End of One Year, Start of Another

As 2012 ends, I’m spending a bit of time reflecting over the events of the last year. 2012 was my first full year as a PCV, living in South Africa in my tiny rural village. It’s been filled with incredible challenges and delightful surprises. I’ve been pushed beyond my comfort zone and tested nearly to my limits. I’ve also seen the joys of helping my villagers learn sustainable skills and have been amazed at the many times I’ve been welcomed with open arms. Through my struggles against racism and harassment I’ve learned a lot about myself and the society I live in, and I’ve grown stronger and more resilient.

I can’t easily summarize the past year. It’s been an adventure, an unending roller coaster ride. As soon as I think I’ve figured things out, life takes a sudden turn and I’m thrown off balance again, attempting to recreate a new equilibrium. It’s been a challenging year, but I’ve loved it. Peace Corps really is “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

Through my blog, you’ve been able to follow along with some of my adventures, but you’ve only seen a small portion of my Peace Corps experiences. I am still surprised by things, almost on a daily basis. I joke that Africa never ceases to amaze me, and even after a year and a half, it’s still strikingly true.

One of the most amazing things I’ve been a part of in Peace Corps is my school’s gardening project. They have embraced my “new” permaculture methods that I’ve taught through various trainings, and my school was fortunate enough to be named a finalist in the EduPlant school gardening competition. Though our learners struggle to perform sufficiently and we are desperately under-resourced, my school has found pride in itself through the garden, and we are becoming a leader in the area, all through the hard work of the educators, learners, and community members. Other schools have started to look to my poor, small, very rural and under-resourced school, in search of training and advice for their school gardens. Home gardeners in my village have not only attending trainings and applied the new techniques, but they have also formed their own organization, the Tirisano Home Gardeners, and have started searching for funding-all on their own. And numerous PCVs have turned to me for advice, and several have asked me to visit their sites and hold trainings.

Most people join Peace Corps and spend two years working on projects they enjoy, but aren’t always passionate about. Others use their already-existing passions to improve and educate their communities. I am one of the few blessed enough to find their passion in Peace Corps, and now I know what I want to do “when I grow up”. This year has been an incredible journey towards this realization, and I now understand why the Lord led me to join the Peace Corps. I’ve also made the difficult decision to stay for a third year, heading to KwaZulu Natal, the polar opposite of where I live now. Leaving my friends and family for another year was a hard choice, but after much deliberation and prayer, I’ve realized this is something I need to do. I’m not entirely sure why, but I’m listening to the Lord and trusting in His wisdom for this.

Living alone in a rural African village has allowed me to take the time to examine myself, my inhibitions, and my personality. Looking in a mirror at yourself can be hard, and confronting the shortcomings in yourself is even harder. I’ve faced some of my worst fears here, physically and emotionally, and started to examine where those fears come from and why I have internalized them. A lot of interesting things have emerged to me, and I’ve realized how things in my past have affected who I am today. I could have lived my entire life avoiding this process, feigning busyness. However, through Peace Corps, I’ve been able to examine myself and realize many things I ignored about myself for years, in hopes that I will emerge as a stronger, more confident, open-hearted, resilient person after my time here.

PC has changed me to the deepest part of my being. I feel more connected with my “fellow man” and truly feel their pain and their joy. I’ve been moved to tears more times in the past than in all the years before combined. Empathy is a powerful thing, and it has helped me to understand what life is like for people around the world. Empathy has vitally changed my life. When I return to the States, I simply cannot return to the life I had before. It would be like sticking a square peg in a round hole. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I’m very excited to see what 2013 holds for me.

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.*

Reflections on South Africa: Houses

My village has around 600 households, according to the 2001 census. It’s probably lower than that now because villages in the area are draining to larger villages or towns, like Ganyesa or Vryburg. Among those 600 houses, there are not a whole lot of variance.

There are half a dozen or so brick homes. These are the nicest homes in the village, by far. The are well built, have good roofs, and likely better insulated than most homes.

The vast, vast majority of homes are cement brick houses, including mine. These nearly always have corregated metal roofs, and the nicer ones are painted. The RDP government houses that were built last year are all this type of home. Cement homes can be as small as a single room to a large main house with smaller sets of rooms around the yard. These homes are hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and quite drafty. A corner of my cement room is crumbling where the roof beam enters the wall, and occasionally drops pieces of cement plaster into my kitchen area. These houses are study, but full of cracks and crumbling areas.

