Readjustment after Medical Separation

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while, because it’s difficult to put into words. But I guess I can give a short story and a long story.

The last picture of me taken at Xitsavi.

The last picture of me taken at Xitsavi.

I was medevac’d in early December from the Peace Corps South Africa, and officially medically separated in January 2014, after 30 months of service.

Short Story:
The readjustment and transition back to America has been really hard. More difficult than I ever would have imagined.

Long Story:
When I left South Africa, I wasn’t overly upset. I was seriously injured and dealing with a newly diagnosed neurological condition. I was sad to leave, but I wasn’t devastated In some ways, I was happy to return to my family and excited to spend the holidays with them after 2.5 years. I was also relieved to receive treatment for both my injury and my disease in the States, where I would have access to an internationally-known neurologist who focuses on CMT (my diagnosis). I would be dealing with physical therapy and leg braces, and I needed to be back in the States.

The start of a garden club at a nearby primary school...the only time I got to work with them before I left.

The start of a garden club at a nearby primary school…the only time I got to work with them before I left.

I figured I’d have to get used to American English, flush toilets, driving, and winter again, among other things. But even after going through COS conference and watching almost all of my cohort COS months previously, I had no idea what I was facing.

You see, medical separation is fiercely different than a typical COS, or even an ET. Most PCVs have weeks or months to wrap up projects, pack, and say goodbye. I had two hours. Most end their service with world travel. I ended mine with surgery, pain, and tears. Most PCVs get to prepare for life in the States again, looking for jobs and finding a place to live. I was on a plane just days after they determined I would be leaving for good.

One of my last days in the village...visiting the homes of some of my afterschool care kids.

One of my last days in the village…visiting the homes of some of my afterschool care kids.

I had no idea the emotional toll of all this.

I have struggled to come to terms with my departure from country. Now, almost six months later, I can finally write about it without dissolving into tears. It has taken that long.

The Xitsavi garden that I had to abandon.

The Xitsavi garden that I had to abandon.

I can look through photos and remember incredible memories, rather than feeling guilt-ridden and intensely homesick. I can read through my journals. I can talk to people easily about my experience in South Africa. The dreams of being back in South Africa have mostly ceased.

I want to be open and honest here, so that if someone else stumbles on this blog in the same boat as me, they can know they aren’t alone. It’s an entirely unique COS, reentry, and readjustment situation.

One of the last pictures of me in South Africa.

One of the last pictures of me in South Africa.

Rather than simply dealing with life back in the States, I have had to deal with being torn away from my job, my home, and my friends, then be sent back to friends and family who just can’t understand it all. Because you can’t understand it unless you’ve been through it.

I’m still readjusting. Every. Single. Day. I still feel homesickness for my life back in South Africa. Just about every single day. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about what’s going on there, my organization and school, and my friends.

DSC_0945

I know my life has been fundamentally changed through my experience with the Peace Corps. I know some things will never be as they were before I left. I have changed. But in some ways, I am still transitioning back. It’s taken longer than I ever thought it would.

-Jen

PS. If you have been medically separated and are experiencing some of the things I’ve mentioned here, feel free to email me at jenpcv (at) gmail (dot) com. Let’s talk.

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Medevac….Going Home

As I write this, I’m sitting in my bed back home in America at 4:30 in the morning. I’ve officially been medevac’d back to the USA for continuing treatment for my arm and to explore the options for another condition I was diagnosed with last week. Clearly, considering the time in America and the fact that I’m wide awake, I’m struggling with jet lag a bit. ūüėČ

Medevac means I have 45 days in the USA to show enough improvement to go back to South Africa. If I am cleared medically sometime within that 45 days, Peace Corps will send me back to South Africa to finish out my third year. If I am not medically cleared by the end of 45 days, I will be medically separated, which means my service will officially end.

