Thus far, I have really enjoyed my September-November phase of community integration. I’ve been extremely welcomed by my village (since I’m the first PCV here, this is an integral step), my family and I get along famously, and life at school is slowly becoming less intimidating and more meaningful. Some successes I’ve had the past couple months at site include: attending a huge Zulu dance competition, recognizing and greeting my induna (traditional leader) in town, starting the Friday reading certificates, establishing trust with learners through non-mandatory/non-assessed journals (English for fun?!), expanding people’s vocabulary in commonplace greetings, mastering the art of bucket bathing, almost mastering the art of cooking for one, becoming rather resourceful in rural home repair, and surviving one life-halting case of the Bubbling Bowels – if not my proudest, it is my most recent achievement.
Traveling to, and serving in, this varied continent seems to run in my family… My great-great uncle helped develop treatments for both Sleeping Sickness and Leprosy in central Africa (he isolated a certain tree bark as an effective agent in the treatment, cultivated a forest, and taught the locals how to produce the medicine – can you say sustainable?!). My other wonderful uncle lived in present-day Congo (previously Zaïre) in his early 20s and recently wrote me a letter themed with the similarities and differences in our African experiences. His composition referenced something that both he and my great-great uncle encountered: being tested to the core and having dark nights of the soul. After living here for a third of a year, I’ve also felt these very things. I have learned about and witnessed a multitude of issues that are embedded in the fabric of my village, my province, my country as a whole. Some days I feel like the most joyous and positive human on the planet; some nights I go to bed in a shroud of negativity laced with doubt and stitched with frustration. I want this blog to have my full experience as a PCV so, along with the winning moments, it is justifiably crucial that I also write about the severity and reality of my situation – a situation that I could, should I so choose, walk away from and not fully inherit…
Disclaimer: what follows is a western-raised woman’s attempt to be unbiased, but we’re not always perfect at that, are we?
– Alcohol. It is abundant in this country (and I’m coming straight from college). During PST we learned that it’s not uncommon for a village to first get a tavern, then a church, then a school. When I visited the Apartheid Museum in August, I read about how the oppressors opened shebeens (bars) and encouraged heavy drinking in the natives so that they’d enter a downward spiral of becoming dependent on spirits while having clouded perceptions about what was truly happening across the nation. By choice or not, alcohol abuse has been learned, has become a way of life for many, and is potentially hereditary. In all fairness, most cultural celebrations across the globe do involve drinking (hello, 4thof July?) but seeing groups of immobile people almost constantly crippled by drink isn’t exactly inspiring. Here in KZN, for example, at traditional Zulu events they consume a homebrew called “utshwala” which is fine – it’s cultural. But it gets a little less fine when I have to rip myself away from drink-induced clutches…that’s when I know that my façade of being a local has somehow evaporated and it’s time to leave. Also, in South Africa, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is not rare – this unfortunate issue spills into many more alongside alcohol dependency: lack of awareness for a safe pregnancy, potential learning disabilities for the child, deficient support for the struggles he or she may encounter, etc.
– Connectivity. Electricity makes a world of difference in the amount of awareness made available to a community. Other than solar panels on some homes, my village is not electrified. There is no TV to see commercials about HIV/AIDS, safe sex, nutrition, parenting, education, women’s rights, etc., and there are limited radios with which to hear local and world news. In my shopping town (33km away) there are billboards that touch on some of the aforementioned issues, so this is good if you are both able to travel and are literate. The issues I currently see in my community are significantly amplified than those I saw during Training, when I stayed in an electrified village. Schooling and career progression also takes a toll. Since my area has a general lack of exposure to English, learners can only take what their educators teach and family says about the language as truth – which, I’ve observed, is oftentimes a gamble.
– SASD: South African Sugar Daddies. A huge problem here – older men who bear gifts seem enticing to some young females. Their attention is understandably piqued: they can be the recipients of free taxi rides, meals, presents, or airtime (cell phone data). Unfortunately, many times they also become the recipients of STDs, HIV, an unplanned pregnancy, an abandoning boyfriend, and/or the issue of him already being married. There are scores of young mothers in my village, my province, and across the nation…many have to stop attending school and never have the opportunity to return. Two examples from my area: a neighboring high school has 100% pregnancy within its grade 12 females; my village’s high school has some learners in their mid-20s whose children attend the lower primary school.
– HIV. South Africa has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, and my province is the highest of the nine in the country. Here in KZN, one in three people has HIV. It’s a ginormously colossal issue.
– Some numbers. In my municipality, 74% of households do not receive the basic level of water service (25 liters per person per day, within 200 meters of walking). Very few people have flushing toilets, 53% of people use pit latrines, and 39% have no toilet at all. Remoteness and poor road conditions are contributing factors as to why the municipality cannot easily deliver services (such as electricity, sanitation, and water) to the more rural areas – which comprise 90% of the territory. Within the geographic district, only 7.6% of the economically active people are employed and it is estimated that for every employed individual, there are 28 that are unemployed and in need of support. 6.8% of people complete grade 12 and only 0.12% go on to complete tertiary education. The above statistics come from a study of my municipality done in 2011.
– Education (some of the issues). In most schools, structure is about as common as a light switch in my house. There is a lack of teacher training in the country, so schools are often provided with instructors that are ill-prepared to formally impart knowledge. At many schools, these educators are outside their classrooms arguably more than they are in them, leaving for anything – workshops, memorial services, to hang out in the office, or they just don’t show up. Students are left unattended and untaught. Oftentimes they run amuck, seeking entertainment (who can blame them?) and get into trouble, which sometimes leads to corporal punishment. Although there is one stapler we all share, my school does not house a single clock; the element and pressure of time is a non-issue to most educators and principals. I really respect this cultural view of time outside of school, but when you’re an educator at a poorly-performing institution, preparing learners for nationally standardized exams, time should be of the essence. Did I tell you I’m American?
– Crime. Unfortunately, it exists everywhere; fortunately, it is significantly decreased out here in the sticks. Since my little village has no taverns, once the sun goes down everyone is in their homes and the area is silent. This does not mean that crime is fully eliminated, though. If I had to name one, I’d say the highest occurring incident (though not often at all) is livestock theft. For me, the most difficult crime to hear about is physical and/or sexual abuse. Because it isn’t completely out of the ordinary here, the consequences aren’t as severe as I would like (it’s an issue usually dealt with by traditional leaders versus the law). I try to be a peaceful person, but when I hear about grade R (kindergarten) girls being raped by boys in primary school or men in the community, I crave red-hot justice. This is an example of the “dark nights of the soul” that my uncles and I have experienced. I’m slowly developing strength and thick, albeit not ignorant, skin. It’s difficult, but I am trying not to practice the easy route of closing my eyes and turning my head away, but instead attempting to face these issues and injustices square-on, for they, and their victims, absolutely deserve attention.
I understand that this post has an unusually different tone. I wish I could say I apologize for that, but I don’t. Treating raw issues by sugar-coating won’t help solve them, but deciding to learn about those who are oppressed will certainly help. So if you made the choice to read this far, you have helped me spread awareness – my village and I heartily thank you!