Siqedile, sisebenzile! We’re finished, we did it! I’m pumped to tell you all about some recent accomplishments I’ve had in the village. It was my first glimpse at tangible, hard fact successes over here and it just felt good. A lot of Peace Corps triumphs, I think, are more of the organic persuasion – help a young girl gain confidence or teach a troubled boy a few morals – and many of these successes materialize long after the Volunteer is gone and cannot be traced or catalogued which is, since we’re human, exactly what we want: to see quick, positive results for the time and effort we put forth. For PCVs it’s taxing and, quite frankly, dumb to make quantitative results our bread and butter. No, no, we’ve got to learn to be all about the “Good effort!” and the “There’s always next year!” qualitative stuff. And it is quite fun, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy making kids laugh and, sure, perhaps they didn’t knock the spelling test out of the park, but they did experience joy while trying. All that fluid happiness aside, it was truly kickass to nail down some brass tack achievements the past couple weeks…
Back in February a weathered man in my village, Baba Njoko, approached my family seeking my help. For 20 years, he has suffered from chronic foot and joint pain, rendering him unfit to work, provide for himself, or walk easily. He was allowed the temporary government grant for disabled persons (a modest monthly stipend) in 2006 and 2007 but was turned away in 2008 without explanation. We devised a plan to write a letter to the doctor and then I would go with him to the clinic and welfare office to try and obtain a permanent government grant. With my Baba as our translator, Njoko and I had a couple meetings to fully understand each other, the issue, and our tactic for a solution. I had him bring me all of his information (ID, medical cards, clinical visit documentation, unsuccessful treatments, etc.) and composed a two-part letter from his point of view and from mine. It then took three months to get the stars aligned of our availabilities and monetary allowances to physically get the three of us to town, but we finally made our first trip a few Mondays ago, on 20 May.
It was quite an interesting and promising day. Everywhere we went, we got special attention and preferential treatment. It’s funny; all I want is for people to treat me as if they can’t see that my skin colour is different, but I wasn’t exactly opposed when the clinic and welfare office bumped my entourage to the front of the queue. Hurray, hypocrisy. That Monday was awesome: the first doctor we saw immediately sent us to the SASSA (South African Social Security Agency) where we were shuffled to an outdoor area packed with people waiting to be helped, assessed, or granted a more assured life, essentially. It
reminded me of the room where I was tended to in 2007 when I was volunteering in a rural, undeveloped Malawian hospital before unexpectedly becoming a patient: several expectant and hopeful people depending on a few who wore the right uniforms but perhaps didn’t know everything about their jobs (for example, how to put an IV in before seven tries, but that’s a whole other story).
After a couple minutes of waiting and then being hurriedly ushered in so that “the white lady [wasn’t] kept waiting” we got the form we needed: a permanent grant application. My Baba was so excited and kept referring to it as the Can’t Get form. It was a bittersweet experience: my group got what we came for but we were allowed to skip all the other people who were seeking the same thing. If they’re not seen before closing time, those people will keep coming back until either their transport money or patience diminishes, and there’s no promise of ever being seen. It’s a sad reality but I figured, or convinced myself, that helping Njoko would also help the common good in some small way. Our instructions were to fill out the form and come back on Wednesday, 29 May.
We did, and that day was just…horribly discouraging. We started it early by taking the 6am taxi to town and immediately joining the queue at the SASSA. We waited like everybody else and, although Baba was disappointed that I was not “famous anymore,” I was quite pleased to be just a stitch in the sweater. Eventually we got called up and sent to a higher level doctor across town, one with more authority over which patients advance to the permanent grant arena. After a few hours spent sitting in the waiting room, we were seen in the doctor’s small, dusty, dim lit office – which fit the aura quite perfectly… The majority of our hope was dashed when the doctor starting reprimanding Njoko on not knowing the system, telling my Baba not to lie, and accusing me of trying to influence his decision. (Although my letter stated nothing but facts, I wouldn’t exactly say he was wrong.) He gave us minimal direction as to what the next step was so we left feeling utterly deflated. A sweet nurse, and a new friend of mine, told us to go back to the SASSA the following Wednesday to see the doctor’s verdict.
Seven days dragged by and I was more nervous and agitated than I let on to anyone. On one hand, I was going to be shocked if we succeeded mainly because this was my first time trying something like this and on the other hand, I was going to be shocked if we didn’t get the grant simply because we had come so far so quickly. Finally 5 June came and we arrived at the SASSA at 7am to queue up. We didn’t have our answer until half-past-noon
but eventually, after a series of more tests and questions, Njoko ambled out beaming and waving his new, shiny, permanent grant bankcard. He’s a subdued man by nature, not too in tune with what’s going on – especially logistical things like government hierarchy – but his semi-toothed smile was one in a million. Soon, he’s going to send over a bushel of mealies to us in gratitude – the sweetest and most heart-warming gesture of thanks I could ever receive…long live the barter system. Baba Njoko will now get R2,160 (a fortune out here in the sticks) per month, forever. YEBO YES.
A few more awesome things happened a couple weeks ago too. My friend Paige, a Health PCV in my area, just received a grant to train quite a few people in GrassrootSoccer (an HIV awareness intervention) so that it can be implemented into a fair amount of the high schools in our municipality. Luckily, my village’s high school will get to participate and our GRS trainee is a recently-graduated young man who did well with his matric exams but doesn’t have the means to continue to tertiary education. This GRS training and implementation has a stipend so he will, at least for a while, have an income and also something to add to his resume while spreading awareness about HIV prevention and treatment. YEBO YES.
Paige’s organization, focused on HIV/AIDS and OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children), has just branched out into the villages – a huge step in collecting more accurate data and connecting vulnerable people with care and potential treatment. Each village has a representative CCG – Community Caregiver – with a stipend and for my village, I recommended my Baba so now he’s a working man again! When I asked him if he’d like the job, he could not stop smiling…he said he was so shocked that he couldn’t sleep and would never forget that day. He’s 72 and stated that, through his new charge, he wants to challenge the young people and show them that if he’s attempting to make a more developed community, they can do better on their part too. He now goes around the village, visiting homes and making confidential documentations of families, areas of need, and potential referrals. This is a truly amazing feat because my village’s issues are being sought out, shared, and acted upon all without an ounce of my help. I could literally leave tomorrow and this initiative would keep trucking away. A big cheer for sustainability, YEBO YES.
All year at school, my grade 6 classes have been trying to fill up their Pebble Jar. I put a pebble in if they have good behaviour, hazard a scary answer, or spell the “star word” correctly on the weekly spelling test. I take a pebble out if they fight or laugh at others’ mistakes. Since Day 1, they understood that if the jar got filled to the brim, we would have a party and “Ms. Ndlovu would bring cake.” Finally, we did it! When the last pebble rose over the rim of the jar, it was pandemonium. Learners here, learners there, learners rolling around on the
ground or doing jumping jacks. “Ms. Ndlovu, we want a party, we want a party!” They were absolutely adorable and I was so excited for them. I had Ma’am bring two cakes from town the next day for my classes. We coloured, played Hangman and Simon Says (their favourite game that I’ve introduced), danced, and ate cake. It’s always amazing, everyday, to contrast occurrences here to my life and the education system back home but this day, when learners were off their rockers because they got a bite of cake and made artwork, really spoke volumes. YEBO YES.
More on this in an upcoming post, but just to get the ball rolling… Some PCVs and I are teaming up with the U.S. non-profit Books For Africa so that we can get 22,000 books shipped to 30 rural schools in South Africa. My own primary school will be able to receive 733 books! Read more information here and donate whatever you can, whenever you can. Thousands of learners & I thank you so much.
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