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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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PCSA’s Unique Goal 4

South Africa is a unique Peace Corps country in part because there are 11 official languages, and many different cultural groups and subgroups. It’s easy to think of things in a black/white racial dichotomy, but it’s so much deeper than that. For example, amongst the white people, you have British, Afrikaner, white South African, ex-pats, and likely other cultural groups I don’t know about. And amongst the black South Africans, you have the sotho-based groups (Tswana, Pedi, Sotho), the Nguni (Ndebele, Zulu, Swati, Xhosa), the Venda, Shangaan, Zimbabweans, Shoni, Khoisan, ex-pats, and likely other tiny groups I’ve never heard of. Then you have the Indian population and the coloured population (NOT an offensive term here, fyi), and I honestly have no clue what subgroups exist within through racial/cultural groups.

So while America can be considered a melting pot, South Africa is more of a bag of trail mix: each cultural group vibrantly holds onto its own cultural traditions, but they all come together to offer something to the nation as a whole. Of course, there is some blending of cultures, but a Venda person is a Venda first, and South African second. It’s rather cool!

But….that means that a lot of South Africans are clueless about the other cultural groups in their country. This comes back mainly to racial lines, meaning that white South Africans often have no clue what village (“black”) South African life is like, and many black South Africans have outdated ideas of white South Africans, which all comes back to Apartheid.

As a PCV (read as white person), I live in a “black” village. I travel on “black” transport, speak a “black” language, eat “black” food, live with a “black” family, and frequent “black” businesses. (Please, don’t be offended by me referring to these things as “black” because this is how some things are referred to in my village, and by other South Africans…not always in a good way, but I’m attempting to make a point.) Black South Africans are always surprised to see me at a taxi rank, let alone getting on a taxi. Sometimes they ask me about it, or greet me in Afrikaans-which I respond to in Setswana, to gales of laughter. Sometimes I’m ignored.

One PCV wrote that because of this reality in SA, we have the chance to add a fourth goal to PC’s Three Goals. The three goals go as follows:

Goal 1: Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
Goal 2: Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
Goal 3: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

In South Africa, we could easily include another goal:
Goal 4: Helping promote a better understanding of South Africans on the part of other South Africans.

How?

For the first year of my service, I rarely encountered white people and did not form relationships with any. Honestly, I tried not to think they were all horrible racist pigs because I saw the affects of Apartheid so clearly in my village. I knew it was 20 years ago, and that many white South Africans were kind people, but I didn’t interact with any and struggled not to form stereotypes. Then I met and became friends with two women who introduced me into the culture of white South Africa. I met more white South Africans and began to talk to them about my (“black”) South African and their South Africa. I chatted with a young lady at a bus stop who was astounded to hear that corporal punishment is still common in rural areas, despite being illegal. I stunned a group of young men by telling them about my adventures and mishaps on the bush taxis, which white people generally avoid like the plague. I described my school to other educators in more urban areas. I explained what living in a village with a black host family is like to countless white South Africans.

And I saw eyes open, minds expanding, and opinions starting to change. I saw stereotypes being question and attitudes changing. No, I didn’t radically change anybody’s mind, but I was able to share a different South Africa with them.

One of the most poignant moments of my service was when a young white man turned to me after talking for an hour or so, and said “I can’t believe that you, an American, know more about the culture in my own country than I do.” That is the moment when barriers start to break down.

In my village, I’ve seen huge changes. When I first came, everyone was terrified to talk to me. Kids would flash a terrified face and run away if I greeted them. Now, they run up to me and greet, in English or Setswana, walk alongside me, and reach out to grab my hand. The flock to work with me and warm my heart with their acceptance. Older women smile and chatter to me in Setswana, where once silence was the rule. People glance up when I walk by, greet, then go back to their tasks, rather than staring in shock. And I only hear shouts of “lekgoa (white person)” from the smallest of children, rather than from everyone. With the teachers at my school, I’ve been able to have frank discussions about racial stereotypes, and I can see opinions are changing.

