t see anything.  Of course, the light isn’t that strong, so I lit a candle then hopped out of bed to crouch-run to my light.  There was nothing, no flapping, no swooshing.  Nothing.  I went back and sat on my bed (under my net) for a few minutes, wondering if anything would appear.  Right when I was thinking I must be crazy, the lights flicker and I hear a swooshing.

Yup, there was a bat.  My first thought was that my family has been gone for the holiday, and it’s midnight.  I have to deal with this alone.  My second thought was that I could just tuck my mosquito net in tight and deal with it in the morning.  After a quick Facebook post (if I died fighting the bat, I wanted people to know how I died), and an almost instantaneous response from my sister, full of encouragement, I crept slowly out from under my net and began to pull on protective gear.  The bat was hanging upside down above my bed, so it gave me a chance to put on a fleece jacket (zipped up at high as possible), wrap my hair up in a scarf (who wants to have a bat caught up in their hair??), and my leather gardening gloves, I grabbed my broom and SMACK, hit him full on.

Mr. Bat hanging on my mosquito net....not cool, dude, not cool.

Mr. Bat hanging on my mosquito net….not cool, dude, not cool.

Of course, he didn’t die then.  But I think I broke his wing, which made things a lot easier.  After about 10 more minutes of battle, which involved my mop, broom, flashlight, and a can of baked beans, I finally managed to kill the critter.  I always feel bad for killing bats, as they perform a wonderful function for their ecosystem, but there were a few practical reasons he had to die.

Firstly, I live in one room, and while big, it’s like a dorm room.  You live peacefully in a dorm room with a bat and tell me how that goes.  Secondly, I couldn’t trap him in a bucket or butterfly net because my buckets were full of water and where in the world would I get a butterfly net in rural Africa?  Thirdly, and most importantly, I am still scarred from the time my mom took me to the doctor to get a rabies shot after she had a bad encounter with a bat.

Since my host family wasn’t able to help me, I didn’t learn the word for bat in Xitsonga.  But I did feel a sense of accomplishment that I managed to deal with it myself.


BTW, in case you were wondering-the can of baked beans was dropped on the bat from waist height with the intention of crushing him to death.  It was only partially effective….I need to work on my aim.

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.


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. 🙂  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.

Culture Shock….Again

When I decided to extend for a third year, I gave no thought to culture shock.  After all, I had been living in this country for two years, had traveled extensively, and felt prepared for what was coming.  I was adjusted, integrated, and all those other Peace Corps words that meant I generally knew what I was doing.  I wasn’t moving to a new country, so I gave absolutely no consideration to the possibility of facing culture shock.

And therefore, I was shocked.

Seriously, I don’t know how I never considered it.  I mean, I was moving to the other side of a very diverse country.  A new climate, culture, language, job description….basically everything was new, except for the rooster which likes to crow at 3am.  I could have seriously moved to another country (Botswana) with less changes than I face now. No, having to take a bucket bath no longer filled me with trepidation, and I knew how to use the kombis.  But I’ve certainly faced a bit of culture shock in the past two weeks, since moving to my new site.  And I only recently figured out that this was the problem.

On the other hand, I am unreasonably annoyed at the amount of coddling I’m facing in my new village.  I say unreasonably, because I really should appreciate the fact that my new community is bending over backwards to make me feel safe and comfortable.  But after living independently in the village reality for the past 2 years, it’s a little annoying to be told to call someone after a short taxi ride from town to be sure I made it safe, or to be asked if I will get lost when I can see my destination up ahead.  I suppose this might be a side effect of culture shock: being easily annoyed at things I should be grateful for.  But it’s difficult to be treated much like a child when I feel comfortable walking around on my own or cooking food for myself.

I had assumed that moving to my new site would be pretty smooth, but it’s been a rough few weeks.  Part of that is because I thought it would go smoothly….never have expectations in the Peace Corps!  Dealing with culture shock when I’ve been living in a country for two years was unexpected and difficult.  That was compounded by a situation at my host family which means I must move again (at least only within the village).  So while I’m trying to settle in to my new village, I still feel very tossed about and my future seems uncertain.

At least my supervisor has identified a new house for me, and I’ll have a lot more answers come Tuesday next week.  In the meantime, I am enjoying my new Peace Corps life as my culture shock turns into intrigue and curiosity.