The other type of house that can be found in my village is a tin shack house. It’s literally a few pieces of metal roofing nailed to a few wooden poles, with a metal roof. They crop up overnight, and house families. Nearly all of them are smaller than my room, as it’s hard to have a big house if it’s made of tin. I’ve not been in one, but I am certain they are sweltering in the summer and frigid in the winter. These houses make me sad, but the government is trying to get these families into the cement RDP houses mentioned above.

Houses here are built much differently than in the States. They are meticulously planned out and saved for. A lot of people do not have bank accounts here because bank fees are high, so they might choose to keep the money “in the house”. When they have a little extra, they will buy some bricks and build part of a room. When times are tight, construction stops. Because of this, houses are often build one room at a time. Houses are slapped together over a period of years, and you can look at a house and see how it was built one or two rooms at a time.

Houses are often built in a compound-style. There is usually a main house, where the “nuclear” family lives, and which also has the kitchen, dining room, and living room. Of course, most houses in my village consist of only one or two rooms for the entire family. However, those who are well-off for village standards will also start building “free-standing” rooms around the family compound. I live in one, which shares a wall with another exterior room, which has the garage on the other side. Families use these rooms either to rent out, as in my case, or for visiting family members. During the school holidays, aunts, uncles, and cousins flood to my family’s compound, taking up the other exterior room.

I’ve only seen one house in my village that has running water. You can tell because the water heater unit looks like an oil drum attached sideways on the side of the house. The rest of us use pit latrines and bucket baths.

Though my house is rather crappy for American standards, it’s bright, large for PC standards, and pretty new. And it’s my home for the time being, my little oasis.

A family's compound, with the main house (right) and exterior rooms (left)

A family’s compound, with the main house (right) and exterior rooms (left)

RDP Government Issue house

RDP Government Issue house

A tin shack house

A tin shack house

Another tin shack

Another tin shack

My host family's main house-one of the few painted houses, and one of the nicest houses here.

My host family’s main house-one of the few painted houses, and one of the nicest houses here.

My house (aka room)!

My house (aka room)!

Whooah, We’re Halfway There

Yes, like the Bon Jovi song.

Congrats, SA24, we’re halfway there. Thirteen months, sometimes long, sometimes short. We came, we saw, we adjusted. We no longer flinch when handed some unidentifiable goat innards for lunch, can flawlessly shrug off advances from 60 year old men, and are masters at self-diagnosing the various causes of diarrhea. We no longer feel like the newbies, and all of us have unbelievable war stories.

On a serious note, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that my service is halfway over. Peace Corps is the hardest, most frustrating, and most rewarding thing I have ever done. I’m independent and self-reliant in a way I never thought was possible. I’ve gained a new understanding into my life and the lives of my villagers. Sometimes that is heartwarming, and other times it’s heartbreaking.

Peace Corps is a series of extremes. Extremely joyous, extremely sad, extremely angry, extremely lonely, extremely satisfied….I can only assume life in the US will be boring after being in the Peace Corps and its emotional roller coaster.

Some days, I am happy to be halfway through. There are days when I simply want to go into my room and cry, or escape to town and rant to other volunteers. Perhaps it was one whistle, one beg for money, one request for me to be a typist, or one advance too many. Maybe I am frustrated because my attempts at improving things are school are being ignored, pushed aside, or fought against. Maybe it was something entirely unrelated-my phone froze again, my water bottle leaked inside my bag, my stomach was hurting, or the shop was out of bread. These things happen often, and they can make things miserable.

But more often, it scares me to be halfway through. I am not ready. I’ve not accomplished half of the things I wanted to do, and there’s no way I’ll be ready to leave my village in 13 months. I’m the last PCV my school will have, and I feel pressured to make an impact that makes up for the PCV that won’t be coming after me. I work hard to try and make my work sustainable and lasting, so that when I leave, my school is better off than when I came. But two years isn’t enough time. It feels like a big clock is tick, tick, ticking away, counting down to my absence. At 13 months, 11 of them in my village, I feel like I’m just now grounded, just now knowing enough to get things done. It takes a long time to start being effective, and now I don’t have that much time left. What happened?