I feel so blessed to see these small changes. South Africa is unique because simply by living in a “black” village, I am able to shift opinions and shatter stereotypes. In a very small way, I am able to counter the impact of Apartheid and show my village that white people can work, live, eat, and thrive alongside a black person. Maybe I can send the message that race doesn’t really matter.

Though I’m not South African, I traverse some of the various cultures in this country. In doing so, I am able to help realize the unofficial Goal 4: Helping promote a better understanding of South Africans on the part of other South Africans.
-Jen

The Real Faces of Apartheid

Putting a face to a story, or finding someone who lived through an event always makes such events more “real” to a person. I’m living in a country where I interact daily with people who lived through the horrors of Apartheid-who were so crushed and oppressed, who lost loved ones at the hands of policemen. But we don’t talk about it, at least not on a personal level.

Maybe the pain is still too much. Maybe people want to put it behind them. Maybe it’s because I’m white. But the reality is that Apartheid still exists in many areas of the country, my village included. Racisms and xenophobia run strong, and racial tension is ever-present, pulsing in the background of my South African life. Maybe I don’t talk about Apartheid to people because I am afraid to hear their stories. Maybe it’s because I’m ashamed of what my race did.

During the December holidays, I had two poignant moments where the realities of Apartheid reached out and slapped me in the face. It became more real because I put a face to Apartheid, hearing the real life stories of my friends. One filled me with sadness, and the other with utter horror.

While at my PDC, I met some new friends who I shall call Priya, Sephiwe, and Josephine*. Priya is an older Indian lady, and Josephine is a young black lady, around my age. Josephine was too young to experience the darkest times of Apartheid, but she remembers the birth of democracy and has grown up in the period where the Rainbow Nation struggled to emerge from decades of oppression. Priya lived her young adult years during the worst periods of Apartheid. Sephiwe grew up during the 80s, when the violence was at its worst and the Apartheid government was realizing the end was around the corner.

We stood outside a museum, waiting for it to open, when Priya started talking about how her grandfather was forced out of his home during Apartheid. As an Indian man, he was no longer allowed to live in his neighbourhood with the Group Areas Act. One day he came home and found his belongings on the sidewalk, forcibly removed from his home. Can you imagine? After Apartheid ended, the government pretended to make amends by offering him land again. But how can you replace a home, once it has been brutally taken away, the safety of home shattered?

Sephiwe began talking about living in a township in the 80s, when he was attending secondary school. Townships were generally dangerous to live in, and the 80s saw many uprisings. One day he was at school and gunshots rang out: the police had come to shoot. He ran desperately away from the school, fleeing bullets and death. He also saw his classmates get brutally beaten by the police. Once home, he told his mother what had happened, who promptly beat him, then sent him to another school, away from the township.

All three recounted stories of friends and family who disappeared. Some emerge from harsh torture and interrogation sessions. Others were never heard from again. Their families desperately sought information about their fates at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to no avail. Even today, their fates are unknown.

Josephine reflected that it is a miracle that anyone survived Apartheid, which Sephiwe quickly affirmed. Meanwhile, I choked back tears.

A few weeks later, I sat in the home of a wonderfully kind Afrikaner family, enjoying a braai while getting to know some new friends. Kathy*, the mother of the family, was a spry, middle-aged mom who seemed like she’d be perfect at a PTA fundraiser. Around the dinner table, we started talking about Pretoria. Kathy, who had been a career military woman during Apartheid, started talking about the suburb of Hillbrow. During Apartheid, it was a black area and was very dangerous. She told us that they used to go to Hillbrow when people started getting “restless” and would start shooting, to remind them of their place. The gunfire would quell the violence and create a temporary peace.

I tried to hide my expression of horror. I couldn’t believe that this kind lady would speak of such shootings without a hint of shame or regret. That was the norm. That was her job. She did what she was supposed to do and doesn’t seem to understand the effects of such violence, even 19 years after Apartheid.

