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.

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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.

Medevac/Medical Hold, Part 1

The last week or so has changed a whole lot of things. The short story is that I fell, broke my arm, had surgery, and will spend 6 weeks recovering in Pretoria. If you don’t want any details, you can stop reading here. If you want more info, read on. I will slowly but surely manage to type out the story!

Last Thursday, I was working at the food security project, and we happened to be harvesting tomatoes. Towards the end of the day, we were separating out the last few tomatoes to take to the market the following day. I had my hands full of tomatoes and was walking towards a pickup truck to put them in the back. I tripped, and my right arm flew up, catching on the side of the truck. I face planted into the tire, and the rest of my body was against the ground. I immediately knew something was wrong, as my arm HURT at the shoulder. I flipped onto my back to figure out what was wrong, and my arm just sort of flopped to the side. I knew then that something was seriously wrong. I waited a bit to see if the pain subsided, then called my PCMO to see where he wanted to me to go. He directed me to the Tzaneen private hospital, and after a few more calls, a ride to town was arranged.

The ride was horrible. My arm hurt badly, and a few kilometers on a dirt road, then the rest driving very fast down a tarred road with potholes meant I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t get comfortable, but at least the ride was only about half an hour.

I arrived at the hospital, and after a bit of confusion, managed to sort everything out with the PC paperwork that was faxed in. Then rushed me into a room and tried to make me comfortable, and later sent me off to X-ray. At this point, I thought I had dislocated my shoulder, so when the technician said “it” was broken, I was pretty concerned. It wasn’t a simple fractured wrist….it turned out I had essentially snapped the humorous in half right near the head of the shoulder. It was a clear break, but serious.

The doctor quickly mentioned surgery, which freaked me out a bit because I hadn’t had a chance to discuss anything with the PCMO since I first called him. I told the doctor I preferred the non-surgical option, so he rigged me up in a sling and wheeled me off to a room to spend the night. I called the PCMO, and he was very surprised the doctor wanted to do surgery. He set a whole bunch of things in motion, including calling the other PCMO, the medevac regional doctor, the country director, a surgeon in Pretoria, and PC in Washington DC.

I don’t remember much about the first night, so I assume I was seriously drugged up. I do remember the sling being very painful, and thinking that surgery was definitely in the cards-I couldn’t stand six weeks in that sling, waiting for the bone to heal naturally.

My PCMO came up the next morning, and after talking with my doctor and a doctor in Pretoria, decided to move me to Pretoria for the surgery. The trip to town was very unpleasant, compounded by the fact that the AC wasn’t working in the car and it was in the 90s. I was happy to be in a car with diplomatic plates (which can’t be stopped by the police), as the normally 4.5-5 hour drive took only 3.5 hours. I made it to the hospital in Pretoria a little after 4pm, and after checking in, went straight into surgery. I woke up later in pain, of course, but feeling much better than I had before.

I’ll write more about my three remaining days in the hospital later, and what has happened since. Now I’m on medical hold in Pretoria for 6 weeks. PCSA doesn’t really do medevacs, since we are a medevac country, but that’s essentially what I am. I’ve got 45 day (6 weeks) to recover and get back to site, which the doctor is confident will happen. If not, well….theoretically I could be medsepped, but the doctor is confident I’ll recover enough to return to site.

For now, I’m on a medical holiday in Pretoria. I’m sure I’ll be bored out of my mind soon enough, but with a bunch of PCVs here now, I’m enjoying it.
-Jen

Realities of the African Village Life

As my time in the village begins to wrap up, I keep thinking about how I’ve spent the last two years of my life.  I’ve been having lots of surreal moments lately, as I think about how normal my incredibly abnormal life has become.  Problems I considered insurmountable when I arrived have become the main focus of my service.  I remember when I first saw the garden at my school, my only thought was “Well, there’s NO way I am getting a school garden up and running.  Better kiss that dream good-bye.”

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The garden in 2011

Those of you who follow my blog regularly, feel free to laugh along with me!

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The garden in 2013

As you might know, I am more or less the garden teacher, and have been described as the Garden Guru amongst my fellow PCVs.  It just goes to show that huge problems can be tackled, one tiny step at a time.

I would be doing a disservice if I pretended everything was peachy keen and hunky dory in my little village.  In fact, very little outside the school grounds has changed in the past two years. Sometimes I wonder why in the world I decided starting gardens on the edge of the Kalahari Desert was a good idea.   When I step back and consider the almost indescribable poverty and hardship in my village, I start to lose it. 

Simply put, I cannot adequate describe what life in my South African village is like.  It’s too difficult, for many different reasons.  Partly because I’m an American that was raised like a princess compared to how the children in my village grow up.  I can’t verbalize the storm of emotions that rages within me, nor can I eloquently state the realities of this life.  I live in it; it’s too personal and at the same time too foreign.

And since you can’t all come and see for yourself, I asked a friend to write about her experiences working with rural schools in our province, the North West Province.  Tomorrow I’ll be posting a guest post focusing on the realities of life in villages like mine.  Sue is a dear friend of mine, who I met a little over a year ago at a workshop in a nearby school.  She has travelled throughout the country for the past twenty years, teaching permaculture to rural schools like mine.  I wanted you to understand what this life is like from someone who is a South African at heart, and who so intimately understands the struggles and hopes of the people I live among.

Sue will discuss the dire circumstances that schools like mine, who are trying to produce their own food, face in the wake of a changing climate and rising food prices, amongst all the other challenges they face.  Climate change is real, people, and villages like mine are taking the first and hardest blows. I hope you check in tomorrow to read Sue’s message and begin to understand what the kids and people in villages like mine face each day.
-Jen

Christian in the Peace Corps, Really?