Other PCVs, worldwide, say the second year goes the fastest. I know I’ll be sitting here in 6 months, 8 months, or 12 months, scratching my head and frantically trying to wrap things up. I can’t push that away, or ignore it. That’s the harsh part about a two year commitment-it’s limited. Though I could apply to extend/spend more time here, there are several reasons why that’s not practical.

So, it’s two years. Oops, I mean 13 months. When did that happen?

Reflections on South Africa: Sense of Entitlement

Today’s post is going to touch on one of those unpleasant topics. I feel like a jerk writing it. But, it’s a large part of my life and affects me on a regular basis. It is also a source of stress for me and almost every other SA PCV.

One of the first things schools, organizations, and people ask when they find out I’m an American is whether I can get them something: money, food, computers, money, pictures, tools, a car, money, books, money-anything new or improved from what they have. Sometimes, it’s justifiable. My school really does need books, tools, computers, and more money. My principal really ought to have a car because it will save the school a lot on transport costs. The people in my village really do need more food.

But the thing is, when they ask me for something, they aren’t hoping for it. They are expecting I give it to them, right now. And when I tell them I don’t have it, they laugh. If I offer to help them get it for themselves, they leave. Many South Africans don’t want my help to improve themselves or their schools, they want me to give them something without having to work.

Tswana people have a strong sense of entitlement. Many truly believe that the nice things I have should be given to them, because they can’t afford it (or don’t want to buy it) and think I can afford to get another.

I feel like the Grinch. I have candy and toys in my room for my host brother and sister, but I rarely ever give them anything. When I do, they will walk into my room later in the day and ask for other things, pick things up and hint that I should give it to them, or babble in Setswana about asking for more. More more more! It’s really frustrating.

And it’s not just the kids. After my trip to America, I brought some salt water taffy to school to share because it’s an American sweet. I brought enough, and only enough, for each educator to have 2. I misjudged. My principal saw the bag, and said “I want one of every colour” and took a handful. I told her I brought enough for her to have two. The next teacher did the same, as did the following teacher. I finally realized I needed to just hand each teacher two pieces and not let them pick.

Some people say the government contributes to the sense of entitlement because it provides so many different types of social grants and pensions (think welfare). They provide free houses and toilets, health care, education…They even provide the coloured pencils, crayons, sharpeners, notebooks, pens, erasers, calculators, and pencils for the school children. While it is a struggle to live on a social grant or pension, and poverty is still widespread, the government does provide many things to combat this. Yet people complain. They complain that the houses are too small, the pensions are too small, or the assistance is too small. They feel as if they are entitled to more, and that the government must provide them with what they want.

I hate when an educator, from my school or another, comes up and expects me to do their work for them, or give them things. I struggle because I could provide things to my host family and school, but once I start, I will begin sliding down a slippery path. If someone is willing to sit down with me and apply for a grant for their school themselves, I am more than happy to help. But that is rarely the case.

I know when I leave my village, people will ask me for all sorts of things. I’ll leave most personal things to my host family, and school stuff to the school. How many times will I be asked for my computer, my phone, my camera, or other valuable things, things which I cannot afford to replace? How many more times will I have to disappoint people because I can’t make free money and resources appear out of thin air? How many more times will I feel horrible that I just told someone I can’t give them what they want?

I can’t work in a village effectively if I hand out free stuff or just do things for people. What happens at the end of two years if I do that? I want to make a lasting, sustainable impact, not just make things pretty on the surface. Sometimes that involves saying no, and the fallout that comes with it.

Reflections on South Africa: Life is Good

I live in Africa. This means that I am confronted with some of the worst poverty in the world on a daily basis. Even though I live in South Africa, and the government is fiscally able to support the poor, at the end of the day, people in my village go hungry, kids shiver themselves to sleep, people die from curable or treatable diseases, and children come to school without coats and shoes in the winter. In my village, where I call home.

The level of suffering in my village is hard for me to comprehend, even though I see it often. Kids steal unripe food from the garden, kids eat veld grasses, and nearly every child in the village is small and stunted. When I was in America, I was stunned to see how big and healthy young children looked. The adults suffer too. Hardly any people between the ages of 20-40 live in the village, either because they have died or because they live away from the family to find work. Almost every child in the village is raised by grandparents, many of whom live completely off their pension and social grants, or raise themselves.