Living in a country where an oppressive government was so recently dismantled means I constantly navigate a delicate racial reality everyday. Rarely am I not aware of my race, but hearing these stories isn’t common. It is very difficult to hear them, and realize the pain and loss so many people went through. Furthermore, it is difficult to be reminded that many white people do not understand the horrors of Apartheid, and how much racism still lives.

As I look out at a group of women sitting beneath a tree outside my school, sharing a meal, talking, and laughing, I see a beautiful community. But I also see abject poverty and hardened, wrinkled faces. What horrors have these women been subjected to? What violence have they faced? Who have they lost? And yet they are resilient. They have come together today to clean our school, making it a safety and more beautiful for their children, the future of Africa. And when they see me, a young white women, they greet me and smile with laughter as I greet them back in their mother tongue.

This country has been through so much, and there is still much that is broken, struggling to heal from the deep wounds of Apartheid. I struggle with racial tension every day, but I also know that I have the power to change opinions. I see a gentle shift in my village and how people in my community relate to me. Maybe we are on the path to becoming colorblind, but it is a long, slow walk.

*All names have been changed.
-Jen

Rubber Necks

One of the most entertaining this for me is watching the responses of people who see me (white person) in a “black” village, walking/sitting with different races, inside a taxi, or waiting on the side of the road into or out of my village. I cannot count the number of times a car passes me, then the person inside stares as they drive by….”rubber-necked”, eyes following me intently as they past, head swinging around impossibly far. White or black, the race doesn’t change the surprise at seeing this lekgoa in a place where white people rarely go, though I do notice that white people watch me far more intently. You can see them thinking “WHAT THE HECK?!” and wondering if they need to rescue me.

While I do find this entertaining, and rather enjoy the surprise I give people, how sad is it that racial divides still exist SO strongly in this country? I swear, my normal day involves “going where no white person has gone before, doing what no white person has dared to do before!” This could be the mantra of my superhero alter-ego: Superlekgoa!

The rubber necks I see when South Africans see me in an usual place reflects a dark reality in South Africa: 18 years after Apartheid, there are still strong racial barriers in this country. Arguably, it is worse because now a white/black/coloured/Indian person CAN legally go anywhere they wish, but they CHOOSE not to. The “separate areas” law created during Apartheid no longer exists, but in many areas of the country, it has become a form of customary law, enforced by engrained cultural practices stemming form the oppression of Apartheid.

In the urban areas of SA, this is not as noticeable as in the rural areas. Places have integrated, but generally only one way. “White” neighbourhoods during Apartheid now host various races. But a “black” township? You won’t be finding a white person there.

My service in SA has forced me to think long and hard about race. Heck, everything I do and say is related to my race, and is one of the only representations of white people my village will ever have. I have to filter every single thought and action, viewing it from the eyes of my villagers to ensure I am not reinforcing negative beliefs of white people. It’s exhausting!

On Sunday, when I returned home from Thanksgiving, I was waiting for a ride into my village on the outskirts of the next village over. I was sitting up on a pile of curbs for the soon-to-be tarred road, umbrella in hand to stave of the scorching African sun. A nice white truck drives out from my village, Eskom Energy written on the side, drive by a white guy. He stares at me incredulously, his neck craning around as he drove 270 degrees around me (due to construction). I know he wondered what I was doing there, and was quite obviously concerned for my safety. If he hadn’t been working, he likely would’ve stopped to talk, or even given me a ride home. The disbelief on his face was plainly-written, and I’m sure he went home and told his family about this white girl sitting on a road in the middle of nowhere, waiting to go to this “black” village.

So little has changed for many South Africans in the past 18 years. I laugh at the rubber necks I see. If I didn’t, I’d be very discouraged and frustrated. I love that I get to help change minds in my village and the surrounding areas. Who know a white girl could “survive” in a “black” village, or even ENJOY living there? But I do.

