year won

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Sanibonani, nonke! Hi, everyone! I’m composing this almost six months after posting week won, where I commented on having a successful first week of teaching, and a year since my very first post from the United States, right before I departed for this new country of mine. I can now say that I’ve successfully completed my “year won” as a Peace Corps Volunteer! Utter craziness. After an emotional flight I landed in Johannesburg on 12 July 2012 and was swiftly swept away by Peace Corps staff to start our Pre-Service Training. Wow, how times change as the minute hand clicks, drags, whizzes on…

homeI’m now sitting in my hut, coffee in hand, listening to the scratchy sounds of both my sister raking the yard and of goats yodelling, quietly reflecting on the past year. It’s humorous because a year ago, nothing was quiet. I had just graduated college (complete with whooping and hollering), I was bouncing around Kentucky and Georgia saying goodbye to people (complete with laughter and tears), and I was cramming things into two suitcases to leave the country for 27+ months (complete with iTunes sing-a-longs and the occasional cursing session). As most people would probably say in my position, “I can’t believe it’s been a year. What a crazy ride.” Below, put in chart form for your analytical pleasure, is an absolutely minute list of the adjustments I’ve consciously and subconsciously made during my most recent trip around the Sun. Enjoy!

The United States

South Africa

I used to drive very short distances between locales for errands. I sometimes walk 19km (~12 miles) for a minibus taxi.

I used to stiffen up if I entered someone’s personal bubble or if someone entered mine.

I hold people’s babies, live chickens, and/or body bag-sized snack packs on taxis that fit 14+ large Zulus. I’ve become comfortable with shoving my way through crowds and making my 5’1” presence known. Use it or lose
I used to shower every day. The longest I’ve gone is 14 days, supplemented with Febreeze, head scarves, and WetWipes for the “key zones,” as my grandma says.
I used to want or need company most of the time. I welcome – and crave – alone time. It’s okay to enjoy your own company.
If I wanted a food item, I went out and got it or had it delivered. I stock up on food every one or two weeks and hope it lasts until the next town trip. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve drooled thinking about Chick-fil-A as I eat straight peanut butter just to get full.
I used to employ A/C. I use window hinges…if it’s hot – open ‘em, if it’s cold – close ‘em. Supplement with blankets during the winter and lying on the relatively cooler concrete floor during the summer.
I used to get dolled up to go out with friends. I have movie dates with other PCVs (we start the same movie at the same time, whilst continuing to be alone in our dark huts) and we’re all generally asleep before 22:00.
I used to feel walls for light switches, faucets for knobs, and fridges for handles. I feel around my cardboard box of a table for matches, my buckets for water, and my floor for anything I want kept semi-cool.
In the rain, I used to use sidewalks and bridges to get to class. I slop my way to school on the livestock trail, hopping on stable grass hunks or throwing rocks in the creek to make it crossable.
I used to use Internet and could instantly find any music, movie, or update I wanted. People snail-mail me music and other media, and I use my phone for Internet on limited mobile sites.
I used to call people unlimitedly. I have to be very conscious of how much an international phone call costs.
I used to see my friends’ and family’s faces, interact with them, touch them. I have become accustomed to hugging letters, stroking photos, and clutching my phone during a call to establish a connection.
I used to be one of the masses. I stand out everywhere and am a perpetual source of entertainment and commentary.
I used to think three months was a long time. It is simply the blink of an eye.
I was 99% sure I was making the right choice to join the Peace Corps. I am 110% sure.

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A year ago, I was staying with my temporary host family in Mpumalanga (the ones I dressvisited during the Easter holiday). With them, I learned my role as a woman in this culture, endured knuckle abrasions as I fumbled through hand-washing clothes, ate cow stomach and chicken feet, practiced isiZulu, turned 23, and went to Training eight hours a day for eight weeks. It’s…insane, for lack of a better word, to look back and believe it’s only been 12 months since arriving, being a PCT, becoming a PCV, and living and teaching in hello kznmy own village. I’ve become more patient, more independent, keener to details, and simpler. I can anticipate situations better and have grown in dealing with both people and things. I have more questions, frustrations, amazement, and insight into culture, racism, spirituality, religion, and the limits of the body – physically, mentally, emotionally. I’ve seen success, I’ve seen failure; I’ve peed in toilets, I’ve knocked my pee bucket over; I’ve eaten goatbistro pizza, I’ve eaten livestock innards; I’ve used a laundry machine twice, I’ve regularly turned my undies inside out; I’ve made amazing friends, I’ve met people that will remain acquaintances; I’ve almost been charged by a zebra, I’ve semi-adopted a cat. In summary, I’ve been both positively and negatively challenged every day, almost all the time. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

In the past year I’ve grown leaps and bounds as an individual, a Volunteer, a village member, a teacher, a learner, a confidant, an animal, and as a person. I’ll be honest, there are some things that I wish I could block out of my memory, take back, or do differently, but I’m happy and proud to say that there are many more that I’d do the same. In the next 14 months I’m excited to delve even deeper into my community, into my commitment as an educator in and out of the classroom, and into positively harnessing who I am in order to make meaningful and lasting connections during my time as a PCV in South Africa. Bring it on, Year Two!! bottom of blog

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2 Responses to year won

  1. Gene Bramblett says:

    Great post, precious one, wonderful relections! Hard to believe a year has passed. This time last year I was recovering from my surgery.

  2. Herb Archer says:

    Powerful post.

    While my own sojourn there was over three decades ago, what lingers most in my memory is, for lack of a better term, an African “way of being” conveyed in your pictures.

    I entered my experience there in 1977 as a freshly-minted Georgia Tech engineer, full of knowledge and committed to leaving enduring and sustainable systems in place that would add value and make life better. It took me an embarassingly long time to realize that, while this was useful, it wasn’t exactly the main point.

    More recently, your Aunt Em facilitated a series for hospice volunteers entitled “helping, fixing, serving” wherein our group spent multiple sessions exploring different ways of engaging with hospice clients. Lots of discussion over those three days over the multiple ways we might approach a dying client. Towards the end of that series, the group spontaneously developed critical insight: “our mere presence is sufficient.”

    The main point was to “be with.” —
    in Congo’s language of Lingala, “kofanda” — literally to “sit with.”

    You are pouring into this task your abundance of knowledge, wealth of experiences, the gift of an international language, life skills such as AIDS prevention and empowerment, all of which certainly moves the needle in terms of long term options and sustainability for these kids and, by extension, their village. What is evident from both the US and African columns of pictures is the delight of “being with.” The photos I might have put into a blog (had one been possible three decades ago) might have been that of the truck I fixed, the radio network we set up, the airplane on the flight line, the electrical power substation, or the hospital hydroelectric project. In contrast, the photo at the bottom is not a collage of things and signs, but instead you and village kids (perhaps your learners?), delighted, a quiet murmer of conversation punctuated by laughter, walking a path, same direction, not in lock step, but in a delicious randomness.

    You commented, “In the next 14 months I’m excited to delve even deeper into my community, into my commitment as an educator in and out of the classroom, and into positively harnessing who I am in order to make meaningful and lasting connections” — YES!!! This week marks the point in time where the duration of your own sojourn in Africa outlasts my own…. but, in truth, that is irrelevant… time is not the yardstick here and the insight and impact of your presence there long ago surpassed my own.

    All the best for the next leg of your journey along that path

    Uncle ‘Erb.

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