Other PCVs are able to do fundraising, such as casual Fridays, where a kid can pay 1-2 rand to wear anything besides the uniforms. They do that once or twice a year at my school, and many children show up in the uniforms because they can’t pay the 1-2 rand. That’s about 25 cents, USD. Most schools have “snack ladies” that show up and sell sweets, biscuits, and crisps during lunch. My schools don’t, and the shops rarely stock such items because nobody can afford it.

Living in this reality makes me realize how truly blessed I am. I didn’t grow up in a rich family, and my parents certainly didn’t cater to my every whim. Yet I never went without what I needed, and my family usually found a way to provide for the things I wanted. I never went a week without seeing my parents, and I grew up in a fairly functional family. My sister and I weren’t passed out to relatives to raise us. I never had to worry about whether my mother or father was going to die. I never went hungry, thirsty, cold, sick….I never had to experience what nearly every child in my village has to experience.

Being a PCV can be truly heartbreaking. But it also shows me how truly good my life is. God has blessed me with so much, and before joining Peace Corps, I took most of that for granted. When was the last time you thanked God for a shower, steady electricity, insulation, carpet, a ceiling, not having to shake your shoes out for scorpions/tarantulas, reliable transportation….In America, we say Grace for our food, but how thankful are we really? How can we be truly thankful when most Americans have never gone hungry? I am incredibly grateful for the simple things in life, because I know what it’s like to live without these luxuries, now.

My life is good, and now I can spend two years trying to make the lives of my villagers better.

Reflections on South Africa: Nelson Mandela Day

Today is Nelson Mandela’s Birthday, and therefore Mandela Day according to the UN. Considering how extremely famous President Mandela is among the black South African population, I expected some sort of assembly or event at school. So I was surprised when I got to school and the principal hadn’t realized what the day was. Oh village life….it was a shame we didn’t do anything to celebrate at school.

So as I watch Invictus in honour of the holiday, I’m going to use some quotes to illustrate my life in SA.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Obviously, being in the education sector of PCSA, I believe education is important. Providing the kids in my village with an education provides them with a key to a whole new world. They are given the chance to escape the poverty they were born into, and dramatically change the trajectory of their own lives. I am blessed to work with the kids in my village, and it is my hope that my two years of work in the school will impact their lives far more than it does mine. I won’t see the outcome of my work in the village, because I am investing in long term change. But I trust that the small “drop in the pond” that I am making now ripples out and has a larger impact on the lives of these kids.

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
This sums up PC service pretty well. It’s a constant battle of overcoming obstacles, and sometimes it just gets tiring! Trying to get things done while maneuvering through cultural and linguistic barriers is like doing a 1500 piece puzzle…that’s all white. Some days I just want to throw my hands up in the air and hide in my room, but that’s when my PCV friends are invaluable, because they know exactly what’s going on.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
A lot of people think I’m brave for joining the Peace Corps and have told me so, and maybe they think I am not fearful. That is so far from the truth. I am scared of a lot of things, and being in SA has made me afraid of new things. But I refuse to allow those fears to take over and prevent me from doing what I’m doing. I’ve learned to lean on God in those times when I’m afraid, and am able to overcome my fear. Fear is not going to rule my life.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
This explains why learning Setswana is so important to me. The joy on people’s face when I address them in Tswana still fills me with happiness. And here, it shows black South Africans that a white person cares enough about them to learn their language. Language can overcome racial barriers, and I’ve seen how a situation changes when I speak in Setswana, rather than the expected Afrikaans.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll make it through two years, but since I’m already halfway through, maybe I can! It’ll seem like a piece of cake once I’m through with it, right?

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
I realized how much I had changed when I visited America. While things had changed at home and with my parents’ lives, overall America was pretty much the same as when I left. Yet I certainly was not the same person. Living for a year in Africa will change you. It will be interesting to see what else has changed about me when I finish my service next year.

Hope you enjoyed my Mandela-inspired ramblings. In case you were wondering, all quotes were from Nelson Mandela. 😉