*Black/white/coloured/Indian are official designations of race in South Africa, and not used as derogatory terms. Also, quote words reflect statements I’ve heard, not what I would call/describe something.*
-Jen

Reflections on South Africa: Redistribution of Wealth

During Apartheid, nearly all the wealth in SA was concentrated amongst the white population, while the Indian, Coloured, and Black populations were left without, especially the black people. This was, obviously, one of the many problems with Apartheid, and one that wasn’t easily resolved in 1994, at the advent of a new, democratic South Africa.

Nowadays, wealth is spread out more evenly among all the populations in SA, but vast inequalities still exist. There are more black people on the list of wealthiest people in SA. However, the Census 2011 found that white people make SIX TIMES the average salary of black people here. WOW! Six times as much. This means that many black people, who represent 79% of SA, are frustrated by the lack of fiscal improvement since Apartheid.

So some take it into their own hands to redistribute the wealth.

How? They rob white people. This may sound incredibly racist to you, but it is a reality here, not a stereotype. Of course, white people commit crimes here, as do Indians and Coloured people, and Black South Africans are victims of crime as well. But being a white people in a rural area makes me a target.

PC warned us about this “redistribution of wealth” and how some black people do not consider it stealing. They believe that since white people have money, they can easily afford to replace a smart phone, bank card, computer, car, etc. And because they can afford to replace it without suffering, it’s not really stealing. Sixty-seven years of Apartheid and inferior education brough up generations of Black South Africans who believed that their education wouldn’t help them suceed, and those ideas still exist amongst younger South Africans. Instead of trying to get a better education, which can be nearly impossible in village schools, many end up falling into a life of crime.

I’m a white person, and I can’t easily afford to replace my blackberry if it was stolen. I would replace it though, even if I had to skimp on food. But stealing from someone is still a crime, even if they can replace what you stole.

Last month, I watched my friend get mugged in our shopping town. We were heading out of the taxi rank, where no white people go, besides us. We were being careful because we knew it was a dangerous area of the town for us. Regardless, she got her phone stolen. She replaced it later, but that doesn’t mean a crime wasn’t committed. Redistribution of wealth? No, it was a CRIME. This attitude NEEDS to stop.

I think it’s awful that a typical white person make six times the amount as a typical black South African. I hate that I’m a target because of my skin colour. I hate that the education has failed black children, funnelling many into a life of crime in order to escape poverty. But I also hate that some people choose to use their race as an excuse to be a criminal.

*Please note: terms like white, black, Indian, and coloured are OFFICIAL designations of race here, and not offensive or colloquial terms.*
-Jen

Run of the Mill Wednesday

Some of the enthusiastic observers.

Some of the enthusiastic observers.

I woke up at my normal time, felt fancy so I made French Toast, then straightened my hair because I slept on it wet so it dried CRAZY! I was off to school at half past seven, and was the first educator at school. Typical. The puppy that was wandering around the school on Monday was there again, and the learners seemed terrified of it, so I picked it up and held onto it for a while, wondering if I could keep it. Instead, I handed it off to one of the kids who owned it, who ran it home. After holding the puppy, I went to wash my hands at the tap and found out the water was out.

I started up my computer and searched the cupboard for Dept of Ed CDs that would hold the work schedules, or what the teachers were supposed to teach. I wanted to look them over and identify areas for integrating gardening into the curriculum. I only found about half the classes, and when I put the Maths CD in, my virus shield went crazy. Yup, the DOE had given us an infected CD. I popped it out and ran a scan, which turned up clean. Then I used my Blackberry to download the healing tool, to try to remove it from the disk, which was unsuccessful. I may just throw the CD out, otherwise, someone will use the CD and infect the computer.

Lunch came-mealie rice, pumpkin, and a veggie mush that was delicious! After lunch, I went back to searching the work schedules. This was a slightly torturous activity, so I split it up a bit by bbm-ing a fellow PCV. I didn’t want to get too deeply into another project because I knew things would get busy prior to leaving for the sports competition, and sure enough, it did. One of the teachers was supposed to organize catering (food) for the learners, and hadn’t done so, so it kind of turned into crisis mode. The big shop was out of bread, so they drove around the village shops and finally found some. Surprisingly on time, the kombis to transport the learners arrived and we were off by noon.