Changing Gears

I know I’ve been silent the past few weeks…and for a good reason.  Life has been pretty insane here.  I have packed up and moved halfway across the country.  From the flat Kalahari sand to the mountainous forested area of Limpopo.  From deep-freeze winter to t-shirts-and-skirts-summer (til this week that is…finally had to wear a jacket again).

I’ve switched gears in so many ways!

Saying good-bye to my host family and village was incredibly hard.  The only thing that held me together was the knowledge that I’ll be going back for a short visit next year.  I was an emotional mess for a week or so, but I managed to make it though the last, very sad, day in my village without breaking down in public.  My village was my home, and I had been dreading my departure for the better part of two years.  But several things in my last week there reminded me that the time was right for me to go, and my work won’t fall apart soon.  I saw dedication among some of the learners and teachers, and excitement to continue the permaculture practices I had been teaching.  I know some things will fall to the wayside, but I have hope that my efforts for the past two years won’t be for nothing.

Moving to my new site was harder than expected.  I had allowed myself to do something very dangerous-have expectations-and those expectations came crashing down around my head as soon as the PC driver pulled away, leaving me alone in a very strange place.  I didn’t realize how hard the culture shock was going to be….but then again, everything was different: the language, dress, climate, village, food…you name it, it’s different.  I went from teaching in a school located in a very isolated desert school to a highly functioning organization in the “fruit basket” of South Africa.  Instead of being surround by Kalahari sand and acacia trees, I see banana and mango trees everywhere I look.  Literally. They grow like weeds, apparently!

So I’ve been figuring out how to settle into a very different PC life.  Parts of it are much more Posh Corps, and I’m not afraid to admit it.  I do deserve some perks for extending for a third year, right? 🙂  But other things are so blatantly African that it makes me wonder where I’ve been living the past few years.  I’ll be sharing more about my new community and organization over the next few weeks, so stay tuned.


How I Learned the Setswana Word for Bat

Last week I learned a new word in Setswana: mamatwane, which means bat. How did I learn this word, you might ask? Through the cultural integration technique called “kill the bat in the legkoa’s room”. Fun game, right?

Last week, I was sitting in my room, writing down the things I was thankful for that day, by candlelight as the power was out (for no good reason either). I suddenly saw some flickering darkness up my me ceiling, barely noticeable in the pale candlelight. I looked up and saw something fairly large flying in a fast circle around my room. After realizing big black moths don’t move like that, I ran (as if expecting a nuclear bomb attack-bent at the waist with hands over my head) to my door and outside. I called my host sister over, trying to tell her what was going on. And of course I had no clue what the word for bat was in Setswana. Ask me elephant, puff adder, spider, lion, or any other African animal, and I’d have a good shot at knowing it. But bat must have been too mundane for my LCF to teach us.

Anyways, a few minutes later, my host mom, 2 sisters, and brother were in my room, carrying brooms and sticks, swatting crazily in the air while I cower in the corner, hoping they don’t knock my lit candles onto my bed and thankful PC vaccinated me for rabies, just in case things went south. After a few more minutes, someone finally hits the bat out of the air, right over my bed. And of course nobody saw where it landed, because we are still relying on candles, even though the power had switched on again. Apparently it’s easier to hit a bat in the dark.

After moving lots of stuff and looking up and down, the bat is discovered: on my bed, mere inches from my pillow. One of my sisters scoops it into my dustpan, and they all file out as I profess my thanks. I’m left to clean bat crumbles off my bed and be thankful nothing was set on fire, what with the flailing brooms and lit candles.

The electricity continued to be cantankerous that night, but I haven’t seen a bat since. Thank the Lord! And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the word for bat. Mamatwane! Oh what a bonding moment!

International Permaculture Design Course

Session time! Outside under a tree!

Session time! Outside under a tree!

Back in October, I decided I wanted to enroll in an 11 day Permaculture Design Course (PDC) during the December holidays. Since I want to continue with permaculture as a career, the PDC gives me the certification I need to do so, and would make me a legitimate Permaculture Designer. Fun, right?

So right before the school term ended, I hopped on a bus to PTA (where I randomly met two other PCVs from my cohort), then on to Joburg. The course was held about an hour outside of Joburg, in a rural area. I chose to attend the International PDC through Food and Trees for Africa, which is the organization that also hosted the EduPlant school gardening competition. All the winning schools were able to send 1 educator to the course, so the PDC was geared towards using permaculture in education.