The decision was passed down from Washington DC last Wednesday, and after the Thanksgiving holiday (which PCSA staff gets off), I went up to site to say goodbye and pack anything I’d want to take home. I had to pack as if I’m not coming back, which is pretty stressful and emotional. I came back to Pretoria on Saturday afternoon, and flew out on Monday evening. After nearly 24 hours of solid travel and two delayed flights, I found myself hugging my Mom in the Des Moines airport, heading home for Christmas for the first time in two years. I flew with Delta, and considering my broken arm, they were wonderful the whole way, helping me preboard and stow luggage, get a seat where someone wouldn’t be bumping my arm, and helping navigate the Atlanta airport with two large checked bags. I was very thankful for all the help both Delta and random people gave me throughout the journey!

I’m home now, well, back in Iowa. It’s hard because I have a home in South Africa as well, and I’m not sure if I will be going back. It’s been an emotional week, after the decision was passed down, and I’m still trying to process everything. Once again, the readjustment is hard, made more difficult by the uncertainty of medevac and the cold Iowa winter. The first thing I did here in Iowa was buy a winter coat. It’s been nearly 3 years since I’ve dealt with an Iowa winter.

I will say that if I had to choose a time of year to be medevac’d, I nailed it. ūüôā I think only people who have lived abroad for an extended amount of time can understand what being home with family for the holidays means. Though I’ve celebrated holidays with friends and near-family back in SA, it also feels like I haven’t had a real holiday for two and a half years. I feel so blessed to be home for the holiday season, though the reason for me being back isn’t wonderful.

It’s still hard to believe I’m home though!
-Jen

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

Food Insecurity and Inequality

Many people have misconceptions about South Africa, thinking it is a developed country without many of the problems the rest of Africa faces-poverty, disease, environmental degradation, food insecurity, corruption, etc….and in some parts of that country, that’s more or less true. You can go to highly developed areas of the country and find every modern convenience, mistaking it for some city in America.

But the reality is that South Africa is plagued by inequality and poverty, leading to widespread food insecurity. It’s estimated that at least 12 million South Africans go to bed hungry each night. In the rural areas, where I’m living, this is pretty evident just looking at the children. Many children show signs of long term malnutrition, through stunting or kwashiorkor. Others show signs of emaciation, indicating short-term or seasonal malnutrition. This affects their development, and impacts their success in school and beyond.

Malnutrition is a problem in South Africa, but it’s often hidden by the modern advances of the First World.

There are a lot of things going on in South Africa that affect food security, and race happens to be one of the factors. During Apartheid, black people were removed from some of the most fertile land in South Africa, freeing it up for white farmers. They were removed to some of the harshest, least productive areas of the country. At the end of Apartheid, much of that farmland was retained by the white farmers. Now, twenty years later, vast inequalities in land ownership exist. 36,000 large-scale farmers control 86 million hectares of land, while 1.4 million black farmers have access to 14 million hectares. (iol.co.za)

Stop and look at that sentence again, and really think about what it means. Out of 100 million hectares of farmland in South Africa, 2.5% of the population of farmers (non-black) control 86% of the land. And 97.5% of the population of farmers (who identify as black) control only 14% of the land.

Imagine how that impacts food insecurity, and which ethnicity is most impacted. Yes, there are white households that are food insecure. But the vast majority of families who face insecurity are either rural black South Africans, or township (think urban slums) black South Africans.

I work in a rural village trying to improve food security through small-scale, intensive food gardening, working with potential young black agriculturists. Many of the children in my village are considered orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and come from food insecure households. Even if their family has frequent access to food, it might be only during certain times of the month/year (i.e. near payday), it might not be enough food, or it might be food that lacks proper nutrients (i.e. pap, or maize porridge). My goal during my third year is to work with both adults and children to teach sustainable home gardening methods that are high-yielding, low-technology, and which use water responsibly. The idea is that if a family knows more efficient ways of growing food, they can contribute to their own household food security by growing healthy vegetables.

Food insecurity has the potential to cripple this nation, and the problem gets worse as food prices rise. Pensioners in SA receive 1,500 rand/month from the government (about 150USD). For each child in the rural areas (for needy families), the parents receive R250 (about $25) to care for the child. Can you imagine raising a child on $25/month?