We barreled through my village, then started down the one-lane dirt road about 40km, to the farm village that was hosting the competition. This village was unique because it has both white and black people. There is a “white” school which is small and has extremely nice grounds. And then there’s the “black” school that is like every other village school, old, poor, and with scraggly grounds. We were there for a cross country competition, so for the races, they had a car drive around and the learners ran behind it, all around the village. I think they were measuring the distance by the car odometer…seriously.

Anyways, I was recruited to help record the results for the races, so I at least had a seat. However, it was crazy windy (gusts of 50kmph all day) and we were in the middle of a field. The races took a LONG time, and the sun started to set and the wind turned cold quickly. Because I was a recorder, I couldn’t take refuge in the kombi. Regardless of the wind and chill, it was a nice day and I was able to take a lot of great pictures. Someone had brought a megaphone, and I swear someone was talking through it the entire 5 hours I was there. At one point, I took it away and told one guy that we’d had enough….he took it back and started alternating between the whistle and siren functions. My host brother and sister were both there, and my brother took first place in his race, and my sister made it in the top six. At about 6pm, the races finally ended and we rolled out of the village as the sun set. We rolled through the bushveld in the dark, successfully avoiding the cows on the side of the road and driving through PILES of tumbleweed. We got to my village an hour later and the driver dropped me and my host siblings off right at my gate.

I am so exhausted right now, and forced myself to write this tonight. Tomorrow’s going to be a LONG day, and I’m sure I’ll be exhausted still.
-Jen

Some of the winning kids waiting to record their names.

Some of the winning kids waiting to record their names.

One of the learners realizing he wasn't placing in the top six as he approached the finish line.

One of the learners realizing he wasn’t placing in the top six as he approached the finish line.

Kids finishing a race.

Kids finishing a race.

Learners in the kombi on the ride home.

Learners in the kombi on the ride home.

The Little Ones

Little kids have no inhibitions, and you can find out what life’s really like from them.

Most people in my village no longer shout in surprise when they see the white person walking through. They have gotten used to me, but I’m not sure the little ones ever will. Just last week, I walked past my neighbor’s house, and a chorus of “lekgoa lekgoa!” followed me around. I shouted “AHEE” to all their “Dumela Dumela LEKGOA Dumela!!” and laughed as I walked to my home.

Last month, as I passed another house I frequently walk by, I heard the crowd of little ones babble amongst themselves, then shout to me, “lekgoa!” I’ve greeted these kids numerous times, and decided it was time to teach them. So I said, “Ay! Ke Keamogetswe! Mme Keamogetswe! Dumela!” Hey, I am Keamogetswe! Miss Keamogetswe! Hello! They all laughed and started the rounds of “Dumela!” and waited to see if I would great each one individually. At least they stopped yelling lekgoa since then, and the adults at the house were getting a kick out of watching the lekgoa.

Outside my village, it’s another story. White people are still a new concept everywhere around outside Vryburg. I was in Ganyesa recently, a large village with a Shoprite (which makes it a major destination) with another PCV. He saw some guys pushing a car, and stopped to help while I guarded his bag. I waved to the little ones in the backseat, and they just stared, mouths open, eyes wide as can be. I could just tell that they did not understand why a white person was there and why I was waving at them. There were quite possibly terrified.

All the little ones in my village were once like that, and I just had to laugh at their blatantly shocked faces. Now, though, they compete to see who can greet me the most, and often babble on in Setswana while I try not to laugh at their cuteness. It’s from the kids that I know my village has accepted me, and that I’m becoming integrated.

And darn, these little ones are SO cute.
-Jen

P.S. Lekgoa means white person, if you didn’t know. It may be my unofficial nickname. And was how my principal introduced me to the School Governing Board-“Our Lekgoannyane” Our little white person. 🙂