I was able to meet people from all over SA, and even 2 from Lesotho and one from Egypt. I learned a lot more greetings in SA languages, particularly the Nguni languages (Ndebele, Zulu, Xhosa, Swati), and practiced some of the greetings I hadn’t used since PST (Venda, Tsonga, Afrikaans). It was pretty amazing to be exposed to some many different cultures, and to be able to communicate somewhat in their languages. One day I did part of a summary in Tswana, to gales of laughter and loud applause. Communicating to people in their mother tongue is a powerful thing.

I learned an incredible amount of information at the PDC. I went in thinking I knew a fair amount about permaculture-HA! Hahaha! Not even close! I learned so much that my brain almost turned to mush, but it was pretty awesome. The previous permaculture trainings I had attended really discussed permaculture only in relation to garden. But the PDC addressed the lifestyle of permaculture, from Earth building to permakitchens.

Workshops in SA are very different that workshops in the USA. I thought that since many different cultures were represented, it would run more like a workshop in the States. And in a few things, we did. We kept to a schedule fairly well, and cell phones ringing during the session was not acceptable. But the different cultures were truly embraced throughout the course, not removed from the equation. Singing, dancing, prayers, more singing and dancing, poetry, stories…..this is how we would begin after our breaks. We even sang “Away in a Manger” in some language. I spent breaks learning Xhosa tongue twisters, speaking Setswana, and seeing what the Rainbow Nation is truly like. I saw a future picture of South Africa-one which rarely exists now, but shows us the promise of what could be.

I was told before I went that attending a PDC would be life changing, and it’s true. I look at the world a little bit differently, and I’m more inspired to figure out how the Lord wants me to use my permaculture knowledge. And it made me a lot more excited about my options for a third year, and showed me the breadth of permaculture projects that exist around the nation.

For the “talent show” at the end of the course, I wanted to share what living in SA meant to me. So I chose to write a poem in Setswana, which I will post. It’s a little cheesy, but hey, my Setswana only goes so far. And it was appreciated by the other participants.

“Mo lefatshe la rona,
Go na le bothata.
Batho ba bua, fela
Ga ba reetsa.
Bath oba ituta, fela
Ga ba itse.
Batho ba bereka, fela
Ga ba tlhokomele.

Lefatshe la rona le a bobola,
Le kopa thuso.
Re tswanetse go reetsa.

Jaanon, re a change.
Re tswanetse go improva.
Le Permaculture, re kgona…
Re kgona go thusa,
Re kgona go reetsa,
Re kgona go tlhokomela.”

“In our world,
There are problems.
People speak, but
They do not listen.
People learn, but
They do not know.
People work, but
They do not care.

Our world is sick,
It asks for help.
We must help.

Now, we are changing.
We must improve.
With Permaculture, we can…
We can help.
We can listen.
We can care.”

So if anyone wants a permaculture design for your yard, school, or place of work, you know who to contact! 😉

Salads we made during the permakitchen session.

Salads we made during the permakitchen session.

Dance time!

Dance time!

Working on my design!

Working on my design!

Gratitude: Day 20 and 21

Day 20: I am thankful for my host family. When I had my final placement interview with Peace Corps, I was asked whether I was willing to live with a host family or not. I honestly wanted to say no, but I knew PC would be a good learning experience if I allowed myself to be pushed out of my comfort zone, so I took a leap of faith and said I was ok with it. Of course, living with a host family has been difficult at times, I am happy to have a host family. They help me to integrate into my community, provide entertainment and a social life, make sure I am safe and healthy, and help improve my language skills. I feel safer knowing that they are watching out for me. Even though I have my own exterior room and space, it is nice knowing I don’t have to come home to a lonely place. Yes, sometimes my family drives me nuts, but overall they are pretty awesome. I am very glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and said yes to having a host family!

Day 21: I don’t mean to sound cocky, but I am thankful that I am good at learning languages. You see, in SA, PCVs usually don’t need to learn the language well because so many people speak English. I am the exception because very few people in my village and my host family speak English, so I MUST speak Setswana. Sometimes this can be frustrating, as I’m sure you can imagine. But learning more Setswana has allowed me to become more integrated and more accepted in my community. The locals are very enthusiastic when they hear me speak their language and they are quick to realize that I don’t speak Afrikaans. I am by no means fluent in Setswana and will never be, but the language skills I do have are invaluable. I can learn more about this culture through learning the language, and my host mom gets soooooo happy when she hears me speaking it!