I am a Christian in the Peace Corps. Some people have questioned, almost accusingly, how I can serve in the Peace Corps. PC has a policy against PCVs actively proselytizing during their service, and some people believe I would do better as a missionary. I’ve been blogging over at “Growing in Faith” for a few months now, which is about my journey of faith, through Peace Corps and eventually beyond. But I’ve noticed a steady number of referrals to my blog from searches of “Christian in Peace Corps”, and a handful of people have reached out to me through email about this topic.

The main question seems to be “How do you serve in Peace Corps as a Christian?”

To me, the real question is “How do you serve in Peace Corps WITHOUT God?” I honestly don’t know how atheist/agnostic/etc PCVs make it through, and the vast majority of PCVs don’t identify with any faith. I have no clue how they make it through two years.

Without God, I would not have survived my service. I’ve needed His strength, understanding, compassion, love, grace, and mercy more times than I could count. There have been days when I’ve collapsed on my bed, sobbing, and have been wrapped in His love. There have been times when I’ve been afraid, and He’s held me and protected me. There have been times when the aching loneliness has become overwhelming, and He reminded me of His ever-lasting love.

I’ve ran out of strength. I’ve questioned. I’ve despaired. I’ve given up. But through it all, He’s been right there with me, providing me with the strength and love I needed.

There have been times when I’ve been filled with joy and gratitude, tears of happiness clouding my eyes. And I’ve praised Him for His awesome blessings. There have been times where I’ve clearly seen His plan for my life, and I’ve been humbled by His plans.

How do I serve in the Peace Corps as a Christian? Happily, joyfully, relying on Him, learning to trust His plan, and forging a deeper relationship with the God of the universe. I can’t imagine serving in such a tough job without the help of God. I don’t know how my fellow PCVs make it through the loneliness, desperation, exhaustion, frustrations, and endless battles that is Peace Corps. And I don’t know how they recognize the little blessings God gives us each day, which helps me through the hardest days. What fulfills them, I don’t know. But knowing I am obeying God in staying here is immensely fulfilling for me.

Peace Corps hasn’t been detrimental to my faith, nor do I feel stifled by Peace Corps’ policies. It has been a journey of saying yes to God’s will and learning to trust in Him. Peace Corps has allowed me to have more faith and empathy. It has opened my eyes to the suffering in our world, and how desperately help is needed. And it is preparing me to someday, somewhere, serve as a missionary, sharing His Good News.
-Jen

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CAPS LOCK!!

One of the biggest cultural difference (yes, I attribute this to culture, read on) I face is the use of Caps Lock. Caps Lock is the scarcely used button on the left side of the keyboard of most Americans. When accidentally pressed, it automatically means yelling. In South Africa, that aspect of computer culture was never taught.

What I mean to say is, Americans interpret All Caps as yelling, which is a cultural phenomenon. In SA, there is no indication of All Caps relating to yelling. In fact, many people consider it professional and nice looking. So when sometimes sends me a message “HELLO HOW ARE YOU? I HOPE YOU HAD FUN ON THE HOLIDAYS”, I mentally think that this personal is literally yelling at me. In my mind, I hear them hollering through a long corridor at the top of their lungs. A South African sees nothing unusual in this text. Of course, some people write in All Caps, so why shouldn’t they type in All Caps?

I actually get really stressed when people start writing in All Caps. I can’t help but read it as yelling, an innate part of who I am and the culture I was raised in. Department memos, examinations, enrollment charts, circulars….you name it, it probably has All Caps sprinkled throughout the paper. All day long I am surrounded by yelling text. I’ve tried to communicate that this is not professional nor is it good computer etiquette, and my principal told me “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” As in, I should just shut up and type everything in All Caps.

I can’t do it. I despise the Caps Lock button. I get angry when someone has used it and then left my computer, so when I start typing I end up yelling at myself through text. Not pleasant. No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot overcome this cultural difference.

Nor do I want to. I’m sorry, All Caps seriously is not professional. I know people here use it because they weren’t training in typing, so it is easy to press Caps Lock than hitting shift whenever they need to make a capital letter. But still, shift isn’t THAT hard! And it looks so much better! And it’s something I focus on in typing lessons with the educators at my school.

GOOD BYE MY FRIENDS! (See, it seems like I am yelling, right?)
-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

“Don’t You….?”

After spending 16 months in South Africa, I’ve adapted to South African English pretty well. I let tall sorts of improper grammar use fly by, not having the energy to correct people or explain the theories. But a few things really bother me. Borrow is not a reflexive verb-I cannot “borrow you” anything, but I can lend you something. But the point of this post is the phrase “Don’t you”.

“Keamogetswe, don’t you have a pen?”
“Jen, don’t you want to help me type this?”
“Don’t you have money for me?”

The accusatory tone of how they ask whether I have something, or whether I can do something, gets under my skin. I shouldn’t let it, but it grates on me until I get very frustrated. I keep reminding myself that it’s a different form of English, a different culture, and the 2nd or 3rd language of most people…but still…

Tell me, which sounds nicer:
“Can you teach this lesson?”
or
“Don’t you want to teach this lesson?”

What if I don’t? When phrased as South Africans say it, saying no is difficult. I makes me feel like I’m lacking good moral fiber if I’m not carrying a black pen, or that I’m a horrible person for not wanting to cover a crazed class of Grade 5s with no preparation.

I probably am just a horrible person.
-Jen