Many of the kids at my workplace are one of several, and some belong to households of 8-9 people who rely on 1 or 2 child grants and perhaps a pension from the grandparent. This means that many children either go hungry, or only eat pap. Pap fills the stomach but provides little in terms of nutrition.

But this is why I’m here…in hopes that I can many some small change to increase food security.
-Jen

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

Uniquely Peace Corps Experiences

Life as a PCV can be intriguing and unpredictable in some many ways, and there are many experiences that happen to be uniquely Peace Corps. ¬†Some are just so out of the ordinary that a US citizen living abroad still wouldn’t experience them, but Peace Corps Volunteers do. ¬† A lot of it comes down the community that is Peace Corps, worldwide.

Through Peace Corps, I have friends around the world: Peru, Jordan, Botswana, the Ukraine, Lesotho, Benin, Panama, Zambia, Azerbaijan, to name a few…countries that many Americans probably don’t even know are countries. ¬†Primarily we have been brought together via friends-of-friends, the internet, stumbling across blogs, or random encounters in airports, and some have become close friends. ¬†No matter what country, we are connected through our experiences with the Peace Corps. ¬†It’s a family. ¬†A very diverse, strange, open family that reaches to all corners of the world.

The past week has highlighted the connections I have with other volunteers. ¬†Last Monday, a site mate moved into my village. In many PC countries, site mates are common, but not in South Africa. ¬†The fact that we live maybe a mile apart, and that I can see her school from my house, is nothing short of amazing in SA. ¬†She contacted me just before moving to the village, and we made plans to meet up on Friday. ¬†Favi, as I’ll call her, was pretty much a stranger to me. ¬†I had spent two days training at their PST, but since there were about 40 PCTs, I didn’t catch many names, and I don’t think we ever chatted.

So, essentially I was meeting a new neighbor. ¬†Should be awkward, right? ¬†Well, remember we are both PCVs. ¬†So when we finally met up, it was like we were long lost friends. ¬†We literally couldn’t stop talking, and I’m sure anyone who saw us on the street were amazed by how fast we were talking, and how animated we were.

Later on, an RPCV (returned PCV…aka, finished with service) from Liberia called me up and stopped by my place. ¬†We had met through a PC couch surf group, and she was wanting to see what a PCV site in SA looked like. ¬†We had chatted quite a bit on Facebook, and I was delighted to show her and three of her friends what the rural areas of SA are like. ¬†She spent about an hour at my place, and we all had a great time learning about each other’s PC services. ¬†We talked about all manner of things, and it was fascinating to learn what PC Liberia is like.

PC is a very unique experience. ¬†Very few organizations send Americans abroad for such a long amount of time, and to be completely integrated into a new culture and language. ¬†PCVs are trained to speak the target language, and embrace the culture of their host countries. ¬†Typically, volunteers live at the level of the people in their community, and give up many comforts of modern life. ¬†Of course, each county is different, but the highs and lows, joys and sorrows, struggles and successes, are relatively the same. ¬†They’ve even worked out a graph depicting the mental state of volunteers over their two years of service-worldwide, not country specific. ¬†PC can identify when volunteers will hit their highs and lows in service, based on a worldwide average, and it’s pretty darn accurate.

When I met with my cohort in Washington DC two years ago for staging, it was like I was meeting a group of friends I had known for years. ¬†We didn’t know anything about one another, or even our names, but we had a strong connection already. ¬†Each one of us had spent months (or years) applying for PC, and had fought through challenges to get there. ¬†After two years, we are still a closely connected group. ¬†We’ve been through some much while serving in PC, and there are some things that only other PCVs can understand. ¬†It has been like this with every other volunteer I’ve met. ¬†We understand each other on a deeper level.

Being a part of the PC community is amazing.  I look forward to returning to the states next year and getting involved with the Peace Corps community there, and for the random encounters with other volunteers in the future.

-Jen

PS…..random fact, but this is my 300th post. ¬†I thought about doing something special for it, but then decided the PC community was special enough. ūüôā

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